Writing a post on LaMarotte this morning about Chevrolet (link), that effort triggered by a headline in the Detroit News this morning, took me back in memory to a certain 1952 Chevrolet—which was my first car ever, purchased while I was in the U.S. Army, in Germany—which in turn made those times light up in memory. The memories are of the mid-to-late 1950s—and very different times they were indeed. Poorly paid enlisted servicemen although we were, in Germany we were relatively well off. The American dollar could get you four Deutsch Marks, and the DM had substantial purchasing power. Later on, in my first science fiction novel (The Siege of Faltara) I presented a society that lived on giant islands that floated high in the air above a gleaming planet; down there lived the lesser breeds. America’s general status in the world back then had suggested this image to me—echoed later using the image of enormously high towers (in A Hostage for the Hinterland, originally titled Helium) dominating a savage and barely visible down below. Back in those days GIs talked about Home as The Land of the Big PX. PX stands for Post Exchange. Every post had these, and in Germany you could buy American goodies there. People also talked about The Land of Round Door Knobs, but the PX image was more meaningful to me.
(GIs, by the way, were soldiers. The abbreviation, one of those military things, stood for General Issue. As a GI you knew that you were nothing special, buddy. Nothing unique. With the disappearance of the draft, these days GIs becomes a typo for a satellite-based Geographic Information System.)
Brigitte and I got to talking—about the old Chevy, its likely poor gas mileage, the cost of gas back then, and so on. In 1957, at the on-Post and thus American filling station, gasoline cost 39 cents a gallon. I got to wondering. It turns out that adjusting the 1957 price for inflation produces an equivalent today of $3.13 a gallon. Well. Lowest gas prices in Detroit this morning were $3.44 a gallon, $3.38 for the national average (according to a Mapquest service here.) Considering that military gas prices in Germany were highly subsidized, it looks very much like nothing much has changed—not on that front.
What has changed is the perception. From the wastes of Afghanistan, the U.S. no doubt still looks like the Land of the Big PX—but the troops there are engaged in real war, the killing and the dying kind, not merely passive force-projection. The equivalents of yesterdays GIs are all of them volunteers now and invariably heroes the moment they are killed. Nor do they have time to think about such things. What has changed is the enemy. Back then it was Russia, Communism, and every paper watching the commies intently. Now the papers are filled with images of barefoot towel-heads carrying old rifles. And the country to watch, as Brigitte observed the other day, perusing a multi-page advertisement in the New York Times by Russia, seeking investors here, is China. China has now become the Force to Fear. Orwell has taught us well. What’s changed is everything. And nothing. The present turns into memory, and memory becomes a bridge—from the Land of the Great PX to wherever we happen to be:
Sail on silver girl
Sail on by
Your time has come to shine
All your dreams are on their way
See how they shine
Oh if you need a friend
I’m sailing right behind
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will ease your mind
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will ease your mind.
Paul Simon, Bridge Over Troubled Water