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  • At some point during my tweens, I asked my father if our family was rich or poor. I knew we weren't rich, but wasn't sure if that meant we were low-class. At school I knew kids from wealthy, poor and families in between, and had gotten curious about what made us different.

    My dad told me we were pretty much lower middle class. At the time (the late 1950s), my father had a day job at a factory and a night job pumping gas, and my mother was a first-grade schoolteacher. I later learned that together they made about $12,000 a year on which to support me, my father's parents who lived with us, pay taxes and mortgage on our house, and pay for two cars plus all our other bills.

    There wasn't much left over for college savings, retirement or vacations. In fact, to send me to college six years later – which then cost about $2,000 a year – they had to take out a second mortgage. (They were able to repay it.)

    To earn pin money, my mom tutored children some afternoons and my grandmother baby-sat. My dad got a new job selling AV equipment to schools, which kept him on the road a lot. He still worked at night at the gas station (to pay for his toys, MG roadsters), so we didn't see much of him in my teen years. But when he was around, he attended to and nurtured me.
  • My parents were Democrats who believed in social programs, economic justice and racial equality. My live-in grandfather had been a liberal Democrat, but morphed into a Republican stalwart. Grandmother kept her politics under wraps, probably to keep the peace. Furious political arguments regularly raged between my father and his dad that were painful to witness. I quietly rooted for my father. The old man's rabid anticommunism and liberal bashing seemed over the top to me. My father's generous, inclusive approach to politics appealed to me more than the old guy's grumpy reactionary militancy.

    Something my grandfather wrote in a memoir offers a clue to why he grew more conservative in the 1940s, after his father was killed, run over by a "speed-happy driver":

    Father always saved 10% of his salary. This was spent for the church, charities, and what was left was banked. He believed in thrift and thought a man should support himself and his family. When he died, the government stepped in, took away a goodly portion of his years of thrift that he had intended to care for their old age. It left mother with about half as much as he had intended her to have. But it was needed to support those of today who know nothing of thrift, have no sense of personal responsibility.

    ~ Charles J. Dutton, Yesterday Was Not So Bad, an unfinished memoir c. 1960

    Like his father, an immigrant from England, my grandfather believed in the virtues of hard work, thrift and self-reliance. The growth of public programs such as Social Security and Welfare got under his skin. Over time, he came to feel that government programs patronized the poor and created a culture of dependency that subverted the American Dream. Like my father, I felt Grandfather had fallen for the romanticized Horatio Alger ideal of self-betterment in the face of adversity. (The old man acknowledged that life had become more complicated during his time, but in ways he hated and wanted to roll back; even I knew that wasn't going to happen.)

    Witnessing my elders squabble caused me to self-identify as a liberal, but that was a reaction, not a commitment. Soon, in college in New York City, I was to be surrounded by not mere liberals but militant radicals, some the spawn of socialists and even (shudder) communists. A few guys were conservatives – one called himself a "Dirksen Liberal" to avoid altercations – but such specimens were rare on campus in the 60's. Those politics, in the context of the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War, pushed me leftward, beyond my family's orbit.
  • Grandfather had passed on by then, his battles with his son supplanted by ones between that man and I about the horror and illegitimacy of the Vietnam situation. I loudly protested the war; Dad felt I was being unpatriotic. I kept working on him and my mom, and by the time I left college had swung them around (or did publication of the Pentagon Papers do it?). They came to support my efforts to wring Conscientious Objector status from my draft board, which it eventually granted, thanks also to the supportive testimony of our church's minister.

    Ironically, as time went by, like Grandfather, I became more suspicious of "the government," as forces allied with wealth and privilege captured public policies and sabotaged social missions. My income yo-yoed many times, but I never felt my changing circumstances altered my middle class status. Now there is less of a middle class than when I was a student, more super-rich, and more households slipping into poverty, milked dry from chasing the American Dream.

    Government programs have saved my bacon more than once. I might be in serious trouble were it not for unemployment insurance, workers' compensation, health insurance subsidies and food stamps. Yes, it came to that, despite having paid off student loans, saving for retirement, and putting off buying a house until it was too late. I suppose I could have "bettered myself" had I focused on accumulating and maximizing assets, but the family values I inherited pointed me elsewhere, toward creative work that felt more fulfilling and political engagement that seemed more socially beneficial.

    For better or worse, I am what I made of what my family gave me. Besides the genes, my inheritance of attitudes and values has made me happier and richer than any trust fund could have.

    @sources: I have put my paternal great-grandfather's journal and my grandfather's (incomplete) memoir online for any who may be interested to read.

    @image 1: My father, Charles O. Dutton, and I, Pound Ridge NY, 1947, taken by cousin Joe Isaacson
    @image 2: Family photo taken by me of father, grandfather, grandmother, mother and pets, Cheshire CT, Christmas 1952.
    @image 3: Photo taken by me at an antiwar demo in midtown Manhattan, probably in 1965.
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