Sunday, May 13, 2012

The Not So Good 'Good Old Days'

I was one of the 3.9 million babies born in the United States in 1952. We were the products of what would eventually be termed the Baby Boom.

The Baby Boom actually began in 1946 and continued to increase until 1964 when it began to taper. There have been several theories attempting to explain the reason for the birth rate increase. Some say that it was people trying to reach some normalcy after sixteen years of depression and war. Some say that it was part of a Cold War campaign to fight communism by simply outnumbering the communists. I think it was simply a sense of optimism and hope that eventually emerged following the depression and the war that brought not only young, married, twenty year olds to the maternity wards, but also older married couples in their late thirties, who had postponed having children due to war and hard times. Many people during the postwar era began to look forward to having children because they were confident that the future would be one of comfort and prosperity, and in many ways they were right.

In 1952, Harry Truman was President but by year end, Dwight Eisenhower was elected by a wide margin over Adlai Stevenson. It should be noted that during 1952, the United States detonated it’s first Hydrogen Bomb and Britain developed their on Atomic bomb. The arms race was booming just as the population. With the Soviet Union entering the race there was a standoff, each country daring the other to strike first. This became known as the Cold War. Even though most adults had a sense of optimism for the future during this postwar era, I remember as a child something very different. There seemed to be a type of nuclear war hysteria that permeated most levels of society. Most every public building had posted the yellow and black triangle signs designating where the nearest fall out shelter was located. I also remember in elementary school having bomb drills, where we would be instructed to get beneath our desks and tuck ourselves into a ball. We also had what was termed walk out’s. I’m not sure if these were done everywhere, but with our proximity to Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where most of the actual construction of the nuclear weapons was being done, made east Tennessee a possible and likely target for a nuclear strike. Walk-outs were simply a drill performed at public schools where the students were made to walk home and were timed. Somehow the people in charge seemed to think that if a student could walk home within a half-hour, then they would somehow be safer during a nuclear attack. I had also been instructed by my parents that in case of an attack, and I walked home, that I was to seek shelter in our next door neighbors basement, which was somewhat a bomb shelter. It may have been the Good Old Days to some, but as a child, I was terrified.

During the year of 1952, the average life expectancy was sixty-eight years. Given the increases in the cases of cancer, and the inability to curb such diseases as polio, measles and whooping cough, sixty-eight years may have been more optimistic than it should. There were 57,000 children paralyzed by polio in 1952 and 3,300 people died from this terrible disease before Jonas Salt developed the first experimentally safe dead-virus vaccine for Polio the same year.

Tobacco smoking was so prevalent that as a child we felt almost obligated to smoke. I remember my friend and I buying Swisher Sweet Cigars when we were eleven years old and smoking them routinely. In high school there were designated smoking areas, where students (freshmen through seniors) and frequently teachers would take a ten minute break and smoke their Camels. Advertisements that ran regularly on television would proclaim, “Winstons taste good like a cigarette should,” or “I’d walk a mile for a camel,” and the macho cowboy would come riding up and light up, inhaling deeply and displaying such pleasure that who wouldn’t want to be like the ‘Marlboro Man?’ It should also be noted that even though we had television, it was only in black and white. In my hometown, there were only three channels and only one of those was clear. We had to twist rabbit ears that sat atop the large, wooden box that housed the conglomeration of tubes and wires that somehow magically produced a somewhat recognizable image. Television shows such as Dragnet, Arthur Godfrey and Friends, Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts, I Love Lucy, and children’s shows such as Sky King, My Friend Flicka , Howdy Doody, and The Lone Ranger were just a few. In most every episode the characters would perform, providing entertainment for the young and old, and doing so with a cigarette dangling from their lips, blowing smoke rings as they rode off into the sunset.

People talk about the Good Old Days and say things such as, “I remember when gas was 19 cents a gallon,” or “brand new car in 1952 cost only $1700,” and the average cost of a new home was only $16,800.” This sounds almost unbelievable until you realize that the average annual income in 1952 was only $3,890 and the federal minimum wage was 75 cents per hour. The first microwave oven was produced during 1952 and was the size of a refrigerator and cost a mere $1200, almost as much as a new car.

Seat belts were first introduced to the automobile industry in 1952. That fact actually amazes me, because I don’t ever remember seeing one until the late 60’s. Even when seatbelts became a routine accessory on an auto, they were not used. If I remember right the theory was something like this, “What if you wreck and your car catches on fire? By the time you get your seat belt off you’ll burn up!” Yeah…. right. Yep no seatbelt for me, I’ll just shove it down between the creases of the seat, where all of the lost french fries, Goobers, and 3 cent postage stamps are….no one will ever see them.”

Infant car seats were unheard of in 1952 and for at least a decade after that. I don’t remember seeing my first car seat until I was thirty and that was when I purchased one for my first child. As a child with a brother and sister, our seat was always the backseat. The parents would always ride in the front, bench seat. On hot days you could only hope that you were lucky enough to capture one of the seats by the window, because there was no air conditioner on the car. If you were lucky enough to capture a window seat, it was your job and duty to crank, no power windows then, the windows down and push the small vent window out to direct as much refreshing air to the rest of the vehicle as possible. On long trips it became unbearable to be confined in the back seat of a 1958 Buick with your brother and sister. Inevitably they would touch you, which would start a series of whining to the parents, “Momma……. Ronnie touched me……tell him to stop…. Momma…….” If you were lucky they would let you sit, or actually lay, in the prime seat of the car……. the back window ledge above the back seat. I could almost stretch out completely up until I was ten years old in that back window. The sun scorching your back side and your head bouncing against the felt covered board that housed a couple of tiny speakers blaring static music from the mono, Am, radio. But at least Ronnie wasn’t touching me.

I received my first bicycle at the age of seven. It was a red, twenty-four inch bike with fat tires and enough steel in it’s construction to build two Sherman tanks. I dressed it with some red and black streamers that dangled from the handgrips and by using clothespins and a couple of playing cards the bike roared to life as I sped down a hill. I would attach the cards to the frame of the bike with the clothespins and the cards protruded into the spokes of the front and rear wheels. As I coasted down the hill at break neck speed, the cards would clap and chatter, producing a sound that to me resembled a roaring engine. The bike was so heavy I usually just walked it up a hill, the cards still clapping, but sounding more like the tick tock of the grandfather clock at home. But once at the top of hill, off I would go, streamers flying, no shirt, no shoes, no helmet and no hands……..clap..clap…clap…. ROAR! I never wore a helmet when riding a bicycle until I was in my late twenties.

We as children played much differently than the children of today. We were outdoors much more often, climbing trees and sometimes falling out of them, scouting the woods playing army or cowboys and Indians. There were no cell phones to stay in touch with our parents. We simply knew when lunch and supper was and would mosey toward the house at that time. Sometimes the time would catch us by surprise and we would hear off in the distance our mother yelling at the top of her lungs, “Jeff…… Ronnie….. Jeff…..Lunch.” We would usually get a short reprimand from our mother for making her yell for us, but my playmates and I would sit on the back porch eating peanut butter and banana sandwiches with ice cold lemonade, woofing it down in a few bites to hurry back to our games in the woods. There were no electronic games to keep us entertained. There were board games such as Monopoly, Checkers, Chinese Checkers, and we would routinely play tic tack toe, drawing the boxes, x’s and o’s in the dirt and erasing each game with the sweep of our foot. There were of course team sports that we played, such as baseball, football, and basketball which we would play in small patches of somewhat flat land. Baseball was played with wooden bats and we wore no helmets or protective gear. We would configure the diamond using logs or large rocks as bases. The field was so small that there were numerous broken windows from foul balls or erroneous throws to the neighboring houses. Soccer was hardly even heard of and the closest we ever came to playing soccer was participating in a game called Kick Ball. This was played much like baseball but was done with a soccer size ball and kicked into play. Games such as Hide and Seek, playing Tag, and Simon Sez, were just a few more that we played routinely. After dark we could be found catching lightening bugs, seeing who could catch the most, sometimes pinching off their glowing ends and placing them on our finger for a glorious glowing ring. Hula hoops, Cork ball, roller skates with keys, Kick the Can, Jacks, and Pick up Stix all kept us busy and entertained.

Where I grew up in East Tennessee, there was very little illicit drug use. Drugs in general did not seem to be a problem in society, except in large urban areas such as New York City, until the 1970’s. ‘Flower Children’, Hippies, Vietnam, and all of the anti-war hype seemed to have spurred the drug revolution that eventually branched into most every part of society by the mid 70’s. Even though illicit drug use did not appear to be a problem in high school, the drinking of alcohol was. Drinking Schlitz Beer from quart bottles was a Friday night past time. With windows down and the radio blasting out tunes such as Herman’s Hermits, “I’m Into Something Good” or Gerry and The Pacemakers, “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying,” and The Beatles, Dave Clark Five, and The Beach Boys, we cruised the streets. Cars with four or five guys, all in their teens, cruising the drive-in diners, passing the quart bottle of Schlitz around the car, smoking Marlboro’s, attempting to be like our favorite heroes such as Sean Connery, John Wayne, Frank Sinatra, and Steve McQueen. Teen girls would also frequent the drive-in diners and this provided a great venue for teens to show off their cars and do a little flirting.

Drive-in theatres were also popular during my teen years. It was a great place to take a date, because all you paid was 75 cents each to get in and then you would find a parking spot toward the back of the lot and make-out, we called in necking back then, for the length of the movie. Guys would sometimes go as a group. The driver and one passenger would drive through the ticket booth, paying for only two, while three or four guys would be shut in the trunk of the car, successfully avoiding the cost. Once inside and parked, the driver would unlock the trunk and the four or five guys would enjoy the movie, sipping on their quarts of Schlitz.

I have a lot of good memories of the 50’s and 60’s and in some ways I too feel like those were the ‘Good Old Days’, but looking back, it was a wonder we survived. Unfortunately, many of my friends did not. Some were lost in Vietnam, some to drugs in the 70’s, some to cancer, liver disease and tragic accidents. I feel fortunate to have experienced those days that are sometimes referred to as the ‘Good Old Days’ but I am also glad that things are better now. I believe children which are being raised in the present, have many more advantages than we had in the 50’s. With the advances in medicine, safer automobiles, more stringent laws to curb drunk driving and underage drinking, laws prohibiting tobacco sales to minors and the use of seatbelts, bicycle helmets and cell phones for emergencies, the world is much safer now and if approached with the right attitude, it can be rewarding and provide a lot of good memories for years into the future.

I have fond memories of many of my friends and I am saddened that so many have passed on. I feel the loss at the strangest times. When I eat a peanut butter and banana sandwich, see a quart bottle of beer in a convenient store, or a pack of Swisher Sweet Cigars, hear an old tune of the Beatles or the Beach Boys. The memories I have for these I loved as friends will be with me forever, warming my heart and making me so thankful I had the opportunity to call them a friend. To the friends that have passed on, I thank you for the wonderful memories:

Barry Anfinson, Dennis Armstrong, Garry Berrier, Danny Coker, Ben Foust, Gary Gilbert, Beth Maples, Joel Pike, Randy Seals, Chris Settle, Kenny Smiddy, and Henry Thomas, James Davis, Brenda Dyer, Gene Galford, Michael Hurst, Linda Kidwell, Mary Murman, Patti Walker, Teddy Welch and Mary Williams.