While driving my jaunty Explorer Sportrac, which my wife has named “Sassy Red,” to the dealer some thirty miles away for its scheduled maintenance, I passed some long-familiar scenes. My mind began drifting, conjuring an image of life as it was sixty to seventy years ago. God, how I long for those days and how I wish I could re-do them. Always the lament of the aged I believe, but still . . . one can only avoid becoming aged by dying young, and by the grace of God I did not die young. So I am stuck with the issues and predilections of an old man. I don’t claim they are universal. They are simply those of a man who has plowed the fertile soil of many years under, a man who spent his young life in a small town in Kansas and has lived the remainder of his days in what is often derogatorily termed “flyover country.”
The days were vast and uncountable, it seemed, in those days. Future . . . was a stage set from which the curtain hadn’t yet been drawn back, but I looked at that curtain with breathless anticipation. And it could have been a wonderful “play” had I not substituted so many of my lines for those of the playwright. Although in truth many other people had a part in that revision of the future for which I was intended.
In our youth we are a fine luxury car on which the body has just been placed; positioned near the beginning of the assembly line and subject to the mercies of scores of parts suppliers, workers, and anomalies on the assembly line. Yet I cannot blame the condition of what I am at 83 solely on outside forces. There were design flaws from the beginning. I cannot measure the relative impact of nature versus nurture but only a fool would argue against their both having left their medals and scars on that which I am today.
Those days so long ago . . . the term “multi-tasking” had not been coined because tasks were segregated one from another. If one was driving to town, one drove to town. If one was fixing a problem that problem had one’s entire attention. Multi-cultural realities had not emerged into our consciousness. One was what one was, lived in one’s culture, and did not expect others to be concerned about being sensitive to our particular culture. That was not perceived as cruelty, racist, nationalistic, or insensitivity. It was what it was and that was that.
While the factories and offices of corporate America existed and were necessary, it was the hamlets and small cities that defined who we were as Americans. Meeting one another on the sidewalk or across the backyard fence there was always time for a friendly greeting and, if interested, a brief conversation. Life was lived in conformity with the rhythm of a slow ballad rather than the frenzied bass thumping of the musical sounds of today. Often we had time to toss a friendly wave towards other drivers or folks alongside the road or on our small town sidewalks. It didn’t matter whether we knew them or not; they were our “neighbors.” Our cars were not cooled by drafts of refrigerated air. No, we had large windows and air deflectors to maximize the amount of air that could sweep over our bodies, cooling us to the extent that air moving over sweat could accomplish.
The highways we used did not bypass the myriad small towns and communities that thrived in and of themselves along the way, so we became acquainted with the face of America. Should we choose or need to eat along the way our “fast food” was sandwiches we’d prepared and packed at home. Alternatively, we could stop at a locally owned grocery store, ask the butcher to slice enough bologna and cheese to make sandwiches for us, buy a loaf of bread, some chips and soft drink. We’d take those and find a picnic table beneath a shade tree or roof in one of the many roadside parks that had been provided by the highway departments, or in a quaint town-provided park. If nature called while we were at a roadside or “town” park we headed for the privy located somewhere on the property. Many, but not all, of them had the amenity of a store-bought toilet seat but they were seldom hooked up to a sewer line. More often than not, however, we had enough time to stop at a Mom and Pop restaurant, more ordinarily called a “café,” and discover the unique recipes and culinary skills of a cook who did not simply prepare corporate recipes.
The slogan of some advertiser was once, “Getting there is half the fun,” was never as true as it was during those mid-twentieth century days. Billboards spoiled the scenery at times but a purveyor of shaving cream advertised their wares in a way that made reading their message fun. A series of small rectangular signs, posted one after another displaying a few words large enough to be read on each cajoled us to buy “Burma Shave.” The wit on those signs, such as “Pedro walked . . . Back Home . . . By Golly . . . His Whiskers Were . . . Too Hot To Molly . . . “BURMA SHAVE,” was cornily humorous.
Stores tended to be specialized, that is, they sold one type of product whether it be clothing, groceries, auto parts, drugs, or “five and dime” items, and they were generally locally owned and operated. “Sears,” “Montgomery Ward,” “J.C. Penney,” or other brands of “department” stores existed, but we had to go to a small city to find those. Sam Walton was a schoolboy still dreaming of owning a chain of small stores in a few remote towns in Arkansas. J.C. Penney, whose actual middle name was “Cash” obviously did not have full faith and confidence in salesperson-operated cash registers. His stores had a unique system whereby the clerk would take the customer’s money, place it into a little capsule (much like those used in today’s drive-in lanes at banks), push a button and said capsule would be whisked away on a wire that took it to a centrally located point where trustworthy money-handlers would stash it away and then send a receipt and change back to the sales point. Slow, but actuarially dependable.
Our high school cheerleaders –always, always attractive girls – wore bulky cable-knit sweaters that suggested much more than they revealed, over just-below-the-knee pleated skirts which flared dramatically when the young thing spun, revealing very briefly legs encased in tights.Their cheers were concocted with the idea that the spectators would actually yell with the cheerleaders. Such verbiage as “Osssssskie – Wow – Wow, “Skinnnnnnny – Wow – Wow – Skin “Treeville,” WOW! - followed by raucous yelling, was common. While silly sounding that was for a purpose. It was easy to remember, easy to yell. Cheerleaders were “leaders.” The crowd was expected to yell the cheers called for by the cheerleaders. Choreographed routines, pyramid building, and other gymnastic “show biz” presentations were unknown.
Four or five times a year the more significant games would be followed by a school dance. They were held in a large room in our high school that was used mainly for meetings of our “Lions Club” and other community groups. Ah, the music we danced to . . . Glenn Miller’s “String of Pearls” and “Tuxedo Junction” were intermixed with Tommy Dorsey’s “I’m Gettin’ Sentimental Over You” and “I’ll Never Smile Again,” , with a smattering of Guy Lombardo’s “Royal Canadians.” There were always two or three teachers circling the dancers like flies at an apple cider festival admonishing us to keep daylight between our bellies. And the dance ALWAYS ended with “Goodnight, Sweetheart” after which the chaperones immediately turned on the lights to turn off the libidos. The music was, of course, recorded on 78 rpm records and came to us through a decidedly non-high fidelity sound system.
The only electronic media we knew was radio . . . AM radio. But what it provided was stellar. Whether music, drama, quiz shows or “soaps,” it was “family friendly” entertainment. Nothing unusual about Mom, Dad, and the kids sitting in the living room in the evening enjoying the same “programming.” Life moved in a predictable rhythm. We could tell what day it was by what kind of after-dinner programs were “on the air.” One night was dedicated to music and what music it was! Another night was claimed by situational comedy with characters we came to know like neighbors. A third night was given over to crime and mystery programming. Predictable, mundane, ordinary and . . . nurturing.
Spring was a festive season. Sometime in April the Junior Class would host a “banquet” for the Seniors in the aforementioned “Community Room.” This meal was as close an approximation of a formal dinner as could be found in a small Kansas town. Placemats, drawn by the top students in Art Class, were laid, along with silverware and glasses made sparkling clean and properly placed by girls in the Home Ec(onomics) classes. The food was prepared in the Home Ec kitchen and brought to us by girl servers from the Sophomore Class. It was quite an “uptown” affair to which we brought our dream date, if “she” accepted our invitation. Alumni or students from other schools were not permitted. This was strictly a Jr./Sr. affair. Following the banquet we went to the gym for a just-as-formal dance which had actual, real live music provided by one or another of the local swing bands.
Ah, but when we entered, it didn’t look like the gym in which we sweat, endured calisthenics, played Dodge Ball, and roughhouse basketball. The Junior Class was always “given” the gym for one week prior to the Saturday night post-banquet dance and each year’s class tried to out-do the previous one in their efforts to transform that sweaty old box into a romantic fairyland. My class (of 1950) chose to emulate the front lawn of an ante-bellum Southern mansion in our decorations. The bleachers were hidden with a butcher paper façade our artsy classmates had painted to resemble the front face of such a mansion, a stroll-over garden type bridge was constructed and the local “Dime Store’s” entire stock of crepe paper had been purchased to make streamers, ribbons, and other artifacts necessary to create a dream world. The notion of “Post-Prom Parties” didn’t exist. After the band’s sentimental rendition of “Goodnight Sweetheart” it was “every man for himself.”
It was a golden world, surely shimmering more vividly in the memory of an old man who dashed through it as a young man, than it actually was, but memory doesn’t always bend to suit one’s fancy. That which is remembered as being good, true, and desirable sometimes was. While it was not Utopia nor without blemishes and faults, America, at Mid-Twentieth Century truly was more naïve, simpler, less profane, more respectful of authority, and less libertarian than the America we know today. But it is even truer that it will never again exist.
She was my bride. I loved her, quarreled with her; sometimes wished she’d go away, insulted her, and far too often behaved in a manner quite unworthy of her; but we traveled the road to where we are now together and I would not have missed the trip.
Thanks for reading through my octogenarial musings, Dick. Funny how a situation (driving along a familiar highway) will trigger such thoughts. I hope there will be a few more waypoints along the way before I reach my destination. Perhaps even one or two new experiences, although those are rather hard to come by after so many years.
Thanks Tom, I've believed for some time now that it isn't the "Pearl Harbors," "9/11's" and "Viet Nams" that make us, make our country what we are; it is the aggregate of thousands of things seen, things heard, things felt, and things done. That . . . is what our legacies feed on. But in the din of 24/7 instant "news" all too few seem to notice.