There seems to be an abundance of nostalgia about that golden age in America’s history, the 1950s, and the 1960s. It is particularly strong among those of us senior citizens born during or just after World War II, the last “good war.” As with every generation before us, we become more sentimental about the past as we grow ever nearer to the end of our sojourn here on earth. We tend to wander around antique stores remembering when we used this or that “antique” item before they were antiques. We smile and comment on how if that item is antique, we must be antiques. Nostalgia is a good thing. It helps us remember the good times and overlook the painful ones. But it is important to remember that it is an incomplete picture.
I recently took up writing a kind of autobiography or memoir. I recall listening to my father talk about his childhood during the 1910s and 1920s, growing up as a child of German immigrants on a farm in Michigan. I have some of his stories on cassette tapes and my mother’s stories of her childhood. I want to leave a record of my life as I remember the good and bad times for my children, only I will do so in the form of a book complete with pictures and assorted “documents.”
My first ten years were spent in a small village called Linwood along Michigan’s Saginaw Bay. Most residents were either farmers or worked in the many factories that made Michigan one of the leading industrial states. The role played by America’s industries in winning the war against Nazism, and Japanese imperialism resulted in the period from 1945 to 1980 being the golden age of the American working class. A bright future envisioned by my generation consisted of taking over the family farm or finding employment in one of the factories after finishing high school. Many of our parents, mine included, did not have a high school education, but they knew the advantages of having one and never missed the opportunity of stressing the importance of staying in school.
When I started elementary school in 1949, we had a picture of George Washington on one side of the blackboard (Real black slate!) and a portrait of Abraham Lincoln on the other. There was an American flag in the corner. We started each day with the pledge of allegiance to the flag. “Under God” was not added until 1954, when I was in the 5th grade. One teacher (no aides) was in a room with kindergarten through the third grade. There were no guards, video cameras, lockable doors, etc., just a teacher and a room full of kids who knew how to behave and the consequences of not doing so.
Linwood Elementary School had only three rooms. The number of kids in each room varied yearly, but the average was 48. There was only one teacher per room and no principal. The method of instruction was simple. There was a table with chairs at the front of the room next to the teacher’s desk. That is where she taught. She would call out, for example, “First-grade reading,” or maybe “Second-grade arithmetic,” or “Third-grade whatever.” The grade called out would go to the table at the front, and the teacher would teach them. The teacher was able to spend only fifteen to twenty minutes on each class. The rest of the students were expected to remain in their seats quietly, working on whatever they were supposed to be working on.
I mention my first school because of the role that small country and small-town schools play in books, movies, and television shows meant to make the audience feel good about the past. I call it a Hallmark, Little House on the Prairie, or Mayberry make-believe world that never actually existed, but we nevertheless enjoy remembering. It’s a small part of the mythical history of America that includes pilgrims eating Thanksgiving dinner with Pocahontas’ family; slaves singing in the moonlight after a good day’s work for Ole Massa; and poor but industrious young men pulling themselves up from poverty to membership in that elite club of Robber Barons that included the likes of Andrew Carnegie, Cornelius Vanderbilt, and Henry Ford.
The nostalgic memory of America’s past includes a well-developed civil religion that goes something like this: To enjoy religious freedom and take the Christian gospel’s good news to the New World’s heathen populations, the Pilgrims and other brave Protestant souls endured the long, harrowing journey across the Atlantic Ocean to the shores of North America led by divine Providence. After a patriotic war for freedom from England’s oppressive rule, the newly-founded United States of America set about fulfilling its manifest destiny to expand from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean and beyond, eventually becoming what President Dwight Eisenhower called “the greatest force that God has ever allowed to exist on His footstool.”[i]
The period 1945-1970 was, however, a time when America was still a mostly homogeneous nation with a worldview consensus derived from Western Civilization. As some are quick to point out, it was dominated by white Euro-American males. There were racial and cultural minorities concentrated in various locations, but they were kept on the outside looking in. To the dominant racial and cultural class, they were basically invisible, humorous characters in movies and on radio and television shows. Like the children in that small village school that is a part of an Idyllic past that never actually existed, those non-Euro-Americans knew how to act. They knew their place, as we said in those days, and the consequences for not doing so, for presuming to be included in the opening line of the Constitution, “We the people,….” It was a cruel and unjust time in our history for many, not only cultural and racial minorities but women and those who chose to march to the sound of a different drum. That America to which many Americans, myself included, look back with feelings of nostalgia is long gone, and thankfully so.
My generation is the children of those who NBC Nightly News anchor and author Tom Brokaw called “the Greatest Generation,” those resilient and patriotic Americans who lived through the Great Depression and then fought in World War II. Many, like my parents, experienced the Great War, later called World War I, and the Great Flu Pandemic of 1919. They survived without the benefits of unemployment insurance (1941) or Social Security (1935), both of which were part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. FDR’s opponents accused him of being a Communist, or at least a Socialist, for suggesting that the country owed its citizens assistance when the nation’s economy was experiencing a slump. Many referred to the New Deal as FDR’s “Jew Deal,” communist and Jew being the same for many Americans.
As we grew up during the 1940s and 1950s, our parents expected us to become mature adults. We faced challenges that required courage and character to survive. And so they instilled in us the same values that served them—knowing right from wrong, the difference between justice and injustice and always choosing the side of justice, a sense of fair play, and loyalty to our country, our family, and most importantly to the God of our fathers. We needed their guidance and example of courage, for we were growing up in the shadow of the mushroom cloud, expecting at any moment a nuclear holocaust. At school, I learned the Duck and Cover song (1951) and how to follow the example of Bert the Turtle. If we heard the explosion or saw the flash of light, we were to do like Bert the Turtle,
“When danger threatened him he never got hurt
He knew just what to do
“He’d duck and cover, duck and cover
He’d hide his head and tail and four little feet
He’d duck and cover!”[ii]
And then we would get under our desks with our hands over our heads.
A part of the nostalgia from the 1940s and 1950s was the lack of computer technology. Many of us senior citizens find ourselves adrift without a compass in this new technological world. We are frustrated, angry, and subject to panic attacks when trying to use our laptop computers that seem determined to thwart all our efforts. Blessed are those of us who have a child nearby to ask for help. I recall a Sunday morning when my wife and I were teaching a kindergarten Sunday school class. It was when the movie “Frozen” was what the children discussed among themselves. “What is your favorite character?” “Do you remember when…?” “What was your favorite part?” Many of the children had some smartphone or other high-tech device within reach. As I heard the word “App” mentioned repeatedly, I eventually asked, “What is an App?” One little girl turned to the girl next to her and, smiling, said, “He doesn’t know what an App is.” They all laughed.
Smartphones? We communicated by telephone if we were lucky enough to have one. Many, including my family, were on a “party line,” meaning more than one household had the same telephone number. You had to learn your number of rings to know whether or not to answer the phone when it rang. Long-distance calls were costly, so sending a Western Union telegram might be cheaper. The local, national, and international news were broadcast over the radio or television if you were one of the fortunate few who owned a tv set. Most people relied on the local newspaper delivered by the “paper boy.” For visual images, we had Movietone News shown at the theater between the main feature, or features if a double feature, along with the mandatory cartoon and previews of coming attractions.
My father brought home our first television set in 1952. It was enclosed in a wooden cabinet and had a 12-inch screen. We could receive only one station. It was a NBC affiliate out of Bay City, Michigan that would sign on in the morning and off at midnight. Black, white, and various shades of gray were the only colors on the screen. Color was introduced in the United States in 1953. The Tournament of Roses Parade on January 1, 1954, was the first program broadcast nationally in color. The Perry Como Show (1956) and The Big Record with Patti Paige (1957) were the first two regular programs broadcast in color. The first all-color prime-time season was in 1966 when I was a Junior at Lynchburg College in Lynchburg, Virginia.
Color television sets appeared in stores in January 1954 with price tags that placed them clearly out of the range of most consumers. Westinghouse made available a color television in the New York City area in February 1954 that sold for $1,295 ($13,422 in 2022). Thirty sets were sold during that first month. Since we are looking back nostalgically at that golden age, it is worth noting that a new 1954 Ford Crestline 4 Door Sedan could be purchased for $1,975 when the median yearly income for men was $3,200. It was not so good for women. Their median income was only $1,200.
I learned to drive in a car with a “straight stick” on the stirring column and a clutch next to the brake and gas pedals. My first car, like all others, came equipped with air conditioning, meaning I could roll the windows down mechanically. It had four gears, first, second, third, and reverse. In winter, the heat came from a “heater,” a box located beneath the dash. I learned how to signal the vehicle behind me my intentions by sticking my arm out the window. If it was straight, I was about to turn left. I was about to turn right if it was pointed up at a right angle. And if I pointed it down at the pavement or gravel, I was slowing down or about to stop. Most cars had bench seats in front, charming for taking your date to the drive-in theater. We navigated with printed road maps given free at service stations. Today’s GPS was spelled “map” back in the day.
For the guys, the military draft was always something that one had to calculate into any plans for the future. Most men graduated high school at 18 and were soon called upon to serve their mandatory two years in the United States Army. We had options. Rather than wait for the infamous letter from the local Draft Board, one could choose to join one of the four military branches for three years rather than two or join the National Guard or a reserve unit of one of the Army, Air Force, Marine Corps, or Navy. Unlike today, the Guard and Reserves were not used to fight wars. They were “weekend warriors.” They dressed up once a week to play soldier. One way of avoiding the draft was to carry a purse to your draft physical when called up.
The female portion of the population did not have to worry about the draft. War was a man’s sport. It was considered uncivilized to send women into combat. They were better suited for nursing and clerical jobs. Hence the various women’s auxiliary corps—WAAC (Army), WAVES (Navy), WASP (Air Force), ANC (Army Nurse Corps), and SPAR (Coast Guard). Women serving in the Marines were called simply Marines.
Being old enough to remember the 1950s and the 1960s, I have difficulty deciding which of the two decades is most worthy of nostalgia. I yearn to make a return visit to both for different reasons related to my growing maturity and awareness of the world in which I live. I see things and am aware of things today that I was not aware of back in the day. I was unaware of the evils of segregation at home or imperialism abroad. I was blissfully ignorant of the negative side of life that has always been, and always will be, present in every age.
We live in a postmodern age when the study of history is considered irrelevant, yet we keep hearing George Santayana’s prophetic comment, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” There is a cure for ignorance about our past, which is education. Unfortunately, we live in a time when most educational institutions have abandoned the teaching of any history.
There are growing signs that historians are taking a new and more objective look at our nation’s history. Many stories that were treated as history back in the day are being replaced with carefully researched narratives. Both the positive and negative are given a fair hearing. A good example of history replacing myth is exposing the “Myth of the Lost Cause” as a myth. Still, there will always be a place for looking nostalgically back at our past. When I was in the third and fourth grades, I did walk two miles to school in the snow during the winter and was happy to find when I got there that the furnace was not working and I could walk back home in the snow,
[i] Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, “Radio and Television Address to the American People on the State of the Nation.,” Dwight D. Eisenhower Radio and Television Address to the American People on the State of the Nation. | (The American Presidency Project, April 5, 1954), https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/documents/radio-and-television-address-the-american-people-the-state-the-nation.
[ii] “Dick ‘Two Ton’ Baker – Bert the Turtle (the Duck and Cover Song),” Genius, accessed November 2, 2022, https://genius.com/Dick-two-ton-baker-bert-the-turtle-the-duck-and-cover-song-lyrics.
Lots of detailed memories here. It was a very different world then!