In the beginning …
A generation of idealistic children
— Dr. Benjamin Spock
Fifty million people died in World War II, 405,399 of them Americans. The causes they died for were real; the enemies evil and aggressive; the celebratory relief at war’s end well deserved. GI's came home to a grateful country that awarded them one of the most ambitious and effective pieces of social legislation in the country’s history – the GI Bill of Rights, which offered money for college and a new home in the suburbs.
The GI's yearned to settle down and start families — to live life, which they would do — prodigiously. The year after the Japanese surrendered to the Allies on the Battleship Missouri, a birthing spree began that would not peak until 1957. When it finally ended in 1964, 76 million babies had been born into a booming economy with limitless possibilities.
But new fears darkened the optimism. Terrible weapons of war, more destructive than any in history, lurched across the sky like Jack’s giant. While down below the land we were being born into thundered with fears of espionage and subversion by agents of the Soviet Union. Both drew an ominous edge along our mighty clouds of joy. Our parents didn't know whether to giggle with delight at their wealth and power or shudder at foreboding about the world they'd inherited. They tried both. The tough, formative years of the Great Depression and World War II left them determined to make a better life for their kids. And so they enthusiastically followed Dr. Spock's advice about raising idealistic children.
From this point forward, from Hiroshima to U-2 was designed crate that most formative of periods — the 60s. But first things first.
Twin cataclysms ended one era and started another. The issue was not that “Hiroshima was a blunder and Nagasaki a crime,” as one Manhattan Project scientist put it. The issue that shaped our lives was nuclear annihilation. For as much as boomer kids played guns among the neighbor’s Box Elders, they never played Armageddon. We would come to dream about it though, in the terms uttered in reaction to the first nuclear test at Trinity Site near Alamogordo, New Mexico, at 5:29:45AM on July 16, 1945. For the new generation, this was the day that would live in infamy.
“If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst into the sky, that would be like the splendor
of the Mighty One … I am become Death, destroyer of worlds.”
— J. Robert Oppenheimer quoting the Bhagavad Gita
The first substantial thing most kids come to fear is the death of their parents. For the legions of boomers the loss of their parents played second fiddle to extinction. It’s a tough thing growing up optimistic and self-confident while looking over your shoulder at a whimsical God. But we had no choice.
Much of the outrage that appeared decades later grew from resentment at the world our fathers created, a world characterized by rarified madness: affluence tempered by apocalypse. Is it any wonder our idealism came tinged with self-indulgence? We grew up less certain about our fate than any previous American generation.
A wise General Douglas MacArthur warned of the potential for massive destruction brought forth by the Bomb.
"We have had our last chance. If we do not devise some greater
and more equitable system, Armageddon will be at our door."
But for the time being this dire warning went unheeded.
"These proceedings are closed."
— General Douglas MacArthur
The entire world breathed a sigh of relief on September 2 as MacArthur stood before the morning-suited representatives of Imperial Japan on the Battleship Missouri in Tokyo Harbor and closed the formal declaration of surrender in the Pacific War. The most destructive war in human history was over. For Americans it ended fifteen years of economic deprivation, fear, and loss. They knew, whether along the hedgerows of Europe, in the fox holes of Tarawa, or on the streets of New York City, GI's soon would be coming home. Good had prevailed. God had prevailed. America had prevailed. The green felt expanse on which lay the documents of surrender seemed to be the hand of providence blessing our destiny. To the descendants of John Winthrop’s children, the prevailing spirit announced that we at long last could finish our City on the Hill and release its shining example for all the world to behold.
Trouble was just beyond the horizon the Devil was at play in the fields, where devastation ruled and tyrants schemed.
President Harry S Truman could not have known when he invited the ex-British prime minister to speak at Westminster college in Fulton, Missouri, on March 5 that the speech by the Allies' most famous leader would set the tone for the global strife that was already underway. This new war fought by proxy between former Allies became a contest of competing ideologies for international hegemony.
"From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the
Adriatic an Iron Curtain has Descended Across the Continent."
— Winston Churchill
Welcome to the Cold War, World War III by another name: a bloody forty
year world-wide conflict. Considering the twenty-plus million dead and
the trillions of dollars pumped into this for-keeps version of Mortal Combat,
Quake and Jedi Force, toe-to-toe war between the US and USSR seems almost
irrelevant. Peaceful co-existence was a mutually agreed upon fiction. Both
sides knew there would ultimately be a triumphant victor and a devastated
Only no one knew who it would be. And you couldn’t hit reload.
Meanwhile, with a shrug and a fretful smile, our parents embraced the 3 C’s of the Cold War America: containment, conformity and consumerism. Not that they were especially aware of it. That meant school, business, homes and, above all, family. Prospective parents entered with fey abandon the national raise-a-family sweepstakes, in which the contest was its own reward.
This unassuming and at first somewhat disreputable paperback sold four million copies by 1952, and one million a year for eighteen straight years. That came to over 50 million copies, translated into 39 languages including Urdu and Catalan.
Beginning in June of ’46 parents could buy it for 35 cents.
The Pocket Book of Baby and Child Care
— by Dr. Benjamin S. Spock
To a generation of expecting mothers, Dr. Spock's book (originally titled The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care) took the place of the Holy Bible on the nightstand and at the breakfast table. His message was somewhat new and so obvious now. “Trust yourself. You know more than you think you do.” Above all, said Spock, “Hug your children.” In times of hope, new parents spoiled, flattered, and indulged their adorable babies. Spock also counseled to be friendly rather than stern, encouraging rather than didactic. If they were successful, the result would be a generation of "idealistic children." Something our parents were willing to try. They’d won the war: They had reason to believe.
Spock became the first millionaire created by the Baby Boom generation. Half a generation later, the good doctor joined his babies in the streets to protest the war in Vietnam. And this once-revered man became the arch villain in the backlash against permissiveness and rebellion, as though generous feeding schedules were synonymous with cultural revolution.
Well before Vietnam, there was television. The necessary condition for virtually everything that followed. We became the first generation in human history raised by a “third parent,” attended much of the time by an “electronic babysitter” that left many of us as close to our favorite TV stars as our parents.
DuMont Television Network
— network television
The television age began on April 13 when the first major network established a cable connection between stations in New York and DC. DuMont even made its own TVs; manufacturers produced 6,476 this first year. The following year 178,571 more hit the market. You could buy one with a 20-inch screen for $2500 plus $45 for the antenna. By 1953 production had risen to 7 million a year. By 1967 98% of all homes had sets. Popular culture and world-wide communications were about to undergo a total transformation. When we entered the TV Age, the doors of the past closed permanently behind us. There was no returning to slower, more communitarian times.
Television remains the fastest growing technological innovation of all time — outpacing telephones, radios, cars, VCRs, Walkmans and computers. But what made it so important to the infant generation was its formative role. TV furnished a worldview. TV provided standards of taste and conduct. TV gave us an impression of universality. It tied us together while helping spark the Generation Gap.
Was it any wonder that a generation weaned on Howdy Doody and acculturated by Mickey Mouse Club, also sought to achieve a Leave it to Beaver reality? Perhaps life imitated art. Not the decadence of haute culture, but the predictable regularity of pop culture. In its way just as deceiving, and even more enervating to the mind and spirit.
There should be little surprise that by the time we hit our late teens, some of us were beginning to ask if this was all life had to offer?
Just hidden from the realm of the Saturdaddies and Little League summers, some clever men touched off a revolution that would eventually answer the generational question. Scientists at the University of Pennsylvania activated the world's first electronic, large scale, general purpose computer. Although Dumont itself became the Portugal of TV networks when it folded in 1958 with a final broadcast of the Monday Night Fights, carried by mere five stations, television culture assumed an ever-increasing role in our lives.
— Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer
Weighing 50 tons, the first computer was 150 feet wide and ran 20 banks of flashing lights on 174 kilowatts on power. In one second its circuit could add 5,000 numbers or multiply 14 ten-digit numbers — slightly faster than today’s pocket calculator. The future was decades away, but this was the first club-footed step toward a new age of world-wide access to information that would allow average citizens greater opportunity to influence their world. The dimensions of revolutionary change introduced by television only presaged the personal computer. It is an ironclad cinch no one at the major networks, the phone company, or on the ENIAC team at Pennsylvania foresaw the revolutionary change that would one day sweep Guttenberg’s famous galaxy.
To get there, science first had to bridge two formidable chasms: heat and size. On December 16 a team at Bell Laboratories invented the transistor, a device that acts as a switch and a modulator and could be endlessly reduced in size and integrated onto an etched surface of silicon.
By the time production became efficient, we would be teenagers and got transistor radios, complete with a bulky pink plastic earplug. Man, oh man what a revelation. Cheap and good enough to take to the beach, they swept our world, perhaps the first modern product to find its main audience among the young. For the first time it was possible to block out the parents by pumping up the volume.
Something swept the planet ahead of the transistor radio. The sort of dichotomous reality that plagues much of our life. New products may have started flooding the market, but an old one remained quite strong: War. Hoping to turn the Mediterranean into their own version of an American lake, the paranoid, imperialist Soviets began filibustering in Greece and Turkey. Frightened by George Keenan’s 8,000 word Long Telegram describing the USSR’s bellicose intentions, Secretary of State Dean Acheson submitted a response to the "global struggle between freedom and totalitarianism" to his Commander-in-Chief. It became known as the Truman Doctrine.
"It must be the policy of the United States
to support free peoples who are resisting
attempted subjugation by armed minorities
or by outside pressure."
— Harry S Truman
Truman's March 12 address to Congress announced a policy of containment that included aid to Greece and Turkey and other nations to help them fight communist insurgency. This ambitious and sometimes reckless program became, according to Senator William Fulbright, "the guiding spirit of American foreign policy." In practical terms it meant the USA became the world’s policeman sworn to protect and serve against further communist expansion any time, anywhere, no matter how remote, no matter how indistinct the threat.
This took the CIA to Iran and Guatemala, the Congo, Chile, and GIs to Korea, Lebanon, and Southeast Asia. Containment, which would meet its ultimate test in the rice paddies of South Vietnam, was ultimately successful. The cost though was enormous.
The Cold War played hell with our country and brought about transformations profound and often painful. Lives lost numbered in the tens of thousands, economically it rose to multi-billions. American culture would never again be the same. The Cold War manufactured consent and conformity. Boomers found that intolerable and became dissenters and non-conformists. In fact, we made nonconformity mainstream. These days it’s an expected part of growing up. It wasn’t always that way.
Rigorous fear of foreign threats produced a humorous side – humor, that is, with dark circles under its eyes. Americans have always believed in conspiracies, the deeper and darker and the more it involved the government the better. In the early 19th century a political party developed based upon the widely-shared belief that Free Masonry was at the heart of a conspiracy to rule the world. This century we went that hoary old tale one better.
The origins of the UFO scare had more to do with Cold War paranoia than little green men.
Unidentified Flying Objects
— national paranoia
The seminal incident took place June 14, 1947 at Roswell, New Mexico, where, according to conventional wisdom, a UFO not only landed but disgorged little alien men, some of whom the military supposedly captured.
The Air Force was testing aerial monitors of Soviet nuclear tests. This acoustical equipment was born aloft by balloons — or something to that effect. A subsequent crash contributed to the continuation of speculation that we received strange visitors and the government lied about it. The reason for the deception rested on the shaky rationale that the public couldn’t handle the truth.
Elements of the government kept the test secret from the Soviets and therefore the American people. They believed they couldn’t tell us without tipping their hand to the Soviets. For many millions, of conspiracy buffs, it was the beginning of the government’s secret agenda. Despite the juvenile joy at the prospect of real live (or dead) little gray men, such beliefs reflected a more dangerous mistrust of the government that would only increase as time progressed.
The problem was real enough. No visitors from beyond. The only alien was created domestically. It was called the National Security State. The conspiracy was a concerted attempt to conceal the truth. For a democratic government to do such a thing was threatening enough. We didn’t need UFOs landing in East Cow Pie, Iowa. Somewhere an unspoken maxim arose that secrecy was critical to our national survival. The irony of secrecy to preserve liberty may have been lost on its architects. The same secrecy that spawned Roswell also spawned the Bay of Pigs fiasco, the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, Watergate and Iran-Contra. One can only wish it had been grays all along.
The same year as Roswell, Congress created the CIA, the National Security Council, and the Air Force. These agencies were necessary, as was their need for confidentiality. In a democracy it’s a sticky bit to allow your elected peers to tell lies in the name of the truth. But that’s the world of “for your own good.” Reason of State held that the best interests of the country dictated that much of what the government did had to be above the law and beyond the knowledge of the people.
But the inevitable tension between ideals of democracy, on one hand and the fear of communism and the needs of containing it on the other led to all manner of grand conspiracies, not all of which proved as untrue as the Roswell Incident. When we discovered the ugly depth of these lies – having nothing to do with grays, but with reds and red-baiters we reacted with outrage.
Unfortunately, events are never as clear-cut as one would like. One conspiracy of silence came directly from the international blood duel concerning the military applications of aerospace.
— Chuck's Yeager's Bell X-1
The Air Force kept it secret for a year. The Cold War was on and we were even competing against our allies. On October 14, 1947 at Muroc Field high in the Mojave Desert, the laconic test pilot broke the sound barrier in a small orange, bullet-shaped rocket ship. Flown to 26,000 feet suspended on a chain in the bomb bay of a B-29. Yeager flew into a new era of supersonic flight that, in the X-15 in 1963 , would roam as high as sixty-seven miles (unofficially), or just above the atmosphere along the edges of outer space. He celebrated by doing victory rolls during the seven minutes it took him to glide back to Earth. Soon even that would change. Not that any of us knew it. The government hid this amazing feat for national security reasons. One small, perhaps justifiable, secret heaped on the another until the government of a candid democracy was bulging with too many secrets. Secrecy had become its own precedent.
One conspiracy started to unravel. The same year Americans flew through Mach 1 and set up the National Security State, Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers. The public campaign against racial subjugation gained national prominence with this event. It never quite succeeded and has never quite ended. When Branch Rickey took the talented black athlete away from the Negro Leagues, it marked the beginning of the end of the tradition of racial segregation.
Faster than You Can Say Jackie Robinson
— popular saying
The American virus, white racism, has been with us since before we were a country. Our generation came of age during attempts to rectify the horrific sins of our forefathers. We were raised on the unquestioned belief in America’s greatness. Realization that a tenth of the population was treated no better than Third World peasants came as a sad surprise.
Reconciling the horrors of racial oppression with the grandeur of America’s promise proved too great even for the Founding Fathers. This truth crippled our idealism and planted seeds of cynicism.
Yet correct measures were already in the air. Harry Truman commissioned a panel to investigate the great American divide.
"To Secure These Rights"
— Presidential Commission on Race Relations
This year it issued findings that put an official stamp of approval on half a century of black struggle toward "the elimination of segregation based on race, color, creed, or national origin, from American life." As difficult as it was even to say, it proved impossible to get done. At this time, though, optimism hadn’t yet taken its first breath of life. The Dream was a mere embryo.
Growing up with the veil of race clouding the face of our moral superiority, was exacting. The dilemma was simple, yet burdensome: How can we be as great a nation as we say we are when so many people suffer such purposeful daily humiliation?
The question was difficult enough to ask. The answer may yet prove impossible. At that point in our history, most whites and a surprising number of blacks thought things were just as God intended. Whites life was hunky-dory. Blacks found it acceptable. Any racial discontent was surely the work of communist subversives.
Many boomers came to believe that the task of killing this national virus had fallen on their shoulders. Many more were convinced that they would be different as they came of age and came into power, that racial discrimination would soon be a thing of the past. How wrong we were.
Racial unrest did not drive the vitriolic and divisive tenor of the times. Indeed, American Negroes were acutely cautious in their challenge to Jim Crow. In the midst of the Red Scare, they were continually looking over their shoulder lest they blunder into league with the left.
All because this question was playing on the public mind:
"Are you now or have you ever been
a member of the communist party of the United States …?"
Hearings by the House Committee on UnAmerican Activities were an unseemly cause and effect of national hysteria. Reacting to real threats from abroad and dubious threats from within, various elements of our government demanded oaths of loyalty from its employees, and launched all sorts of scandalous intrigues at home and abroad. All carried out in the name of national security. No president was above deception, no citizen above suspicion. The GOP won the House in 1947. Under the Republicans HUAC began investigating citizens and the organizations they worked for, they rooted and grunted through government bureaucracies and academia and didn’t surface until they got to Hollywood. The thundering oratory, the clandestine inquiries in hotel rooms unearthed a few players, including the biggest prize, Alger Hiss, who lied about his treasonous activities during the depression ridden 1930's.
Frank Sinatra of all people best characterized the problem created by crass and not very bright politicians. “Once they get the movies throttled, how long will it be before we’re told what we can say and cannot say into a radio microphone? If you make a pitch on a nationwide radio network for a square deal for the underdog will they call you a Commie?”
Many citizens, entertainers and college professors included, lost their livelihoods for no good reason. Actors, screenwriters and directors were blacklisted. Professors were blackballed. Families split apart. Careers went down the tubes. School children were encouraged to inform on their parents and neighbors. Informants rampant in a candid society amounted to a reign of terror by right wing fools and demagogues largely for political gain. Our parents supported the inquisition. While most of them didn’t buy the Chicken Little hysteria being spread by the GOP, they did believe that “the communists” presented a threat to the country. You didn’t have to know Marx’s theories of surplus value and alienation from work to see this. Communist atheism said it all. Marxism denied God’s existence, and that was all they needed to know. For a while, they rode the repressive wave breaking over the country just hoping to keep their own head above water. Once they tuned into the Army-McCarthy hearings in 1954, they got a load of Joe McCarthy turning the Senate into a mosh pit. And all that changed.
HUAC's saracen blade left the nation wondering why we weren’t at war — if indeed infiltration and subversion were that widespread. The answer was — we were. “Half devils against half angels,” to quote John Le Carré. And the half-devils had a devil of a weapon.
avtomat Kalashnikova 1947
— the AK-47
Made of stamped metal, designed simply enough to be broken down by a child in Liberia, Palestine, Cambodia or East LA, yet sturdy enough to function flawlessly in the worst of conditions, the AK submachine gun is the most popular firearm in the world. Over fifty-five million have been made.
Assigned by the USSR’s Central Artillery Command in 1943 to design an infantry weapon that would use the new 7.62 NATO round, Mikhail Timofeievich Kalashnikov spent four years perfecting the weapon that remains the weapon of choice for guerrillas, terrorists and half the world’s armies. In Vietnam GI’s switched to AKs when they could.
They were cheap and available. Today, the price ranges from $10 in Cambodia
to $13.80 in Namibia to $17 in Kurdistan to $150 in Chechnya to $500 in
LA to $600 in Brooklyn. Many countries make knock-offs: China, the Czech
Republic, Finland and Bulgaria. Even Israel copied its basics for its Galil
assault rifle. Because they’re more efficient than its temperamental rival,
the M-16, the CIA bought 400,000 for the Afghani mujahideen.
The booms were on. Three of them: babies, bucks and belligerence. Fortune magazine proclaimed as much as early as 1946. “This is a dream era, this is what everyone was waiting through the blackouts for. The Great American Boom is on.”
The unprecedented affluence produced a magical world of comfortable and secure sameness. Even without the harsh will to conform imposed from above by red-baiting politicos and fear-mongering right-wingers, the great sprawling American masses found just what they wanted in the new suburbs with their celebratory backyard barbecues on the reliable squares of green grass that always needed trimming. This was the true promise of American life. If it looks bland and regimented fifty years later, be wise. Back then this was utterly liberating.
The suburbs and small towns were great places to raise kids. After decade-long economic chaos and a terrible war, our parents sought refuge from it in the safety of suburban cocoons. A trike on the front sidewalk, a baby pool in the backyard, and bottles sterilizing on the stove – it was an earthly paradise for the vast majority of those in or about to enter the middle class. And in our drive to include everyone’s story let not overlook the fact that this was most of us.
Naturally, the Cold War’s icy hand had the boom by the throat. Right down to the cookie-cutter suburbs and the conformist values. But scarcely any suburbanites cared all that much that no blacks and few non-WASPs were allowed. Or that absolute rules banned fences, clotheslines, unapproved paint schemes and un-cut grass. (They cut it for the slothful and sent the bill).
"No man who owns his own house and lot can be
a communist. He has too much to do."
— William J. Levitt
The burbs provided the formative environment for the new generation of Americans. Levitt's genius was to turn suburban homes into Model T Fords. His planned communities offered modestly priced Cape Cod houses for under $6,990. That came to sixty bucks a month, well within the reach of most GIs. Later he added ranch houses for under $10,000. He began a boom in home construction that stimulated the economy and led to a mass migration of the white middle class from the cities to new tract houses built in surrounding farmland.
Levitt offered homes as a way for average Americans to roll up their sleeves and get to the business of containing communism by producing a society in which every man had a good job and a decent place to live. The rules were strict but the enticements were real. In addition to the famously low price, the original 4½ room Cap Cod house came with a kitchen, a living room with a fire place, and two bedrooms sitting on a 60’ by 100’ lot planted with fruit trees. In addition these homes had central heating, built-in bookcases, closets, a Bendix washer and an 8” TV set that owners could pay off over thirty years. The lines formed months before the first 300 families moved in that October. With the great wave coming the following year.
As important that the tidal wave of consumerism about to descend on the new American middle class, was the uniformity of age. “Everyone is so young that sometimes it’s hard to remember how to get along with older people,” one Levittown housewife remarked. They hadn’t seen anything yet. Babies, babies, babies. Homes soon came with the kitchen beside the living room so mom could keep an eye on the kids crawling around in front of the TV set.
Dad worked while mom stayed home and minded the kids – both had their ears cocked to the radio for news about the crisis in Berlin. It seemed a crisis was always brewing somewhere. As if the world hadn’t had enough already. Fifteen plus years of misery and war was enough to make conformists out of everyone. But when the Soviets closed ground access to Berlin, the Allied occupation commander voiced concern that if the city fell to the Soviets, the dominoes would begin tumbling toward the Atlantic.
"... Western Germany will be next."
— General Lucius Clay
The general wanted to use military force to blast through the Berlin Blockade. Instead, the sly Truman used over 100 C-54s and C-47s flying upwards of 2000 tons of supplies a day into the imprisoned city. One plane dropped Hershey’s Chocolate to the German kids scattered in the ruined city below – the kids called it the Schokoladenflieger.
Reacting to West Germany’s dramatic economic recovery under the Marshall Plan, the Soviets closed the gates. They claimed West Berlin was a base for spying, which it was. It was also a safe haven for those fleeing totalitarian oppression in the East.
The airlift continued for 321 days. Such heroism raised a symbolic torch
of freedom for all the world to see. Several pilots died in crashes, but
the bravery and relentless effort discredited our tyrannical adversaries
and warned all the world that East-West tensions could easily flare into
The Soviets were the new kids on the block and had something to prove. So did we. Our case was more compelling. The Soviets were bullies and goons. Suffering a serious loss of prestige, the Soviets capitulated and the first significant head-to-head confrontation of the Cold War ended.
The nobility of sentiment that drove much of the airlift inspired an move to embrace humanity worldwide. The selflessness with which American in particular embrace the needy West Berliners provided a poignant reminder to the world of the greater things for which we often stood, Cold War strategies notwithstanding.
“…the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family
is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.”
— Universal Declaration of Human Rights
On December 10 the United Nations General Assembly adopted this document, formulated through the hard work and prodding of Eleanor Roosevelt and many others. This “hortatory statement of aspirations” sought at long last to replace the unspeakable horrors the twentieth century with the nobility of compassion and brotherhood by advocating “all human rights for all.” At first American security concerns overrode human rights. Our leaders were so blinded by the exigencies of the Cold War they feared the cause of human rights would hurt us. Conservatives especially sought to disassociate this country from the declaration. As the years passed though, we eventually saw the consistency between our past aspirations and our immediate needs. Gradually the Cold War became in part a quest for human rights.
A war of a different kind was brewing back home in the States. At least it used to be called a war, The War of the Sexes. Looks quaint to our gender-neutralized eyes.
Sexual Behavior in the Human Male
— Dr. Alfred Kinsey
This ponderous and questionable study offered statistical analyses on a full range of male sexual experiences, right down to multiple orgasms in preadolescents and the frequency of homosexuality. Kinsey’s statistical surveys claimed that 68–90% of men had engaged in premarital sexual intercourse. Ninety-two percent had masturbated and 50% committed adultery. A pious nation shuddered. As bad as that was, 37% admitted to at least one homosexual experience, 10% were exclusively homosexual and, God help us, 8% had had sex with animals. Accurate or not, the study became a bestseller and a portent of sexual revolution. Censors sought to ban the explicit discussion of human sexuality ran afoul of America’s deeply Puritanical outlook.
Alfred Kinsey was not the only harbinger of our Brave New World. George Orwell may have written 1984 as a warning on communism. Boomers would read it as science fiction.
"He loved Big Brother"
— George Orwell
Its bad-guy-under-the-bed plot blended the abuses brought on by the Red Scare with the worlds we read about in science fiction novels. The plight of Winston Smith and Julia warned us not so much of the communist menace that so preoccupied our parents but of what our own government might one day do to us. The prospects were at once thrilling and foreboding. Its Newspeak slogans
War is Peace
Freedom is Slavery
Ignorance is Strength
reminded our parents' of the Nazi labor camp slogan Arbeit Macht Frei (work makes you free). Their grim irony held an element of parody about dark potentials of our own society. But we found the idea of the future as dystopia double plus good, exciting as hell.
One of the reasons so many of us took interest in a future filled with blasted landscapes came directly from the nuclear annihilation we were forced to live with.
"There is only one thing worse than one nation
having the atomic bomb — that's two nations having it."
— physicist Harold C. Urey
On September 22, 1949 Harry Truman announced, "We have evidence that an atomic explosion occurred in the USSR." The second nation to build the bomb, which was actually detonated August 29, also happened to be in possession of the world's largest army. We swallowed hard with the realization of our own vulnerability. The invincibility we inherited in World War II disappeared in a single secret mushroom cloud. No matter how vigilant we might be, no matter how tough our defenses, with one successful test explosion the Soviets destroyed the vital sense of immunity from foreign invasion we'd had since the War of 1812. Now we were in for it. The blast touched off an expensive and frightful nuclear arms race. A fight might prove more costly than all previous wars combined. This time the cost of losing was vaporization.
These are terrible philosophical burdens for a kid to carry into kindergarten. True, we didn’t yet know about such things. A few short years of practice-cowering under our desks, would teach a lesson impossible to ignore.
Linked to the Soviet Union's acquisition of the A-bomb, the Fall of China, as it was called, further rattled our fearful bones.
"Power comes through the barrel of a gun."
— Quotations of Chairman Mao
Smacking as it did of Leninism, the revolution on the Asian mainland ignited a wave of accusations about who lost China, as though any western nation could have propped up the tin pot dictator Jiang Jieshi. With the world's most populous nation now under the red star and a sizeable chunk of the earth as well, we saw menacing red flames scorching both coasts.
Something was completely out of sync. An upbringing filled with hatred of communist oppression and a strong reluctance to consider equality for the African 10% of our population. This contradiction was impossible to ignore, impossible to tiptoe around. Black leaders petitioned the United Nations to investigate the degradation of human rights in our own country. The impudence of the petition outraged most Americans far more than the possible truth of the charges.
“We Charge Genocide”
— human rights violations in America
All of us were still too young to comprehend this issue – better to remain ducked and covered against the great gray mushrooms clouds that were somehow more comprehensible. Black boomers were entering the time of their lives when their doleful parents would begin slowly and carefully spelling out the bitter lessons of the color line.
Egalitarian dreams received a small but consequential boost with appearance of what amounted to the first world car.
The fifth Beetle
— the VW bug
The car that moved a generation. Where would we be without the Peoples'
Wagon? It took a while for them to catch on, but when they did, the Bug
and the VW Microbus became cars for the common man. Low gas mileage at
a time when gas was cheaper than dirt. Cramped backseats at a time when
cars were like bedrooms on wheels. But their practicality couldn’t be denied.
Even considering the muscle cars of the glory years to come, the VW became
the Boomer automobile. The counterculture’s anti-car.
The mythical Golden Age ...
"Say kids, what time is it?"
— Buffalo Bob
That most marvelous of all inventions — the television, the salvation of harried parents, brought us the world during our formative years. Howdy Doody, Captain Kangaroo, I Love Lucy, Elvis Presley on Ed Sullivan, or cut-aways to the United Nations for deliberations over the Hungarian Revolt or other crises. By the end of the decade, the crises were coming so frequently, the networks stopped cutting away from regular programming to cover them. Those were the days of Duck and Cover drills and fallout shelters. Television exposed us to the marvels and terrors of the world. It chanted the mantra of Cold War America — containment, conformity and consumption. Yet despite all the fear, our world remained the neighborhood, accessible by bicycle, always open and exciting. History was far away and hadn't penetrated our lives. The future meant what would take place on “Anything Can Happen Day.” Annette defined beauty. Cubby and Karen were America’s sweethearts. Rock n' roll was a cloud of dust on a very flat horizon in 1951, first a curiosity, then an F5 tornado sucking away tradition while leaving behind an existence exclusive of adults. The implications of this brazen new music remained elusive for a few more years. In the meantime, our parents were falling all over themselves keeping up with the Joneses — and staying far the hell away from anything even remotely pink.
From the vantage of the late 90s, it may have been a Golden Age. The fifties may also have been a hot house for the greening and the overgrowth that followed. Great sports, affluence, power, and moral leadership, domestic tranquillity. What else could a country and a generation ask for?
"I have here in my hand a list."
— Joseph McCarthy
When Senator Joe McCarthy uttered this infamous lie at the McClure Hotel in downtown Wheeling, West Virginia, our frightened and gullible parents believed that he knew the names of
“205 — a list of names that were made known to the Secretary of State
as being members
of the Communist party and who nevertheless are still working and shaping policy in the State department.”
He had no such list. He was a cynical opportunist and an ill-informed drunkard. But the nation was so alarmed at the possibility of communist subversion and nuclear attack that for four furious years he was able to spread his venomous paranoia like sports mania. For him and for people of his ilk, the witch-hunt was great sport.
No wonder we began to doubt our parents. They fell for McCarthy's line.
They put their trust in an Iago without any morals or the wits to act even
in his own self-interest. Hope fell hard. Fell dramatically. Most of the
country supported him. Personal attacks, half-truths, doctored documents
and outright fabrications capitalized on genuine concern. In doing so he
destroyed the careers of many loyal Americans even though "Joe couldn't
find a Communist in Red Square. He didn't know Karl Marx from Groucho,"
according to Ike's press secretary George Reedy.
To its discredit, the GOP backed him until he made his lunatic claim that the United States Army was riddled with communists. Nevertheless, McCarthyism became synonymous not only with the era but for character assassination and demagoguery. The term itself was coined by Washington Post political cartoonist Herblock.
McCarthy’s crimes crippled anti-communism by casting doubt on its ethics and goals. Proponents in both parties, in and out of politics had to disassociate themselves from him before going about the real business. The actions of the extreme right, especially Joe McCarthy, did more damage to the precious dignity of freedom than the Red Menace.
The tragic consequences became all too apparent when the Rosenbergs got caught in February 1950. By then right wing excesses — and remember McCarthy had just appeared on the scene — predisposed many Americans to assume their guilt.
The arrest of nuclear physicist and spy Klaus Fuchs in England revealed a spy ring that had penetrated the Manhattan Project — and gave terrifying credibility to national anticommunist hysteria even though no credible evidence ever surfaced of anything approaching widespread subversion. Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, two American communists, were implicated. Julius was a spy and traitor. His wife, though communist like her husband, quite possibly was neither. The information the "atomic spies" passed to the Soviets sped up their weapons research by at least two years and brought the hands of the atomic clock closer still to midnight.
"Diabolical conspiracy to destroy a God-fearing nation."
— Judge Irving R. Kaufman
Despite evidence casting doubt on Ethel’s guilt, and illegally concealed
from her defense, Kaufman sentenced both Rosenbergs to the electric chair
for treason. Ike refused to commute their sentence so they might serve
as an example. They were executed in Sing Sing on June 19, 1953. After
Fuchs' arrest, the freaked-out Senator Homer Capeheart cried, "How much
more are we going to have to take? Fuchs and Acheson and Hiss and hydrogen
bombs threatening outside and New Dealism eating away at the vital of the
nation. In the name of Heaven, is this the best America can do?"
Take a pill, Homer. Klaus Fuchs, who played a greater role in the spy ring than Julius Rosenberg, got fourteen years in the slammer. The Rosenbergs, meantime, became the first American civilians ever executed for the espionage. Despite competing placards in front of the White House, ample reason existed for Ike to let them die. The tide of events was behind him. It appeared as though the international communist conspiracy was marching forward unchecked.
June 25, 1950, while Truman was still in charge, the quixotic North Koreans charged across the 38th parallel separating them from the pro-western south.
"We've got to stop the sons of bitches no matter what."
— Harry S Truman
Our containment policy meant we would have to stop this act of aggression. Truman exclaimed, "By God, I'm going to let them have it." We almost didn't. The North Korean Army practically drove us into the Sea of Japan. The next domino appeared ready to fall until General Douglas MacArthur brilliantly outflanked them at Inchon and pressed far northward to the Yalu River border with communist China.
At home, our parents saw this as the initial skirmish of a massive conflagration. In November the awesome Red Chinese "hordes" attacked in wave upon assault wave and we were on the defensive again. Truman fired the arrogant MacArthur for insubordination. Claiming “there is no substitute for victory,” the general sought to widen the war. General Omar Bradley brought sense to the ranting right wing who backed MacArthur and a wider war by saying MacArthur’s strategy would “involve us in the wrong war, at the wrong place, at the wrong time, with the wrong enemy.” The public changed its mind, and as MacArthur predicted for himself, “Old soldiers never die, they just fade away.”
His replacement Mathew Ridgway slogged back up the peninsula to a stalemate around the 38th parallel. Temporized at the United Nations as a “police action,” the conflict produced some 33,629 dead G.I.s of 4 million total casualties, mostly Korean civilians. The Forgotten War produced no clear-cut results other than a cease-fire which has lasted nearly half a century. In reality the Korean Conflict was the first of a series of undeclared theater wars that characterized the Cold War. Containment, which in the end amounted to a war of attrition, came at an exceedingly high cost.
It made precisely the wrong strategy in America’s other Cold War, now about to go hot. Namely, racial conflict. America saw itself as lily white and Protestant. For that reason as the suburbs burgeoned, they drew attention to themselves.
Blacks demanded access. White residents resisted. Middle class white flight from the cities had been an important ingredient in the rise of suburbia. The black middle class wanted to join them. Our most pressing domestic problem was not communist subversion.
"We can solve a housing problem, or we can try
to solve a racial problem. But we cannot combine the two."
— William J. Levitt
Korea was 14 hours and half a world away. As racial discrimination gathered more attention, Levitt came under criticism for segregating his comfortable green suburbs. All of the 82,000 people living in Levittown, Long Island were white. By the end of the decade a full 60 million people had become suburbanites, constituting one third of the total population, a 40% growth that drove 62% of all housing construction. Levitt characterized the problem in day-to-day terms. White Americans may have been aware of inequities in the system. But they sure as the devil weren’t going to let a little unfairness impinge on the good life behind the picket fences. America's suburbs offered better quality of life and growing faster than any other segment of American society. They were 20 to 1 white over black.
Our parents’ attempts to control and orchestrate reality were heroic in the extreme.
Popular culture found a way to penetrate even the safest neighborhoods. No fences were high enough, solid enough or carried a strong enough electric current to ward off the real world. One way or another reality slipped in. Science fiction movies were modern day fairy tales — carrying the message to us that the world was not a safe place and that evil was lurking just beyond Dad’s new red brick barbecue. From giant ants in Them!(1954) to zombies in Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), they warned of losing one’s soul to things foreign.
"I bring you a warning — to every one of you listening
to the sound of my voice. Tell the world, tell this to
everyone wherever they are: watch the skies, watch
everywhere, keep looking — watch the skies!"
— closing monologue from The Thing (1951)
Science fiction movies played upon anticommunist hysteria with their message of evil in the night sky. Movies such as Invaders from Mars (1953), which featured lobotomized humans doing alien bidding, and This Island Earth (1955), in which aliens posed as scientists bent on capturing our minds, warned parents to maintain vigilance against unseen, unheeded subversion that could turn loyal Americans into automatons. For us kids these movies offered a neat way to spend a Saturday afternoon. We went home hoping the movies were true. The sense of adventure stirred the youthful soul far more than any vague threats of subversion. Besides, it beat cutting the grass and raking leaves.
Another alien threatened the peaceable suburban kingdoms (and everywhere else as well). An early warning came to the Saturday morning Rialto in the form of real alien speak:
"Gort! Klaatu barada nikto!"
— The Day the Earth Stood Still
These words, spoken to the robot Gort, told him to cart Michael Rennie’s body back to the spaceship and throw it into the born-again machine. Which, being dutifully programmed in Issac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, he promptly did. Their saucer had flown at the unheard of speed of 4,000 miles an hour and landed on the Mall in Washington, DC. Six years later Sputnik would circle the planet at more than four times that speed. Fortunately it burned up in the atmosphere before it landed anywhere.
As Klaatu, Michael Rennie delivered an ultimatum about atomic recklessness
lest we incur the wrath of forces beyond the solar system. “Your choice
is simple. Join us and live in peace or pursue your present course and
face obliteration. We shall be waiting for your answer. The decision rests
Earth’s response was to try to blow his ass away, right then and there, as he stood in the doorway of his flying saucer still parked within shouting distance of the White House. He could have suffered worse at the hands of DC’s parking meter cop Gestapo. Who’d this effete snob think he was dealing with anyway? This wasn’t the real work. In the real world he would have offered to help us destroy the Red Army.
Until that happened, we got our first dose of “reality television” at a time when about 1.5% of American homes had a TV. And that figure represented a sharp rise in viewership. TV was still so immature there wasn’t yet enough programming to fill either days or nights. “Prime time” was years away. On March 12 a congressional hearings being held in New York City appeared on a primitive network as much to fill open slots as expose Mob activities to the viewing public.
"Mr. Costello doesn't care to submit
himself as a spectacle."
— the Kefauver Hearings
Thus, we began to learn about the power of television. Freshman senator Estes Kefauver's televised crime hearings made him the first politician to rise to prominence because of television. Hoping to prove his respectability, perhaps sensing even then the unblinking eye would reveal hidden truths, the crime boss Frank Costello didn't want his face shown. Instead, the cameras trained on another part of his anatomy. The images of his twisting, fumbling, sweating, clenched hands, clawing at his handkerchief and ripping up pieces of paper, convinced the viewing public of his dishonesty. For the first time in history, people were glued to their TV screens as a real spectacle unfolded before them, live, in grainy black and white. The countrified, inarticulate Kefauver earned the Democratic vice presidential candidacy in 1956 largely on the strength of this exposure. Costello’s telegenic hands changed history.
Terror from beyond, crime from within plucked threads from the social fabric. The fraying was slight but allowed alienation to peek through. A reclusive writer gave us our man for all seasons before we were old enough to appreciate him. Baby Boomers, meet Holden Caulfield.
"That's all I'd do all day. I'd just be the
catcher in the rye and all. I know it's crazy,
but that's the only thing I'd really like to be."
— The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger
The story was about his adventures in New York City after he was expelled from prep school. Poor Holden was alienated from everything and everybody, except perhaps the abandoned little kids running through the field of rye toward the cliff. How like a baby boomer to be at odds with himself and his surroundings and yet at the same time seeing himself mainly in terms of saving others. He was us not yet realized.
Holden Caulfield’s rebellious other, older self appeared the same year on celluloid in the form the leader of a motorcycle gang. Based on a true incident involving ex-GI bikers who raised drunken hell in a Northern California town, this movie set an early tone for youthful contempt for the button down, gray flannel world of our parents. It also foreshadowed the defiant revelry that would come to mark or plague (take your pick) our generation.
"What are you rebelling against?
— Marlon Brando in The Wild One
For the time being though, Brando's arrogant response was emblematic of juvenile delinquency that caused such stir during the Golden Age. Smart-aleck youth dressed in working-man’s dungarees and sporting a D.A., sideburns and a bad attitude resounded through society. It had to be the work of the communists, went the conventional wisdom.
The seeds of the sixties had already sprouted in the precocious springtime of the early fifties.
I Like Ike
— Republican campaign slogan
Everyone liked Ike. War hero and model for the household detergent Mr. Clean, Dwight Eisenhower provided the country with just the sort of wise leadership it needed at a time when the economy was booming. Brando and Caulfield aside, the sky was not exactly cloudy with rebellion. Hideous years of the Red Scare and McCarthy’s depredations stilled dissent. Americans grew frightened of their legendary individualism. More important though was the anti-intellectualism the period brought with it. Republican attack dogs like McCarthy and Nixon ridiculed Ike’s Democratic opponent, Adlai Stevenson, as a pointy-headed intellectual. McCarthy liked to “slip” and call Adlai Alger, as in Hiss. Tail Gunner Joe was such a sweet man.
America comprised just 6% of the world’s population. Yet we were producing and consuming over a third of the world’s goods and services. At the same time we held righteous fear for our collective safety. Here, by the way, lay the newest seeds of American ambivalence toward the world: a consuming need for acceptance tempered by an attitude of disdain. For now, if anyone could keep both the craven politicos and the communists at bay it was Ike. The country, in full bloom of one of its periodic seasons of anti-intellectualism, thought the cadet from Kansas much more capable than the liberal "egghead" Adlai Stevenson. Through his confident bearing, Ike reassured our parents they held a VIP pass to the good life despite it all. Once in office Ike surprised a lot of people by maintaining the New Deal at home and counseling firmness and caution abroad. Everything was going to be just fine.
Caution was one thing, faint-heartedness in the face of aggression was another.
"I will go to Korea."
Renowned foreign-policy expert, Joe McCarthy insisted the Democrats were to blame for "American boys dead in the mud ... their faces shot away by Communist machine guns." Ike campaigned for president with a pledge that he would put his wise old head to the effort of establishing a just truce to the bloody stalemate with the Red Chinese forces. He bluffed the use of atomic weapons while offering concessions. Joseph Stalin's timely death brought slightly more moderate leadership to power in the Soviet Union, and we were able to negotiate a truce with the eccentric “Great President” Kim Il Sung, still standing today. Government by personality cult made a formal peace treaty subject to the personal whims of Kim and much later his “Dear Leader” son. So we never got one. Even the most dimwitted, obfuscating bureaucrat in the Washington, DC government could operate with greater wisdom and efficiency than the North Korean government.
Although our leaders rejected the nuclear option in Korea, atomic nightmare scenarios proliferated. Nuclear paranoia — nuclear mania — took hold of the middle class in the form of fallout shelters, built into the basement, or out in the backyard. We were preparing for the worst. At school this year air raid drills joined fire drills. Good kids that we were, we dutifully hid beneath our desks from the pretend radioactive fallout. If we happened to be riding our Schwinns through the streets of our own particular Levittown and saw a blinding flash the sky, we were told to dump the bike immediately and …
Duck and Cover
— Civil Defense drill
Preferably against a curb. So said Burt the Turtle. The Cold War version
of Barney. The simple solution to nuclear vaporization. We were too young
and callow to ask the obvious question, “Then what?” Conelrad, 640,1240
AM. In 1959 Life magazine featured a couple planning to spend their two-week
honeymoon in their backyard fallout shelter. "Fallout can be fun," said
So, can Russian Roulette.
At least somebody posed a proper question. Even if it was the first American Idoru. “Conform,” said our parents. “Consume,” said the TV. “Hate communism,” said the politicians. Alfred E. Neuman had the perfect answer for them all.
"What — Me Worry?"
— Alfred E. Neuman in Mad magazine
In August of ’52, the first issue of Mad hit the stands. At first a comic book featuring “Tales Calculated to Drive you MAD: Humor in a Jugular Vein,” it changed to a tamer format several years later after being attacked for spreading juvenile delinquency. Still, it offered broad though often juvenile satire of middle class foibles and the full-gated insanity of Mutually Assured Destruction. Alfred E. Neuman didn't appear until 1956, when he offered himself as a write-in candidate for president. Even though the magazine would one day cast a jaundiced eye upon the counterculture, for the 50s its irreverent motto was the perfect anodyne for the irrationality of Cold War times. It hit big among boomers spawning several copycats. Its strongest progeny was the iconoclastic Rolling Stone Magazine that appeared a decade and a half later.
More universal in appeal by light years but still offering a certain take on the frivolities of middle class life, I Love Lucy first aired in 1951.
"Loociee, you got some splainin' to do!"
— Desi Arnaz as Ricki Ricardo
When Lucille Ball became pregnant with her own little boomer baby, Desi Arnaz, Jr., it was written into the show. Forty-four million people watched the 1953 episode in which Little Ricky was born. The sensitivities of the day were such that the show’s producers felt it propitious to insert the word expecting for pregnant into the dialogue. I Love Lucy defined the sitcom in innocuous, inoffensive and slapstick terms that had no equals, only imitators. By 1954, 50 million people were watching and Hollywood execs went the extra mile to protect Lucille Ball from the great Constitution-whomping black ball of Red Scare Hollywood purges. By then America’s favorite redhead had become an icon winning her zany way into the hearts even of young boomers. Meanwhile her bastard half-brother and kindred spirit Alfred E. Neuman lurked blithely, like Kilroy, just beyond the high wall of respectability, even though their spoofs of the Dream’s outer absurdities were strikingly similar.
I Love Lucy
was decidedly non-sexual if not pointedly puritanical. She wasn’t even allowed to share the same bed with her real-life husband and co-star. But this wall of make-believe had a shaky foundation. Relentlessly curious human nature meant it was only a matter of time before this first great sequel of our ear appeared.
Sexual Behavior in the Human Female
— Dr. Alfred Kinsey
A companion to the 1948 study of men, the twin best sellers sounded the tocsin of the sexual revolution. Father Knows Best asexuality could slow but not stop it. This compilation of six thousand case studies purported to show that women had healthy sexual appetites and weren’t as homeward bound and faithful to their husbands as outwardly conformist America wanted to believe.
Kinsey concluded that 50% of American women had had premarital intercourse, 62% had masturbated, 13% had sex with another female. Perhaps most worrisome, 26% committed adultery during the period of the study. Such findings released in the Fall seemed modest, even for I Love Lucy, and scholars supported them – at first.
Accompanied by such works as Grace Metalious’s scandalous 1956 novel about life in a small New England town Peyton Place, Kinsey’s studies revealed long-concealed truths about adult behavior. Critics claimed these studies “paved the way for communism.” To others it was evidence of the descent of American morals into lust and filth. “It is impossible to estimate the damage this book will do to the already deteriorating morals of America,” wailed Billy Graham. An angry Dean Rusk pulled Kinsey’s Rockefeller Foundation’s sponsorship.
The reaction was so strong, legislators put "In God We Trust" on our money and added "under God" to the Pledge of Allegiance. Ever wary Hollywood studios began turning out Biblical epics. And with a deep sigh of relief, TIME commented, the "Christian faith is back in the center of things."
It was far never away from the center to begin with. Kinsey’s critics weeped over our declining morals when in fact America remained as strait-laced as ever. Faith and morals have always kept uneasy company with sexual sexuality, as though sexual pleasure was the devil’s own. In the 1950’s as the country became more cosmopolitan, the tenor of that company began to change. Urbanization, materialism and our rise to globalism kicked down the white picket fence, even as Madison Avenue was busily reinforcing the image. To a great degree changes in what we once upon a time called “civilized sexual morality” (which even forbid public discussion of sex) occurred as our mighty, expansive economy forced us to drop our isolationist knickers. It was a real double whammy. The massive economy produced mass culture and its kissing cousin consumption both of which revolutionized the sexual market place. Americans may have nodded at the tedious stipulations of anticommunist conformity and paid lip service to those moral leaders who claimed sexual activity outside wedlock played into the hands of the communists — as though the commissars in the Kremlin would tolerate anyone as patently bourgeois as High Hefner. But it was with a wink and a nod. Americans fiercely yearned for a little latitude.
An, by Hef, they got it. As though to confirm the tide of sexual change, in December a new publication appeared that celebrated hedonism and materialism as though the two were utterly indistinguishable. Eventually, this magazine (and its precocious offspring) staged a direct frontal assault against anti-pinkAmerican Calvinism. The sexual revolution was under way.
Playmate of the Month
— Hugh Hefner's Playboy Magazine
Hefner’s daring magazine – instantly popular — dressed up naked girls in bourgeois attitudes. A starlet named Marilyn Monroe was the first Playmate. She became the very definition of the middle class male dream — beautiful, voluptuous, willing yet vulnerable. The American male was entranced, and with good reason. Hedonism had come to the market place. Sexual pleasure had become linked to upward mobility. Sex was about to become big business.
America reached the zenith of its economic and military strength relative to the rest of the world this decade. At first leap, it might seem rather odd her citizens displayed such a heartfelt reliance upon a vigilante impervious to bullets and calumny. But vigilantism is as fundamental a part of our heritage as our work ethic. Only now TV allowed us to sublimate such vigilante dreams by watching them on the tube.
"Up in the air. It's a bird, it's a plane. It's Superman!"
— a super hero
Somebody had to defend flagging virtue! Maybe it had become a job for the super-hero. The comic book character appeared before World War II, but it was his elevation to television that made him an icon. This powerful exemplar of right and rectitude fought petty villains in defense of Truth, Justice and the American Way. His appeal crossed generational and political lines. The Man of Steel was chaste in his pursuit of Lois Lane and stayed with the law when making his weekly round of citizen’s arrests. Invariably America’s preeminent vigilante did the right thing. To all of us viewers, the man from Krypton was so completely American, surely his home planet was located just beyond the south 40.
Viewers by the millions were spending their evenings watching the “Capped Crusader” and dozens of other prime-time shows. Inevitably, given all the other labor-saving innovations of the era, pre-prepared frozen meals would hit the market and facilitate viewing.
— labor-saving device
They came a great relief for housewives “burdened with baby-boom offspring.” Dinnertime became pleasure. All mom had to do was pop a couple of delectable Salisbury Steak dinners into the oven and her family could enjoy moments of culinary ecstasy without missing a single moment of what was on. Yankee ingenuity followed up with TV-tray tables. Families could now forgo the centuries-old dinnertime torture of talking to one another over home-cooked meals. It was a barbaric ritual anyway. Industrial progress let them huddle like cave men starring at the fire over their aluminum-flavored, chewable grub while John Cameron Swayze brought home “the Camel News Cavalcade” followed by hours of Golden Age programming. Progress was obviously our most important product.
May 17, 1954 was as important a date in our lives as November 22, 1963
and August 7, 1964. In many respects the events of this day put the Dream
on trial. We boomers would test inter-racialism. If we could manage to
live, work and play together, then the Dream had legs. If not —well, it’s
impossible to conceive an America of two nations, black and white separate,
equal and hostile.
This pleasant spring day in a sunny capital, the Supreme Court ended the Constitutional validation for racial segregation.
"Separate is inherently unequal."
— Oliver O. Brown versus the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas et al
Had Chief Justice Earl Warren not included that idea in the unanimous decision in Brown vs. Board of Education, the decision might not have carried such significance. In writing the decision, he sought to gut the 1896 Plessy vs. Ferguson decision that sanctioned racial subordination. As important — and still overlooked — he also addressed the issue of equal separate facilities.
“Does segregation of children in public schools solely on the basis of race, even though the physical facilities and other “tangible” factors may be equal, deprive the children of the minority group of equal education opportunities? We believe that it does.”
Powerful words. And a lesson for our times. The Warren court held that for the good of both the two great American races could no longer exist apart. The decision held out the promise of unlimited access to the subjugated. It should have inspired everyone. It could have inspired everyone had Ike not opposed it. Executive support was painfully slow in coming. The law changed, life did not. Appearing so decisive at its inception, Brown turned out to be merely a tentative first step.
What a complex society that would make icons of frontier individualism and righteousness while simultaneously beating down any black American who dared practice them. Morality had two meanings, even then.
Be sure you're right and then go ahead.
It's up to you to do what Davy Crockett said.
— Walt Disney's Davy Crockett
Beginning in December, the "King of the Wild Frontier," as embodied by the uber-WASP image of 29 year old Fess Parker, taught such an attractive view of right and wrong, self-assuredness with a little history about western expansion before the Civil War thrown in. The real Davy Crockett was cooked up as a rustic rival by Andrew Jackson’s opponents. The real David Crockett actually said, “Know you’re right, than go ahead.”
Forty million Americans tuned in to Disneyland on ABC that first Wednesday night. In 1958 it became Walt Disney Presents and in ‘61 Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color. The show itself had been on since late October. Disney had the insight to film the three-part episode in color for eventual release in theaters. Even though ninety million viewers watched Davy Crockett on TV, the movie version (three episodes sliced together and bridged thematically by the “Ballad of Davy Crockett”), brought in $2.5 million.
The coonskin cap came to represent America’s moral authority, even to Euro-boomers who loved the wholesome TV shows and movies every bit as much as we did. The lesson in simplistic righteousness was for all the world to see.
Manufacturers had caught on, too. By springtime Boomers were running their neighborhood wearing coonskin caps, dueling fabled rough and tumble riverboat pirate Mike Fink, giving their lives defending the Alamo from the Mexican Santa Ana. The shows and later movie overlooked the fact that the Mexican general was trying to enforce the ban on slave importation while holding onto the northern third of his country — and. Companies such as Sears and Roebuck were sure they were right about one thing. Lots of money was there to be made in Davy Crockett wear. Our parents shelled out for $10 million for coonskin caps alone before the craze ended. $100 million in all, including the record, the “Ballad of Davy Crockett,” which was translated in to 26 languages and sold 4 million 45s , buckskins, chaps, powder horns, sheets, blankets, toothbrushes, lunchboxes, and of course plastic versions of Old Betsy. Three thousand different items all told. This first boomer craze drove up the wholesale cost of raccoon from 25 cents a pound to $8. Manufacturers had to switch to squirrel and rabbit when they ran out of raccoon.
Davy Crockett was truly king. We’d been playing Cowboys and Indians for years, but that was nothing compared to the Coonskin Congressman. There’d been Hopalong Cassidy, Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, Wyatt Earp (“None could deny it, the legend of Wyatt, forever would love on the trail”), the Cisco Kid, and last but not least The Lone Ranger. One after another we followed them right through the decade, blazing away.
Had there been fast food on the wild frontier, Davy Crockett would no doubt have endorsed it. In an ironic way his activities are connected to fast food. Along with frontiersmen such as Lewis and Clark, Daniel Boone and Zebulon Pike, Crockett opened up thousands of acres of land suitable for grazing beef cattle, thus further transforming American diet. But it was Ray Kroc who brought affordable red meat to the huddled masses. (check the spread of red meat diet in RS article)
— McDonald's Famous Hamburgers, Buy 'Em By the Bag
In 1948 the McDonald brothers invented fast food based on a reduced menus of hamburgers, french fries and milkshakes, cutting waiting time from twenty minutes to seconds. In 1954 Ray Kroc, their former milkshake mixer salesman, became their franchising agent, stressing cleanliness and Cold War regimentation. "We have found out," he claimed, "that we cannot trust some people who are nonconformists. We will make conformists out of them in a hurry." In 1961 the McDonalds sold the entire business to him for $2.7 million.
Although intended as a place where working class families could take their kids out to dinner, McDonald's succeeded because of boomer attraction to fast food joints, where we could assemble and eat while sitting on the hoods of our cars, arrayed in the parking lot like a laager of covered wagons. Our car culture owes a lot to Dick and Mac McDonald and Ray Kroc — and Davy Crockett, too. We couldn't cruise for burgers if there weren't any burger joints to be cruised. The marriage of convenience between entrepreneurial capitalism and the emerging youth market revolutionized the American diet and social activity. By 1970 Americans were spending about $6 billion on fast food, bulging out to $100 billion by 1997. The price we paid for the convenience of the “McDonaldsization of America” was high. We would become a nation of lard butts.
TV and boomers entered adolescence suffused with images of a true grit western past as reified by the car culture. Both would soon come to realize their power. TV was the first into the breech and paved the way for us.
Equally as fascinated by the wonders of the new-fangled tube as we were, our parents were forced to confront the dark possibilities that lurked like sandworms beneath the surface of planet America. With the specter of a South Vietnamese village named Bien Tre yet ghost in the white noise, our parents were coming to grips with the fact that the Junior Senator from Wisconsin was doing more damage to the political fabric than pinkos, fellow travelers or outright communists, not to mention a parking lot full of juvenile deliquents.
"Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really
gauged your cruelty or your recklessness ...
If it were in my power to forgive you for your reckless
cruelty, I would do so. I like to think I am a gentle man,
but your forgiveness will have to come from someone
other than me ... sir, at long last,
have you no sense of decency?"
— Joseph Welch during the Army-McCarthy hearings
In what can only be explained as the insanity of self-promotion, this runaway train accused the United States military of being riddled with these traitorous types. After an extensive “investigation,” McCarthy came away with one “trophy,” an army dentist with a leftist past. The victory came at the expense of his career. The televised Army-McCarthy hearings showed this drunken, abusive liar to be unworthy of his Senate seat. When Army Counsel Welch chastised him for his gutter-stomping ad hominem attacks, damn few people watching at home disagreed. Even the timid (in those days) press corps broke into applause.
The stunned McCarthy shrugged, “What did I do?” Through his own Nixonian musings about his life, he gave new meaning to the unanswerable question about this man posed by Ike, “How stupid can you get?”
While it was true he was not responsible for the Red Scare, this egregious fool of a man who accused the Democratic Party of “twenty years of treason,” distorted, cheapened and permanently damaged his country. His legacy, which his supporters must inevitably share, was hate, divisiveness and demagoguery, disguised as distinctly American “Awl shucks” populism.
The Senate censured him in December and he died a broken, disgraced alcoholic three years later while still in office.
M-I-C K-E-Y M-O-U-S-E
— the Mousketeers
They weren’t describing McCarthy’s intellect. Perhaps had the show appeared a year or two earlier and had the senator been aware of Uncle Walt’s father, he might have turned from investigating communism at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, to ferreting out the subversive elements of the Mickey Mouse Club.
The show appeared on television the same year Disneyland opened in California. Disney enterprises included feature-length animated movies such as Pinocchio, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and the trippie Fantasia. Despite having been an American institution since the 30s, Walt Disney Studios didn’t generate the profits needed to sustain either Disney himself or the enterprise. Disney needed the amusement park to save his business. He made deals, borrowed heavily and created a self-sustained fantasy world in Anaheim, off the Freeway that purposely shielded the outside world. “I don’t want the public to see the world they live in while they’re in the park,” Disney said. “I want them to feel they are in another world.” A world that transmitted “educational and patriotic values.” The separate theme worlds of Fantasyland, Adventureland, Frontierland and Tomorrowland were even shielded from each other.
Disneyland opened on July 17, to a national audience. Eleven million dollars, 24 live cameras, 63 technicians, three months of rehearsals, and Bob Cummings, Art Linkletter and Ronald Reagan hosting — and just about everything went wrong, including a malfunctioning sprinkler system that dowsed Fess Parker as he entered in full Davy Crockett regalia. No matter, Disneyland was a smash. In ten years it $273 million and put Disney Enterprises on the Fortune 500. Disneyland became the world’s Fantasyland. Ironically, with power cables and telephone lines buried, the quaintness of Main Street had the feel of an old European city — minus the brand name shops and stores and inhabited by talking animals that walked upright.
Not that we cared about any of that. For most boomers, it wasn't the movies or the theme park that held our closest attention. Every weekday afternoon, the Mouseketeers with Annette Funicello, Cubby and Karen came into our homes with songs and skits that had us all wishing upon a star. The TV show was part of the agreement Disney made to raise money for his amusement park. We boomers weren’t aware of that at all. We wanted to be on the show with all those other talented kids, maybe get to be Annette’s boy friend.
Commercial television may have been a young medium, willing to try anything once. But the Mickey Mouse Club, Howdy Doody reflected the demographics of the viewership. Kids, lots of kids demanded lots and lots of kid stuff. Our numbers created new industries and invigorated others, from diaper services to toys. We saw much of this in the form of advertisements on kid shows, which we’d been watching since age 2. By 6 we’d seen 500 hours; by age 18 we’d spent 24,000 hours watching TV. By the time we hit our 21st birthday, we’d seen 300,000 commercials. That was a quarter of our lives: more time than we’d spent in school or doing anything else except sleeping. When you get right down to it, watching TV was our national pastime. The family room had morphed into the TV room and we spent far less time with our parents as a consequence. How many of us look fondly back on our childhood in terms of the TV shows we watched and loved. Our indelible men and women of childhood fiction came not from literature or the theater but from television. Which means at the very least their heroes will be less complex and much more conformist. Not a few of them were fantasy characters.
— Bob Keeshan
The longest running character in TV history. He was 28 years old when he first appeared on morning television as a pleasant grandfather bumbling around his Treasure House. Along with Mr. Green Jeans and puppets like Mr. Moose who dropped ping pong balls on him and Bunny Rabbit who stole carrots from his pockets, he taught us games and learning fun, extracting wondrous toys and baubles from his huge deep pockets that were way deeper and far more enchanting than our parents’ meager pockets. The captain had the perfect pockets for our bottomless demands. The venerable captain piloted the ship of the young on a cruise into the brave new world of young America: stuff, lots of stuff! He'd been Clarabell on Howdy Doody, and as the chubby, droopy mustached, gray-haired Captain originated a children's program whose only concern was the welfare of its viewers. He stayed on the air until 1992 — 9600 shows, the longest running children's show in the history of TV.
Pity our parents who got the bills for all our whims, fads and fantasies. No doubt they still had a few fantasies of their own. For instance, how to get their chance on a television stage in New York City. From there the sky was the limit. In many ways it was: TV quiz shows were awarding life-transforming amounts of money. Money enough for dream houses, vacations, debt-avoidance and maybe even early retirement. And what’s more it all seemed so easily within reach, a low-hanging branch of the tree of opportunity. After all, those people up there were remarkably average, were they not? That was the point, was it not? That’s why we all watched. It could be you!
The $64,000 Question
— Television quiz show
Every evening the family assembled in front of the great wooden cabinet that was the television set to watch Wyatt Earp, Gunsmoke, the Ed Sullivan Show and game shows galore. To an enthralled nation winning a fortune by answering tricky questions was the quickest, easiest route to riches. Easier even than Jack Bailey's Queen for a Day on daytime television. Winners on the benchmark $64,000 Question and Twenty-One became national celebrities. Today the grand prize on the 64,000 Question would be worth $373,116.45. Their struggles to win fortunes made them famous — until October 1959 when the public became aware the quiz shows were rigged. Twenty-One champion Charles Van Doren, who won $129,000 in fourteen weeks, shocked and disappointed a people embraced its heroes, loved their country, believed in its institutions and took seriously what they saw on TV, when he admitted producers fed him the answers in advance. The quiz show scandals marked the early stages of a virus of creeping doubt that would in ten years erupt into a national malady.
So much of what proved formative about the Fifties makes little sense without viewing them through the prism of tumult that followed from the Civil Rights Movement to the Long Hot Summers, the Beatles to the Counter-Culture, the War, the assassinations and the rebellion — the whole nine yards from idealism to alienation, no one foresaw upheaval on such a scale.
It’s a dangerous thing giving people so young and so sensitive such high expectations only to turn a cold shoulder on them when their dreams began to fall apart.
Rebel Without a Cause
— James Dean
An icon for all seasons, James Dean was dead before he could grow old and destroy himself through self-indulgence or be deconstructed by a increasingly voracious media. Through his languid eyes we saw anomie and frustration, and an almost heartless lack of fulfillment. Movies began to define an existence outside of our parents’ humdrum world. More important there were a few barely noticed signs of real dissatisfaction in the separate existence.
Though most boomers didn’t know who he was when he crashed his Porsche Spyder 350 near Cholame, California, on September 30, we would soon be imitating his angst if not his flame-out.
We weren’t aware of Miss Rosa either.
In those days white domination was so complete that a black person could not safely or legally say no to a white person. “Look, woman,” the bus driver said to her, “I told you I wanted the seat. Are you going to stand up?”
— Rosa Parks
The law said she had to. When she refused to give up her seat to a white man on a Montgomery, Alabama, public bus, she inspired thousands of young blacks and whites and kindled a protest movement that changed our country in a highly dramatic way. Her action also gave us the great moral leader of our era, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. As Eldridge Cleaver later wrote, "Somewhere in the universe a gear in the machinery had shifted."
Although several more years passed before the gears engaged, Rosa Parks’ simple heroism set the standard for future protest. Her beau geste couldn’t have came at a more necessary moment.
Why? Because little de-segregation took place following the Brown decision, and virtually no integration. In fact, the most significant response was the rise of Massive Resistance to integration. The South, for example, began shutting down entire public school systems rather than admit back children. The NAACP went back to the Supreme Court to ask the justices to enforce their decision. Instead, justices issued a compromise decree that amounted to the emptiest of all empty gestures. The South, the court admonished, must de-segregate …
"With all deliberate speed."
— the Warren Court
Warren had been forced to compromise on enforcement to obtain a unanimous vote in the original case. The phrase itself was coined by Felix Frankfurter, who borrowed it from Oliver Wendell Holmes. Yet even this massive cop-out was not good enough for the white South for whom “prompt and reasonable start,” tempered though it may have been, rang like the second fire bell in the night. Many more would ring before Jim Crow was reduced to ashes. Not until 1969 did the Supreme Court replace Warren’s deliberate accommodation with “at once.”
Would that there had been a Jonas Salk for racism. Unfortunately, no medication, no injection would ever completely eradicate a disease that produced lynch mobs, massive resistance and an impenetrable veil of genteel discrimination. Most of us never knew a racial problem existed so used were we to living in a world in which everyone was the same, right down to the Fruit of the Looms. Black boomers found out at a much younger age. For all the norm was separate and vastly even. Like a disease it seemed part of God’s inscrutable plan.
Until the 50s that plan included a horrible disease that stole youth away from the young. For us kids it was far worse that racism. At least Jim Crow didn’t keep us from going out to play. For the kids condemned to life spent flat on the back in a dreadful iron-lung or the lucky ones in wheel chairs and leg braces, he was an avenging angel. Dr. Salk developed a polio vaccine that had immediate, dramatic effect.
"One of the greatest events in the history of medicine."
- chairman of the AMA
Polio was the disease of early boomer years, crippling many, killing a few. It haunted the Dream. Though when you think about it, as terrible as it was, we had it worlds better than previous generations who were regularly decimated by diphtheria, tetanus, measles, mumps, and whooping cough. We were the last generation to grow up threatened with these diseases. Had we been aware of this, those eerie lines at school where we waited to get our polio shots might not have been quite so terrifying. The government spent millions eliminating the blight of childhood. Overnight terrible pictures of smiling kids with braces on their legs soon faded into a dimly remembered and thankful past. Over six and half million of us boomers got polio shots in school. And the March of Dimes had to look for a new disease.
As happy as their Golden Age kids were, our parents were wandering into a middle-aged world beset with divorce, depression and anxiety — the middle class, mid-life blues. Angst hit suburbia just as the Red Scare picked up and left.
The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit
— Sloan Wilson
Upwardly mobile and chronically in-debt, Tom and Betsy Rath, fictional antiheroes of the model middle class, symbolized the problem that had a name — and everyone knew it: “Keeping up with the Joneses.” Although successful, with three kids and a house on Greentree Street in Westport, Connecticut, they were dreadfully unhappy. Their lot in life appeared to be discontentment, confinement and lack of fulfillment, all in a pretty place. They wanted more and felt cheated they couldn’t have it. More money, more room, more cars, more respect, and a more civilized life without television and hamburgers.
Rath made $7,000 working in Manhattan (that’s about $41K these days). He and wife fought over money and prayed a new job might bring their ship in. It did, that and an inheritance. (Convenient deus ex machina, that). To boomer kids who suffered at the spectacle of their half-trashed parents tearing each other apart at a cocktail party, the Raths represented everything sour about growing up amid plenty. The harsh mistrals of dissatisfaction and envy swept through the dogwoods while everyone pretended it was the wind in the willows.
"Say, kids, what time is it?"
— Buffalo Bob
“Howdy Doody Time!”
— the Peanut Gallery
What was it about Howdy Doody Time! that made it more popular than Kukla, Fran and Ollie, or Romper Room? Is it possible that Howdy Doody supervised a crew every bit as motley as Seinfeld’s head cases, living in a neurotic Doodyville, USA, replete wit weird characters and zany antics? Was Howdy Doody Seinfeld for young kids, with the 15” Howdy as the young Jerry, Chief ThunderThud as his sidekick George, Princess Summerfallwinterspring as Elaine and Clarabell as proto-Kramer?
In any case Howdy Doody, which had been on since December 1947, switched to Saturday mornings from its 5:30PM daily slot, where it was the number one children's show. Featuring wooden puppets interacting with human actors, and the show’s creator Buffalo Bob Smith enjoining noise from the studio audience with, "No comments from the Peanut Gallery," it presented weekly skits and dramas generally cooked up by Newman’s predecessor, Doodyville’s mayor Phineas T. Bluster.
Clarabell never spoke a word until the final show on September 24, 1960, after 2500 shows, when he said, "Goodbye, kids."
Goodbye indeed. But never forgotten. We’d passed mid-decade, mass culture was the reality. While it served provided comfort to the majority — the vas majority — it acquired acid critics. On the West Coast, a small but influential group of writers and artists gazed upon America in its Age of Affluence and concluded that crass materialism was gnawing away at the national soul.
"I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by
madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets
looking for an angry fix."
— Allen Ginsberg, Howl
Buffalo Bob probably threw him out of the Peanut Gallery for saying bad words. San Francisco police charged Ginsberg with obscenity for this poem, published by Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Bookstore. Heavily influenced by the mind-altering substances Ginsberg and the free-form jazz-style writing best exemplified by Jack Kerouac, this screaming poem graphically expressed the Beat Generation’s dissatisfaction with Cold War conformity. They claimed America was too vast, too exciting, too promising to be so confining.
You could easily see how Beat discomfort about a country they clearly loved produced such a nightmare of ambivalence. All this grand space, all this opportunity, all these cookie cutter people. The problem wasn’t so simple as busting out. We weren’t alone in the world; we had needs and responsibilities stretching beyond the next mad high. We had enemies and they often behaved like barbarians. Even if domestic literary criticism bore some disturbing nuggets of truth about our “Air Conditioned Nightmare,” as Henry Miller described suburban culture, beneath the hipster condescension, life was not always a matter dark shades and good jazz. Our Soviet enemies had other ideas about the way things ought to be.
"Whether you like it or not, history is on our side. We will bury you."
— Nikita Khrushchev
This perfervid little Cossack scared the hell out of us when he uttered this gem in November to a group of diplomats. Whether he was pounding his shoe on his desk at the U.N. General Assembly in 1960 as Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld spoke, partying like a role model for John Belushi, bragging that his missiles could hit a fly in outer space, or standing on his hotel balcony in New York City with his shirt sleeves rolled up jovially insisting he was trying to be like an American, he was still the number one bad guy threatening to put us on the ash pile of history. Khrushchev was neither the first drunken Russian leader to flex his muscles, nor the last. But his persona of Saracen-bladed violence rivaled that of the bomb-throwing, southern white supremacist. Rednecks we could deal with, trash-talking reds was another matter. Khrushchev’s threats were impossible to ignore, especially after his troops crushed the Hungarian revolt with a ruthlessness reminiscent of the nazis. It doesn’t take much perspective to see, at this point anyway, much of what the Beats were saying was more than a little self-indulgent.
"This is Radio Budapest signing off."
— The Hungarian Revolt
The first case of Soviet repression we were old enough to be aware of. In hushed voices, laced with doubt and anxiety, our parents warned us there might be a war. Only this time our country would not be spared. The revolt of the Hungarian Freedom Fighters that began on October 23 prompted a renewed wave of fallout shelter construction. Families who could afford it prepared for life after a nuclear holocaust. And a conservative Congress passed a major new public works project proposed by a rather conservative president because it assisted in the national defense.
On June 29 legislation came up from the Ike’s White House that underscored the presence of both the Beats and the Reds. The bill recognized both the demands of a mobile and expanding population and pressing dangers from abroad, dangers we hadn’t faced since the War of 1812.
"In case of atomic attack on our key cities,
the road net must permit quick evacuation of target areas."
— the Interstate Highway system
Think where we’d be today without the Interstates lacing our country together. The $50 billion highway construction program, 90% of it funded by the federal government, was dubbed the National System and Defense Interstate Highways Act and was justified as ensuring rapid evacuation of the cities in the even of nuclear attack. So long as the Soviets didn't attack during rush hour, or when it rained or snowed, or on Saturday’s, we’d be just fine. Supporters also sold it as an efficient way to move troops and equipment from place to place to defend against invasion.
With the coming of the Interstates, the federal government got into the business of building roads, once the province of state and local governments. Cities had sprouted suburbs and an efficient transportation network was vital to ship goods from one complex metropolitan area to another. Although this network of macadam, steel and concrete makes up just 1% of the total highways, it carries 50% of the traffic. The Interstate System acknowledged the rise of mass society while contributing mightily to its growth. All of which showed that no matter how luxurious your car, how effortless the driving, the Cold War was never far away from your daily comings and goings.
That’s because automobiles and suburbia had become cultural and ideological soul mates. The flirtation with the automobile that began at the turn of the century and blossomed into love during the 20s resulted in marriage in the 50s. The car culture moved into the neighborhood and bought a big house.
"See the U.S.A., in your Chevrolet."
— Dinah Shore
That culture spawned shopping centers, drive-in movies, fast food restaurants and motels. America, Nat King Cole sang, was getting its kicks on Route 66. Threats from abroad be dammed. Detroit was turning out seven to eight million cars a year. It was the era of tail fins, push button drive and automatic transmissions. And right out there celebrating were the Beats. Who could resist?
None of them better represented the spirit of freedom and openness than Jack Kerouac. His book was a long tone poem to spontaneity, experimentation and sensuality — all alternatives to conformity. It made our parents shudder.
"... rows of well-to-do houses with lawns and television
sets in each living room with everybody looking at
the same thing and thinking the same thing
at the same time."
— Jack Kerouac in On the Road
Whether pursued in a big Chevy or a tiny Nash, this was about finding the Yellow Brick Road to spiritual renewal. It yearned to liberate your psyche from cookie-cutter tracts in converted cow pastures. The Beats weren’t giving up on America, they were seeking newer, fresher approaches to it, approaches that would relieve the stifling atmosphere that stultified individualism. Their optimism, tinged more with melancholy than anger, proved as infectious as their criticisms.
“…the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes ‘Awww!’”
The Beats were sexual polymorphs, and just as free with drugs. Their embrace of Eastern mysticism, their unwitting condescension to blacks, whose jazz culture they idealized, diminished the cogency of their ideas.
Of more interest was their sensibility of life lived on the edge. It gave rise to a cult of hipness that Norman Mailer would immortalize in ’57, for good or ill, as “The White Negro.”
“…the American existentialist — the hipster, the man who knows that if our collective condition is to live with instant death by atomic war … or with a slow death by conformity with every creative and rebellious instinct stifled … why then the only life-giving answer is to … divorce oneself from society, to exist without roots, to set out on that uncharted journey into the rebellious imperatives of the self…. So it is no accident that the source of Hip is the Negro for he has been living on the margin between totalitarianism and democracy for two centuries.”
Meanwhile back on planet earth, those role models for hipsters were getting their heads beaten trying to integrate the all-white Little Rock, Arkansas, high school.
"Two, four, six, eight, we don't want to integrate"
— whites protesting at Central High
Nine brave high schoolers were the first well-known integrators. Their victory wasn't easy. They arrived at Central High School that first morning in September to face a mob demanding the lynching of at least one of the kids before it would disperse. In a televised speech in which he said he couldn’t guarantee the safety of the students, the pusillanimous state governor, Orval Faubus, whipped up lynch fever to insure his own re-election. There had been no indication of violence. To the contrary, most whites appeared willing to go along with this token gesture. But Faubus saw political gain from the race card. This most reprehensible of Americans called out law enforcement officers not to protect the students but to block their way of the Little Rock Nine. The state had been preparing to integrate since the Brown decision three years previous. So much for “all deliberate speed.” A furious Ike sent the 101st Airborne to enforce national authority over the cynical racist governor and the mob rule he’d fomented.
For the rest of school year, GIs escorted the students to classes. The lesson was of vast importance. Ike broke the ice. Not since Reconstruction had federal troops been used to enforce the civil rights of black Americans. Ike, of all people, had broken the ice. Kennedy, then Johnson could justify their use of troops by his actions. The other lesson was not lost on southern whites either. The race card still worked. Faubus easily won re-election.
While “the Little Rock Crisis” raged on into October, on the 4th the Soviet Union launched mankind's first artificial earth-orbiting satellite.
— Soviet satellite
The good news was that “Little Companion” helped many of us get to college. When the Soviets launched this 184 pound missive to America that circled the earth at the unheard of speed of 18,000 miles per hour, emitting a wailing beep that seemed to mimic the fearful howl of air raid sirens, our parents went into a frenzy. How, they demanded, could an atheistic, communist nation run by a gang of cut-throats beat God-fearing America into space? Wasn’t our science better? If our society was so superior to theirs, how — why — had they gotten their first? Was this a test from God? Not easily answered questions. Spies? Traitors? Shock became chagrin, then embarrassment.
Our first attempt to match them resulted in a succession of humiliating nationally televised explosion on the launch pad at Cape Canaveral. One failure followed another as rocket after rocket exploded on the launch pad or was quickly snuffed as it strayed wretchedly off course. When the Navy finally put Explorer I into orbit on January 31, 1958, the Soviets dismissed it as a grapefruit in space, even though ours was technologically more advanced. It discovered the Van Allen radiation belt. We half-expected Sputnik to drop an Atomic bomb on us. In actuality, it dropped money. The following year Congress passed the National Defense Education Act offering low interest college loans to just about anyone who asked, all for the price of swearing one's loyalty to America.
Enough students were coming along that a few short years down the road a NDEA loan would become a prime vehicle for college. Sputnik played a major role in getting thousands of boomers a college education. And the truth was, we weren’t behind the Soviets at all. We just weren’t ahead, yet.
&n bsp; * THE BABY BOOM PEAKS *
&n bsp; * (4,308,000 births) *
&n bsp; *****************************
We were everywhere, though not quite ready for ivy-covered walls. Single story buildings with a large playground attached was more our speed. Out in the suburbs, thousands of new junior high schools rose like miniature Levittowns. As we were funneled from elementary into the 6th, 7th and 8th grades, our class sizes swelled like Clarabell’s balloons. We entered a world we dominated. Our great bubbling herd moved along bright new corridors into rooms smelling faintly of concrete and mortar. By the time we entered high school, classes of well over one thousand became commonplace. Protected in school, comforted by sheer numerical strength, we began to see the world through our own collective generational lens. That world responded to us by slanting its culture in our direction. There was money to be made — youth to be served.
And by God, they were going to be the cleanest, healthiest brightest, most presentable kids in history.
Look, Mom — no cavities
— Crest ad
Maybe the cult of American hygiene didn't begin with this TV ad, but our concern about cavities sure sold toothpaste. We grew up worrying like no generation before us about offensive body odors. What other generation would fall for the necessity of vaginal sprays? Perhaps one fixated on perfectibility, or sex? Or both?
Then the Pied Piper of teenage rebellion happened along with his unclean image and outlandish behavior. Suddenly cavities was he least of our parents’ worries.
"You ain't nuthin’ but a Hound Dog."
— Elvis Presley
Before he was the King, he was Elvis the Pelvis. He burst into the national consciousness with two appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show, the first time gyrating his hips and bumping and grinding to race music, no less. He caused a national sensation, complete wit predictions about rising crime and declining morals. We thought he was real cool. And it sure beat How Much is that Doggie in the Window? All that energy and enthusiasm; all that brooding, the defiant sensuality; the slicked back hair — and those sideburns! The second time he appeared, they shot him from the waist up so as not to offend parental sensibilities. Too late, the damage was done. Elvis and a few other rockers like Chuck Berry, Sam Cook, Bill Haley and the Comets, Buddy Holly and the Crickets, had proclaimed the arrivals of a new and separate age group between childhood and adulthood with its own music and values called teen-age. The word itself didn’t even appear until 1950. And it carried an identity and set of problems all its own.
The music was the thing. Rock ‘n’ Roll created the youth culture. Explicit
in its themes and rhythms, it made universal the themes of alienation and
rebellion that came to define being young in America. All you had to do
was listen to Elvis to know something strange, forbidding and wonderful
was in the air. Seeing Elvis perform the music was believing.
Inevitably some clever soul would capitalize. Perhaps also temper and homogenize. Though he featured black groups, especially Do Wop, this was about bringing new music to a new and eager white audience.
It's got a good beat and you can dance to it.
— American Bandstand
On August 8, 1957 Dick Clark’s Philadelphia show went nationwide on ABC. The first song played was enough to rattle every adult bone in the country: Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.” Clark was the first to make a successful career catering to teen culture. All those afternoons we spent playing Rate the Record, watching the bands lip sync their hits, trying to pick up the latest dance step, we were taking part in a vast shared experience. We were connected to each other through the tube. No longer was it kids’ games and dreams of Disneyland. Dick Clark was all about growing up and growing away from our parents. Dick Clark himself had worn thin before the sixties (Somehow the moniker “America’s oldest teenager” fit Rufus Thomas much better. Dick Clark should have walked his own dog sooner rather than later.), but his American Bandstand kept us parked on our elbows in front of the tube after school and out of trouble.
For those of us disinclined to get into trouble between the 3:30 bell and dinner time, there were other problems.
"Awl, gee, Wally."
— Beaver Cleaver
Existential crises behind the white picket fences! Poor Beaver was the Holden Caulfied of the suburbs trying to make sense of his world. The Beaver handled the obnoxious Eddie Haskell, “clunky girls,” and his insipid older brother with shuffling dignity. He got through the day, just. He was our EveryBoy, our alter ego, our neighborhood christ come to save us from life’s calumny in the form of bullies and bad news. If Beaver could navigate the shoals of confusion, so could we.
Life for Beaver was a tough chore. In the Father Knows Best world of sitcom America, conflict stemmed from household foibles. It was a world of comfort, a world not at all undesirable. The problem, we later saw, wasn't so much that these shows unintentionally parodied lily white, middle class America, but that they shielded off other dimensions of life. For good or ill, we were the first TV generation,. We might not have completely believed everything we watched. But we were outraged to discover the surreal depths of its unreality. We were as misled by the sitcoms as any adult who idealized Charles Van Doren.
Flat Flip Flies Straight. Experiment!
— the Frisbee
Odd that the Frisbee actually preceded the Hula-Hoop. The little plastic disks became such an essential part of the beach/campus culture. We did flip them flat, and many other ways as well, thank you. But not for another decade. For now, we were too busy swiveling our hips.
Fads bounced across the country with the joyous whimsy of pogo sticks. Since 1952 college men had been celebrating spring by staging panty raids on women’s dormitories, demanding various delicacies and tokens of co-ed esteem. But that was nothing compared to a slender plastic hop known as the
— Wham-O, Inc.
This boomer fad chased the coonskin cap from state to state until it overwhelmed the nation. More obsession than fad, it was entertaining than Silly Putty, more fun than a Slinky, and a whole lot more palatable than swallowing gold fish or stuffing 19 MIT mathematicians into a telephone booth. The idea came from the Land Down Under, one of the few other countries with a baby boom of their own, where gym teachers had been using a 3-foot bamboo hoop for physical training. Wham-O sold 25 million polyethylene hoops in four months at $1.98 per. Production cost was 50 cents. At the peak of the craze, Wham-O and its competitors were churning out some 20,000 a day, triggering Hula-Hoop contests to see who could hula with the most hoops, or hula the longest. Not a few parents found the suggestive gesture inappropriate for their young daughters. What the hell. If it was good enough for Elvis. It was good enough for Peggy Sue. They hadn’t seen anything yet. Two years later when sweet little sixteen next gyrated in hula-hoop fashion, she did it with her boyfriend in a dance called The Twist.
Hula-Hoops, frisbees were really nothing compared to the barnyard that thrived in most boomer homes. Animals, we wanted animals! The more the better. We sparked a boom that had our parents doing the financial hula. Dogs (up 25% since the boom started), cats, parakeets (up 900%), canaries (12%), hamsters, white rats and mice, guinea pigs, ducks, rabbits, pee-pees, and the leader: tropical fish (120 million in 20 million homes). Our desires were insatiable, the products aimed at as infinite as a hula’s hoop. Then in 1959 along came Barbie.
And you could buy it all on our Easy-Payment-Plan! Ah credit, where would we be without it?
Don't leave home without it
— American Express Card
The catchy phrase didn't come along until later. But with the appearance of this credit card in 1958, buying things became worlds easier. For an annual fee the American Express Card provided instant credit for airfares, hotels and rent-a-cars. The little magic wand sure beat Lay-Away. While the Diners Club card was actually the first to appear (1950), with American Express consumerism took a Great Leap Forward, opening up new worlds of purchasing power to average Americans, further stimulating the great wave of materialism that dwarfed the laughable had not been so disastrous economic experiment in Red China. Chairman Mao would have served his people better had he paid attention to American marketing techniques. He struggled with empty rhetoric and mass murder, while the running dogs of capitalism came up with a simple piece of stamped plastic that transformed the standard of living for the average joe.
Easy credit meant greater revenues. It meant greater demand. It meant the market value of just about everything was about to change. Even baseball.
For us, the national pastime would never be the same after the fifties. Baseball has gloried through several heydays. This was ours. Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Ted Williams, Stan the Man Musial, Yogi Berra — heroes to several generations. Larger than life, greater than great. Baseball was the New York Yankees, with their vast traditions of big-time excellence dating from Ruth and Gehrig through Dimaggio, the last gentleman sports star, on to the latter day heroes. The Bronx Bombers’ string of victories, their record of excellence made them the sports dynasty of all times. But the team of teams was to be found across town in the borrow of Brooklyn.
Symbolic of the frustrations of big time athletics, so affectionate and loyal were their fans. They were the team to follow (even if they were in the National League). When they took the series from the Yanks in ’55, the love of their fans was confirmed. They’d gone from the Bums to the Best. At long last, it wasn’t the close of yet another dismal season:
Wait til next year!
— The Brooklyn Dodgers
But next year would be in Los Angeles. Big time sports had entered the big time marketplace. The Brooklyn Dodgers left the Big Apple for LA for money. The New York Giants followed with a move to San Francisco. Forsaking the loyalty of their fans, which in the case of the Brooklyn Dodgers was deep and emotional, team owners began moving their franchises for greed, and nothing more. The trend that these teams started became commonplace. The spirit of tradition began to die the day the Bums split for the Coast.
It didn’t matter so much to us then. Now, of course it’s a different story. Corruption in high places was nothing new. Ike, after whose image the household cleanser Mr. Clean had been designed, set the proper standard for recent times when, as a candidate, he’d disparaged the corruption during the Truman years. Now, he had his own to face.
"Elected officials must be above even the
appearance of wrong-doing."
On September 22 Presidential assistant Sherman Adams was accused of accepting gifts in the form of a freezer, a vicuna coat and other things in return for influencing an SEC investigation of industrialist Bernard Goldfine. Ike had his high tone of conduct to which few of his successors were able to live up when he dismissed Adams in the name of credible government. We paid just about as much attention to his sage advice as we did his warnings about the anti-democratic alliance between the military and the defense industry. This was a lesson never learned. What the hell, many of us were still playing with dolls.
“You can tell it’s Mattel, it’s swell.”
The Princess Di of Toyland was designed after a real baby-boomer named Barbie Barton. With her impossible waist, gravity-defying breasts and her marvelously pliant personality, she became the world’s first artificial beauty whore. Great role model, a reflection of idealized beauty in real life by blondes from Jean Harlow to Marilyn Monroe, Michelle Pfeiffer to Diana! This shapely blonde still reigns after all these years, and can accessorize better than anyone living with well over 1000 outfits and a world-wide fan club of millions. When Barbie turned 21 in 1980, there were 100 million of her in circulation. Plus two million more of her boyfriend Ken, sister Skipper and cousin Francie. Not to forget Gay Bruce!
Adults needed toys too. Ones that shout excess from the rooftops of Ford’s Detroit headquarters. Even Barbie, no stranger to gaudiness, would have avoided this trinket.
"It even looks like a lemon."
— the Edsel
Even geniuses have bad days. With Ford Motor Company's Edsel, Ford had a bad three years. No amount of advance hype, no amount of advertising could convince the car crazy public that this white elephant named after Henry Ford's son looked like anything other than a man sucking a lemon. Besides, it was as cumbersome as Daddy Ford’s and Granddaddy Ford’s egos combined. Ford sold 11,000 before withdrawing it. The Edsel lugged along from 1957 to 1959, providing an unwitting commentary on the ascendance of form over function. The marketplace place had few values, but credit-happy consumers weren’t complete fools. Besides money not spent on a tawdry, meretricious, poorly designed, uncomfortable automobile could be better spent on more playthings for us kids.
Even the country needed its toys, especially when the Soviets had bigger ones. Critics dismissed these gigantic model toys as unnecessary. The left argued we had too many problems at home to be embarking on such expensive endeavors. Conservatives said it was another expensive government boondoggle. They all got it wrong, decidedly wrong. Exploration and discovery define a great nation’s greatness. There was the imperative of competition from the Soviets who’d beaten us into space. But the larger point was simply that our dreams and ore destiny pointed toward outer space.
Unified under NASA, which was formed Oct 1, 1958 in response to Sputnik, our space program introduced America’s first cosmic voyagers on April 9, 1959.
Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, John Glenn,
Gus Grissom, Wally Schirra, Alan Shepard,
— Mercury Astronauts
Manufactured icons or not, these test pilots became national heroes for their phlegmatic good humor and brazen bravery. Competitive as athletes, they provided a showcase for our formidable engineering prowess, vying behind the scenes for the honor of being the first American into space, into orbit. We saw their bonhomie and great mutual respect for one another and were dazzled.
Even if Life magazine did inflate their lives, deifying them as space-age Lancelots sworn to protect and defend America’s damaged honor before the world. The myth of the “Right Stuff,” as popularized by Tom Wolf, played an essential role in focusing our attention on this magical quest against the Soviet Dark Knight.
More important, the Mercury astronauts, later the Gemini, Apollo and Space Shuttle astronauts (along with the Soviet Cosmonauts), played as critical a role in human history as Columbus, Magellan or any terrestrial explorer. Fitting that they should appear at the start of a new decade that would thrust aside many old values and shop-worn traditions for a future of new ideas, new technologies and new challenges. Through their strength of character and steadfast competence, the Mercury Astronauts helped the country navigate the unexplored and often barely navigable passages that lay dead ahead.
When we asked the grand old man of mid-century America to characterize the fifties, he came up with his own rarified affirmation of American distinctiveness.
"Things are more like they are now than they
ever were before."
This classic bit of Ike-speak captured the essence of the blithe spirits of America's Golden Age. A time, we now believe, of stability, tranquility, prosperity and optimism, girded by an edgy vigilance.
Such was not the case. In fact, the period was the staging ground for the revolutionary overthrow of the great (and illusory) American Status Quo. In fact, our country is significant for its blitzkrieg of changes, for its lack of status quo. Beneath the placid surface of tract housing, the forces of industry and commerce were about to transform a social order only recently reformed by the horrors of depression and war. Prosperity and power brought change to the marketplace in the form of consumer goods unimaginable to previous generations. By 1960 one fourth of all housing had been built during the past ten years. So much wealth, such an urge to spend, such a consuming need to fit into the neighborhood that a virus of false virtue leaked out of a hot house. Individualism was bad for business, and ell victim to a market place that stressed materialism and sameness as the ultimate form of patriotism.
Things were not going to be like they ever were for much longer. They never were before anyway. By the time Nixon and Kennedy were debating our future on national television it was already too late. The Edsel aside, the future favored form over content, and form was too easily manipulated.