Keeping It Straight: The 1950s Were Different

Whenever we would go out for a Sunday drive (remember those) or took a vacation, riding in the back seat was my assigned position. Dad drove, Mom rode shotgun and I sat in the back. Such assigned seating in the family car was the norm and was never up for discussion. A three or four day trip on Route 66 made no difference, the seating arrangement never changed. That was the way things were in the '50's.

There were no Walkmans, Discmans, IPads, Androids or tablets to keep out the drone of the engine on long trips, there was only the car radio and, if on, it usually picked up nothing more than high powered Mexican radio stations for miles and miles. With a half-a-million watts of power, these stations blasted exhortations to buy a "Miracle Truss" or made promises to the gullible that by sending a thousand dollars to "Miracle Valley, Arizona," their names would be placed in the "Golden Book," thereby guaranteeing a place in heaven. "Send what you can today to Miracle Valley, Arizona, and we will start your account that will guarantee your key to heaven!" Even at that point in my life, I knew that was pure nonsense and could not believe people actually fell for it.

There were no hand-held video games or DVD players to while away the hours in the backseat. For me there was an endless variety of scenery, and my Disney comic books provided more than enough entertainment. Tourist traps would break the monotony with snake-pits, Gila monsters and gift shops full of rubber tomahawks and small, boxed collections of rocks glued to a piece of cardboard.

In those days my Dad's cars were always big with strong V-8s that could accelerate to 60 in a flash. No emasculating mini-vans for my Dad (thankfully those assaults on manhood were years away) - Packards, Hudsons and Lincolns filled our carport. Mom's car? There was no such thing. The two-car family had yet to materialize. Mom used the car to go shopping on Saturday morning and I would run to the corner market (a real Mom and Pop store, not a 7/11) if we needed bread or milk during the week.

My mother wasn't a soccer mom. If I wanted to go play with the "guys" it was out to the vacant lot or down the street to my buddy Jerry's house. Highly structured, organized sports for kids did not exist. Our time was not allocated to the point where a 9-year-old kid had to carry a PDA. We were allowed to be kids and do kid things and we rarely got into trouble. Actually, trouble usually came in the form of a flat tire on my bike. Well, except for that Joseph Boyer kid who bullied me from grade four through grade six.

Our drugs consisted of a St. Joseph Aspirin for Children for the occasional headache, Vicks cough syrup for a sore throat and Vapo-Rub for a congested chest. All of us knew mixing an aspirin with a Coca-Cola would kill you, and we never tried because we heard about that kid "over in the next county" who did and dropped dead on the spot. Sniffing glue? Yeah, we did that as we put together our Revell model planes and cars.

Mom was always there when I got home from school and she made dinner every night. Dad worked hard, but he wasn't a workaholic. His job was an extension of himself, not the end-all be-all of his life to the exclusion of his family. Thanks to being a union worker at the Lockheed plant he brought home a decent wage and had an excellent benefit package that allowed us to live well and take a couple of long vacation trips each year. A program for ex-GI's allowed Dad to train for the job that made him a proud certified airframe repairman. We weren't rich, but we were far from poor. Downsizing meant mom had dropped a few pounds.

Our house, at about 1,100 square feet, was comfortable and one dad had been able to buy thanks to a GI Loan. It had two bedrooms, one bath, a nice-sized kitchen and dining room, with a good-sized living room (of course when you're a kid everything looks bigger), along with a carport in a subdivision of look-alikes. Tract housing? Oh, yeah it was, but I had my own bedroom and my own radio.

We had a single television set - why would any family need more than one? Jack Webb provided all of the crime drama we could handle. Berle and Gleason made us laugh and Dave Garroway allowed us to ponder the wonders of our Wide, Wide World. Then there came the afternoon when the Mickey Mouse Club debuted and every boy in America forgot about Beany and Cecil and fell in love with Annette.

New shoes and clothes arrived in the late summer. "School Clothes" they were called and none of them had "designer" labels. Shirts were usually some form of plaid or stripes and the pants were jeans or chinos that fit properly. Shoes were either loafers bought at the Buster Brown shoe store or Navy Last lace-ups bought at a local Army/Navy surplus store. Girls wore dresses with hems that ended below their knees. A baseball cap was worn with the bill in front - why in the world would you want to turn it around? We carried Lone Ranger or Roy Rogers metal lunch boxes to school that after a few weeks developed a peculiar odor thanks to the never ending combinations of peanut butter, cheese or bologna sandwiches that went inside. There was also a squatty thermos bottle (remember those) that provided always slightly warm milk for lunch.

We were respectful of our teachers and tried hard to understand the value of "X" or the Monroe Doctrine. No mandatory prayers in school - that seemed like a ridiculous concept to me (a little silent request for help on a test never hurt, however) - and my dad was upset when the Knights of Columbus forced the government to include "Under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance. I still strongly dislike that and remember being punished when I would forget to say "Under God" during the daily recitation of the pledge.

Fast Food meant a quick peanut butter and jelly sandwich after school. Going out to eat was an occasion. You went to a restaurant and were expected to behave yourself. I remember some friends of my folks who never took their son out to eat after he made a big scene at the local Bob's Big Boy. There were no "play-lands" attached to the restaurants, no "Fun Meals" and no TVs blaring ESPN. A restaurant or café was a place to eat - not play or watch television.

Going to the movies was a Saturday afternoon treat. Thirty-five cents would get you in for a double feature, a newsreel and two cartoons (Donald Duck if you were lucky). That 35 cents also included a box of popcorn and a soft drink. Going to the movies at night with your folks was Big Time. Dad would head the Packard down to the Valley or Indian Drive-In where we would be treated to the likes of Lucy and Desi hauling "The Long, Long Trailer" or Susan Hayward as "Miss Sadie Thompson" - in 3D no less. I still remember the headache I got from those glasses.

The age of rock and roll was dawning and goofy preachers began to scream that "race" music was the work of the devil and would lead to the destruction of the nation's youth. The same thing happened with the advent of the minuet in the 18th century and the Charleston in the 1920s. There seems to be some parallel between preachers and people having fun. Much to the chagrin of the goofy preachers we all managed to survive Elvis, Bill Haley, Fats Domino and Buddy Holly.

Was life better in the '50s? Not really. One major difference, it was a lot slower paced than today. People had time for themselves, each other and their families. Our lives were not consumed with the need to gather ever more "stuff." So what if the Jones' had two cars - no one really cared. Bad guys went to jail and good guys got ahead. Everyone respected the president, even if not everyone agreed with him. It was, for the most part, a comfortable time in America (if you were white). But then I was just a kid, so what did I know?