Remembering Tumultuous Times…

3. Martin Luther King, Jr., a civil rights act...

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In July my husband will be drawing Medicare, in addition to the Social Security he now receives. He was born in 1946, one of the first year tide of “baby boomers.”  I was born in 1947, during the second year of “baby booming” in post-war America.  While drinking coffee and reading the paper–a rather old-fashioned notion in my children’s household (not the coffee, just the newspaper!)–I read that the sixties are going to trend in television next season.   The sixties are cool again, thanks to Mad Menit’s the style, not the substance, however.  Don’t get me wrong.  We love Mad Men too, but we watch it with more irony than the generations that follow us.

Don’t get me wrong!  I remember the sixties and the late fifties as well.  My sister and I used to play “apartments” in the new fifties ranch house suburban neighborhood we moved to in 1954.   Lots of slamming of doors and a drinks cart always played prominently in our games, as did smoking.  My parents both quit smoking early in the fifties, so we copied the elegance of TV starlets.  Apartments, drinks carts and cigarettes were all the height of sophistication we didn’t actually see anywhere except on television. My parents didn’t have a drinks cart or a bar, so we used my mother’s glass tea cart with water glasses.  My parents hid a lot of their true selves when we were growing up.   They secreted their liquor in the master bedroom so my tee-totaling grandmothers never knew they imbibed.  Just for the record, they also kept it a secret that they were Democrats, since The Grandmothers were rabid Republicans and would have disapproved.

My sister and I were in junior high and high school during the first half of the sixties.  Fear was in the air then, with the Cuban missile crisis, the Cold War, the construction of the Berlin Wall, the glow of President Kennedy and then his assassination.  Civil rights conflicts raged in the southern states,  filling the TV news and the headlines–Freedom Riders, lunch counter sit-ins, peaceful marches ending with police batons and fire hoses.  The angry faces and hate-filled quotes from angry white southerners amazed me, although one of my grandmother’s said the same kind of thing when she visited us.   I graduated from high school in 1965, just on the cusp of more turbulent times.  The Vietnam conflict ramped up and both Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated.   I attended a quiet teaching college, but MLK’s assassination prompted class closures and protests.  No one could have escaped the clear message: The times they are a-changing…

This is how I remember my childhood and adolescence–sophistication, strictly defined gender roles, frightening upheavals, fear, threats of war and war.  Television messages: cowboys and Indians, pointy bras and ruffly aprons, housewives concerned with their dish and clothes detergents, wise dads and well-intentioned kids.   My own life included a working mom torn between her home, family and huge ambition;  a father whose dreams were never the same after World War II–all he wanted was his home, family and a steady, 9-5 dullish job.  My grandmothers who remembered a past without cars, telephones, washing machines, played a prominent part in my life.

The fifties AND the sixties were iconic times for me, as are the times for anyone remembering the 18-21 years of  growing up.  Both my sister and I married early, within six months of each other.  Our weddings were almost identical since we each wore our mother’s circa 1942 satin wedding dress.   Boy friends, engagement rings and weddings were expectations when we were very young women.  We had church weddings and receptions in the church basement.  Do people do that anymore?  Church basements?  No chocolate fountains or champagne at our weddings!

The new retro television shows coming this fall resurrect the overt sexualization of women that many women, as well as men, bought into.  They are titled The Playboy Club  and Pan Am.  The Playboy Club  needs little explaining, butPan Am does.  Fifty years ago, flight attendants were good looking women only.  No men were allowed, no married or older women were allowed, no overweight or unattractive women were allowed.  Stewardesses were sexualized by innuendo, but that was seen as a plus.  So, these programs will romanticize the style over the substance, once again.  We will tune in for Mad Men on AMCenjoying our blast from the past, but give the network shows a miss.  I don’t really want to be reminded of Playboy or stewardesses.

My sister, my father and I near the beach in Southern California, 08/1960

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Time Warp

This past Sunday Dave and I browsed some favorite antique and collectibles stores, and we discovered some new ones too.  When I visit one of these stores I have an  “out of body” experience because I travel into my past.   Dave always teases me because I like to touch everything, pick it up and hold it, often losing myself in a rush of nostalgia.  It is fortunate that the shops we like are not high end!  I guess one of the reasons my husband and I are so compatible is that we are historians even more than collectors–always connecting the past with the present.

Because I am in my sixties, the items I find that link me to my childhood or teenage years are now between fifty and sixty years old.  On a shelf I might see a doll with a cloth body and molded plastic face, very much like the one I spotted in a baby picture of me.  I don’t even remember the doll–just a wisp of memory that I can’t really capture.   A darling fitted wool coat with matching hat and muff  tickles a memory of me wearing such a coat to church or school when I was my granddaughter’s age.  Aisles and aisles of dishes, lamps, spice cans, old magazines, Golden Books, Life magazines, furniture, Corning Ware, pottery, coffee carafes–all of them transport me back to childhood remembrances  of a different world, a different time, another country all together.

Recently we have begun renting old television shows from Netflix .  These anthologies come from Playhouse 90, Kraft Theater and Westinghouse’s Studio One, to name a few.  The one we watched last night featured Jackie Gleason and Art Carney in a 1953 Studio One performance.   Of course they are performed live, broadcast  in black and white with patchy sound and the poor picture quality.  Nevertheless, Gleason and Carney’s talent surmounted all of that.  The story was nuanced and and had a spiritual quality to it that is missing from much of modern television.   Of course, early television was avant garde at its outset.   These shows originated from New York City, so they featured Broadway actors for the most part, many of whom were experienced and older than the actors who populate most of our television today.  Given the newness of the medium, they were pioneers and took chances.

Cable shows such Damages, Breaking Bad and Mad Men dare to take these kind of  risks with meaningful stories today, but they are a premium. Anyone who views them pays to have cable or satellite link-ups.   I guess, in a way, people in 1953 who could afford a television set and lived in an area where it was available also paid because televisions were a luxury item.  The argument that I am making, however, is that television producers and their sponsors believed that people wanted quality programming all the time. They had respect for the  audience.  Even the old Perry Mason series featured a more complex vocabulary than most television today.

Okay, okay–I’m beginning to sound like my grandmother, talking about the malaise of the modern world.  I guess that is part of having  lived several decades so I can compare and contrast, but I have to say that I don’t think everything new is an improvement.

Another program we ordered from Netflix was a documentary from 2005 titled The End of Suburbia. Since it was produced in 2004/2005,  it seemed prophetic when it predicted the recession and decline of the American lifestyle, the continuing war and threats to American safety, the gasoline price crisis and the problems we have because we built our lives around suburbs, cars and highways.   The huge divisions between haves and have-nots were also analyzed.  In fact, experts knew in the late 1960s/early 1970s that we would run short of oil before the end of the century, but kept silent about it.  Anyone who did speak out, such as Jimmy Carter, was called a gloom and doom naysayer.   Dave and I  kept pausing the video to analyze all that we were hearing.

On our drive home from “antiquing”, we talked about how much more complicated life has become.  We know so much more than we did twenty or thirty years ago and the world has changed so fast, even within the last ten years.   The very idea of living to 100 years of age seems daunting–how much more change can we absorb?   Childhood seems a long, long time ago.  And 30+ more years of life seems more of the future than we might be able to endure.