The good old days can mean different times for different people, but when the President and others of my generation refer to it, its code for the ‘50s. And when pushed, they’ll go back to the post-World War II ‘40s, and into the early ‘60s, when Kennedy’s assassination, urban riots and the Vietnam War ushered in things entirely different.
I was born in 1942, and my first memories are from 1945-46. For me, the period extends from my uncle’s casket coming home from the Pacific all the way to 1964, when I graduated from college — debt free.
I sometimes get emails from friends who lived it with me spouting lists like this: the ‘55 Chevies we drove and the Temptations we listened to, after-game dances, blue-suede shoes, back-and-white TV, “Gunsmoke,” Mickey Mantle, Marilyn Monroe and Mickey Mouse.
And its easy for me to slide right back into it — to think about fishing with Uncle Al, learning to water ski and handle the boat, beach volleyball and high school sports, staring at the phone in the hallway screwing up courage to call for a date, sanding and prepping my ’52 Ford for a paint job; Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Chubby Checker and “rock n’ roll” and late parties at “Ma Belle’s” house without a chaperon.
Historian Stephanie Coontz wrote a book about the good old days called “The Way we Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap.” And in my own mind, I divide the period into the life I led and my awareness of the world around me at the time — and what I later learned about that easy life and the real world I walked in.
On reflection, although those high school teams had Mexicans, a few African-Americans, and fewer Samoans on them, our beach parties were mostly white. The Mexican part of town called “Posole Town” had few paved streets and the police didn’t patrol it — we knew because we cruised long enough to know were the cops were and then darted into Posole Town to buy beer.
My parents came of age in the Great Depression and didn’t go to college, so my brother and I would. And the sisters? They could maybe go to junior college and get a secretarial or nursing degree. In fact, my sisters, four and 10 years younger than me, did go to four-year colleges, but the most popular girls in my class stayed home to marry older boys with the hottest cars.
That is of course a generalization, but like “Leave it to Beaver,” there’s truth in it.
Gender and racial divides were part of the landscape in the good old days, but the seeds of change were also part of the times. Some argue that the GI Bill, enacted in 1944 as the war came to an end, created the middle class in America.
It established hospitals, made low-interest mortgages available and covered tuition and expenses for veterans attending college or trade schools. I can’t remember a male teacher who was not a vet who’d gone to school on the GI Bill, and most were the first in their families to do so. President Truman integrated the military in 1948, and in the ‘50s, television and “I-Like-Ike” Eisenhower’s interstate highway system knitted the country from coast to coast. Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball in 1947, and colleges — starting in the East, the North and the West — began recruiting black ball-players. But it wasn’t until the ‘70s that Mississippi and Alabama had black athletes.
The biggest triumphs of the ‘50s — and the ones least remembered by the nostalgia troop — were economic. The middle class expanded rapidly among white Americans and set the stage for women and blacks to enter it because education was almost free and we taxed the heck out of high-income earners to pay for it. Tax rates on earned income (although not on investments) were 91 percent in 1954.
The ideal of “equal opportunity” was real for most white American males in the ‘50s, and, more importantly for our own times, close enough to taste for women and people of color.
Columnist Rich Wandschneider lives in Joseph.