Coming of age in the Fifties

It is the nature of us older people to see the days of their childhood and youth as better than the present.  But I really think that the days of my youth, the late 1940s and the 1950s, really were better in a lot of ways.   I’m glad I’m not a child today or a parent.

I grew up in Williamsport, Md., a small town along the Potomac River, with a freedom that seems utopian today.  During summer vacations, our parents would tell us boys to go out and play, and be back by mealtime.  We would go roaming anywhere in town.  We would go by bus to Hagerstown, the county seat six miles away, and go the swimming pool.  We would go hiking along the abandoned Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, and be in woodland five minutes out of town.  I was not a Tom Sawyer, I was a bookworm, but I spent more time in the woods doing things than any of the children of people I know today.

We had Boy Scouts and Vacation Bible School, but in general adults didn’t have to structure things for us to do.  We organized our own games.   We were devoted to movies and radio, but we could role-play as cowboys and Indians without needing a video game to script our imaginations.

We were dimly aware of juvenile delinquency and drug addiction, but it was something to read about in newspapers or see in the movies, not part of our everyday reality.  A juvenile delinquent was a guy who work a black leather jacket, combed his hair like Elvis Presley and carried a switchblade knife, not an automatic weapon.  Of course there were people in our town who did bad things, as happens everywhere and in all eras, but these were not things we felt as a day-to-day threat.

We were free because we felt safe, and we were safe because there was no anonymity.  I had the illusion that I knew everybody in town.  That wasn’t possible, of course; I didn’t know 2,000 people.  But if we hurt ourselves, if we endangered ourselves, if we seriously misbehaved, somebody would very quickly get back to our parents.

Authority figures – parents, teachers, the churches, radio and the movies, the town policeman – espoused the same values and backed each other up.  There was no conflict between parents and schools, and no struggle to resist the negative influence of the mass media such as exists today.   I faithfully listened to the Tom Mix radio program and belonged to the Tom Mix Ralston Straight-Shooters.  Tom , whose hero was such a quick draw and expert marksman that he never killed anybody – just “creased their skulls” with a bullet.

We did not worry about our economic futures.  We were justifiably confident that any able-bodied adult who was willing to work could find some kind of job and that a high school diploma was a guarantee of access to a good job.  Anybody who was capable of doing college work could get a good education at a state university at affordable tuition.

On the other hand, the Fifties were not a great time to be a person of color, a woman or a gay person.  Racial and religious prejudice were socially acceptable.  People who were not middle-class white boys might not remember the era so fondly.  I was taught by my parents, teachers and Sunday school teachers that all human beings had equal value in the sight of God, regardless of race or religious heritage.  But I had attitudes about the place of women in society that I am embarrassed to remember today.   And the rights of homosexuals, as we called them then, were something that it simply never occurred to me to think about.

It was taken for granted that, in practice, the only people eligible to be elected President were Northern white Protestant men.  I remember talking to school classmates in 1952 about whether it was proper to vote for a divorced man (Adlai Stevenson) or a military man (Dwight Eisenhower).

Teachers were grossly underpaid by today’s standards.  During the summer, I would encounter some of my high school teachers working as house painters or camp counselors.  There was no health insurance beyond the dedication and self-sacrifice of Dr. Zimmerman, the town physician.

In my college years, the mid-1950s, there was a lot of talk about conformity.  We were the “Silent Generation.”  All the great struggles, so it seemed, were in the past.  This was the opposite side of the safety and stability we enjoyed in that era.   The great criticism of corporations in those days was that they wrapped employees in a cocoon of security and conformity.   But the Organization Man did not live in fear of becoming permanently unemployed and unemployable.  When we spoke of poverty and unemployment, we spoke of an “other America” which was left behind, not “the 99 percent.”

We had Jim Crow in the South and de facto segregation in the North.  We had the Korean Conflict, we had McCarthyism, we had the threats of Communism and of nuclear war.   But I and everybody I knew looked forward to a future in which things would be better.  We Americans as a nation thought of our greatest days as ahead of us, not behind us.

Was that era really better?  Or is it that I, like most people, think the days of my youth are better than the days of my old age?

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One Response to “Coming of age in the Fifties”

  1. Anne Tanner Says:

    As you say, you were male. I recall being told that the state university would be better for me, while my brother went to Harvard (a shocking choice for an Iowan, though, in the late ’50s). After all, I was being sent to college mainly to get my MRS degree and start raising children. Advanced degree? Why bother? You’ll never use it. Women didn’t work after marriage because that would indicate that their husband couldn’t support his family. My mother, a brilliant woman, wasn’t allowed to work for most of her life, but she stood up to the pressure and backed me when I wanted to be a journalist and I am really grateful for that. Eventually, my dad did, too.

    We did have much more freedom as children. I have the same stories you do about catching a bus to go across town, transferring downtown to a different bus. Play dates, home schooling, and all the other fear-driven aspects of modern child-rearing were unknown. I have met high school kids that I thought were damaged by their over-protective hovering parents, but in general I like the teens I know so I really don’t know where the line ideally should be drawn.


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