Now & Then

Had an exchange of letters with grandson Drew, a nearly-teen. He had a school assignment to contrast and compare his times with mine. Clickbait if ever I saw one. But it tripped me out. What, indeed, was it like, to be a kid in the 50s. So, thank you Drew, and check out the 1950s when there were half as many humans on Earth as now, and we didn’t know we were doing bad things to the environment yet. When airplanes had propellers and Freeways hadn’t been invented. Back then before Fast Food and cell phones. Then….

There was one telephone in the house, in the front hall on a little table, connected by a fat brown wire to the wall. In a neighboring small town there were still telephone operators; you picked up the phone and a woman’s voice said, ‘number please.’ The rest of us had dials (not buttons which didn’t show up until about 1980). In fifth grade we saw an educational film about how to use the phone and were told that we were to answer within ten rings. When things got more modern there might be an extension, a wall phone, in the kitchen and finally one in my parents’ bedroom for privacy. The phones were owned by the Bell Telephone Company and rented to us. When I got a phone instrument of my own and wired it in for my own use, my dad said that was theft and made me take it out. Area codes didn’t exist. Long distance calls were placed by calling an operator. They were expensive and reserved for special occasions.

There was generally one car in a family. Dad did the driving, pretty much all of it. This one is a ’55 Merc which is I think the car we had then. I can remember myself gas cost 29 cents a gallon. I had a pal, Dickie Peterson, who had a car himself and we’d jaunt some on weekends, including to the World’s First McDonalds which was in Skokie, Illinois, you can look it up. There was also, generally, one job in a family.  Dads worked. Moms ran the house, cooking, cleaning, managing kids. Also, the houses then were usually quite small, 1200 square feet compared to double that now.

Grocery stores then were way smaller and didn’t have as many things for sale. For example, where I grew up stores had really only one kind of lettuce, iceberg. I can remember when we first saw frozen TV dinners, which had to be heated in the oven because the microwave we all have now hadn’t been invented yet. I worked at an A&P grocery in high school, afternoons and Saturdays. I stocked dairy department, cut cheese, ground coffee, and sold cigarettes. Later I was a checker, an experience from which I remember the following: every five bucks of total roughly filled one grocery bag, and the boss told me I was too chatty.

I probably don’t need to say there was no Internet. Not until 1991 really, when the Web was opened to the public. But there was almost no TV either.  When I was ten there was one family on our block that had a TV, black & white, and we kids would actually go and look at it through the front window. In Chicago there were four channels. Four. We got our first TV in the early 1950s. For personal entertainment in high school, and in college, I had an AM radio of my own, and a record player. I didn’t have a TV of my own ever until I got one in San Francisco in 1969. Black & white, of course. Our first color set came to Mariposa in about 1977. 

A teen now might recognize high school. The buildings are more or less the same, and the chairs in rows, and the auditorium, lunch. No computers then, of course. 

The larger world of America was both the same and VERY different. The world of the 1950s and 1960s was run by men, white men. In my suburban Chicago high school of about 4000 students there were, maybe, ten people of color. The newsroom where I worked on my first grown-up job had nobody of color, and darn few women, none of them bosses. The most embarrassing thing is that few of us — us white men, at least — even noticed.  So, I am saying, America was segregated then.

In middle school when I was there, we had to do drills in case Communists dropped nuclear bombs on Chicago. They were like fire drills now, except instead of marching out, we marched into the hallways where there were no windows and crouched down on the floor. It was called ‘Duck and Cover’ and of course it wouldn’t have done any good at all.  While I was a kid the United States test-exploded more than 1000 nuclear bombs, which we called ‘A-Bombs’ or ‘H-Bombs’. The USSR, what we call Russia now, tested almost as many.  To protect America from attack from planes, there were military bases with Nike missiles all around Chicago and other big cities. There was one we could ride to on our bicycles. They had Nikes around San Francisco too. There was a base in Tilden Park and another on Treasure Island. Unlike this picture, the missiles were underground unless they were going to shoot them off, which, happily, they never did.

I am pleased to say that News came from Newspapers, and nearly every American family got one or even two every day. I am especially proud that I joined the newspaper business at age 13, delivering the 65 copies of the Chicago Daily News and the Chicago’s American six afternoons a week for a pay envelope of three bucks cash. It wasn’t my first job. That was setting bowling pins on Saturday night at the four lane community center. I also tried being a caddy at the Country Club, but I was too small and knew nothing about the game. The bowling and the golf didn’t stick, but the newspaper thing did.

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