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My Reflections on the Fabulous Fifties

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heirtothewind View Drop Down
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  Quote heirtothewind Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Topic: My Reflections on the Fabulous Fifties
    Posted: 18-May-2015 at 11:36




There is a nostalgic lure to the 1950s that makes us want to believe it was a golden age of innocence and prosperity.   The fabulous fifties were, in fact, a decade of fear, conformity, and sexual repression --- cleverly and discreetly criticized in many episodes of Rod Serling’s ‘’Twilight Zone.’’  TV shows of that era set impossible ideals of what family life and society should be and swept smoldering social problems under the rug.  It was the utopian decade for the white, heterosexual, male middle class.


I was born in 1946, during the economic boom that follows a war.  In the 50s, manufacturing of American-made goods reached its zenith.  Most of my family from Italian immigrants worked in the steel industry; and thanks to the unions, they had higher incomes, shorter hours [40-hour work week], paid vacations, and job security.  We could afford television sets, household appliances, new school clothes, and new cars every couple years – all made in America.  I chanted ‘’I Like Ike’’ with my schoolmates and watched Eisenhower’s inauguration on TV.  Because of the GI Bill and more lenient bank credit, the construction industry grew with suburban housing.  My immediate family could move away from grandma’s house in the city and buy a house in the suburbs.  My father could commute to work; and with the Interstate Highway System, we could drive across two states in no time to visit relatives.  My mother had a Negro maid once a week [and we in the North were taught to show respect for ‘’colored people’’ by capitalizing the word ‘’Negro’’].      But, yet, I could not go swimming at the public pool with my Negro friend, Tony, because he could go only on Tuesdays [Negro day], the day before the city changed the water in the pool.  I remember a hubbub about desegregation and watched the rioting in Little Rock on TV, which Tony did not have, as troops marched in to restore order, just like a real war.


I knew that Korea was far away, and that Mrs. DiSteffano who  lived down the street had a brother who was killed there.  My  Uncle Arthur was stationed there – half way around the world – to prevent the atheist Communists, who had atomic bombs given to them by Jews named Rosenberg, from destroying our democracy with those bombs.  The Communists were evil and would forbid us to hear the Bible read in school or to recite, under penalty of a paddling if we refused, the Pledge of Allegiance to reaffirm our belief we are a nation ‘’under God.’’  Although we practiced not being blown up in an atomic war by ducking under our school desks every week, we knew that America always wins a war.


Thus, reassured that Senator McCarthy, and war heroes like President Eisenhower and General MacArthur, would keep us safe from Communists and space aliens in UFOs and mentally-ill homosexuals, we went about our bowdlerized, saccharine lives watching  Lucy and Desi,  Milton Berle, Sid Caesar,  and Jackie Gleason. Other TV shows like Ozzie and Harriet, Father Knows Best, The Life of Riley, and Leave It to Beaver showed us how white American families lived [or should live], while the hilarious, knee-slapping antics of Amos and Andy reinforced our stereotypes of ‘’simple-minded, lazy Negroes’’ who lived in decaying city ghettoes.   We went to the movies for a quarter to see ‘’The Day the Earth Stood Still,’’ ‘’The Time Machine,’’ and  ‘’The  Blob.’’  We could not get enough science fiction, nor could we get enough gossip about Elizabeth Taylor and Eddie Fisher, nor could we stop talking about the moral corruption of ‘’Peyton Place.’’ We ignored  America’s dirty little secret about sexual hypocrisy and racial disparity, reflected in the  PBS series ‘’I’ll Fly Away’’ and in such movies as ‘’Imitation of Life.’’   As for the corruption of America’s youth,  Ed Sullivan saved millions of teen-agers from becoming JDs [juvenile delinquents] by insisting that Elvis Presley’s gyrating lower half not be shown on his Sunday night ‘’really big sheew.’’  We lived protected in a fantasy bubble of goodness and virtue created by Walt Disney.


The launch of Sputnik rocked our cozy smugness, and while we fretted over the Russians crossing the Pacific to deliver dreaded communism to our front door, Fidel Castro sneaked into our backyard unnoticed by the CIA.  Indeed, Ed Sullivan found Fidel far less threatening to America than Elvis when his interview with the Cuban dictator aired on his ‘’sheew’’ to be lauded as a hero.  We worried about where we would get sugar for our coffee when we finally discovered Cuba was aligned with the USSR.  With the downing of our U-2 airplane and capture of Gary Powers, along with the early failures of our space program, we began to doubt America’s ability to keep democracy safe and to question our technological superiority.  We built bomb shelters as our trust in God seemed to waiver and looked for new and optimistic leadership in the dynamic and youthful JFK who, for a thousand days, made us believe he was King Arthur and we lived in Camelot.


Perhaps the 1950’s were another Era of Good Feelings, although very shallow good feelings with misery and social unrest waiting to be scratched  and to come to the  surface -- as happened after Kennedy’s  assassination. Our era of pretended happiness and golly-gee innocence in a non-existent Camelot ended with that fatal shot in Dallas.  In the summer of 1964, I was the first in my family to go to college, reaping the benefits of the prosperity of the fabulous fifties.  The Gulf of Tonkin incident happened.  We were not at war, but only in a conflict brought into our living rooms night after night showing our dead and maimed military ‘’advisers.’’   We were eyewitnesses to the violence and bigoted brutality heaved like gas on the flames of the civil rights movement.  The War on Poverty opened our eyes to the misery that existed on the other side of the track.  America was not the same as it  was in the 50s --- and I began to wonder whether it was America that had actually changed or whether I was just seeing for the first time what lay beyond Disney’s fantasy bubble that had protected me from the real world on the other side of Camelot’s walls.





Edited by heirtothewind - 18-May-2015 at 12:12
The world is too big a place to be in competition with everyone. The only person I have to be better than is myself -- and that's quite enough. [Col. Potter from MASH]
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