Saturday, June 17, 2017

We lived in black and white (1950-57)

I see the 1950s in the United States in black and white, like television back then.

The 1950s of the last century, already half a century away, form a time of cars with rounded chassis and adults wearing clothes that often seemed too large. Clothes that had few colors, or no more color than the average floral wallpaper.

Insofar as I knew, men worked in offices. They wore hats, put on shirt and tie suits, some wore bow ties. They smoked. A pack of Parliament cigarettes evokes my father perfectly.

Women stayed home taking care of the house and the children (me and my companions). American women did not make-up. But all the moms, American or foreign (like mine), made sure we believed that the world was made for children.

We did not know it, but we were part of the U.S. baby boom generation, born between 1946 and 1964. Johnnies returned from war, got married, got scholarships to go to college, moved to the suburbs and, whatever else they did in their bedrooms, they scattered children everywhere. We, the boomers, were made to think that everything was possible.

Among the artifacts I preserved from that time is my favorite childhood book for years, The Golden History of the World by Jane Werner Watson and Cornelius De Witt (published in 1955), subtitled "A Children's Introduction to Ancient and Modern Times". Golden was a children's books brand.

The last chapter "Our World Today, 1950 -" begins as follows:
"This is a fascinating world to grow in. In our time the magic of fairy tales has come true, we can fly through the air the most comfortably seated house we can turn the world in the time it took in another time to go Paris to London or Boston to New York.You can shop in India, South Africa or Japan and pay for goods by signing our name on a piece of paper we have brought.And in the shops of our own towns goods are brought For us from all countries of the world."

It is definitely a world in which the child reader (I read it hundreds of times) could think that if there were pharaohs and Napoleons, and wars and miseries and everything in the past ... from here on, with me, a new story full of wonders begins.

In that clean and orderly New York, the New York of John Cheever's early short stories, it was possible to think like this even as an adult. Or so I understood.

It was a happy time for a president, Eisenhower, who had a baby face. He did not inspire much, but did not offend either.

There was dissent, of course.

There were the beat poets, such as Allen Ginsburg, whom my father said he met in a Bohemian bar in Greenwich Village. They were bearded people who said strange things, as incomprehensible to a child as to most ordinary people.

There were also the forerunners of the 1960s music revolution. Elvis then, like the original rockers, Chuck Berry, Bill Haley and the Comets, and so forth. I only knew the classical music that both my parents listened to. Or the popular variety show music, Frank Sinatra, Dinah Shore and Perry Como.

I also think of those times as the Cold War era. There was nothing more frightening than a Communist. Once, in kindergarten, on a day devoted to talking about the various jobs there were, the nun asked us "What do your Daddies do?"

When I replied "Communist," the school called my mother, who after asking me what I was talking about realized I was confusing the Reds with what my father did. I had meant "economist".

There were many other things in that childlike period in the United States, but I did not notice them.


This is the first of a brief series of deliveries attempting to sketch the contemporary cultural and social history of the United States in my lifetime. It arises from an exchange with a correspondent in France, later a blog for my Spanish-speaking readers. I intend to present how time and place felt; the history whose first draft appeared in the newspapers will only appear in the background, as small details in a panorama shot, somewhere near the horizon.
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