extrapolated from a drawing by David Lance in the 1964 Comet Yearbook

July's AH looked at childhood as experienced by the earliest Baby Boomers - essentially, those who were part of the Class of 1964.  It began with the latter 1940s, and more or less left us in the world that surrounded us when we were nine years old.  This month we continue on through June 1964.

An Arbitrary Look Back at Our World, 1946-1964

PART II: The mid-1950s Through 1964



Applied Science

It was the 1950s, and science permeated life.  We got vaccinated for polio in school.  The papers, radio, and TV constantly used words like nuclear.  There were A-bombs and H-bombs, nuclear warheads, and nuclear fallout.  Controlled fission was going to generate clean energy for our homes.  It already was powering submarines, which soon would be able to launch missiles armed with thermonuclear warheads.  Republic and Grumman were nearby, developing supersonic aircraft to play critical roles in the next, presumably nuclear, war.  Once in a while sonic booms rattled our windows to remind us of that.

The Arms Race begat a Space Race.  America knew a lot about building missiles that could carry explosives across the globe.  Now it was trying to lever that knowledge to make rockets that carried people straight up.  The transition proved far from easy.

During our final year in elementary school, Sputniks won the first two heats of the race.  In Florida , Vanguard rockets (designed explicitly to launch America 's first satellite) repeatedly failed.  Even after those Sputniks had reached orbit, a Vanguard attained an unimpressive liftoff of 3'11."  Its satellite was thrown clear of the wreckage; it bounced and rolled like a pink Spaldeen, valiantly emitting radio signals that told of its epic flight.

Americans were told that the Vanguard's abominable record was due to its being "too advanced."  They got the message: our engineers did not yet know enough about what they were attempting.  The country was feeling uneasy.

Dec 1957: Satellite TV-3 is thrown clear
of another Vanguard explosion

National Air and Space Museum photo

published in Vogue, 1 Nov 1955

Not every scientific development was met with instant failure or success.  Tappan's Radarange - the first commercial microwave oven - had been sold since 1946, but largely was ignored by the public.  A decade later, Chrysler introduced a push-button automatic transmission.  Drivers found it hard to use for parking, when their eyes quickly moved around, looking everywhere except at the small button cluster on the dashboard.


The "Bottle Opener" Years

cork seal in bottom of bottle cap

Cantrell and Cochrane, Super Coola can

Bottle openers were simple but essential tools, needed to open cork-lined crimped metal caps.  Bottle caps were so ingrained in our lives that when someone finally decided to put soft drinks in cans, we still needed bottle openers!

Whatever you drank, and whether it came in cans or bottles, the jingles and advertising campaigns were with us whenever we listened to radio or watched television - that is, all the time.  Am I the only one whose family included females who discussed the merits of the annual Miss Rheingold contestants?  Evidently, sales of Rheingold tripled because of the contest.  For the year of her reign, a winner would appear in TV and magazine ads, as she sailed, bowled, vacationed, hunted, rode on horseback, sunned at the seashore, and even was taught how to bunt by Casey Stengel.  But she was never seen drinking beer!

1953 Miss Rheingold Finalists

Tippi Hedren did not win, but she did go on to star in 'The Birds.'
Later, she gave birth to Melanie Griffith, and still later
she became the grandmother of Dakota Johnson.


Farewell to Coal

Daily News, October 9, 1955

The railroad ended its long dependence on coal in 1955.  In October of that year, a ceremony at Hicksville commemorated the change.  Although the reasons behind it were economic, towns like Hicksville received other tangible benefits.  Travelers on the LIRR now could open windows on hot days without fear of being covered in ash and hot cinders (something which I learned in childhood was no fun at all).  There was less smoke in the air, and coal dust stopped accumulating on buildings near the tracks.  With no steam locomotives needing to take on water, the old railroad water tank that blighted Jerusalem Avenue was demolished.


Separating the Good From the Bad

Japanese Beetle

Praying Mantis

Eastern Tent Caterpillar

Wikimedia Commons

In school, we were taught that some life forms are better than others.  Praying mantises, for example, were sacrosanct because they helped control pests.  I cannot recall ever being told just which pests they killed, but pests were abundant in Hicksville when we were children.  Every year, Japanese beetles came from... well, wherever they always came from, to feast on peonies, roses, or anything else they found in our gardens.  Children collected them in jars; my father bought insecticidal sprays; nothing helped very much.  Every so many years, tent caterpillars appeared en masse.  Well-organized, they expanded their birth tents into multi-chambered dwellings.  If one ventured out and found a tree with edible leaves, it laid a scent trail back to the tent.  Thereafter, hundreds of its siblings would follow the trail and denude the tree of its leaves.

Daily News, May 5, 1957

Huntington Long-Islander, June 16, 1916

1957 was a boon year for the Eastern tent caterpillar.  One could not ride a bicycle near any overgrown lot without hearing them pop and squish green liquid out from under the tires.  The official response that year was to spray plenty of DDT everywhere.  Forty-one years earlier, a communal rather than a chemical solution had worked better: children collected nests in a competition; all the nests collected were destroyed.




My first Hicksville September was in 1954, and it was dramatic.  Hurricane Carol knocked out telephone service and power for 200,000 LILCO customers, including most of Hicksville .  Winds tore shingles and antennas from houses; rain found new ways to leak into homes.  We read by candlelight, as we had been told Abe Lincoln had done.  A record tidal surge of 14.4 feet flooded the coast.  With aircraft all across the east seeking shelter, Mitchel Field offered use of its hangar space, after first evacuating the bombers stationed there to inland USAF bases.

No one had been ready, largely because the day before, Carol had been downgraded to a gale, and forecasts called only for rain and occasional gusts of wind.  Oops.  Ten days later, when Hurricane Edna struck, people were better prepared.  Ahead of time, LILCO conferred with contractors at the Old Country Road offices, planning which of them would be dispatched to repair fallen power lines in different parts of the Island .

This time, workers at La Guardia built a temporary dike to keep out surging sea water:

New York Daily News, September 11, 1954

Although Edna did not strike Long Island as squarely as Carol had, it deposited more rain in 24 hours than Greater New York had received in such a period in more than 50 years.  Before our power died (it soon would be restored), we watched WPIX broadcast storm scenes live, a first for the New York area.  The next day, much of our class time was spent talking about having once again "roughed it" at home with no power.


Who's Afraid of the Big Bad World?

As we were nearing our final years of elementary school, the world at large came into sharper focus because of a recession.  Car sales plummeted by more than 30%, unemployment rose, and (to everyone's surprise) consumer prices simultaneously increased.  Many of our parents felt uneasy.  As some lost their jobs, the rest worried: "What if prices keep going up and I lose my job, too?"

1958 Edsel Corsair coupe

The Edsel became the unintended symbol of the 1957-1958 recession

The recession did not last long, but it was the most severe post-war recession until the 1970s.  Its lasting casualties would be mourned in Detroit , as Hudson, Nash, Packard, DeSoto, and Edsel were doomed.  All but the last enjoyed customer loyalty to the end, but they no longer had enough customers to be profitable.  Smaller cars, led by Volkswagen, had gained lasting footholds in the U.S.

Davy Crockett and Mickey Mouse Club played their parts in our childhood, but so did "take cover" drills.  One day, while crouching under my desk (i.e., to dodge hypothetical flying shards of window glass caused by shock waves from distant nuclear blasts), I heard a fellow student observe, "Of course, we'd all die from radiation anyway."

The Korean War - oops, Conflict - ceased before we learned much about it.  I don't think we were taught much about the war at Lee Avenue , but I read an overview in a comic book in the barber shop at Allied.  Obviously, it had been published to drum up popular support for the UN effort.  Incidentally, while checking facts as I wrote this, I learned that when Ted Williams was activated for his second war, and flew fighters over Korea as a Marine, he was chosen to fly alongside someone whose name was later in the news a great deal.

John Glenn and Ted Williams, his wingman in Korea

In addition to Korea , there still were the Cold War, combat in Suez and in Algeria , and guerilla fighting in Budapest ; moreover, the U.S. had begun advising / training South Vietnamese troops.  When we visited UN headquarters on school trips, it seemed too tranquil a place to belong to the world we heard about in the news.



Freshman Disorientation

Junior High was crowded, noisy, and bewildering.  You could do an indoor lap around the split-level square doughnut of a building, and accidentally finish on the wrong floor.

In 7th grade, my homeroom teacher's efforts to teach us study skills were puzzling.  He exhorted us to study "how to study," so that we'd learn how to study.  Study Hall didn't help.  That was a place to doodle and daydream, to watch the leaves turn color, and on a bad day to count the spit balls on the ceiling.  For some, it was a convenient place to copy other people's homework instead of bothering to study at all.

So smooth and creamy on the outside;
so nutty on the inside

photo by Anthony R. Wencer

Each day of the week had its own rut, and finding our way to our next class became automatic.  By 9th grade, we had benefited from our interactions with some excellent teachers, and with some who were less than excellent.  The chaos of being one of 3,600 students - more than in any other single school building in the State - would leave many of us with low opinions of school administrators.


Charms to Soothe the Savage Breast*

*Shakespeare never did say 'to soothe the savage beast.'

Thanks to radio, Dick Clark, and 45s, we had music.  Inventing the transistor had won a Nobel Prize, but someone's discovering how to mass-produce it cheaply was what benefited us.  Portable radios became feasible.

The music we heard felt as young as we were.  Listening to it, we forged a bond with the performers, and with each other.  We didn't worry much about the songwriters and music publishers who kept the flow of new hits going.  Again and again, new songs rose like the sun and brightened our days.  Fan magazines posed ridiculous questions: Is Frankie Avalon sexier than Paul Anka?  Is Connie Francis' heart really broken?  If we look back now, we may shake our heads a little, but we were young, music gave us a social framework, and we liked things that way.

Gary Stevens had not yet arrived in 1964

Music grew with us - or at least, it kept changing.  By the end of high school, we would have rock in a variety of well-established forms, folk music, a Wall of Sound that had forever altered the soundtrack of Christmas, incredible surfer harmonies, and a tsunami of British music that spurred fans to shriek with delight.


A Time to Mourn

Just before 1:00 AM on February 3, 1959, under a starless sky, a small airplane headed down an Iowa runway.  Once aloft, it banked sharply, slid obliquely downward, and violently cartwheeled into the ground.  Flying blind in the falling snow, the sky black above and the farms black below, conditions had forced the young pilot to rely on a new dashboard instrument he had never even seen before.  Everyone died on impact.

New York Daily News, February 4, 1959

As memorable as the loss remains, the incident had to compete for headline space.  In East Germany , an American convoy headed for Berlin was being detained at a Soviet checkpoint.  In New York , an airliner had crashed into the East River , killing 65 people.

Most of us had limited experience with mourning, and none with mourning the loss of celebrities about whom we cared.  It did not feel good, but we would get more practice.  By June 1964, singers Johnny Horton, Eddie Cochran, and Patsy Cline all would die in crashes.


Neatness Counted

In the 1980s, when my son's teachers said that children needed home computers to do well in school, I laughed.  I remembered my parents getting a typewriter in the 1950s, after a teacher told them that students like my next-older sister needed one to succeed in high school.  Before that, they had been told that students like her older sister (who already was at the top of her high school class) needed a good fountain pen to do well.

We could buy these pens in school, with six ink cartridges, for about $1.39.

In the 1950s, did your Mom or Dad spend 6 bucks apiece on ballpoint pens for you?

A Smith-Corona like my sister's; the color was called "Desert Sand."

In Junior High, our text books had to be covered; for some reason, the bright shiny covers with the college names and colors were popular.  Decent ballpoint pens were hard to find.  The early cheap click ballpoints skipped, smeared, and stopped writing with plenty of ink remaining - unless they fell apart first.  The ones with clips marked USA were rumored to originate in Usa , supposedly an obscure place in Japan .  Not true.  They were junk, but they were American-made junk.  Fortunately, Paper-Mates and Parker Jotters came along.


Into the 1960s with Enthusiasm

First the Soviets put dogs in space (they didn't return).  Then we sent monkeys, and later a chimp, on round trips.  NASA's rockets and capsules seemed ready, but it took more than a year to finalize the procedures for sending Alan Shepherd into space.  While he waited, Yuri Gagarin eventually went there and back.  A month later, we listened to radio coverage via the PA system, as Shepherd took America 's first space flight.  Three years later, when we graduated from HHS, Project Mercury had run its course, and Project Gemini test flights were in progress.

Unlike his non-human predecessors
in space, NASA's Ham actually
performed tasks, like moving
levers on command.

President Kennedy's ability to inspire made deep impressions.  He described space as The New Frontier, and he championed the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo projects that had been started in the 1950s during the Eisenhower Administration.

The Physical Fitness movement arose because draftees and enlistees who joined the American military were arriving in increasingly bad shape.  Ike's Council on Youth Fitness had been unable to improve things, but Kennedy succeeded, in part by re-purposing an old memo from Teddy Roosevelt.  TR had challenged Marines to go on 50-mile hikes; now, JFK used the same wording to urge all Americans to go on them.

author's collection

I, for one, would have gladly hiked 50 miles back then instead of enduring "Physical Fitness Mondays" in Phys Ed.  Each week, immediately following Lunch, I faced 50 minutes of calisthenics, steadily working during the year up to 75 of these, 200 of those, a mile lap on the track, etc.  Male students all endured these sessions, and many eventually received Marine Corps fitness certificates.


News, to Remember and Forget

As a nation, we continued to achieve exciting things in space and in the gymnasium, but the world at large remained troubling.

The Bay of Pigs debacle was shameful.  The Cuban Missile Crisis ended better, despite the brinkmanship.  It was, incidentally, not quite the victory that we thought at the time: in exchange for the removal of USSR missiles from Cuba, we removed our comparable Moscow-aimed missiles from Turkey.

East German border guard Hans Konrad Schumann, 19,
escapes to the West by leaping over barbed wire

The world watched as East Germany built a wall across Berlin.  At least 140 people would later die trying to cross it, but in the beginning, thousands made it to the West safely.  Viet Cong forces won their first victory of many.  Buddhist monks died in flaming protest against the South Vietnamese Diem government - a regime later toppled by its own military, its leaders executed.

In domestic news, Martin Luther King led demonstrations for equal civil rights, and then organized a March on Washington.  A Klan church bombing killed four Alabama girls.  Prayer in public school was banned.  Timothy Leary was fired from Harvard because of unauthorized experiments with psychedelic drugs.  The first liver transplant was performed.  Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe died, as did Billie Holiday and Dinah Washington.


Television Grew With Us

As the program line-up evolved, anti-communist shows like I Led Three Lives went the way of McCarthyism.  Westerns stampeded over much of the competition, as reality shows have done in recent years.  Popular radio shows like Gunsmoke were reborn for television, often with new, more visually-appealing actors in lieu of the radio stars.  Outlandish sitcoms like I Love Lucy yielded to more polished series, with real plots and some drama as well as laughs, like the Dick Van Dyke show.  Phil Silvers, whose burlesque manner had not worked on radio, thrived as Sgt. Bilko on You'll Never Get Rich.  Perhaps the most curious sitcom was The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, which almost exclusively featured teenagers as major characters.  The show relied on words and whimsy, not sets and scenery.  In case you've forgotten, the only movie theater in town always played the same movie, The Monster That Devoured Cleveland.

There were varieties of variety shows.  Dinah Shore's was mostly musical, Red Skelton's was mostly comedic, and Ed Sullivan's was mostly... hard to categorize.

And he could wield a comb even
better than he could act!

Aimed squarely at us were the Warner Brothers' crime-fighting series, like 77 Sunset Strip and Hawaiian Eye.  We joined our parents as they watched Naked City, Peter Gunn, and Perry Mason.  Incidentally, Mason episodes included a wide range of actors, from silent-era great Francis X. Bushman to a very young Robert Redford, in his first-ever appearance on a screen.

Game shows with huge prizes held the nation's attention, until news broke that some were fixed.  Panel shows, and Truth or Consequences (a transplant from radio), were watched because people enjoyed seeing the game played; prizes didn't really matter.

Theater had a strong presence on TV.  There were live dramas, even musicals like Kiss Me Kate or Peter Pan.  The latter featured the original Broadway cast (except for the child actors, who had outgrown their roles).  Rod Serling's Twilight Zone showed us life from new and fantastic perspectives.  You Are There recreated historical events, from the death of Socrates through the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Sadly, we no longer have to imagine.

The television season was long, and regular shows took the summer off.  Instead of reruns, we got "summer replacement" series, sometimes hosted by stars like Bobby Darin.  Quality reruns only came along after the invention of videotape, which made its on-air debut late in 1963, showing us the first instant replays during the annual Army-Navy football game.  New technologies also made possible trans-oceanic broadcasts (the first used Telstar I in 1962), and series in color (Bonanza was the first to use color from the start).


Alas, Dallas

We were seniors, and events suddenly revealed that we were more innocent and vulnerable than we knew.  JFK's death seemed to indelibly stain our lives.  Looking back now across the years, trying to ignore all the later theories, revelations, and hypotheses, can we still see the John F. Kennedy whom we thought we knew?

As children of our times, we viewed the world through broadcast media.  After the countless pictures of aged leaders like Konrad Adenauer and Charles De Gaulle, JFK seemed refreshing.  In hindsight, he reminds me of the era's Pepsi slogan, which extolled those who think young.  In fact, he was our parents' age, and he had always been fabulously wealthy.  We had no real reason to identify with him, but we did.

In 1959, my English teacher praised Kennedy's book Profiles in Courage, hoping to convince us that a successful politician could still value principles.  Others of my teachers would also praise Senator-cum-President Kennedy.  When, in our sophomore year, the school Variety Show was called The New Frontier, the choice surprised no one.  Our generation was so smitten with JFK that we overlooked something obvious: he had garnered only 50.17% of the popular vote; many Americans were less impressed.

America later learned that, as with any other man, his substance and image differed; there had been concealed nuances and imperfections.  Such flaws in no way excused his murder, or negated the ensuing national suffering and grief.

Leaving Fort Worth for Dallas, November 22, 1963

That afternoon, the news spread quickly, stunning faculty and students alike.  Some wept.

In the coming days, media reconstructed our view of the world, so that everything seemed to be happening in the context of the tragedy.  In this new world, old names and faces yielded to new ones.  Dan Rather, a local Dallas reporter, became a regular presence on our screens.  A touching British television tribute introduced David Frost to us.  Lee Harvey Oswald was barely more than a name, until he became a contorted face as he was murdered on live national television.  Jack Ruby, assassin of an assassin, took his place in the news.

John F. Kennedy Jr.
at his father's funeral

The shock was relentless, and ever deepening.  To recapture the feeling now is like chasing after an elusive dream.  Grief rolled over us like a rogue wave at Jones Beach.  There was no escape; we had to let it happen.  As had been true on "the day the music died," we would need time to process and to heal, and healing would mean stretching something within us, stretching it until we could believe that, even after all this, the world was still OK.




We all have our own idiosyncratic memories of these years.  I, for one, am not overly-nostalgic.  I believe the times were not as good as they seemed - or rather, I believe that they seemed good to us because, unlike our parents, we did not have to spend them working at jobs, paying mortgages and bills, fretting about inflation, perhaps quietly suffering  from PTSD, and raising our children the best we could.  Objectively, this yesterday was no better than today.

We were the first generation raised with, and thus manipulated by, telemedia.  We believed too readily in so many things.  That an actress's hair looked great because of the shampoo she endorsed.  That clean-cut, fair-haired people never lied.  That owning a car with tail fins showed people that you were focused on the future.

Some among us may have been persuaded that one brand of cigarette made a man more manly, or a woman more appealing.  Today, of course, we know that many of the public figures who were paid to endorse cigarettes later succumbed to smoking-induced cancers.

Indeed, as we've matured, we've learned new things, and we've had to unlearn some old ones.  Perhaps some of our knee-jerk reactions to our feel-good memories are suspect, but over all, those years gave us a good start in life, and they deserve to be celebrated.