I am part Irish. Most of my ancestors on my dad’s side came from Ireland. They say the Irish are lucky. I don’t know about that; it’s not for nothing that so many of them decided to leave Ireland. But I guess I was pretty lucky to have been born when and where I was. It could have been a lot worse.
People often refer to “the good old days,” but when were those days, and were they really that good? What was so great about it? These questions occurred to me while reading The Hippies: A 1960s History, by John Anthony Moretta. I am particularly interested in this time period, because my mystery series, the Beth and Evie mysteries, are set in the late 1960s. (The second one is coming soon.)
Moretta starts the story in the 1950s with the beatniks of San Francisco. (To the beatniks, hippie meant little, or fake, hipster.) According to Moretta, when highways were built through San Francisco, it caused a devaluation of property values in the Haight Ashbury neighborhood and created a cheap rent district, inhabited by beatniks and a younger crowd. The younger people adopted some of the beatnik lifestyle choices and jargon, added some of their own, and became the hippies.
When most people say “the good old days” I think they mean when they were kids. Which makes sense. If you had a fairly normal childhood, you were fed, had a roof over your head, and few worries, at least at first. Some people, maybe especially those too young to remember those times, think of the post WWII years as the good old days.
And they’re right. In many ways those were good years for the country as a whole. Although some were left behind, the economy boomed, and the birthrate boomed along with it. Houses, though much smaller than those built today, were relatively inexpensive. Home ownership went from a low of 44% of all households in 1940, to almost 62% in 1960. (And has stayed in the sixty-seventy percentile range ever since.) The interstate highway system was built. Between manufacturing and construction, jobs were plentiful.
My preschool years, 1951-1957, were good. They were spent on a farm in northwestern Minnesota. There, I played with my siblings and the family dog, roamed around, climbed trees, ate wild plums, built snow forts in the winter, played on the swing set my dad built, and befriended the farm animals. Sure, there were some bad times. But, as a kid, I didn’t know about the money problems, the failed crops and the unrelenting hard work that ultimately drove my folks to sell the farm and move to town.
To me, a weekly Saturday night bath in a galvanized tub in the basement was just normal. But, my mother had to heat the water, and bail out the tub once we were all scrubbed clean. The drafty old farm house didn’t bother me. It just meant snuggling under a quilt with my sisters, or with my grandma when she took over during one of my mother’s extended stays in the hospital after yet another child was born. (There are eight of us. And the hospital stays, in those days, were a week to two weeks. A break that she probably needed.)
While living on the farm, our family was part of the wave of progress sweeping the country. I remember getting our first TV set, and watching the Mickey Mouse Playhouse. Nationally, TV ownership boomed. It went from 9% of households in 1950, to 90% by 1960. We got our first phone—a party line. By 1960, nearly 80% of households had phones, up from 37% in 1940. After we moved to town, some of the most exciting news was of the space race and lunar landings. In those days, there was a pervasive feeling that progress was inevitable.
But, things weren’t all rosy. With a booming economy came air and water pollution. In 1970, Time Magazine featured the Cuyahoga River fire of 1969. Actually, it had caught fire a number of times before that, but no one cared until that article was printed. Shortly thereafter, laws limiting the dumping of industrial waste into rivers started to pass.
Litter was everywhere alongside the newly built roads, and advertising billboards obscured the views. Species were becoming extinct, among them were our national bird, the eagle. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, 1962, is about the effects of pesticides on the environment. Controversial, at the time, it eventually helped bring about a nationwide ban on DDT. Now, thanks to conservation efforts, eagles are a common sight. I’ve even seen them in the nearby Powderhorn Park.
And then there was the boredom and anxiety of the suburban lifestyle, as noted by Betty Friedan in The Feminine Mystique, 1963. And, worst of all, the ever present threat of nuclear war. Alcohol and barbiturate sales boomed in the 1960s. Apparently, it takes more than affluence to make people happy.
Personally, in the late 1950s and 1960s, after my family moved to town, came school with its worries about grades and friends; a narrowing of where I could go, no more wandering through barns, woods, and gardens; and losing the family dog. He was left behind, with the assumption that he wouldn’t adjust to town living. On the plus side was indoor plumbing. No more scary trips to the outhouse after dark.
As I grew up, there was a dawning awareness of a bigger, exciting, but scary world. One of the scariest things, as I said, was nuclear war. Remember the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, when it seemed like the nightmare had arrived? In those days, we had frequent air raid drills in school, instead of today’s active shooter drills. We learned to either hide under our desk, or march single file to the nearest air raid shelter, depending, I suppose, on how much time we were presumed to have before nuclear Armageddon. A memorable movie Dr. Strangelove, 1964, was a comedy (!) about nuclear annihilation. Then, there were the assassinations of JFK, Robert Kennedy, MLK, and others. All of that, kind of took the zing out of the presumption of the continuous progress thing.
Which brings us back to the beatniks and the hippies, whose philosophy could be summed up as “live for today, since tomorrow may never come.” Of course, it did come, for most of us. It turns out, those days weren’t all good, or all bad. With a dash of wisdom, and some luck, our tomorrows will continue to come. I hope that one day our kids and grandkids will be talking about their own “good old days.”
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