Balladeer, Don McLean once said of his 1972 #1 hit song, “Life in America is heading in the wrong direction, it’s becoming less idyllic. I don’t know whether you consider that wrong or right, but basically American Pie a morality song.” And frankly, I can’t disagree…
Psychologists tell us the attitudes we hold come primarily from three sources, personal experience, upbringing, and observation. So my perspectives and general outlook about the world occurred during a time when it can be argued that the United States was at the pinnacle of its power in relation to the rest of the world.
Europe was still rising from the ashes of World War II, Germany in particular was not just devastated, but was now a divided country, and even the victorious Russians were still digging out from the rubble. The Far East wasn’t in much better shape—Japan was recovering after been bombed almost back to the Stone Age, famine stalked China as Mao Zedong was consolidating power amidst great internal unrest, and the Philippines along with most of the southwest Pacific were struggling.
Meanwhile, Americans were living in a climate of promise, optimism and opportunity. We controlled two-thirds of the planet’s industrial capacity, produced 40% of its electricity, 60% of its oil, and almost 70% of it’s steel, not to mention that back then a full 90% of all consumer goods sold in this country were American made.
Perhaps the best term to describe the general attitude of the country (at least from a grade-schooler’s perspective) was one of optimism—and why not? Life was so much simpler then, we could choose among three TV stations and watched shows like Disneyland marveling at the promise of underwater cities, space colonies, personal jet packs and gyrocopters. And everyone just “knew” it would be Americans who would make these advances.
It was a time of 45s, jukeboxes, sock hops, panty raids, drive-in theaters and Pez, as well as long-forgotten terms such as icebox, dime store, console TVs and bobby sox. We were absorbed with important matters such as Davy Crockett coonskin caps, hula-hoops, Frisbees, saddle shoes, poodle skirts, Mousekeeters, Slinkys and that new medium called television
We rode our bicycles everywhere; no one drove us to our Little League games and soccer (soccer?) was virtually unheard of. Every neighbor knew your name (it was difficult to get away with anything when every mom in the neighborhood knew who you were) and adults were addressed as Mr. or Mrs.—no first name basis back then.
When we were thirsty we drank directly from garden hoses (who could have imagined bottled water back then), had to be home when the streetlights came on, pot was something Mom cooked in, no one worried about eating Halloween candies, and trophies were awarded for actually winning, not participating.
The good Sisters of St. Celestine’s grammar school reinforced the notion of America’s greatness, as did the Brothers at St. Patrick High School. American history was actually taught and our civics lessons focused on The Declaration of Independence, the genesis of our Constitution and the interaction of the three branches of government.
Pride in America and the idea of “American exceptionalism” was alive and well. It was also a time when the less fortunate saw themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as citizens who were about to climb the ladder of success, and the notion of taking personal responsibility for one’s actions was a given. In essence, these were simpler, less complicated and happier times for America
But truth be known, the 50’s weren’t as idyllic as many of us old fogies remember. Segregation was the order of the day, Communism was spreading; the flu virus had a 20% fatality rate, American soldiers were dying in Korea, smallpox and the measles killed thousands and of course, we had Joe McCarthy looking for “commies” in every closet. Nonetheless it was a time when by-and-large Americans were happy and prosperous and looked to the future with promise.
So I ask myself, is it even possible to return to those halcyon days—unfortunately, I think not. Some would blame it on the speed of daily life in the technological age or the coarseness that has become the ‘new normal’ in our society. But those conditions aren’t causes, they’re consequences. Consequences of too much political correctness, a government that rewards people for not working, and a “me first” attitude that’s permeates our society
No, this nation will never reach those dazzling heights again, but boy; it was sure fun being a kid back in “the olden days.”