On Writing

"Every fine story must leave in the mind of the sensitive reader an intangible residuum of pleasure, a cadence, a quality of voice that is exclusively the writer's own, individual, unique."
Willa Cather

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Coming of Age in the ‘50s: A Place in the Sun

           We’re called the Silent Generation, and rightly so.  We had welcomed back from the War our brothers and fathers who slipped seamlessly into their former roles.  Of course, some didn’t come back, but they’d made the sacrifice for world peace, and we were comforted.  Now our own young men had to spend time in Korea, but again, we believed in the Cause—defeating the spread of Communism.  And so we were silent.  We were aware of other concerns that were confronting us, atom bombs, for one, but we couldn’t do much about that, and besides, their use had ended the war.  And so we were silent.
East High, Des Moines, Iowa, January 1955
            The pace of life in the ‘50s was not hectic, but full and fun.  Women had totally embraced “The New Look,” and even girls wore mid-length flowing skirts or form-fitting sheaths. We had boy-girl parties in junior high where we played spin the bottle as an excuse to kiss one another innocently.  Football and basketball games, along with sock hops in high school enlivened our studies.  And those wonderful formal dances at the Tromar or Val Aire with that beautiful, romantic music--how lucky we were!      
             Drugs were not unknown, but only certain individuals were reputed to be using marijuana, at the most.  Oddly enough, I was “pals” with a tough guy at my high school called “Duke,” who was a rarity by having his own car, a Studebaker coupe, and by wearing a leather jacket and his hair in a DA.  We never talked about drugs, but the rumors were rife that he indulged in them.  For some reason, we gave each other advice, even about clothes, he suggesting I wear tight straight skirts to “show off my best feature!”  We never went beyond conversations, however, as we both knew we weren’t the other’s type.
            I went to an integrated school, so the race concerns that were affecting the South had little impact on me personally and less on our school system. The Rosa Parks affair was smack dab in the middle of the ‘50s, but for us teenagers in the Midwest, that definitive issue was as remote as the moon.  I lived in ignorance, even unaware of the ruling from the Supreme Court, presided over by my second cousin once removed, Chief Justice Earl Warren.  I know that my one assurance was that our nation’s leaders would always end up doing what was the right thing, the best thing for everyone. Eisenhower’s “I Like Ike” catch-phrase dominated the era, and whether he was an effective President or not, he was a symbol to the populace that all of our problems were under control.  If anything got out of order, Ike could fix it.  Democrats controlled Congress, but Republicans had the Presidency—at least for two terms.  Not until the ‘60s would another generation respond very differently to the government's policies.  And to those of us from the Silent Generation observing those violent protests, all hell seemed to break loose.  But that’s another story.
            As far as religious duties, everyone in my day seemed to attend one church or another, and though we didn’t make much of the many Protestant groups, Roman Catholics were a different matter, almost feared by outsiders.  The Midwest, like probably many other areas of the country at that time, preferred a conventional outlook; we craved anonymity and conformity as an appropriate approach to life, so “popishness” could only be suspect.  Furthermore, I knew only one Jewish girl who lived in our neighborhood and attended my high school.  Poor thing.  She was truly an outsider, not treated badly, but rather ignored.  We didn’t intend to be cruel, but we hardly knew how to react to anyone whose background was so extraordinary.  True, we of the '50s were less tolerant of differences, thinking everyone wanted to be like us--white, respectful of authority, and Protestant.  But seeing how much filth is tolerated today, I wonder about some happy medium.      
         The ‘50s were a time when women—girls particularly—were protected from themselves as well as men.  Sex was hardly mentioned overtly, only suggested as something reserved for “sluts” and “whores” outside of marriage, but as sacred after the ceremony.  In high school I dated many guys and in my senior year went to fraternity dances at then Iowa State University and the University of Iowa with my mother’s blessing.  She had no fear of anything untoward happening to me as I went under the auspices of slightly older friends.  I only had one unpleasant experience, and that wasn’t dangerous, when a blind date at Iowa State tried to get me into the football game with a student ID he had procured.  The problem was that the person I was supposed to be, “Felipe Navas,” was so improbable that I was refused admittance.  The rest of the day followed this pattern of stupidity and carelessness.  The date turned out to be a member of the band, so I sat out all the numbers at the dance while he steadily drank until his fraternity brothers carried him off at the end of the evening.  That was my last adventure with a blind date. 
            At my own college, girls had a curfew of ten o’clock during weekdays, upped to midnight on weekends.  Dorms were NOT coed, a concept that still seems ridiculous to me and one I would have hated to live with.  The one great difference in relations between the sexes then and now is that the sense of mystery we enjoyed is gone.  Then, girls maintained a reserve that only was breached when a couple became “pinned” or engaged.  It made the dating game exciting and romantic, something that today’s young people cannot even imagine.  Is it significant that among my sorority sisters in a ten-member “round robin” there have been over the last fifty-plus years no divorces?
            All this may seem strange to those who came after us, but it added up to a time remembered as peaceful and orderly.  Nothing stays the same, and throughout history, there have been periods of licentiousness and disorder, eventually resolving into a less chaotic period, which again is replaced by something else.  I can’t imagine what might be in store for my grandchildren’s children, but I would hope they’d experience a semblance of the happy times of my generation’s youth.