Friday, May 25, 2007


(News-Herald, May 24) Nostalgia is a powerful force, powerful enough to disable some brain cells while filling others with a rosy glow of altered old images.

A favorite decade for rosy reminiscence is the fifties.

I don’t have a strong personal connection to the decade, but then, I was only alive for the last three years of it, and I will admit that in those days I didn’t pay much attention to current events.

But what I read about the fifties does not make me sad that I more or less missed them.

The decade opened with a really scary global power grab by Communists that pretty well ruined the warm afterglow of accomplishment left over from WWII. We had gone from leaders of the free world to one of the last beleaguered outposts of it. We got to wrap our heads around the nuclear arms race and the mysteries that accompanied it.

Students dutifully learned to duck and cover; an educational film of the era shows a family pulling a picnic blanket over their heads for protection from a nuclear explosion. A certain amount of the 1950’s peace of mind came from believing whatever the government told us, no matter how stupid it was.

Socially, there was not too much unrest. That was because people who were “Not Normal” knew their place and stayed in it. When the nostalgia starts flowing like Clarabelle’s seltzer water, you don’t usually hear elderly African Americans wishing they could be confined to the back of the bus again.

Anyone who dared to step outside the lines, who dared to suggest that some aspects of society were less than delightful, was some sort of dangerous whacko. When southern men killed Emmett Till, a fourteen-year-old Black from Chicago, for daring to whistle at a white woman, people who called for their conviction were accused of being “Communist agitators.”

The fabled peace and quiet of the fifties seems to have come, in retrospect, at the price of squelching the voice of most unique individual persons in the era. The affection for staying inside the lines is understandable; in its own way, it was even reasonable. After all, if you were an adult in 1955, you would be hard pressed to remember a time when the world was not on the brink of one sort of disaster or another. A period of relative peace and quiet had to be mighty attractive.

At the same time, the intolerance for anything that might disturb the peace and quiet seems a bit extreme. After all, it was in the fifties that Congress held hearings to discuss the dangerous, destabilizing, morally corrosive effects of comic books (shudder). Of course, that was before the rise of Elvis and Brando, scary young men who oozed sex.

There were certainly things to love about the fifties (as near as I can tell). There was a great sense of progress—people were able to enjoy financial stability beyond anything their parents had imagined, and even lower-middle class folks could enjoy luxuries beyond anything imagined in all of human history.

And while life was certainly repressive and difficult for many folks, there was also little sense that everyone was entitled to live in a perfect world in which some Higher Authority guaranteed that all would be Perfectly Fair. It’s the irony of the fifties that people probably had more reason than today to be discontented, but were less likely to complain.

It’s worth noting, though, that in all of my reading from the period, I’ve seen little to suggest that folks felt they were living in a golden age. The Commies are everywhere! New weapons like the H-Bomb are scary! Mass media are become morally suspect! And what the heck is that darn rock-and-roll music, if not the herald trumpet of decaying youth!

It’s true of every decade-- at the time, nobody is cheering the splendor of the age. It’s only in the rear-view mirror that joys of the day appear larger than they actually were.

There’s a lesson in that. Someday folks are going to look back at the Ought’s and speak in loving tones. There will be tv shows celebrating the special spirit of the times. It seems a shame to wait until a time is past to love it. It seems a shame to wish that you could go back and live in a time that you did, in fact, already live in; all the bigger shame if, at the time, you were busy wishing you were back in an earlier time.

Better to see spot what we will miss about today while it’s still today, and enjoy it while it’s still warm reality and not a faded memory.

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