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Essay: The Good Old Days


So-called “White Nationalists” demonstrating in Charlottesville, Virginia, over the weekend told reporters they felt emboldened by the election of Donald Trump last fall, and his calls to “take America back.”

Lake Effect essayist Jim Spangler has been thinking about the America to which some would like to return:

There is much talk these days about what old timers call the “good old days.” Now all that has been coopted by some fellow in Washington D.C. as “Make America Great Again.”

So, if we are going to “Make America Great Again,” we have to assume it was once greater at some time in the past. While the fellow in the red baseball cap has not singled out a particular time, I’d vote for the 1950’s. One reason is I’m old enough to remember the 50s. Maybe all that make America great again talk is what prompted my daughter, a political junkie, to ask me the other day, “Dad, tell me about the 1950s.” In response, I rattled off a few top of the head memories.

But like the lyrics of a song I couldn’t get out of my head, I kept coming back to the question: “Were the 50’s really that different? Or was it just the optimism of youth that colors my memory?”

Let’s explore this whole thing and compare the 1950s to where we are today and presumably where the red baseball cap fellow I guess wants us to go. We can start with statistics, but I promise I won’t bury you with them.

First, economics have changed. In the 50’s almost half the world’s production of goods were produced in the USA, and in cars, trucks and farm tractors, it was 80%. Why? The rest of the major economies of the world were still struggling to recover from the destruction of World War II. As a result we didn’t have much competition. Producers could raise prices and wages to meet union demands without losing market share. As a result wages went up faster, in some years much faster than the cost of living. Now, things are different. Instead of 50% of production the U.S. share is about 20%. Want proof? Look around your house. See if you can find a Made in USA label in your clothes closet. Don’t forget the garage. If I could I’d like to ask the fellow in the red hat “What’s the plan to return the economics to the 50’s?”

Politics have changed. In 1960 the Pew pollsters asked about people’s trust in government. Then 70% said the government would do the right thing always or most of the time. Today Pew says the same question gets 20%. The approval rate for Congress is even worse, in a dead heat with Jack the Ripper. “Again, Mr. Red Cap, with the dysfunction in Washington, what’s the plan to fix it?”

Our personal lives have changed. Gallup reported in 1950 about half the population attended religious services on a “regular” basis. Today the Huffington Post quotes sources that say the number is between 30% and 20%. Probably closer to 20. The divorce rate has doubled since 1955. And children born outside marriage have increased fivefold. This according to the National Vital Statistics Report, a government agency. Assuming the goal is to return us to the personal life of the 1950’s, and I’m not sure that is the goal, how can you turn back that clock?

So much for all the numbers. I believe the subjective differences between the 50s and today are even more telling. Granted this is my opinion and if you, like me, qualify for geezer hood, your memories of the 50s may be different.

There was an unbridled optimism in the 50s. We all had a little “Rosie the Riveter” in us. Remember the poster, the gal with a red bandana and blue work shirt flexing her biceps? Her slogan was “We can do it” and we did. Won the largest war in history, worked our way out of the Great Depression, and conquered polio with the Salk vaccine. We had television sets, TV dinners and room air conditioners, two-tone cars with fins, automatic transmissions and V-8 engines. If Rip Van Winkle awoke from a 10-year sleep in 1960 he would hardly recognize the place. So, Mr. President, can you pull a Rosie the Riveter rabbit out of that red hat of yours?

Life then seemed less stratified and more homogenized. We were all in this thing together. Like all the other guys. I rode my bike to junior high, no mom’s taxi for me, and never owned a bicycle lock. Dad car pooled to work with two top executives and another mid-manager like himself. The pick-up baseball game in the school yard across the street included boys from across the economic spectrum. Never mind how much money your dad made. Can you hit and can you field? Boys would sleep in backyard tents on warm summer nights and nobody gave their safety a thought. We mowed our own grass, washed our own cars and painted our own houses. Of all the things I miss about those days 60 years ago, I long for these things the most. Well, not painting the house part! Maybe I miss it so much because I know this was a time that can never be again.

Mr. Red Hat is not the first and won’t be the last to use a catchy slogan. Kennedy talked about the New Frontier, Nixon had his Silent Majority, Reagan his Shinning City on a Hill, LBJ had the Great Society, and George W. Bush told us about Compassionate Conservatism. Tell me, have we already forgotten Hope and Change?

The 50s are gone. And I was fortunate enough to have been a part of that era. Maybe, just maybe, we will both be smart and lucky. And maybe if we conduct ourselves with an eye on the future as we should, someday 60 years from now my great nephew, who just graduated from high school last month, will echo his then long gone great uncle by saying “remember the good old days.”

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Jim Spangler comments on the life experiences we all share, drawing on a 40-year newspaper career in Human Resources and labor relations, following a business degree from the University of Iowa and a stint in the Marines.