Column: A brief return to the 1950s

For the Valley News
Published: 11/26/2021 10:10:27 PM
Modified: 11/26/2021 10:10:11 PM

I recently received an email from a friend, a cri de coeur from a magnificent gardener: “Climate change, COVID-19, conspiracy theories and now jumping snake worms!”

I decided a departure from 2021 was in order for a short while, and imagined inviting her to a restorative evening and the kind of dinner we all remember from the 1950s.

Eschewing overcooked vegetables and Jell-O molds with marshmallows — a bridge too far — I would choose chocolate cake from a Betty Crocker mix, meatloaf, SpaghettiOs, iceberg lettuce with blue cheese dressing, washed down with Mateus Rosé and preceded of course, with shrimp cocktails, the shrimp clinging to the rim of a glass like survivors of a shipwreck.

Yes, this might be a frivolous exercise in search of relief from the daily barrage of despair. But it hurts no one and hopefully lifts our spirits to fight on for the things we value.

With that said, the ’50s, of course, were not a great time at all.

We had Joseph McCarthy and other mad men. The Manhattan Project was a recent memory and so were its results — Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Black men were being hanged in the South by so-called vigilantes, and the postwar life of Holocaust survivors was a struggle. Abortion was not legal and the physical and psychological effects of illegal abortions were legion. My own mother had an abortion at this time, an event she mentioned to me once in passing, but refused to speak of ever again.

At the same time, Father Knows Best and Fred Astaire offered an alternate reality in the time of Jell-O and Spam, both ubiquitous at the time. Lassie was dog king and Buster Brown shoes offered X-rays of our feet, right there in the shoe store.

However, the perceived atomic threat to the United States from the Soviet Union cast a large shadow. The Eisenhower Interstate Highway System, begun in the 1950s, was a way of evacuating cities if we were attacked. “Duck and cover” was an exercise we were all taught in school, but how hiding under a small wooden desk could protect you from an atom bomb was a question no one would answer.

On the other hand, home ownership was growing and modest houses were available easily, even from catalogs like Sears. And what about those Sears Roebuck catalogs, tomes the size of bread boxes, which made for hours of fascinating perusal and wishful thinking?

There were soda fountains, where even a child like me, with almost no money, could sometimes afford a black-and-white ice cream soda, a treat I still rate as supreme. And we had a Hula-Hoop, which I liked but somehow never mastered, and on Saturdays we sometimes went to the movies, which occasionally were — wonder of wonders — in 3D, viewed with cardboard glasses they gave you free!

On the darker side, there was the polio epidemic. In 1952, almost 60,000 children in the U.S. alone contracted polio; thousands were paralyzed and 3,000 died.

But in 1953, a safe vaccine was developed by Dr. Jonas Salk, who first gave this vaccine to his family — himself, his wife and his three children. By 1955, the incidence of polio in the United States, following mass vaccinations, had fallen by 85-90%.

I am not a fan of looking backward, except perhaps to remind myself that some things have improved. Was there ever a time that was struggle-free, even for the most fortunate?

For nostalgia to work, it is necessary to cherry pick the past.

Joan Jaffe lives in Norwich.




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