The Early 60’s in Retrospect
Charlie said it: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” The 60’s, living in the moment, hitting the streets, coming of age. Two-thirds of today’s contemporary America missed it. They hadn’t been born. Usually caught rolling their eyes, they’ve heard about it, read about it, and they’re probably pretty tired of it. It’s understandable. After submitting to the strict application of chronometric dating, that era ended about 50 years ago. It did bleed into the early 70’s, commensurate with the end of the last ice age.
“You Boomers, you’re NOT going to start talking about the 60’s again are you?”
It was back in your day when love was free, and zigzag had nothing to do with a symmetric pattern. Tie dye and bell bottoms were in. Madras and peggers were out. Cruising endured, music had soul, and somehow, somewhere, somebody turned on, tuned in, and dropped out. Some did, some didn’t. Many were spectators’, some were selective participants, others would actually lead movements. In reality this trite return to yesteryear is just an exaggerated snapshot of the latter part of the decade. The earlier years were a little different.
1962-They Were Just Sixteen
Boomers—the prodigy of the “Greatest Generation” were making their debut. Decked out in penny loafers, Jack Purcell’s, pedal pushers and corduroy lace up flats, they were just two years away from being newly minted high school grads. It was the time of American Graffiti not Woodstock. By appearances, they had more in common with the class of “57” than “67.” This was the age of the Rat Pack, The Manchurian Candidate, Doctor No, and Lawrence of Arabia. While Elvis was following his dream, young people were listening to Bobbie; Vinton not Dylan. Music was about love, broken hearts, and pulling oneself up by the bootstraps, not political commentary. TV broadcasts from the Columbia Broadcasting System were still in black and white. Cronkite was now anchoring the evening news. Over the seven VHF channels in L.A., The Beverly Hill Billies, Candid Camera and Red Skelton rounded out the top three TV shows. A colorized Bonanza carried NBC’s flag in fourth.
Up until now, the automatic dishwasher was considered a luxury item and there was no perma-press cycle on a clothes dryer. Rotary dials were going out. Push buttons were coming in. Steelcase desktops now sported electric “Selectrics,” where manual “Underwoods” once roamed. (Whiteout and carbon paper not included.) The Encyclopedia Britannica was prominently displayed in the living room bookcase complemented by a coffee table meticulously arranged with copies of Life, Look, and National Geographic. If company was coming, dad’s Louis Lamour paperbacks, and the TV trays, were no- where to be seen. The prominent placement of the “21” Magnavox console would dictate how the rest of the room was arranged.
The back to back recessions that ended the 50’s and started the 60’s were over while economists touted the growing need for professional and technical training. Even back then, blue collars were being exchanged for white while the notion of merit began to erode the longstanding male patronage practices of the nation’s selective colleges. William Wythe’s Organization Man still wore a fedora. It was the heyday of IBM, 3M, and M&M’s. If the nation was still seeing the U.S.A. in a Chevrolet, it was preferably in an Impala. Cookie cutter ranch style tract homes with enough wood paneling to deforest the State of Oregon kept the sawmills of Weyerhaeuser humming. The Feminine Mystique had yet to be published but the “Pill” had been available for nearly two years. Gender separation was still alive and well; the boys were in “Shop” the girls were in ‘Home Ec.”
Glenn’s three laps in Friendship 7 pushed the U.S. in front of the space race. A hopeful nation was in need of that. There were missiles in Cuba; duck and cover continued. Try as he may, Nikita still hadn’t buried us, but Fidel’s pigs in a bay had already sent the U.S. a sobering message. Somewhat unnoticed, U.S. military presence in Vietnam had grown too 11,300. To date, Mao had killed 45 million of his own people whilst the CIA had ratcheted up its covert operations in Laos, Cambodia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Where are these places? The public would slowly become aware of the Agency’s reach when U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers was the subject of a prisoner exchange with a U.S. held Soviet spy. After its previous intervention into the governments of Guatemala and Iran, the Agency allegedly adopted the motto: “Practice Makes Perfect.” In the meantime, the White House had become Camelot while Hoffa made it clear that he and Jack were not drinking buddies. Back in California, the press was shocked and dismayed; it was not going to have Nixon to kick arounds anymore.
For kids and adults alike, the threat of nuclear annihilation was real. Mao and Nikita were the poster children of evil while the U.S. escalated its meddling in the affairs of foreign nations. To know what happened overseas, even the broadcast anchors would wait for the news reels to arrive. Kennedy authorized the doubling of the draft, allegedly in response to the Berlin Crisis not Vietnam. Environmental degradation could no longer be ignored, while racial discrimination and segregation were rationalized by most as the “colored” problems of the South. The Bracero program was phasing out while the fight for farm worker’s rights was just beginning. The term glass ceiling had yet to be coined, gender stereo type casting continued, dad remained the primary breadwinner while U.S. built washers, dryers, cars and tv’s were America’s choice. Everyone was getting more with a Kenmore. For most, the standard of living continued to improve. Not so for those living in the barrio.
If you lived in L.A .you could still cut the air with a knife while the ghostly remains of backyard incinerators slowly faded into oblivion. Helms Bakery trucks still roamed the neighborhoods yet the I-405 had not reached Orange County. Rush hours were really rush hours. Dodger Stadium was brand new; the year Koufax pitched his first no-hitter. USC football was the consensus national champion while across town the “Wizard “ was starting his 16th season. The Bruin dynasty would commence the following year.
Most Americans were insensitive to the dangers of DDT until Rachel’s Silent Spring would prove to be an inconvenient truth. It would take another decade to remove the pesticide. “Getting the Lead Out” of gas, paint, and policy-makers pants, would take even longer. Pollution had already caused the death of Lake Erie and the Cuyahoga River still caught on fire.
To the relief of school kids, Sabin’s oral polio vaccine was a year into distribution. Even though published medical research proved a link between lung cancer and smoking, 42% of America’s adult population continued to light up. In spite of themselves, life expectancy in the U.S. increased to 70.27 years: 73.6 for women, and 67.1 for the weaker sex.
Freedom riders bought bus tickets from a begrudging Jim Crow, lunch-counter sit-ins continued, Dr. King experienced three squares a day in the Albany Georgia jail, while Delores Huerta and Caesar Chavez were in Delano founding the UFW. The Space Needle had opened, Marilyn had been found dead, and the very first Walmart, Kmart, and Motel 6 opened to the public. Carson took over the Tonight Show, Decca Records turned down the Beatles, while Warhol obsessed over a Campbells soup can. Telstar relayed the first live trans-Atlantic television signal, and silicone provided women with a new uplifting experience.
This is the world the first wave of boomers were facing. Television, cars, drive-ins, epic movies, rock & roll, the Nashville Sound, and hour-long phone calls on the extension. If you lived in southern California, you could throw in going to the beach, a trip to Disneyland or even see Bubbles and Squirt perform at Marineland. The parents still preferred the fried chicken and berry pie over at Knotts. The nation needed Lucy, Red, Jed, Andy, and the Cartwrights. These were the diversions, the reasonable facsimiles of the previous decade.
Yet, a general uneasiness persisted in the many corners of America. Significant change to underlying societal morays was not readily apparent but to many of the older set, commies, non-whites, reefer madness, and the sexual inuendo of teenage music continued to tear at the fabric of the country. The reinforced silos of race and gender were still solidly in place but beginning to show cracks in their foundations. The remnants of mud-slinging accusatory McCarthy style politics laid dormant but not dead. The near decade old unsatisfactory end to the Korean Police Action still lingered; It’s memory consumed by a foreboding Cold War. Communists may not be behind every bush, but they certainly were massing on our oversea shores. Was the nation going to be buried by the Soviets, overrun by the “Yellow Peril,” or just be consumed by mushroom clouds.
Every subset of every generation faces what seems to be insurmountable, if not overwhelming, problems. Souls continue to be tried. During this earlier time and place, the initial wave of soon to be eighteen-year old Boomers took their cues from the traditions of family, customs, and the remnant thoughts of a decade gone by. Yet there were these new leaders with younger faces to consider. They had a youthful bounce in their step. They mostly had hair on their heads, were well dressed, poised, smiled, and looked directly into one’s eyes to inspire. They spoke directly to this generation. JFK, RFK, and MLK, would take on the KKK. In their own rights, Jack took on Nikita, Robert called out an Alabama Governor, and Martin eventually found himself on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. To Dr. King’s chagrin, white indifference to the plight of people of color was still alive and well.
Intentional or not, a sometimes-obtuse population was distracted. Out of sight, out of mind. There was always another consumer product to buy, another time saving device or something that was the latest and greatest. Still Malcolm preached violence while Baldwin was hitting his intellectual stride. The Soviet threat was real while surface nuclear testing continued.
Time to get away. Road trip anyone?
As Charlie was saying: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”
Even in as little as five to six year increments, they hadn’t seen anything yet.
The Great Society, Civil Rights, Assassinations, and The Peak of an Unpopular War