Past Imperfect

About once a week I receive a nostalgia e-mail. Largely repetitive, these e-mails ask such “do you remember” questions as:

Who was Princess Winterspringsummerfall?

What was the name of Tonto’s horse?

Often, in addition to questions such as this, the e-mail continues with rhetorical questions like:

Remember fender skirts and continental kits and how classy they made a car look? How about Angora dice hanging from the rear view mirror? And who can forget the old Hudson with a back seat as large as the average living room; it was the only car you could step down into.

And what about crinolines and how they seemed to take up the whole passenger seat when the girl got in the car?

Remember how much fun in was to do the Bunny Hop and the Hokey Pokey?

These, and other questions seemed designed to take the knowing reader back to another time, a time, the e-mail claims, when things were simpler and more pure. While many of us do remember the 50s, some of us would take issue with the simpler and purer part. The writers of these e-mails often confuse different with better. The problems of today are not the problems of the 50s. We no longer worry about polio or smallpox or measles. And while children do still get whooping cough (Pertussis, if you want to be medically correct) because of parental fear of vaccines, one never hears of diphtheria any longer. scarlet fever, too, seems to be a thing of the past. All of the aforementioned diseases could be debilitating and, not infrequently, fatal. If anything, perhaps because of the medical advances over the past 50 years, the current generation is obsessed with germs and there are myriad products out there designed to combat germs in the environment in one way or another. Some immunologists argue that this obsession, fed mainly by the medical show which daily pervades the media, actually does more harm than good and has created a generation of hyper-sensitive children who are becoming increasingly allergic to the environment.

Some things were easier in the 50s.The daily commute, for example, was not as prone to traffic jams, partly because there were fewer cars on the road and partly because an extensive public transit infrastructure served a large part of the country. We can thank the Eisenhower Administration, both for the increase in the number of private automobiles on the road and for the demise of the public transportation system. The modernization of our road system was begun in the mid-50s and, while it was needed, it did create the potential for more traffic. This potential was assured when the Big Four auto makers, along with several tire manufacturers, were allowed to buy up the bus and trams lines and put them out of business; leaving most workers no alternative but to drive.

We seem to have forgotten that 50s vintage cars were not as reliable as their modern-day counterparts. Breakdowns were not unusual and, in the days before cell phones, not always convenient; most occurring at a distance from any sign of civilization at an unholy time of night. This left the driver to wait for the kindness of some stranger who might be passing by. In the country, this could be a long wait and many such exiles opted to walk home. And fender skirts and continental kits? They did add cosmetic appeal, however, there was the devil to pay if you had to access what they hid; especially in bad weather. The continental kit, of course, held the spare tire and effectively blocked access to the trunk while fender skirts extended the fender over the rear tires. Hard to get off if you had to attend to a flat and even harder to replace.

Nostalgia e-mails do not hearken back to the racism and religious bigotry that was omnipresent in the 50s. It was not uncommon to hear expressions such as “free, white and 21” and, in acknowledgement of a favor, “thanks, that was white of you.” Even the greatest movie ever made, Casablanca (I know, not a 50s movie, it was made in 1942, but perfection is timeless) was not free of the taint when Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) is heard to ask about the “boy” playing the piano. Religious slurs were also common, but tended to be more cultural, i.e. anti-catholic among heavily Protestant communities; anti-Semitic in areas where northern European populations were prevalent. When Kennedy ran for president, his Catholicism was an issue among some Protestant congregations as some feared a direct line from the president to the Pope. We have come a long way since then although ghosts of this same bigotry persist. Some e-mails and web sites falsely allude to Obama being Muslim. He is not, but it wouldn’t matter anyway.

Sad to say, however, a new religious bigotry has appeared on the horizon as members of the religious right push their agenda. Especially ominous is the trend among some pharmacists to refuse to fill prescriptions for birth control pills or the morning-after pill; condoms also are on their hit lists. Usually, the women are just refused, although some pharmacists have refused to return the prescription; causing not only inconvenience but, in the case of the morning-after pill, unintended consequences. In urban areas, where there is a drug store on every corner, this trend might be a minor annoyance, but in rural communities, where pharmacies are few and far between, such decision making on the part of the pharmacist is tyrannical and has far- ranging consequences that should not be allowed. After all, no one is asking the pharmacist to use such products and he or she does not have the moral right to impose his or her religious convictions on others.

More pernicious, perhaps, is the memory lapse when it comes to the position of women in society of the 50s. It would be fair to say that for most women, their position in society was defined as a homemaker. The husband was the breadwinner and the wife was expected to keep house and treat him in a manner akin to his being a person of royalty. True, there were some women who were in what were considered non-traditional roles; doctors and politicians for example, but the women always had to live up to a male ideal and most tended to fall short. The dumb blonde jokes of today tend to perpetuate that stereotype. One hopes that the perpetrators of the nostalgia e-mails do not want to return women to the 50s position of second-class citizens.

Looking back, there is an appealing patina of naiveté about the 50s which, if not probed too deeply, might tempt one to think times were better back then. As I noted above, they weren’t, they were just different; an alien landscape that might be nice to visit, like the Grand Canyon, but you wouldn’t want to live there. The duck and cover exercises of the mid-50s reminded us all that a nuclear Armageddon was within our reach. Not something I think any of us wants to return to. Growing up in the 50s, I can’t remember any similar urge to return to the war-torn days of the 40s; nor were the 30s held in particularly high repute. As for Princes Winterspringsummerfall, she was a character on the Howdy Doody Show. Some say she came to a bad end, but that is another subject altogether. The name of Tonto’s horse, by the way, was Scout.