At The Elder Storytelling Place, there is a lovely piece published last week written by Susan Fisher of Suzzwords titled “The Man Who Thought He Was a Train.” Set in 1950s Jacksonville, Florida, it is about a beloved town eccentric, and Susan perfectly evokes the sensibility of that time in America half a century ago.
The 1950s have been much maligned as unenlightened, conformist and boring and I bought that fairy tale for many years. But we get older and in some things grow a little wiser, and I now see the 1950s as a short period of respite between long stretches of social and political turmoil, a little island in time of peaceful coexistence that hasn’t been that calm since John Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, the event which ended “The Fifties.”
The 15 years preceding The Fifties were dark and dismal. At its high point during the Great Depression of the 1930s, unemployment reached 25 percent. Many millions did not have enough to eat and bread lines were common in every city. In those days, there were no government safety nets and private charities did the best they could which wasn’t always enough.
The Depression segued right into World War II. Gasoline, coffee, meat, sugar, butter and other commodities were rationed. Recycling was invented then as women saved food tins and newspapers for the war effort. When the war ended five years later, more than 407,000 Americans had died fighting in Europe and Asia. At home, there was a gold-star mother on every block, meaning a son or daughter had been killed.
The post-World War II economic boom was a welcome relief from a long, dark period of difficulty and deprivation. Returning soldiers and sailors went to college on the G.I. Bill. Couples had babies like bunny rabbits causing the baby boomer generation and they built houses and settled down to some peace and quiet.
Yes, the South was still segregated (many parts of the north too) and blacks didn’t fare as well as whites in the boom of the 1950s. Women, who had gone to work as Rosie the Riveters during the War and supported families alone, still couldn’t be doctors or lawyers or corporate chiefs and were not yet much welcome in colleges at all.
There were many social and cultural inequities we have since improved. But you must never judge the past by current standards.
What Susan Fisher’s story reminded me is that in the 1950s we were much more tolerant of individual differences among us. Even when such superficial social standards as dress codes for every occasion, no mention of where babies came from and perfect front lawns were strictly enforced by peer pressure, many towns had their local eccentrics and we allowed them to be as they were.
There were other kinds of differences too. I went to school with more than a few kids who had club feet, cleft palates, small pox scars, limps from polio, and “retarded” kids attended the same schools as the rest of us. We were taught to help out with them. And without much ado, we made allowances for the kids with physical limitations so they could be included in our games. No one was ever teased for their small pox scars and dermabrasion was still far in the future.
Catholic kids, as they approached their confirmations, were let out of school an hour early two afternoons a week to attend catechism classes. Jewish kids too, for bar mitzvah classes. It pissed off the Protestant kids who had no such rituals, but it was a mock indignation. No one cared for real.
It’s different now. Today, as a couple of comments on Susan’s story noted, the “train man” would be picked up by the police and social service agencies would be paying for drugs and therapy to make him “right.”
Although medicine has mostly defeated those physical deficiencies of my childhood, we have developed much stricter rules since the 1950s of what behavior and appearance will be tolerated.
When was the last time you saw someone as harmlessly off his trolley as the train man? (New York City doesn’t count.) Or – here’s one for you - anyone who is halt, lame or disfigured?
Which brings me to Roger Ebert.
Ten months ago, a portion of the 64-year-old film critic’s mandible was removed due to salivary gland cancer. Subsequent surgeries to replace the mandible have not succeeded, he is temporarily without speech due to a tracheostomy and, as he put it recently, “he’s not a pretty boy anymore.”
As the opening of his ninth annual Overlooked Film Festival (Ebertfest) in Champagne, Illinois, approached last week Ebert revealed that he had been warned not to attend because the paparazzi would take unflattering photos and harmful things would be said.
“Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn…” wrote Ebert. “I was told photos of me in this condition would attract the gossip papers. So what? I have been very sick, am getting better and this is how it looks. I still have my brain and my typing fingers.”
- Chicago Sun Times, 23 April 2007
Elders have a lot in common with the disabled, disfigured and mildly daft; we have all been made invisible in American life. Unless we conform to the gold standard of perpetual youth and beauty with perfect white teeth, glowing smooth skin, a brisk stride and conventional behavior, someone always wants to fix us. As we pay lip service to the culture of inclusion, we have made difference a crime and we are in danger of becoming a population of pod people.
Not everything about the old days was bad and we would do well to reinstate the kind of tolerance for difference among us that Susan Fisher so deftly recalls of the Fifties. Roger Ebert agrees:
“We spend too much time hiding illness,” he continued in his column. “There is an assumption that I must always look the same. I hope to look better than I look now. But I’m not going to miss my Festival.”
And he did not. Hurray for Roger Ebert:
[EDITORIAL NOTE: Timothy Grass, Part 2 of Judith Taylor's Tapestry series, in which a 50-year-old memento brings back memories of a certain summer, is posted at The Elder Storytelling Place today.]