All the kids in my neighborhood were vaccinated, and we would gladly show the little round scar in our upper arms to prove it.
Inoculation to ward off smallpox had been practiced for more than two hundred years. That is what “vaccination” meant in the 1950s.
Today, “vaccination” means many things. It means different things to different people. Not everybody likes it. But at this moment in our history, we mainly think of vaccination as a tool we wish we had against COVID-19. It is not in our toolkit yet and won’t be for quite a while. We tap our feet impatiently. What are we supposed to do in the meantime?
Odd and unexpected are the prophets who may speak to us in these confused days.
Benedict Arnold is known primarily as a traitor. A bold, charismatic leader of troops in our war for Independence, Arnold changed sides and became a secret agent for the British. He worked to give them the American fortifications at West Point, New York.
His treason was found out, and he fled for his life. On October 7, 1780, a few days after he reached safety behind British lines, Arnold published an open letter defending his actions, titled “Address to the American People.” In that egocentric display of self-justification, the erratic Benedict Arnold—half a century before Alexis de Tocqueville’s famous visit and commentary—penned the definitive remark about Americans:
“The private judgment of any individual citizen of this country is . . . free from all conventional restraints.”
It was a true saying then, and it remains true 240 years later. Combined with the Puritan imprint on our public outlook and the indelible marks of our frontier experience, it explains a lot about our uniqueness as a people.
By “all conventional restraints,” I suppose Arnold meant the class-conscious pecking order of European society, as well as the customary appeals of king and country and the divine imperatives of Church potentates.
To Americans all such guiding principles are merely advisory, both then and now. Each person must choose his or her own way. We are a nation of rugged individuals, most of all deep in our heads and hearts. We know we are right; if not for others, at least for ourselves and our families. We are self-willed, to a nearly anarchic extreme.
Here, even the Magisterium of The Law “derive[s] its just powers from the consent of the governed” and, in practice, perches perilously on a wobbly base of voluntary compliance. “The private judgment of any individual citizen . . . is . . . free from all conventional restraints.”
We see this truth enacted in our present crisis. Compare the responses of other nations:
The Chinese government, once it grasped the severity of the virus problem, sent in goon squads to round up the sufferers, burned the evidence, and put out some fake numbers to reassure the world.
The Swedes seem to be opting for a slow-rolling herd inoculation through gradual exposure of their citizens. This may possibly work in Sweden, where the surge of the virus will be dampened by the Swedes’ national impulse to work together as if they were, indeed, a herd.
Swedish-style cooperativeness is unthinkable here in the United States. Violators of even reasonable regulations would be legion, the loci of their intransigence unpredictable. Any forced imposition of rigid controls would backfire; people would rebel. Even the enforcers would rebel.
So the suggestion that we follow the Swedish model, though doubtless well-intentioned, is naïve and absurd. Americans, in general, won’t act like Swedes—even though some of them, like my wife, are Swedes. The results of relying on Swedish-style social cohesion from Americans would be disastrous in the short term.
But those who call for a unified national crackdown do not grasp the dimensions of the problem. The president, with all his minions, cannot command all Americans to do anything, any more than King Canute could turn back the tide.
The governors have a slightly better chance of applying that nuanced mix of persuasion and compulsion that will work in their respective states. Even they will probably mis-calculate some of their edicts. What federal authorities can offer is material support to the states and the broad popular influence of national experts who speak with credibility.
Does all this add up to an imperfect response? Maybe so.
Are other countries doing better? Who can say?
Will people die because our government has no magic wands to wave? Could be.
It is what it is. We are who we are, exercising our private judgments free of all conventional restraints.
Let us seek to be wise, prudent, and kind in that exercise.
Today is January 21. In twelve days The Groundhog will emerge and see, or not see, his shadow. Either way, we in Madison, Wisconsin, may not reasonably expect warmth until May.
The question inevitably arises: Where would I rather be?
That’s easy: The 1950s! Where else?
Care to join me?
It was no more than ordinarily cold in those days. Snow did gleam white—except on city streets, where it sank into a purple-pink paste after workers laid down coal cinders for traction. Snow tires being, at that time, hidden somewhere in the future.
The house we lived in sat on high ground. Behind it, a wooded hill tumbled down to the river bottoms. From the corner of our backyard, a narrow trail twisted between scrub maple and willow trees. We called it “The Snake Path.”
Flopping down on your wood-and-steel sled at the top of The Snake Path, you hurtled downward through a patchy meadow, picking up speed. Then you entered the trees, where dodging left and right became a survival skill. Sleds had wooden bars for steering, but steel runners could warp sideways only so far. Kids with short sleds and pointy-toed engineer boots had an advantage. My sled was long, and I wore round-toed, five-buckle galoshes.
If one made it through the trees—and all of us got very good at doing so—then one shot forth from the woods like a bottle rocket and zoomed up a mound of earth near the bottom of the hill. Just short of supersonic, we flew off the top of that mogul and sailed as much as ten feet through the air. If you were still connected to the sled when it slammed down on Mother Earth, you wrenched the steering bar violently and shot off to starboard like those little cash carriers that skimmed the ceiling at J.C. Penney’s, and with full momentum intact, coasted a quarter mile down an old dirt road to the little bridge that spanned the perfectly-named Stink Creek.
This place, I tell you, does exist in the 1950s.
But not now. The coordinates can be plotted. There is still a hill, a road, and a meandering river; but the woods are gone, The Snake Path is no more. The mound of dirt that flung us skyward was leveled long ago. If you knew the place in the Fifties, and if you stood today at the bottom of that hill, you might note the routes traced by all those steel runners, etched invisibly in the air about you. But to see that vision, you must bring the software inside your head.
Disappointingly, the historical society has not even posted a plaque.
Other events in life have occasionally yielded more excitement—a commodity of dubious worth—but few have ever matched the plain satisfaction of navigating The Snake Path on a Flexible Flyer.
“But wait, wait—what’s this about cash carriers at J.C. Penney’s?”
Oh, did I mention cash carriers?
Perhaps you have heard—or have you?—that in bygone days, we operated on a cash economy. People paid for things, if not with gold eagles like in the Old West, at least with metal coins, or with paper money that was, in theory, redeemable for precious metals. We carried dollar bills that looked much like those of today. But ours were Silver Certificates.
Each bill was emblazoned:
“This certifies that there is on deposit in the Treasury of the United States of America One Dollar in silver payable to the bearer on demand.”
If I happened to be in Washington, D.C., I could walk into the Treasury Building (which is still there, by the way), present my paper dollar, and get a silver dollar for it. Good deal, eh?
Still, not many of us actually did that. We simply believed, as we do today, that the piece of paper itself was worth a dollar. We just spent them. Or we put them in a bank and wrote paper checks against them for large purchases or for monthly bills.
We did not use credit cards. There were a few credit cards or “charge plates,” issued by stores or gasoline companies for favored customers. But the general purpose credit card did not make its way into our lives until the launch of BankAmericard (later called Visa) in 1958. For most purchases, we used cash—crumpled up dollar bills or fives (but seldom a ten or a twenty, because then you would be talking about Real Money); and silver dollars, half dollars, quarters; dimes, nickels, and copper or steel pennies.
This worked well at your Mom and Pop grocery store down the block. You bought a quart of milk for twenty-four cents and handed Pop a dollar. He punched a key on his cash register and the lap drawer flew open with a bang. He placed the dollar in the drawer, fished out a half dollar, a quarter, and a penny, and added them back up as he handed it to you: “… And one is twenty-five, fifty, one dollar. Thank you, call again.”
Flying Gizmos Like Skates
But big stores, like J.C. Penney, preferred not to have cash registers on the sales floors. They needed to record their transactions. So, say you bought a little flimsy scarf at Penney’s—something that cost twenty-four cents—and you gave the saleslady a dollar, then the routine went like this: She wrote down the transaction on a sales slip. She put the sales slip and your dollar inside a little skate-like gizmo; and she stuck the little gizmo to a circulating-cable rail system inside an elongated cage strung across the store’s ceiling; and it zoomed upstairs to the bookkeeping office on the mezzanine. There, Unseen Hands opened the little gizmo—a cash carrier—took your dollar out, and put back in a half-dollar, a quarter, and a penny, along with the sales slip marked “PAID.” The Unseen Hands then sent the cash carrier shooting back through its cage. The sales lady opened it, handed you the receipt, and counted back the change: “… And one is twenty-five, fifty, one dollar. Thank you, call again.”
The best thing about this process, to a small boy, was simply watching the cash carriers ricochet along the ceiling. And the stellar thing about that was how they turned right angles with no loss in velocity, just a tantalizing thunk!
If you’ve never had the pleasure, do yourself a favor and watch this little video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w75jOy-r5rg. Be patient, Gentle Reader; the demonstration starts at 00:54. This demonstration video was shot at Joyner’s, a general store in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, in 1994, when the store closed its doors. They ran the cash carrier system just once more, for old times’ sake. But in the heyday of our all-cash economy, this same system was used, hundreds of times a day, in many stores all over the country. It became obsolete when credit cards and electronic registers were invented.
The careening little cash pods, with their abrupt changes from one plane to another, defied all normal laws of physics, in precisely the same way extraterrestrial spacecraft are thought to do.
Or, as in our first example, kids on sleds at the bottom of the snake path.
Waiting. Waiting. Waiting all year. Waiting in a little town on the prairie.
Waiting through the commotion at Grandma and Grandpa LaFollette’s brown board house under the big elm on the Square. Waiting in bed at Grandma and Grandpa Sommers’ quiet house, with the lone blue light in its window, waiting with dreams of an electric train or a trap drum set, waiting for Santa Claus and his reindeer, if only they would—
It’s morning. Christmas morning!
I jump out of bed and dash into the living room. And there I find . . . NOT the amazing trap drum set from the Sears catalog. Not even a Lionel electric train, which I know for a fact Santa keeps plenty of on hand, and gives to lots of boys my age.
Something has gone terribly wrong. Under the tree, instead of a train on a loop of metal track, sits a big flat thing wrapped in red and green paper. I pick it up and rip off the paper, while the thing underneath makes clicking sounds. It’s a clear plastic box. A bunch of little metal balls inside it roll around and bump into things as I tilt it sideways.
“Look, Larry, it’s a pinball game,” says Mom, in her nightgown and robe.
“Here,” says Dad, in his wrinkled pajamas. “You work it like this.” He takes it out of my hands, tilts it so all the little balls roll down to the corner, pulls back on a handle and lets it go. One of the balls shoots up and goes bouncing around between pegs and plastic fences until it comes back to the bottom. Wow.
“Here, let me try.” I reach up, take the thing back and start shooting metal balls. I’m so busy watching the balls bounce around that I almost, not quite, forget the trap drums.
“Why the long face?” Grandpa hollers. With his pointy nose and his wire-rimmed glasses, he stares at me like a bird getting after a worm. “Y’oughta count yourself goddam lucky to have a nice game like that!”
“Maybe when you’re a little older,” Mom says, “Santa Claus will bring you an electric train.” She doesn’t mention the trap drum set.
Although I have given them quite a few hours of free informational talks on it, I have never heard either Mom nor Dad actually speak the words “trap drum set.” Still, Mom just said “electric train.” So there is hope for the future.
Cynda gets her heart’s desire, a stupid doll named Betsy Wetsy. Mom brings a little glass of water to pour in its mouth, so my little sister can watch as the stupid thing pees its pants. Cynda is carried away with joy. She pours more and more water until not only the doll’s panties but also its dress, its hair, its chubby hands, and its sappy face are all dripping.
“Now let’s put Betsy Wetsy away for a while,” Mom says, “until she dries out.” Cynda starts crying and carrying on as Mom takes the doll from her hands. Betsy Wetsy, to her, is what a trap drum set is to me. She has no right to complain. Hmph.
There are socks, bigger than we can wear, hung by Grandma’s fake fireplace with care. In them are oranges and nickels and candy canes and Mars bars and a few things like that.
We dress, eat, pile into the car and drive down Main Street to the fun grandparents’ house. Grandpa and Grandpa Sommers will come along later.
The place is already humming when we get there. The bottom of the tree swims in a sea of presents. The biggest one is for me, and I grab it right away, because it is too big to be wrapped: an American Flyer sled, longer than I am tall. It has shiny wooden slats on two red metal runners, with a wood steering bar to make it turn.
Now, this is more like it. “Mom, where’s my coat? I’m going outside to try my sled.”
“Wait a bit,” Dad says. “We’re about to open all the presents, and then we’ll eat. You can play with your sled in the afternoon.”
More waiting. Sigh. I give the steering bar a twist or two. It doesn’t seem like it really works. The runners don’t hardly bend. “Dad, the runners don’t hardly bend.”
“It’s just fine, son. You’ll see.”
My cousin Steve is there, his eyes big and round behind his glasses. He doesn’t need to be jealous of my sled. I’ll let him ride it this afternoon. He has already done pretty well at his Grandma and Grandpa Stucki’s house. He got a cowboy hat and BB gun there. His little sister, Betsy, got, guess what—a Betsy Wetsy doll! Even though she’s only two.
Aunt Bertha and Uncle Harry—Mom’s aunt and uncle, everybody’s favorites—come in through the little wooden shed that stands outside the front door to keep the cold out. (Grandpa calls it “the vestibule.”) They have red-tipped noses and big smiles. They came later because they went to church for the Christmas morning service.
Grandma and Grandpa Sommers pull up in their big old Hudson. Grandpa’s wearing his suit and tie now, with his shoes shined and his hair slicked down. He’ll be on his best behavior—no yelling and cursing here. Grandma gives him the fish eye as they come in.
We all sit down to open presents. The grownups sit in a big circle. Aunt Sue and Aunt Linda take the presents from the tree and hand them out, because they can read the tags. I can read, too, but not when it’s written in longhand.
It’s like a madhouse. Everybody unwraps presents, whooping and hollering, laughing, showing off, trying on new shirts and sweaters. I get some clothes that are nice, I guess. But my best presents are a coiled metal thing called a Slinky, and a tin Caterpillar bulldozer with rubber treads. It has a key on the side that you wind it up with.
I have to wait to play with my new toys, because it’s time for dinner. We go down a step from the living room to the dining room. All the rooms in this house are one or two steps higher or lower than each other. I don’t know why, that’s just how it is.
Steve and Betsy, Cynda and I, Aunt Linda and Aunt Sue eat in the kitchen. The grownups sit at the big table in the dining room. There is turkey and mashed potatoes and gravy and sweet potatoes and stuffing and two different kinds of rice—Spanish, and glorified—and cranberry sauce. And three different pumpkin pies, each one a little different. Maybe I can try them all.
Aunt JoAnne comes into the kitchen with something called the wishbone. It was part of the turkey. I get to pull it with her. We each hold one end and pull to see where it breaks. Whoever gets the big end, their wish will come true. I hurry up and wish a wish. I close my eyes real tight to think.
“Oh, I know!” I shout. “I’ll wish for—”
“No, don’t tell!” Aunt JoAnne says. “If you tell your wish, then it won’t come true.”
Really? There are rules for wishes? I didn’t know.
So I close my eyes again to remember my wish. Oh, yeah, that’s right. I can’t say what my wish is, but it’s not an electric train. Mom already said I might get an electric train next Christmas, so I don’t want to waste my wish on that. So I’m wishing for something else. Something that can make a loud noise.
I open my eyes. We pull the wishbone and it breaks on Aunt Jo’s side, so I win. “Hooray! Now I’ll get my train and my—oops.”
I’ve waited long enough to play with my toys. When I get back to the living room, the uncles have set up the books from the Collier’s Encyclopedia to make stairs, and they have the Slinky walking down the steps. “This is just to show you how it’s done,” says Uncle Earl.
Then he winds up my tin bulldozer and shows me how it can drive down the steps. This is so much fun that Uncle Dick does it next, and then Uncle Garrett, and then Richard Henderson—who isn’t even my uncle, yet. Next, they try to make it drive up the steps, but it won’t go. “Goddam grade’s too steep,” says Grandpa Sommers.
“We can’t give up now,” says Richard. He takes half the books out of the stack so it is shallower. Now the tractor goes up the steps just fine, but then it turns and falls off the side.
“Maybe the damned thing needs a new driver,” Grandpa Sommers says. So finally it’s my turn to wind it up and aim it toward the book-stairs. It falls over when I start it, too.
By Sunday, when we go home, the Slinky has a bent coil and the Caterpillar tractor is dented, but we’ve all had a lot of fun playing with them. The sled works okay when you pull it with a rope, but when we get back to Streator, I know where a hill is, and that will be even more fun.
We drive along between the fields of corn stubble on Sunday afternoon. Dad switches on the car radio. The Detroit Lions are playing the Cleveland Browns. “Bobby Layne versus Otto Graham,” Dad says. I don’t pay much attention to that because I’m dreaming about my electric train and trap drum set.
Detroit wins. “Guess Otto Graham will have to wait till next year,” Dad says.
A vast reach of flatness, wrinkled only where streams of water flow. Small towns wedged among square fields of corn or, in winter, corn stubble. A place where calendars yield only 1950s, and people come in all varieties of regular. In this place I am always a boy, roaming bemused through a tall prairie of grownups.
In 1953 I am eight years old. It is Thursday night, December 24. It’s already dark when Dad comes home at five. Mom bundles us into the car. It’s a 1939 Chevrolet like the ones in black-and-white gangster films. Dad drives, because I’m too young. (But if I had an electric train, I could drive that. How great would that be?)
I share the back seat with my teddy bear and my three-year-old sister, Cynda. Mom reaches over the seat and hands back a tuna sandwich on white bread. Cynda gets a sandwich too, but Teddy must be content to share mine.
The miles unspool, a ribbon of two-lane highway painted by headlights.
In a small town called Wenona there is a mountain, the only one I have ever seen. Dad says it’s only a hill of coal mine tailings. By day it is a pink cone that sticks up like a huge pimple on the skin of Illinois. By dark, we can see it only because someone has placed a five-pointed star of colored lights on its top for Christmas.
We zoom along at fifty miles per hour. (By the way, did you know there is no top speed limit on electric trains? Another advantage.)
We have eaten our sandwiches. Cynda has given up on crawling all over the back seat and has gone to sleep. I curl up with Teddy by the cold glass of the window and watch the night go by. Here and there a light gleams from a farmyard. Not much else out there.
Near Princeville, a wooden barricade like a sawhorse juts into the road to keep us from driving into a hole. It is marked by round pot flares, like black bowling balls with little orange flames flickering from their tops.
After two hours we arrive in Knoxville, a town of 2,000 souls, many of them our relatives. Dad drives past the old courthouse, makes two left turns, and parks in front of Grandma and Grandpa LaFollette’s one-story house.
At the party
Inside, a party is already going on. Uncle Dick and Uncle Garrett kneel on the floor, unscrewing and replacing colored bulbs in a string of unlit lights. Richard Henderson, Aunt Jean’s skinny boyfriend, stands by, cracking jokes and handing them new bulbs. Suddenly the many-colored lights blink on. Everybody claps.
The grownups stand around drinking from red glasses.
“What’s in the glasses?” I ask.
Dad takes a sip from his. “Mogen David and Coke,” he says.
“It’s wine,” Mom says. “Only for the grownups.”
Grandpa comes in from outside, holding a metal pitcher. He pours from the pitcher into the big brown heater that stands out from one wall of the living room. The stuff he pours in has a funny smell. I like the heater because you can look through a round window on its front and see orange and blue flames dancing inside.
By now, the uncles have draped the lights all around the skinny balsam that stands in the middle of the wall across from the heater. Mom and Grandma and Aunt Sue and Aunt Linda hang glass balls, bells, and tinsel on its branches. “That looks real nice,” Grandpa says.
Grandma has placed white fluffy cotton on the window sills. It’s supposed to be snow, and on it stand plastic reindeer and Santas. One is a red plastic Santa with a brown pack on his back. He is not in his sled but stands on a pair of green plastic skis, ready to deliver his gifts on foot. I like this Santa best, because of the skis. I can make believe the skis allow him to fly, like ski jumpers in the newsreels at the Earl Theater, even though he has no reindeer. I lift him off the cotton, fly him in circles through the air, and bring him in for a perfect ski landing.
Grandma and Grandpa and all the aunts and uncles make a fuss over Cynda, because she now walks quite well. She stalks all around the room. “My, how she’s grown!” Big deal. I could walk years ago.
The other grandparents
After a long time, we get back in the car and drive Main Street to the other end of town. Even though all the Christmas fun happens at Grandma and Grandpa LaFollette’s, we are going to stay with Grandma and Grandpa Sommers. Their house is quiet, except when Grandpa shouts or curses about something. We have to stay with them because they have enough room for us. Uncle Stanley and Uncle Franklin died in the war. Uncle Ed and his family live in England; Aunt Mabel and her family are in California. We’re the only ones left who live close enough to spend Christmas with Grandma and Grandpa Sommers.
It’s not so much fun at their house, and I’m afraid of Grandpa. But it is kind of nice to stay there on the night before Christmas. They have a tree, but not a lot of other decorations. Only, in the front window of the side room where Cynda and Teddy and I will sleep, Grandma has hung an electric candle with a single blue bulb. When we’re tucked into bed and the lights are turned off, the blue light from the candle glances off many points in the silvery wreath that surrounds it. It is pretty.
I can imagine Santa and his reindeer, or maybe Santa on skis, just outside that window, just beyond the blue candle. I hope this year he’ll bring me an electric train, or else a trap drum set like the one in the Sears catalog.
I want to stay awake long enough to see him arrive, but somehow I never quite make it. . . .
On October 7, 1949, my grandparents, 65 and 60 years old, cast their fate to the winds and drove Route 66 from Illinois to California in their 1946 Hudson sedan. Recently retired, but with enough savings to travel, frugally, they set off to see the Great West.
They reached San Bruno, California, two weeks later. They had added 2,871 miles to the Hudson’s odometer and spent $143.11 in total for meals, lodgings, 150 gallons of gas, a new tire, and incidentals.
With Mabel and Bob
The reason they fetched up in San Bruno—near San Francisco International Airport— was that their daughter, Mabel Hiler, lived there with her husband, Bob, and their son, Dickie. Grandma and Grandpa must have let Mabel and Bob know they were coming—mustn’t they? Having known them, I cannot completely rule out the possibility they just showed up on Mabel and Bob’s doorstep one bright Thursday afternoon in October.
Since Bob Hiler had a good full-time job as a mechanic with United Airlines, and since Dickie was a young boy, Mabel was almost certainly a full-time housewife. Later on I know she worked at a variety of jobs “outside the home,” as we used to say.
Probably most women of Aunt Mabel’s generation—which was also my mother’s generation—worked outside jobs at one time or another; but that’s not how it was supposed to be. For one brief, shining moment after World War II, all of America conspired to jam life back into “normal” channels. The men were to wear the pants, the women skirts and aprons. The men would bring home the bacon; the women would cook it, put it on the table, and wash up afterwards.
Before long, that arrangement would crumble in household after household. How could we afford our everyday needs plus late-model cars plus television sets and of course the finer things of life that were advertised on those television sets, unless Mom took a part-time job “just in the middle of the day, while the kids are in school” to supplement the family’s income. In 1963, Betty Friedan in The Feminine Mystique would advocate for women as full-time breadwinners, no longer to be chained to traditional women’s roles.
But I sincerely hope Aunt Mabel was a full-time homemaker when her parents came to California, since they stayed seven months! Grandma kept careful notes on their ramble across the range, full of where they stayed, where they ate, and what they saw. But not one word about the whole time spent in San Bruno. It’s a mystery. All the principals—Grandpa and Grandma Sommers, Aunt Mable, Uncle Bob, and Dickie Hiler—are gone; I cannot ask them now and did not know enough to ask them when they were still with us.
Just to picture all five of them spending seven months together in a bungalow in San Bruno beggars the imagination. How did they ward off madness? They must have done something.
The Hudson’s mileage yields one clue. By May 1950, Grandpa and Grandma had clocked 5,326 miles driving to and from California; but their odometer was 8,232 miles older than when they started. Therefore, while visiting in California, they drove 2,906 miles. That’s about what it would have taken to commute every day into the city from San Bruno—but that’s a silly thought; they had no reason to go downtown daily. They probably made shorter trips for everyday purposes but also drove from time to time to tourist destinations such as Yosemite. (Disneyland was not available yet.) However, they left no record of such trips, nor did I ever hear them spoken of.
Stint in Seattle
There was also a month and a half when they did not drive at all, because they left the Hudson behind. Grandma’s notebook says that on Valentine’s Day 1950 they went to Seattle and stayed a month and a half. They did not drive, they flew. The flight was two and a half hours from San Francisco to Seattle on a DC-6, a modern four-engine prop job. In those days, most airline employees got free flights as a benefit, and these were often transferable. Most likely, Grandpa and Grandma flew United Airlines to Seattle on Bob Hiler’s employee pass.
Grandma’s notebook gives glimpses of this interlude in Seattle:
“Sat Feb. 25 – Went to Everett by car with Mary & Edw. Called on Lloyd Engels’ at Everette [sic]. Up Monte Cristo Way as far as roads would permit. Too much snow Early in Season. Dinner in Marysville – nice town.”
“Sat. Mar 4. Went to Mt. Vernon. visited with Aunt Susan Beecher and daughters Eva – Ada – & Nina. Back by way of [Whidbey] Island.” They crossed the Deception Pass Bridge at the north end of Whidbey, drove the length of the island, and took the Mukilteo Ferry back to the Mainland near Everett.
Still, they must have passed a lot of time in humdrum ways. (The Space Needle and the Monorail did not yet exist.) Mary was a full-time homemaker and therefore, by prevailing notions, could entertain visiting inlaws without limit. When I knew her, later in life, she was a gracious, adaptable person. No doubt she met the challenge with aplomb.
On April 1, Grandpa and Grandma caught an overnight train from East Olympia for San Francisco, arriving at 11:20 am the next day. After another month and a half with Mabel and Bob in San Bruno, they headed home.
West to East
Now the silence ends, and Grandma’s pithy travel notes resume the narrative.
They struck straight across country, going by way of Sacramento, Placerville, and Lake Tahoe. Grandma notes the rising topography:
“Plenty Snow – Echo Summit – 7282 Elevation.”
“State Line—Bijou Pines at Bijou near Lake Tahoe. Spooner’s Summit, East Edge, L. Tahoe (10 miles from Carson City) – El. 7140 ft.”
They spent a morning sightseeing in Carson City but still made Reno by noon. They got gas, oil, lube, lunch, and back on the road by 1:30. In those days you could leave the car at the gas station; they took care of everything, and you went to lunch.
Outside Heber, Utah, Grandma noted: “Drilling Surprise Wildcat No. 1”—a reference to a new oil well being opened up. Several more wells and refineries were noted as they made their way across Utah and into Colorado.
At Craig, Colorado, a flurry of notes:
“Interesting facts about Craig, & Moffat Co. – El. 6200 ft.
“(1) Largest wool shipping point in world.
“(2) Largest Gilsonite processing & shipping in world.
“Moffatt [sic] County
“90 ft vein of coal.
“Enough to supply U. States for 900 yrs.
“1,600,000 sheep raised annually
“20,000 cattle raised annually.
“3,460,500 acres – area of county.”
Think on that, Gentle Reader: Moffat County, Colorado’s 90-foot vein of coal in 1950 was enough to supply the United States for 900 years! It gives one pause.
Enough Coal for 900 Years
First of all, how much coal is a 900-year supply? You need not guess, I can tell you. The U.S. Energy Information Administration says total coal consumption in 1950 was just shy of 500 million short tons. So, a 900-year supply would have been almost 450 billion short tons. When you consider that just one short ton contains two thousand pounds—that’s a lotta coal.
Does Moffat County still have enough coal to supply the entire United States for 900 years? Probably not. For one thing, almost 70 years have passed, so now we’re talking about an 830-year supply. Except that we no longer use 500 million tons a year. The figure for 2018 is more like 700 million tons—so we’re using it up faster.
That surprised me. I would have thought we use less coal now, because in 1950 we mostly heated our houses with coal—as a lad I shoveled it into our basement furnace three or four times a day. But now, we heat our houses with natural gas or fuel oil. So, why do we use more coal now? Because coal is burned to generate electricity, and we use way more electricity now than we did then. This graph tells the story:
So, what I thought I knew—that we’re using less coal today—is what Will Rogers would have called “things we do know, that ain’t so.”
Even though we use more coal now than in 1950, the consumption trend is steeply down, having peaked at about 1.1 billion tons in 2009. This is for multiple reasons, including government actions, but mostly because natural gas has gotten a lot cheaper recently. Indeed, coal consumption may plunge below 1950 levels and continue downward.
There is a retrospective irony in all this. Moffat County could soon have a 900-year supply of coal once again, but it may no longer be worth mining. Still, economics being unpredictable, a resurgence of coal, or a plateau in its decline, may be in the offing. However, I wouldn’t bet the farm on it. Meanwhile, they still mine coal in Moffat County.
Through the Rockies and Home
Grandpa and Grandma continued through the Rockies via Steamboat Springs, then on through snow-covered Rabbit Ears Pass at 9,680 feet, and across the Continental Divide at Berthoud Pass—11,314 feet. Arriving in the Denver suburb of Englewood, Grandma wrote: “1418 miles Denver from San Bruno. Lg. wet snow with trees & elec. wires down making streets impassable – so had to stay here 3 days.” They left Englewood Saturday, May 27, and drove home through Kansas and Missouri, noting “Lots of black walnuts” around Seneca, Kansas, and “lots of apples & some peaches” near Troy, Kansas.
On May 29, 1950, they arrived at Dwight, Illinois. Now, the thing about Dwight is that we lived there. My father, Lloyd E. Sommers, was the second of two sons who survived the Second World War. He was a radioman with the 132nd Infantry in the South Pacific. Uncle Ed was a Naval Reserve pilot who continued to fly in his civilian capacity for Pan Am. Uncles Stanley and Franklin, bomber pilots, were shot down early in the war—Stanley in the Solomon Islands, Franklin over France.
In 1950 we lived in Dwight, where Dad taught high school chemistry. I was nearly five. My sister, Cynda Jo, was born May 2, 1950. She was a 27-day-old baby when Grandma and Grandpa came to visit us on their way home. I would be fibbing if I said I remember their visit. But Grandma’s book says they stayed three days. They needed to ogle the new arrival, no doubt.
They reached home on June 2, having spent $143.30 for gas, oil, food, shelter, and incidentals on the road between California and Illinois. It was a long trip, but it must have satisfied their longings for that kind of adventure, for they never went West again.
Izzy Mahler was seven years old when he met George Washington.
The old man was not tall and majestic but short and stoop-shouldered; he wore not a white wig but the white jacket of a railway porter on the Super Chief.
“I cannot tell a lie,” he said, friendly brown eyes sparkling amid the folds of his wrinkled brown face. “I been George Washington every day of my life. That other fella, the one with the cherry tree and the little hatchet, he just borrowed my name… only, he borrowed it before I got to it.” With a merry cackle, he showed Izzy his union card—evidence he was indeed “Geo. Washington.”
Izzy’s mother had given the man a dollar at the vestibule entrance of the day coach, asked him to watch over Izzy and make sure he got off at Loseyville.
George Washington loomed over Izzy, swaying with the gentle rocking of the coach as the train pulled out of the Plumb station.
“Goin’ to see Grandma and Grandpa, huh?” he asked.
“All week until Friday,” said Izzy, with a sigh.
“Ain’t you pleased to be seeing them?”
“Grandma, yes. Grandpa, no,” the boy replied.
George Washington raised an eyebrow.
“He’s mean,” said Izzy. “He yells at kids.”
“My daddy was like that,” replied the porter. “God rest his soul.”
“Well,” said Izzy, upping the ante, “he says naughty words, too. Words you’re not supposed to say.”
The old man nodded his gray head. “Sure do sound like my daddy.”
Izzy was certain his Grandpa Mahler was nothing like the porter’s daddy, but he did not say so.
“Why do you go see this yellin’, cussin’ grandpa, if you don’t like him?”
“They don’t get to see me as much as my other grandparents do,” said Izzy, “so Mom and Dad said I have to go.”
“Ah,” said the old man.
Two hours later, George Washington watched from the coach steps as Izzy stepped down from the train into the waiting arms of his grandmother, a large white woman in a floral-print dress, and followed her to a gray 1948 Hudson sedan.
Like Daniel goin’ to the lion’s den,the porter thought. He did not envy Izzy the prospect of spending a week with his grandfather—leastways, not if he’s anything like old Ennis P. Washington, God rest his soul.
A fictionalized account of true events.
Memory as Fiction
The vignette above is exerpted, with slight changes, from one of my Izzy Mahler stories, “The Lion’s Den,” which won honorable mention in the Saturday Evening Post’s Great American Fiction Contest for 2018.
In all essentials, it is taken straight from my life. I made up the part about the porter being named George Washington.
No Risk Too Trivial
Younger readers may doubt there was ever a time when a loving mother would send her young child on a train trip all alone, would casually give him over to the care of a lowly railroad employee, with just the added fillip of a small gratuity. But in 1952, that’s how things worked. Back then, automobiles did not have seat belts, either—and most people didn’t lock their doors most of the time.
Now airlines have official policies and hefty fees for transporting “unaccompanied minors.” Amtrak, today’s version of passenger rail service, is even worse. It refuses to let children under age 13 travel unaccompanied, period. Our cars not only have seat belts but also shoulder harnesses and airbags—all mandated by the federal government. I can’t prove it, but I think more of us lock our doors all the time, or at least most of the time.
We may be safer, but life seems more fraught with peril. Here endeth the digression.
Jobs as porters or railcar attendants on passenger trains in the pre-Amtrak era were almost monopolized by African Americans. One can say they were relegated, as second-class citizens, to menial roles in the rail industry. On the other hand, those were steady jobs with some of the country’s largest employers. Moreover, they were union jobs, starting in 1925, when A. Philip Randolph founded the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Many black families built their economic lives on railroad jobs.
Hazards of War
Helping rail passengers was far from the only contribution African Americans made to American life. Toward the end of my Izzy Mahler story, “The Lion’s Den,” George Washington the porter reveals the shrapnel scars on his legs—souvenirs of service in the First World War as a member of the 92nd Division, in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. The 92nd was a segregated infantry division in the U.S. Army, organized late in 1917. In the Meuse-Argonne, the largest United States operation of the war, the 92nd suffered 120 killed and 1,527 wounded in action. That’s 1,647 casualties in a unit of approximately 15,000 officers and men.
When Izzy Mahler gets to his destination, the little town of Henderson Station, he spends time with his grandparents—the kindly grandmother and the abrasive grandfather. They, too, have had to cope with casualties of war. Two of their sons died as bomber pilots in the Second World War. That part of the story, too, is straight from life. My grandmother was a Gold Star Mother twice, for my uncles Stanley and Franklin.
Something as simple as a train ride can reveal who we are as individuals, as families, as a nation of people with disparate experiences but often with common purposes. I can’t speak for other authors, but when I write fiction, I can never make up something that strays far from the facts.
While you wait with great patience for my novel Freedom’s Purchase to achieve publication, I hope you may enjoy some glimpses into the life of Izzy Mahler, a little boy of the 1950s, never far removed from the facts. You can find them here, here, and here.
We’ve all got a good memoir or reminiscence book buried inside us. It’s quite another thing to actually get it out on paper, virtual or real, in any useful form. Because it requires selectivity. Unless you’re a major public figure, the world probably doesn’t need your autobiography. But it might not be able to resist your own take on the choicest bits.
That’s why there is so much to admire in what my friend, Michael Bourgo, has done. His memoir, Once Upon a Time: Growing Up in the 1950s, delivers exactly what the title claims—the experience of childhood in that now-legendary era from which so much of today’s pop culture—Happy Days, Back to the Future, Leave it to Beaver—derives.
Unlike Hollywood’s version, however, Michael’s version has the smack and tang of real events as lived in a particular person’s life. That person happens to be a warm, engaging old man recounting oodles of details from a long-ago period of his life. The struggles of a young family trying to get a start in a dynamic yet unpredictable postwar economy; the thrill of shopping at Marshall Field’s in Chicago’s Loop and dining at one of that elegant store’s six on-site restaurants; the satisfaction of showing up at summer camp self-contained and not dependent on a helicopter mom (yes, they had them in those days, too!) to unpack one’s footlocker.
Most of us, when we go to write a memoir, get overwhelmed by the imperative of sharing everything we have experienced—because every bit of it is significant to us, and we are sure that if we simply spray it out in its entirety, our own deep appreciation of each detail will transfer automatically to the mind of the reader. That is a delusion.
Write for the Reader, Not the Author
What readers want is information that is in some way new and significant to them—not a catalog of what is old and significant to the author. While trotting out an abundance of details from his amazing memory, Michael Bourgo always respects the reader’s need to get something surprising and interesting from the narrative. He also knows when to quit. This never becomes a recitation of everything that happened in the author’s life. He knows that what is significant, that today’s people might need or want to know, has to do with childhood in the Fifties. He sticks to that subject.
With a format composed of solid chapters arranged on chronological and topical lines, alternating with page-long poems that shed further light on matters already covered in prose, Michael gives us a credible understanding of life in the Fifties, one that goes well beyond the stereotypical adventures of Beaver, Wally, and Eddie Haskell.
For example, describing the ritual of young boys getting haircuts in those days: “There was another side to Ken’s [barber shop]. . . . My brother, always a more astute observer than I, figured it out when he was in high school. One day he overheard a strange exchange between a patron and one of the barbers, and he realized they were using some sort of code to set up a wager. So, in addition to cutting hair, Ken’s was also a front for a bookie operation that handled bets on sports. No doubt this was a service that many citizens found useful because in those days there were only two places to place a legal bet—at a horse track or in Las Vegas.” (I also, Dear Reader, patronized that kind of a barber shop as a boy. But I only got my hair cut.)
Those of us who lived through the times Michael Bourgo describes will recognize many of our own experiences in his narrative; and we will encounter other episodes, foreign to our own experience, that reflect the broad range of life lessons disclosed to members of different families in different places.
For readers who did not arrive on the scene before the Fifties finally petered out (around 1965), this well-balanced and life-affirming memoir will showcase a whole new world in richness and nuance—a world that Marty McFly would never find in his DeLorean.
I recommend Once Upon a Time: Growing Up in the 1950s to anyone who would like to re-live the era through a different set of eyes, and also to anyone who would like to experience it for the first time as it really was—not just as shown on TV.