Cool Runnings, with Lateral Displacement

Groundhog, without shadow. April King photo, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

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? 

Those Winters

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. 

Boy on sled. Photo by father of JGKlein, used with permission. Public Domain.

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. 

Flexible Flyer sled. The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

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.

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“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. 

A silver certificate, this one specially issued for use in pre-statehood Hawaii. National Numismatic Collection,
National Museum of American History, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

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. 

No Credit

Old BankAmericard “welcome sign.” Photo by Infrogmation of New Orleans licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

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. 

. . . and I only am escaped alone to tell thee.” 

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Memoir-ization

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 DaysBack 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.

Jerry Mathers as The Beaver. ABC Television. Public Domain.

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.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author