Monday, August 13, 2007

Child of the 60's

There's a terrific drama on AMC this summer called "Mad Men." It's a look at the advertising industry as practiced on Madison Avenue in 1960. The producers did their homework because the art direction is spot-on. I wish more of the plots centered on the actual work, as "thirtysomething" did with the lives of young ad execs Elliot and Michael. There are occasional references to actual ads of the times (the Volkswagen Bug, for example) in "Mad Men," and a few scenes about ad campaigns in conference rooms, but the series, as I guess these things must, focuses more on the dramatic tension of the characters in their personal lives. That's a shame, because as the era recedes in the collective memories of Baby Boomers, a lot of what made the 60's special is also being lost. I was just school-age in 1960 and yet I have vivid memories of growing up in an America without personal computers, cellphones, cable TV, videogames or even regular commercial air travel. Getting on a plane and going anywhere was considered a novelty, and mostly for the rich.

My mom had bought a Plymouth station wagon the previous year and all the men in our neighborhood came over to laugh at its push-button transmission. She was a widow and did the best she could raising my sister and me. I actually thought the car was cool, with its silver-tone dashboard and fins. In those days, cars were a big part of my life. I collected the die-cast models produced by Dinky and Corgi. I remember going to the big department store at the nearby mall and wishing I could afford to buy the ones priced at $3.50. I got an allowance of a buck a week from my grandfather, but a dollar didn't stretch very far, even in 1960. I was also heavily into slot-car racing. A company called Aurora sold big layouts in expensive gift sets that you might get at Christmas if you were lucky. The cars were small but authentically detailed. Today you can find them on eBay for $40 and up. I still have many in my collection.

Playtime required a great deal of imagination. Outside, it was games of kickball in the street or flying balsa wood planes that were really cheap from the local dime store. Woolworth's was the closest we had in my neighborhood to a convenience store. The one in my hometown was quite old, with floorboards that creaked and sagged from decades of use. When you walked in, you were hit by a not particularly enticing smell of stale popcorn and the chirp of parakeets in their cages in the back. But you could find Duncan yo-yo's and hula hoops and the little plastic soldiers that you tied to handkerchiefs. I spent many hours rolling up the soldiers in cloth and tossing them into the air. If you weighted the plastic man just right, he would float back to earth just like the soldiers in war movies on TV.

Roller skates were big in my neighborhood. But eventually, they gave way to a new invention called a "skate board," and that was what it was: a board with skate wheels nailed to the bottom. We didn't have fancy neoprene wheels or fiberglass boards, just a raw hunk of wood that we cut to size. Back then, of course, you didn't have protection for knees and elbows so everyone had fresh scars from tumbles in the driveway.

TV in my house was still black and white in 1960. Color TV was a novelty and not very advanced. The pictures looked fuzzy and unconvincing. I remember later on, when NBC promoted its new colorcasts, there was the famous unfurling peacock logo, the singing harp, and the announcer saying "brought to you in living color on N-B-C." The transition to color, once perfected, was like some sort of other-worldly magic. Thankfully, we had a color set once "Star Trek" debuted in 1964. But black-and-white TV was not as unappealing as youngsters today might think. It was what everyone had and most movies were in color by then anyway.

Looking back, I had a precocious view of the period. I was a big fan of Henry Mancini's music. He scored most of Audrey Hepburn's movies. "Peter Gunn," written for the TV show, is still one of his most famous compositions. And in those days, film music was also popular music. Rock n' roll was around in '60, but it had not yet taken over radio. Instead, solo artists like Frank Sinatra, Andy Williams and a young Barbra Streisand were at the top of the charts. Broadway show tunes were also getting heavy play on the radio. And record sales boosted the popularity of music from "Camelot" and "My Fair Lady." We had a so-called "stereo" in our house and my mom played the "Warsaw Concerto" until the needle gave out.

In those days, milk was delivered to the house in glass bottles. That was a problem in summer, because the milkman would place the bottles in an unlined metal container on the back porch. If the day was going to be hot, he would drop in a few pieces of ice to keep the milk cold. Sometimes, if our timing was perfect, we could beg him for some ice to suck on. Few of the milk trucks were refrigerated, so they were usually carrying huge blocks of ice. In some neighborhoods even the bread was delivered this way. The local supermarket seemed to do just fine selling everything but bread and milk.

In my hometown, the biggest employer was the United Shoe Machinery Corp., or "Shoe." Nearly everyone's dad worked there. The company, as its name implies, made the machinery that make shoes. I am guessing the machines ended up in nearby Lawrence and Lowell, as well as in many parts of Maine. The last of those factories closed a few years ago when most shoe production was sent off-shore. I think the Caribbean is where most shoes are now made, at least when the labels don't say Bangladesh or China. There's a common belief now that the big factory near the Bass River was a heavy polluter. There's no other way to explain the distinct pockets of cancer deaths in close proximity.

But for the most part, they were innocent times. We played ball and drank Zarex (it was a flavored syrup mixed with water, much like Kool-Aid) and dreamed of becoming astronauts and cowboys. I didn't know of the racism in the Deep South or the coming danger of Communism. My world was one in which the good guys wore white hats and could shoot a soup can off a distant fence. And where Norman Rockwell painted rosy-cheeked kids with fishing poles and moms hanging out the fresh laundry. To borrow a line from a poem, we were soldiers once and young on battlefields of our own devising, fighting dragons and demons with cap guns, and saving the world until supper.

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