For those of us of a certain age, ahem, there’s a fun Facebook page called “The Fabulous Fifties.” There, people post photos of drive-in restaurants and outdoor theaters; of women in frilly dresses, hats and white gloves; of teens in bobby socks and saddle shoes dancing the twist or jitterbug, as well as other things that bring a knowing smile to those of us who grew up back then.
They also post childhood memories of playing outside with friends till dark, walking to school unattended, having to do chores, being made to eat what was on our plates and having consequences – spanking—for bad behaviors. Those behaviors were rarely repeated.
Most of the page’s followers comment that they miss those days and wish they’d return. I, too, am grateful I had the opportunity to roam the neighborhood with my friends, to look for different routes to school every day, which meant cutting through yards and climbing fences, and wasn’t glued to a screen for most of my youth. I’m also glad my parents cared enough to discipline me when I was out of line.
On Sundays, my mother and I went to Mass wearing dresses, hats and gloves, but I don’t miss dressing that way since I’ve never been a frilly-dress person. In fact, I was the first one of my girlfriends to wear jeans, probably because they didn’t yet make girls’ jeans. I even remember the first time my mother bought me boys’ jeans at the JCPenney store. They were stacked in tall piles and the denim felt as hard as paneling. The trick was to put them on, sit in a tub of warm water until the water turned navy blue and the fabric softened, and then wear them till they dried.
After we moved out of town, they fit my lifestyle of wandering in the woods and meadows, climbing trees, having rotten apple fights, and making forts with the boy next door. Later, the neighborhood boys and I played football in the vacant lots behind our houses—until my dad said I was too old to be playing tackle with boys. My team really missed me because I used to make a lot of touchdowns; not because I was so fast, but because the other boys were afraid of hurting me.
In school, up until my sophomore year in college, skirts or dresses were mandated for girls. The only exception was if it became frigidly cold which, in Ohio, meant about 10 degrees.
But, for most of us, it was the good old days, unless you were Black—segregation was still practiced in the south, or LGBTQ. There were two Black students in my high school class and, I’m happy to say, one of them was voted “Most Popular.” But, until I went with friends to Florida in my freshman year, and we stopped in Georgia to get gas, I had no idea that segregation existed. There, we saw “whites only” water fountains and restrooms and noticed that Blacks couldn’t enter most restaurants.
Being rebels, my friends and I went into a “Colored” restroom and saw that it hadn’t been cleaned for what looked like ever. In contrast, the restroom for whites was spotless. And, when we started talking with the Black man who pumped our gas, the owner came charging out of the gas station and yelled for us to leave. All of that was a rude awakening.
Also, in high school, none of us knew LGBTQ people even existed and, back then, “gay” meant “happy.” I remember only one boy in my class, an amazing artist, who was probably gay. Now that I think about it, he was probably bullied. It makes me happy to know he went on to become a Broadway set designer.
In my college dorm, there were two girls who roomed together and seemed to be in love, but nobody seemed to care. Now, I realize there were probably many students who were afraid to “come out” or thought there was something wrong with them. Looking back, I now realize society in the 50s didn’t allow much diversity in dress, race or sexual orientation.
So, as much as I wish today’s children played together outside more and weren’t addicted to their screens, and that parents held their children accountable for bad behaviors, I don’t miss the rigid demands for conformity in appearances, the racial injustice, and the general and accepted intolerance of differences. In fact, most of the most important things are actually better now for most of us than they were in the “good old days.”
Pat Nash has lived in the Baraboo area, off and on, for more than 35 years. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.