My friend, Bill Quick, gave me permission to re-post a precious piece he wrote today. There were a privileged few of us who lived in that day and age, one which shall never be duplicated. We were fortunate, for we lived in an America that was the freest and most civilized any American has ever known. You had to be there. I was.
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If you are under fifty, almost none of these pictures will have any meaning for you. But if you are older, the older you are, the more you will find meaning in these old photos (and there are dozens here).
By meaning, I don’t mean simple recognition, in the sense that you’ve seen something similar posted on the Internet, or run across one in a magazine when you cleaned out your dad’s attic after the funeral. I’m talking about personal meaning, about having actually lived the life depicted in these ageing photographs.
In the above pic, for instance (which could certainly have come from the days of my childhood in the early fifties), note the shoes those boys are wearing. They are leather lace-ups. What we call today sneakers or running shoes or whatever didn’t really exist for kids back then. There were tennis shoes, of course, but only a few kids at the country club played tennis, and that was the only time they wore such footgear either.
The rest of us wore leather lace-up shoes everywhere, and a common parental lament was how badly we tore them up, wore out the soles, or outgrew them.
The moderns would be hard-pressed to understand just what it was like when American auto-iron ruled the entire world. Boys grew up lusting after these vehicles. Postwar adults bought them by the millions. New models were announced once a year, around Labor Day as I recall, and Americans waited with bated breath to see what new wonders Detroit would bestow upon us each year: Tail fins! Convertibles! Bigger V-8s! Superglide automatic transmissions!
I went car-mad around the age of 12. I doodled dream cars in the margins of my notebooks. My dad was a Pontiac guy, and got a new one every year. (Eventually he became a Buick guy, but that’s another story). So I was a Pontiac guy as well. The area in which I was raised – Muncie/New Castle/Anderson – was entirely built on the American auto industry. It had the largest local of the United Auto Workers in the world, bigger even than Detroit’s. The once-iconic Muncie fourspeed was manufactured in a gigantic Warner Gear plant out on the west side that ran three shifts a day and employed eight or nine thousand workers.
You picked car makers the same way you picked sports teams, with Ford, GM, and Chrysler being the main franchises, and the dozens of various brands – Chevy, Ford, Dodge, Chrysler, Lincoln, Cadillac, Pontiac, Buick, and so on, being individual teams. And, of course, each make had several models for you to choose from.
Volkswagen? Toyota? Honda? Who dat?
On the days each new model was revealed, you could find me and dozens of kids like me – and not a few adults – slobbering on the huge plate glass windows of the local auto dealerships, as parties, buntings, and free soda pop announced the debut of each new offering. There was nothing analytical about our reactions. They were purely visceral. They were a part of the American experience, and unless you are of a certain age today, you have no idea what that experience was.
It looked like this, actually.
Here’s another. This sort of thing was so common in the days of my youth as to be both endemic and unremarkable. It was, of course, tied to the automobile.
In Muncie, the drive-in restaurant with the roller-skating waitresses was called Burkies. You saw a pale and gussied-up version of that culture in the movie Grease, but that was Hollywood make-believe. Happy Days was a bit closer to the mark, but still, it was television.
We lived it. Burkies was where we went at dusk, before things, or late on a hot summer night, after things, or on a sparkling Saturday afternoon, for burgers, cokes, cars, and girls. And an occasional fist fight, which never resulted in much of anything serious, certainly not the explosion of panty-wetting that accompanies any instance of youthful middle-class male violence these days.
I see pictures like these, and I can smell the aroma of new cars, the scorched charcoal fragrance of the Burkie’s Big Burger, and I can still feel the little moment of terror when I realized I’d somehow managed to rip one of the soles of my leather lace-up shoes half off clambering over the big pile of rocks at the abandoned coke plant down by the river, and what would my mom say?
America, for many of us, used to be a place we lived in. Now, for many more, it is simply something to look at in old pictures, an expression of blank incomprehension on their mugs.
Check out the rest of these pictures, and see which group you fall in.
The fact that both groups exist, and the second is inevitably larger than the first, and continually growing, offers an explanation of why America has somehow managed to get one foot in the dustbin of history. The physical framework remains, after a fashion – 57 states, a Congress, a President, and supposedly even a constitution, but all of that is hollowed out these days, filled with millions and millions of laws designed to plague us even as the leach out all the juice from the now-rapidly corpseifying nation I experienced, filled with armies of ideological cockroaches who, never having lusted after a brand new red and white Pontiac convertible, make war on the automobile in general, and children raised not to put on their scuffed leather lace-up shoes and run outside and play, but groomed instead to be good little girls (even the boys), while functioning primarily as logo-billboards for soul-less global mega-corporations.
Today, we all live in something called America, but it is a dessicated husk compared to the real thing.