I stared this article months ago, and it will likely be expanded. It is an answer to my daughter’s question, “how are things different now than when you were young?
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I don’t know how it happened, but I got old. When I turned 59 my dad called me to inform me I was old. I was amused. “I know I am!”
My daughter called and I told her what her grandpa said, and she replied “You’re not old. Not until next year!”
That was ten years ago.
But I just realized that at sixty nine, I’m at the end of my seventh decade. And I don’t feel any different than I did when I was nineteen: I hurt. I joined the Air Force at nineteen, and stationed at Dover I discovered that I had arthritis; the doctors informed me when when I couldn’t push the tractor’s clutch. I spent a lot of time on light duty at Dover, its climate is not the least suited for anyone with arthritis. They offered a medical discharge and I declined; I had orders for Thailand and this was probably my only chance to visit a foreign country. Turns out, it was.
Yesterday I got up from the couch, took a few steps, and that shooting pain hit my left knee again, just like I was at Dover. It’s better today.
I’ve changed in my life, but America has changed much, much more.
It’s mid October as I write this, and the morning news show’s cast were talking about what they were going to dress up as on Halloween. When I was a kid, newscasters told the news, not office banter, and Halloween was only for children. The only thing adults did on Halloween was to hand out candy to children as their own children went trick or treating by themselves. Today they spend lots of cash decorating their yards with giant spiders and tombstones and have adult costume parties.
Growing up in the fifties and sixties, most mothers didn’t work outside of home; they didn’t have to. A single paycheck was enough to cover a family’s bills, unlike today, where someone who works forty hours a week at or even above the minimum wage is eligible for food and rent assistance, even living alone. Never mind raising a family. Some who work full time don’t earn enough to escape homelessness. It was nothing like today. Today’s legislators won’t mandate a living minimum wage, giving employers’ employees LINK and child care tax credits that were the employers’ responsibility when I was young. Congress obviously stopped caring about any American who isn’t a millionaire when it should be illegal to pay a full time worker so little that she is eligible for government assistance!
When I was a kid, President Eisenhower pushed the Interstate Highway System through congress, and started the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. In this century, rather than NASA they started the TSA. Rather than fixing the nation’s infrastructure, now only the world’s thirteenth best, unlike when I was a kid and we were number one, the Republicans want to shut government down (note: President Biden got an infrastructure bill passed before this was written). We’ve dropped from number one in almost every metric except murders, police violence, and incarceration. We have more of all three than any other country.
The rich paid most of the taxes, as it should be. The middle class could barely afford a car, having to borrow money for one, let alone X-15s and space rockets or continent spanning superhighways. Only the rich can afford things like that, but government is no longer willing to force them to. Under Eisenhower, the top tax rate was 75%. Being filthy rich they could afford it. Under Trump it was 28%.
But we didn’t live in any kind of utopia. Things were very primitive; we feared polio. It is gone. We feared a nuclear world war three with the Soviets, who are also gone. Both fears were valid; the world almost ended in the Kennedy administration. We came very close to a nuclear holocaust. The terrorists they fear today are nothing in comparison to the USSR, and many children died or were crippled from polio.
Back then, nobody politicized public health. There were no demonstrations against the mandated “unconstitutional” polio vaccines, because nobody wanted to see their children die. Today? We have heartless morons in power in many states who have politicized the vaccine and masks for the deadly Covid-19 and even mandated that masks and vaccines not be mandated. It’s insane.
Back when I was a kid, America stunk. Literally. Air, water, and land pollution was horrible, and there were no laws against fouling the earth, air, or water. Rivers and streams actually caught fire. Few had air conditioning in their homes, let alone cars, but even when it was a ninety five degree August day you had to roll the car windows up driving past Monsanto because the air would burn your lungs!
Smoking was allowed almost everywhere. There were ash trays in doctors’ waiting rooms. Where cars now have cup holders, back then they had ashtrays. Almost all adults smoked; cigarettes, cigars, pipes. Almost everyone was ignorantly committing slow suicide, and there were few places you couldn’t light up, like around ether, or in an elevator. You could smoke in doctors’ offices, airplanes, stores, almost anywhere. There were ash trays by each elevator, and few rooms anywhere were without ash trays.
Like I said, America stunk. But nobody smoked weed; at least, nobody I knew. Weed was illegal when I was young, and when you were, too, even if you’re still young. It’s still federally outlawed, although half of the states have legalized it, at least parts.
There were also no worker safety laws. My grandfather fell four stories down an elevator shaft because his employer, the Purina Corporation, was too cheap to put doors on the elevators. Now we have OSHA, which a Republican congresswoman recently said was communist.
There was racial segregation. I can remember seeing a Black man for the first time, no young person can today. The Voting Rights Act was passed in 1964, and although it’s far less racist now than then, there is still racism, both individual and institutional. Back then, racism was considered normal and respectable! That changed, the worst racists had to pretend to be human, at least until a White Supremacist was put in the White House by the Electoral College (NOT the voters).
Televisions were grayscale, expensive (almost always one per household) and there were only two or three channels in a large city. The most common argument in a ‘50s or ‘60s household was probably which channel to watch.
They were much smaller, as well. It was the 1990s before I saw a TV screen bigger than thirty six inches; most TVs in the ‘50s were nineteen inches. And before the 1960s they had tubes, which lasted about as long as incandescent light bulbs and you would have to replace them. They weren’t cheap, either. By 1970 all the tubes were gone, except the cathode ray tube, what everyone called the “picture tube”. They went away at the beginning of this century, the last one I had with a tube I bought in 2002.
Back in those primitive times, cars had no seat belts, let alone air bags, or crumple zones. Plus, you were far likelier to have a wreck in the first place; cars had drum brakes (my 2004 still has drums on the back) which take almost twice as long to stop, and no antilock braking systems.
There were no fuel injectors, cars all had the inefficient carburetors. There was also no electronic ignition, there was a distributor and contact points, also very inefficient. Today’s internal combustion cars have more than twice the gas mileage than a comparable car from back then. And of course, there were no electric autos.
Regional accents were way, way more pronounced than today. My Aunt Jane was from Boston, and her accent was so thick I could barely understand her. By this century she barely had an accent at all. But television and radio were fairly new, the first radio show starting in 1926. Broadcasters spoke with perfect diction and grammar without a hint of any kind of accent. Even shows that highlighted a region, like Andy Griffith, had accents that were way toned down from how people in those parts actually spoke. My ex-wife had never been outside Illinois or Missouri, so when we stopped at McDonald’s in the deep south and the girl at the counter said “Kin ah hap e-you?” the wife rushed to a table laughing, having never hears a true southern accent. Accents are nearly gone in most places today.
It was only recently that I was startled by a TV broadcaster with a fairly thick foreign accent. And I noticed a local weatherman the other day who couldn’t pronounce “isolated” properly, who predicted “oscillated storms.” Wouldn’t an oscillated storm be a tornado?
The things on Star Trek, like self-opening doors, Bluetooth earpieces, flat screen voice activated computers, flip phones, these and other common technologies were only fiction. Only governments and the largest corporations could afford computers.
It would be very hard for someone born in this century to understand just how primitive it was back then. In fifty years they’ll look back at our stupid, primitive gasoline automobiles and wonder why we ruined the environment with them. Of course, in the 1880s they forecast a horrible environmental problem a century later: everyone would be hip deep in horse shit.
People today complain that you can’t say shit on television, but the media had far more self-censorship “back in the day”. In Gone With the Wind, people were shocked to hear “I don’t give a damn.” Did you ever wonder why there are so many westerns, both movies and TV shows, from the 1930s through the 1960s? The media were controlled by a cartel, and one of the rules was that you couldn’t show American against American violence in a show set in the present. Comic books were kept on an extremely short leash, more than film and television.
Not only could you not say shit on TV, you weren’t allowed to print it, either. You would find no vulgar language in anything printed before about 1975. And they have lightened up greatly. You can’t say “shit” on TV but you can say “bitch”, “ass” (but not “asshole” for some unknown reason) and a few other words that were previously forbidden.
Flying is nothing like it was in the last century. No TSA nonsense, you walked up, laid your cash down (no ID needed), and boarded the plane when it was ready. The seats were much larger (and most people weren’t fat, unlike today) and there was a lot more leg room. Back then, there really was a use for the reclining seats.
Once the plane was in the air, the No Smoking sign went dark and you could smoke, as the attendant, always a woman, brought your drink, soft or alcoholic. A meal was served halfway to your destination (more like a TV Dinner than a meal).
There was no TSA, no being made to take off your shoes, no unconstitutional search of your bags; only incoming overseas flights were searched.
All children got very ill, multiple times. Measles, mumps, chicken pox, influenza, and I even knew a kid who got whooping cough. Many children died from these diseases, but today we have vaccines, and the worst illness a child is likely to experience is the flu, since its vaccines often aren’t very good. But I can remember when I was five I was so sick I was afraid I was going to die, but I don’t remember from what disease.
Oh, and tonsillitis, I had that, like most kids then. They amputated my tonsils, and it got infected because I vomited from the ether when I woke up. Ether is the most horrible way imaginable to be anesthetized. It’s a nightmare and you think you’re dying, and anyone who has been under with it will tell you the same thing. Not a nice time at all. It was also a very dangerous fire hazard; today it’s only used as automotive starting fluid, that’s how flammable it is. If you need surgery, thank God and medical science that they won’t use ether.
And today they have drugs that treat tonsillitis effectively without surgery. And for things that still need surgery, today when you wake up you don’t even realize you’ve been unconscious.
When I was a kid, moles and goiters were almost nonexistent, and only the very old had them, with few exceptions; the mole over Clint Eastwood’s lip comes to mind. Now, they’re so common that nobody notices them. Young people, even children, have them now. There must be something in the environment that didn’t exist back then.
Not quite so rare but still abnormal were fat people. Roger Birlew’s mom was obese, his dad was rail thin. But the average weight for Americans seems to have risen by at least fifty pounds. There are a lot of reasons for that—birth control was brand new, and antidepressants didn’t yet exist, both of which cause weight gain. There was little eating out, most people had their meals at home. Going out was a treat.
Today, getting most of your food from restaurants and fast food joints (fats food joints) is pretty normal. What’s more, portion sizes have exploded. Today when I go to D’Arcy’s or somewhere I take half the meal home for the next day. There were no McDoubles, quarter pounders, third pounders, half pounders, or Whoppers.
Sugar intake has ballooned. A small fountain coke was eight ounces, medium twelve, and large was sixteen. Today a large soda is a full liter; more then an entire quart! Today’s small was yesterday’s medium. There was no high fructose corn syrup, now they put it in everything, even things that traditionally have never been sweet, like corn, green beans, or bacon.
More rare than obesity were tattoos. Very few men wore them, all who did having been either in prison or the military. No women wore tattoos at all, although my dad told me that his aunts were flappers and all got tattoos in the 1920s, but Grandma had none (she was 21 in 1924), and I was middle aged before I saw a tattoo on a woman. Today nearly everyone has them.
The same with piercings. Almost all women had their ears pierced, but nowhere else. I was in my late twenties before I saw a man with any sort of piercing, ears only, like women, and was informed that one ear pierced meant you had been in prison and the other meant you were homosexual. Now piercings are everywhere, both men and women. Piercing noses, nipples, eyebrows… in my opinion, people went crazy. What, do youth feel the need to prove they can endure pain?
As different as it is now, it’s still true that those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it. Many things in Nixon’s administration, like protests and riots, were mirrored under the Trump administration. In Nixon’s day, people demonstrated for civil rights, for cleaning up the environment, for worker safety laws. In Trump’s single term people demonstrated against racist cops who murdered black people, against the treatment of immigrants and foreigners, against sexual assault.
This century saw two presidents lose the popular vote but be inserted by the electoral college, something that has only happened one other time in American history. We seem to be losing our democracy.
A one term president who never won the popular vote and was impeached twice and attempted a coup seated a full third of the Supreme Court. We are living in a unique time.
Those born this century blame my generation for all the ills of the world, but that’s because they’re as ignorant as we were; we blamed America’s problems on our parents’ and grandparents’ generations, when every generation inherits the ills of the previous generation. Each generation generally works to remedy the problems they inevitably blame on their parents and grandparents.
But although it isn’t a fight between my generation and yours, it’s between us normal young and old people, and the abnormal people: the very rich who own 95% of everything and have caused almost all of the world’s problems. Who did we have to roll the windows up for? Not our grandparents, who worked for a living, but the rich who own the industries that pollute; the oil companies, chemical companies, and so on. Who benefited from racism? Not you, unless you’re rich. Your hatred of Black people blinds you to who is really behind your misery. It’s their tool. The young are right, fossil fuels need to go away, but good luck convincing someone who owns oil wells and coal mines.
To someone born in this century, the whole world is a dystopia. Someone my age can see how everything but people change, even societies themselves, and things are mostly a whole lot better than when I was young.
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