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  • March 28th, 2019


By Joel M. Vance


It was 1948 and my parents and I had just moved from Chicago to Dalton Missouri, a flyspeck even on Chariton County which was and is a flyspeck on the Midwest map. Going from one of the nation’s most populous cities to a town of 250 (or 249 when the town drunk was sequestered in the county jail  was culture shock of the first magnitude.


Few memories have survived those first days riding the school bus from Dalton to Keytesville, six miles away (although 30 miles on a long loop through the country), but one has endured painfully. It happened in the school gymnasium one night when some sadistic adult organized a boxing exhibition featuring eighth grade pugilists.


Heck, I knew all about boxing. I had heard Joe Louis’s title fights on the old upright Zenith radio in Chicago and knew about left jabs, uppercuts, and bobbing and weaving. Surely, even though I was scrawny, I could out quick some country bumpkin, land a few lightning jabs to the jaw, and have my hand held high by the referee. My euphoria lasted about 30 seconds because the country bumpkin apparently had not studied the pugilistic artistry of Gene Tunney and was, instead, a budding Jack Dempsey, the legendary Manassas Mauler who believed in beating opponents to a bloody pulp.


He pounded the snot out of me!


As memories go, it isn’t much except depressing, and the next couple of years before the 1940s came to an end were similarly forgettable. Possibly the most lasting memory of those two years was when our English teacher, a wizened old lady who had been teaching English since Chaucer was in elementary school, told us that a carousel, mentioned in a story we were reading, referred to a drunken bacchanalia. She pronounced it as carouse-el. The smartassed kid from Chicago raised his hand. “A carousel is a merry-go-round,” I said. Chaucer might have subscribed to her definition, but she didn’t subscribe to mine and she told me to shut up and be quiet. I refrained from pointing out that “shut up” and “be quiet” was redundant because by then even I was smart enough to realize that I was on what the other kids would have referred to as “Birdie’s shit list.”


Thus it was that I exited the eighth grade for high school and exited the 1940s for the decade which now, among the eight I’ve been around, is the most personally momentous. To sum it up, in the 1950s I traveled through high school, graduated, traveled through four years of college, graduated with a journalism degree, got my first salaried job, married, and became half of the parents of our first of five children. A whole lot of life experience to cram into 10 years.


I also spent six months active duty at Fort Bliss, Texas, learning to shoot antiquated antiaircraft guns at jet airplanes which were faster than the bullets we were supposed to launch at them. I had opted for six months active duty with six years in the reserves, as opposed to two years active duty, with four years reserve time and somehow among the graduates in ROTC (reserve officers training Corps) I got six months. The regular Army did not need troopers who were only going to be around for a short time so they taught us to shoot obsolete weapons and saved the more modern stuff (i.e. rockets) for the two year and more soldiers.


The Korean War ended a year after my high school graduation and thus I slipped through the crack between Korea and Vietnam (two members of our wedding party did go to Vietnam and both were seriously wounded in that needless debacle. By the time Vietnam became a matter of death over life for 50,000 young Americans I was in the National Guard and thus escaped having to spill blood for the country. It’s nothing to be proud of, a matter more of luck and timing rather than the conscientious objection of those who burned draft cards or fled to Canada. Most I can say is that I would have gone if called, but I’m eternally grateful that I didn’t have to.


The 1950s has been called many things, mostly describing a decade of hibernation when the country snoozed, and the president was a grandfatherly old man who seemed more like one of the guys who hung around the local coffee shop grousing about the lack of rain, and the incompetence of the government, instead of the man in charge of the country.


People soon forgot or overlooked the fact that Dwight Eisenhower had been the Supreme Allied Commander of the forces in Europe that ended the war against decency and he didn’t do it by being a doddering old man.  He was elected president in 1952 after having been courted by both parties. He finally came down on the side of the Republicans back in the days when Republicans often were middle-of-the-road moderates as politically different from today’s extremist ideologues as the moon is from the Pleiades.


By 1956 I was old enough to vote for the first time and I took great pleasure in casting my ballot for Mr. Eisenhower (no longer referred to as General Eisenhower, but only as Citizen Eisenhower), one of 30 and one half million voters who felt as I did that the old man had done a pretty damn good job for his first four years and deserved a second term. Ike won despite having suffered a serious heart attack in his first term, and despite sticking with tricky Dick as his running mate.


If there was a downside to Mr. Eisenhower, it was that he was saddled with Tricky Dick Nixon a, glowering and menacing politician who foreshadowed the radical right of today.  Tricky Dick had been a leader in the witchhunt for communists in the government, a political travesty spearheaded by the evil Senator Joseph McCarthy. It was the McCarthy hearings, televised in the mid-1950s that first tilted me toward the Democrats and to the liberal side of the political fence. It was impossible to watch the glowering Senator and his repulsive little sidekick Roy Cohn (who, ironically and appropriately, also later was a lawyer for today’s incarnation of McCarthy, Donald J Trump), and not imagine there was a better way to direct the country.


Politics in the dawning years of the 1950s was as remote from most of us callow teenagers as quantum physics. The only President for most of our lives had been Franklin Delano Roosevelt and when we thought president, we thought FDR. When he died and Harry Truman took over for the remainder of FDR’s fourth term and then unaccountably and unpredictably won reelection in 1948, Chariton County was confused, bemused and amused. The county was, and is, an admixture of Republicans and Democrats— mostly Democrats (to give you an idea of how confused Missouri was in 1956, it was the only state that went for Democrat Adlai Stevenson over Eisenhower).


But even the Democrats were tentative when it came to the home boy in 1948, Harry S Truman. His blunt language and good old boy image left most Missouri Democrats defensive. His allegiance to Tom Pendergast, a powerbroker machine boss from Kansas City, left Democrats uneasy out in the heartland (i.e. Chariton County). The Republican minority labeled Truman a political hack and an embarrassment to the state, and the Democrats were mumbling “okay, he’s a crude bastard, but he’s our crude bastard”. When Harry threatened to lay knuckle bumps on Paul Hume, a music critic for the Washington Post, who had panned the singing of Truman’s daughter, Margaret (with good reason– she was no threat to replace Renata Tebaldi on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera) Republicans were overjoyed, and Democrats were embarrassed. Coarse or not, Truman could be deadly accurate with his profanity— he called Richard Nixon “a shifty eyed God damn liar.”


Harry Truman’s motto about accepting responsibility as president was “The buck stops here”. By contrast, Donald Trump’s motto seems to be “The buck stops in my bank account no matter who I have to cheat to get it”.


My college years, 1952 to graduation in 1956 are a jumble of memories, many involving trips to the beer joints favored by University of Missouri collegians— especially The Shack, one time hangout of Mort Walker, the creator of Beetle Bailey, and Andy’s Corner, owned by two redhaired rowdy graduates of my high school, Keytesville.


Political considerations barely registered on me during my college years, including a course I took in political science mostly because I thought it would be easy (which it should have been). That the instructor was perhaps the dullest lecturer in four years didn’t exactly excite my interest in politics. He may have been a Democrat because, as far as I can remember, he never gave credit to Eisenhower for negotiating a truce in the Korean War, instituting the interstate highway system, or supporting the 1954 Brown versus Board of Education Supreme Court ruling to end school segregation. I squeaked through the course with the lowest grade I got in any course en route to a diploma.


The highlight of college was meeting my wife, Marty, one time Macon high school cheerleader, queen of something or other, and perennial candidate as the most popular girl in her high school. As a confirmed GDI (those of us who abhorred frat rats and gloried in being God Damn Independents), I was entranced by the fact that Marty had first pledged and then abandoned the Tri-Delta sorority, and was living in a rooming house as a female GDI.


To quote Johnny and June Carter Cash in their anthem to romance “Jackson”: “We got married in a fever/hotter than a pepper sprout.”  We blind dated in March got engaged in May and were married in September. Despite the fact that both sets of parents thought we were out of our barely post-adolescent minds, we’ve endured together for 62 years and counting and if there were any way to make that happen I’d opt for another 62 years.


The 1950s has been called a 10 year nap. It was the decade of conformity, the years after the tumult of World War II and before the even more tumultuous 1960s. Even my parents had spent a more dramatic decade as children of the roaring 20s. They were no strangers to speakeasies, living as they did in Chicago, the bullet riddled domain of Al Capone. By the 1930s and especially in the 1940s when I came along the country had tamed and was ready for a 10 year nap.


It was unspoken but expected that a young girl would marry, become a homemaker, and have children. Her spouse maybe would go to college, get a degree in something that fitted him for a salary paying job and he and his homemaker wife would buy a ranch style home, possibly in a suburb, and live out their lives. If a girl did go to college, it was to become a teacher. Those girls who didn’t go to college became beauticians. All in all, if you were a girl, it wasn’t much to look forward to but none of us knew any different.


Although Marty would’ve been a fine beautician, she would’ve been an even more inspirational teacher. Our parents were correct that she should have finished college, but we were young, impetuous, and immune from reality. That our marriage has worked for so long is mostly because of Marty’s forbearance and immense common sense. She has been the best teacher that five kids could have had and the proof of her teaching potential is that she has been a living example of how a good person can make the life of another person immeasurably better—the person, in this case being me even more than the five kids, because she didn’t have as much to work with.


Ten years later than 1950 I might have become a counterculture rebel, a disciple of Jack Kerouac, on the road, sucking on a joint and looking for trouble. Instead, the only joint I knew about was Andy’s Corner, a decrepit roadhouse south of the University of Missouri campus which served cheap beer and the only road adventure was getting there from my dorm and back again in someone else’s car— I didn’t have one and Marty and I would not have one until after we were married (we took a honeymoon trip to the Lake of the Ozarks in an Oldsmobile Super 88 borrowed from her father, the shop foreman for the Macon Oldsmobile dealer).


The decade of the 1950s occurred before most people living today were born and represent, at most, a chapter in their school history book, not a living experience. Maybe it was a 10 year nap. Maybe it was a decade when the country slumbered, largely without war without deprivation without any of the ills that seem to pervade the nation today. There were large problems that would surface in the 1960s and beyond and some would be somewhat solved, many still exist today.


It was the decade when the nation slept according to people who weren’t there. It was a decade when Marty and I lost innocence, the decade when we gained responsibility.


I think I’ll take a nap.


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1 Comment

  1. CJ

    April 5th, 2019 at 3:51 pm


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