THE SIMPLE LIFE II
By William Urban
Reminiscing about growing up in the 1950s took more words than I could get into one column, but the increasing insistence by intellectual elites on demanding more technology while consuming only local products .suggests that it might be useful to reflect so more on that distant era when even Detroit was an attractive, booming city. Occupy Wall Street would be easy to do in Detroit today, where 78,000 stores and homes stand empty, representing a population collapse worse than much of rural America experienced between 1960 and today.
Every small town in Kansas has an extra-wide main street that once led down to the railroad depot and to the stockyard farther down the tracks. I grew up in the last days of that era. Cattlemen no longer drove herds through town, but the stockyard remained about a hundred yards from my grandparents’ home. In my great-aunt’s town the main street was filled Saturday nights by cars angle-parked on the curbs and parallel-parked in two lines down the middle. Farmers talked about crops till midnight, while their wives stocked up in our general store and gossiped, and the kids packed the theater for a double feature of cowboy movies.
Nobody went to bed before midnight. Small electric fans only circulated the hot air, so after the theater closed we listened to the Cards or White Sox, then played cards until I had supplemented my meager allowance. For what I can’t remember. Pop maybe. There wasn’t else much to buy, and I earned plenty of pocket money by collecting discarded pop bottles for two cents each. Even then we were on a sustainable basis, but only the die-hards continued to save the silver wrapping from chewing gum. We had been told this had been needed for the war effort, but nobody would buy it now. The war was long over. The same for balls of string.
Patriotism was big. Decoration Day brought out all the WWI veterans and families, and when my parents were there, we visited all the cemeteries where relatives were buried. Nobody’s family went too far back — the area hadn’t been settled until the Indian wars were over.
One of my great-aunt’s older friends told me that Comanches had killed three of her uncles. She was very dependable on her sources and was originally from Texas.
My great-uncle had once driven to Texas with his brother right after getting out of the service in 1919. They looked at the Rio Grande Valley, liked its prospects, but needed to talk it over with the women they were thinking of marrying. They made the entire trip on dirt roads, and their Model T didn’t break down until they were within sight of home.
My great-aunt believed in staying put and working hard. When her husband began to play too much golf — I’d never heard of a course closer than forty miles away — she burned his clubs (which in those days were made of wood). She had him slow down once so that she could show me where she had ended up in a ditch, or perhaps against a telephone pole. That was her only time behind the wheel.
That was shortly after they married and rented a place on the south side of town — always a bad sign — near the stockyard and ballpark. She said that they lived on Tough Street. The farther down the street you went, the tougher it got. They lived in the last house.
Everybody had a car, but with the garages only big enough for a Model T, in the summer they just parked them on the street. There were several filling stations, all busy because vehicles tended to break down often, and a flat tire was common. Nobody owned anything but Ford and GM products, and the pick-ups of that day could almost be put in the bed of modern ones.
There were multiple grocery stores, but all provided the same stuff. As soon as I was old enough to work in the general store, I was assigned to sweeping and stocking. Later, when people phoned in their orders, I would put everything in a wire basket and deliver in the ancient panel truck with no brakes; usually I just went in the kitchen door and unloaded everything on the table. I’m not sure I knew everyone’s house from the front, but I had the backs down pat.
The towns were full of soft-wood trees that grew fast, but only the cottonwoods grew large enough for us to clamber higher than was safe. Parents let their sons wander around when they weren’t working or playing on one of the baseball teams. It was a Tom Sawyer existence. But no steamboats, no Blacks, no Asians, no Jews. If we were really bored, we’d watch the cars race by on the east-west highway through town.
I heard the final word on the good old days about 1955. My great-aunt, born about 1896, had a group of contemporaries in her large kitchen for coffee and conversation, with the emphasis on conversation. I could never figure out how they could always find something or someone to talk about. The town wasn’t that large. How many scandals could there be?
Summers were hot, so I took refuge in the new TV room which also provided an indoor entrance to the basement where my great-uncle retired every time a storm neared. I would sit near the noisy air conditioner and read, but I could sill hear what they were saying. Once I heard my great-aunt interrupt the conversation to make a phone call (I believe that it was no longer necessary to ask Central to make a connection), “Blanche, this is Stella. A group of us were talking about you, and one said that you had an illegitimate child, but I didn’t think so, so I called to ask.” After a minute she reported, “She laughed and said, ‘Stella, I thought everyone knew that!’”
It was one of those towns where any girl who made a long visit with an aunt, well, you know what that meant. Or a trip to Tulsa.
But I digress from that 1955 conversation. My great-aunt opened it up by saying, “We’ve all seen a lot in our lifetimes — the first automobile, the first airplane, refrigerators, talking pictures, and so forth. What do you think was the greatest improvement we’ve seen?”
The answer was unanimous — Kotex.
Monmouth Review Atlas (August 29, 2013), 4.