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Dictionaries Helped Define the Boomer Education Years

Word came this past week that Merriam-Webster would update its dictionary, but the update would be online only — marking the end of the last remaining print version of an American dictionary. When Mister Boomer learned of this news, he couldn’t help but reference dictionary memories of his youth. Taking a page out of that history, one might say dictionaries pretty much defined boomer school days.

Every school kid knows the story of Samuel Johnson’s influential dictionary of the mid-1700s, but in the U.S., the task of documenting language in the burgeoning country fell to Noah Webster. In 1806 he published A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language, then followed it two decades later, in 1828, with An American Dictionary of the English Language.

After Webster died, George and Charles Merriam bought the publishing rights to his books and released dictionaries under the Webster company name. Fifty years later, in 1898, the Merriam-Webster Company began its Collegiate Dictionary series, which many boomers will remember as the dictionary title from their school days.

Mister Boomer’s first dictionary was acquired in the third grade. The students in his grade were all required to have one, so the school sold the officially-approved version; it was a hardcover book with a red cover,┬ábut Mister B can’t recall if it was a Webster or Merriam-Webster title, or something else. It was that dictionary that served Mister B throughout his elementary and high school years.

The dictionary was an inherent part of a boomer’s learning experience. Boomers had to know how to use the book to look up words for class, and how to understand the definitions and pronunciation keys. Dictionaries were sources used to expand vocabulary and as an indispensable tool when unfamiliar words appeared while reading novels and textbooks.

The dictionary was considered such an important part of the education process that several publishers released their own versions. Mister Boomer’s parents, like all boomer parents, wanted their children to succeed in school, so they invested in a mammoth-sized Funk & Wagnell’s dictionary. It was an added bonus that packets of pages could be purchased at the A&P supermarket each week. When Mister B’s father brought home the groceries, Mister B and his sister would unwrap the packets and slide the pre-punched pages onto metal pegs that were attached to the free hard cover. When completed, the book was massive; it resembled the oversized dictionary that sat on a pedestal inside every public library of the time. It was fine for homework, but hardly portable, so it resided on the bottom shelf in the hutch that contained the family’s Funk & Wagnell encyclopedias.

Mister B’s next dictionary was the only one he actually purchased — or rather, co-purchased with Sister Boomer. One Saturday morning in early 1970, there was a knock at the door. Sister Boomer answered it and was greeted by a salesman peddling Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language. She was impressed by the addition of the “Student Handbook” that included information on English, Literature, History, Physics, Astronomy, Mathematics, Chemistry, Music and more. She came to Mister B and convinced him go in halves with her on the purchase. The price was right, so the two bought the dictionary. Mister B still has it.


Richard Nixon was president when Mister B and his sister bought this Webster’s dictionary.

Dictionaries used to be essential books for everyone, especially school children. Now any word is just a search away on a smartphone and it is highly doubtful that anyone born after 2000 will ever own a print version. Dictionaries have joined the ever-growing list of items that boomers found common in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, that have either completely changed their form or disappeared altogether.

What defined your relationship with dictionaries, boomers?

posted by Mister B in Education,Pop Culture History and have Comment (1)

‘Cause People Said We Monkeyed Around

The post-war era that spawned the Baby Boom was significant in many ways, one of which was that for the first time children in different parts of the country were having similar experiences in school, at home and at play. Television had a big role in the beginnings of an American homogenization, as did the migration from cities to suburbs and the changing attitudes about education.

Play was considered an important part of the education plan since the beginning of the 1900s, and at some point recess was added into the curriculum. Just before the War, Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal Works Progress Administration built thousands of playgrounds around the country. Then after the War, playgrounds continued to take on a similar blueprint. One of the structures that appeared practically everywhere was what we boomers called monkey bars. The term became popular in the 1950s, and originally referred to the ladder-like structure installed in a horizontal configuration about five feet from the ground. Kids would grab the rungs to swing from one end to the other. The swinging motion was reminiscent of the way a monkey moves, and thus the name was attached. Soon, though, the term monkey bars took on a broader definition to include just about any type of metal or wood climbing apparatus intended for children.

The story of monkey bars dates back to 1920 when Sebastian Hinton, a lawyer from Chicago, patented a playground structure called a “Jungle Gym.” It contained a climbing feature as a part of its structure. Hinton, so the story goes, recalled the structures his father had built for him when he was a kid. The senior Hinton had created what some termed a “monkey cage” (or “monkey bars”) out of bamboo. In addition to allowing his children to climb through the structure, his father created a game. Sebastian and his siblings would move through the bars when his father gave them specific x, y and z coordinates within the cage’s internal frame; in other words, the senior Mr. Hinton was teaching his children Cartesian coordinates while they played. It was remarked that the children moved through these bamboo bars like monkeys, but it wasn’t until 1955 when monkey bars became the name for one of the apparatuses.

For Mister Boomer, “monkey bars” referred to the circular cage-like climbing structure that rose about ten feet and culminated on top with a bar that had rounded ends connected to the bars below. There were many differences between these monkey bars and the ones kids play on today. For one thing, they were made of metal tubing — probably stainless steel or aluminum. That meant the bars could get scorching hot in the summer sun, singeing the legs of kids who were wearing shorts. The bars were connected with sleeves that were screwed together and bolted, so though rounded, the ends of the screws protruded below the bottom of each bar, enough to catch a shirt sleeve or back collar if the angle was right. They could also be freezing cold by the time October came around. That meant less time sitting around when your hands got too cold and the temperature of the bars transferred through your jeans to your legs and seat.

Another thing that differs between then and now is what was below the monkey bars. Some playgrounds had installed them over nothing but the ground, while others placed sand below. For others still, it was cement or asphalt as the base.

By contrast, today’s playgrounds are designed to protect children in every way possible. Metal is out, unless it’s covered with some kind of padding. Likewise the ground surface is meant to soften the fall of any wayward climber. Can you imagine what a parents’ group might say if their children were confronted with the playground apparatuses of the 1950s?

The closest playground to where Mister B lived was on the school grounds where his sister had attended elementary classes. It had been built after Mister B and Brother Boomer were enrolled in parochial school. The monkey bars were next to the swing set and the twirling thing-a-ma-jig. Beneath the monkey bars were white rocks, the kind you see in some gardens. A few years later the entire area was paved with asphalt. As with many other things, children were expected to behave in such a manner that they would not hurt themselves or others. For the most part, we did both. Tears, scrapes and a little blood were common on the playground, whether self-inflicted or incurred with the help of a delinquent shove.

When Mister B started kindergarten, the playground at the school he attended consisted only of a slide and swings. His elementary school didn’t even have that. The kids had recess in a parking lot. So Mister B enjoyed climbing the monkey bars with his neighborhood friends after school and in summer at the nearby school playground. He remembers hanging upside down from the top center bar. Some kids would leap from bar to bar, barely touching each as they let go to grab the next, acting more like Tarzan than a monkey. Inside, the cage became a place for co-ed conversation and rest, too. Discussions of TV shows and exactly whose father could beat up whom would fill the air with the certainty of pre-teen knowledge.

Do you have fond memories of climbing on monkey bars, boomers?

posted by Mister B in Education,Pop Culture History,Technology and have Comment (1)

Boomers Judged Labor Day By Its Cover

It’s that time again. The time of year when kids count the waning days of August with lament and a not-so-quiet desperation. Although many kids begin the school year in August, the vast majority return to school within a day or two after Labor Day. For Mister Boomer and his neighborhood acquaintances, Labor Day was designated the Most Unwanted Holiday of the Year.

Since the school year began after Labor Day, the weekend was and is often referred to as the unofficial end of summer. As such, it’s a time when families try to cram in one more weekend of quality time, which usually includes a barbecue. For Mister Boomer, one of two things would occur on Labor Day: either the family would gather with relatives at a state park for an all-day picnic, or they would remain at home, mow the grass and fire up the backyard grill — weather permitting.

Mister B always enjoyed seeing his cousins at holiday picnics, but very often Labor Day was rainy and chilly, so even if the chosen park had a lake with a beach, it was like adding insult to injury. It was never much fun to have to wear a jacket on Labor Day, or bring a change of clothes to switch from shorts to jeans if the weather turned.

If the family remained at home, Mister B would get together with any neighborhood friends who were still around. Many were gone for the weekend, as Upper-Midwesterners are big on weekend cottages. Back in the 1960s and ’70s, the average union factory worker in a variety of manufacturing industries could afford a home, cottage and probably a boat, too. The holiday weekend for them was a last chance to enjoy their cottage and close it up for the impending winter. Mister B’s family never owned a cottage, but neighbors and some relatives did. Occasionally, the family would be invited for an overnight stay with a relative.

At home for the weekend, the remaining kids, walking slower and with heads and voices lowered, took one more trip around the neighborhood. There usually weren’t enough kids to have a baseball game, so instead, the boys — in this case without the girls — would visit the underground forts they had jubilantly dug over the summer; climb up into the tree houses made from construction scrap, where so many summer hours had been spent; toss a few rocks across the fields; walk along the railroad tracks and pick up a few sticks to drag into the dirt; with all the drama of Death Row inmates.

Once the sun went down, their despair grew even worse. Clothes for the next day were laid out, baths taken and time sped forward with increasing irregularity. They would awaken to find that, inevitably on the first day of school the sun would shine and the temperature would rise back to summer levels — it was still summer, after all. Somehow they would manage to get out of bed and walk to school, and somehow managed to make it through the day.

Old classmate relationships were renewed, new teachers introduced and assigned desks were occupied with no small amount of trepidation. A new school year had begun. On returning home, one of the first tasks that were given was to see that the books that were to be used had book covers. Text books were used year after year, so it became mandatory that each student be responsible to return it at the end of the school year in much the same condition as when they got it. Early on, usually around second grade, students were taught in the classroom how to make book covers out of paper bags. From that grade on, it was up to each student to create the jackets at home during the first week of class.

In Mister Boomer’s grade school, a local funeral home always distributed enough pre-printed book jackets that could be adjusted to fit most books, so each student could receive one. Mister B never liked to be the bearer of walking advertising (and won’t wear designer clothing for that reason to this day), so he often reserved the cover for his least used or least favorite subject, if he bothered with it at all. It was silly anyway, he thought, that kids would walk around all year with an ad for a funeral home on their books.

Mister Boomer rather enjoyed making the paper bag covers. He and his classmates would trade tips on edge folding so no tape was required, and most importantly, to assure the cover fit snugly against the book, so no slippage occurred on the trek to and from school. Once done, the paper covers provided an expanse of space that cried out for doodling. Whimsical and fantastical drawings of all types could be penned across the front and back, with no worries about ever defacing the actual book. For Mister B, it was a place to experiment with the billowing psychedelic shapes and lettering he was seeing rise from the rock poster of older boomers. What’s more, if a now-personalized cover ever became tiresome, over the doodle limit or torn, it was never a big deal to make another. With every store packing purchases in paper bags, there was never a lack of material available.

Labor Day and the first day of school were never a welcome sight, but once the denial was released and the the shock of the new embraced, paper book covers became a tradition as much as a rite of passage.

Did you make your own paper book covers, boomers, or did your mother or older siblings make them for you? Do kids still make them today?

posted by Mister B in Education,Holidays,Pop Culture History and have Comment (1)

Boomers Observed as a New Star was Added to the Flag

Fifty-five years ago this week, on August 21, 1959, Hawaii became the 50th state in the Union. Alaska had been admitted at the beginning of the year, becoming the 49th state in January of 1959. Now, as the first Baby Boomers were becoming teenagers, it was Hawaii’s turn.

The idea of Statehood for Hawaii had been proposed early on. The U.S. had had a presence in Hawaii since 1898. In 1892, President Benjamin Harrison submitted an annexation treaty to the U.S. Senate, but the measure failed. When the U.S.S. Maine was attacked at the beginning of the Spanish-American War, the need for a refueling spot in the Pacific drove the idea of annexation through, despite the protests of the Hawaiian people. It became an official U.S. territory in 1900.

Pan American Airways began regular commercial service to Honolulu in 1935, chopping a 5-day sea journey to a 16-hour flight from Los Angeles. Yet the average American was not able to afford air travel and wouldn’t be taking to the skies with any regularity until the 1960s. Nonetheless, U.S. companies were heavily invested in Hawaii’s sugar plantations, so the idea of Statehood was a recurring debate in the U.S. Congress.

In October of 1937, a bipartisan Congressional committee held hearings concerning the possibility of Statehood for Hawaii. The committee concluded that Hawaii had met the legal standards for becoming a state, and recommended a vote of the people be taken in the Hawaiian territory. On November 5, 1940, Hawaiians voted on the measure, and elected for Statehood by a 2 to 1 margin.

Early that year, on May 7, 1940, the U.S. established the Naval Base at Pearl Harbor on Oahu and moved its Pacific Fleet headquarters there. Seven months later to the date, that base was attacked by Japanese war planes, prompting the U.S. to enter into World War II. Statehood would have to wait.

The War officially ended in August of 1945, and the idea of Statehood was back on the table. Interior Secretary Harold Ickes endorsed the idea in December of 1945. Three years later, President Harry S. Truman proposed Hawaiian Statehood in his State of the Union address in January of 1948.

Considerable opposition had built up to the idea since the war. Ethnic prejudice and worries about the loyalty of Hawaiians were raised, with one end of the spectrum thinking Hawaii was filled with Communist sleeper cells while the other end thought, with one third of Hawaii’s population being of Japanese descent, they were too “un-American” to be admitted to the Union.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower, having been the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe during the Normandy invasion in World War II, did not agree with these assertions and was a proponent of Statehood early on in his Administration. Ultimately, Congressmen who wanted Alaska to become a state held up the measure until a compromise was reached, where they agreed to vote for Hawaiian Statehood if in return Alaska would be admitted first.

Meanwhile, the Hawaiian people again voted for Statehood, this time with a 94 percent majority. Alaska was admitted in January of 1959, and on August 21, 1959, President Eisenhower signed the official proclamation making Hawaii the 50th state. At the same time, a new flag was shown bearing a field of fifty stars. On July 4, 1960, the new flag was flown across the country for the first time.

Mister Boomer was quite young at the time, but recalls his teachers talking about the new states and explaining the new flag displayed in the classroom in the fall of 1960. Hawaii seemed so remote and tropical that he couldn’t even imagine what the place was like. His only connection to Hawaii was through commercials with the cartoon character Punchy asking, “How would you like a nice Hawaiian Punch?”

One year later, he would see his first real glimpses of Hawaii (in Technicolor no less) via Elvis’ Blue Hawaii. In the 1990s, Mister Boomer and his wife traveled to Hawaii for the first time. They visited one of the actual locations on the island of Hawaii where a scene from Blue Hawaii was filmed. Hawaii, once a place that could only conjure up dreams of a tropical Paradise, had become a real place to him. A real place in the United States of America.

What memories of Hawaiian Statehood do you recall, boomers?

posted by Mister B in Education,Pop Culture History and have Comments Off on Boomers Observed as a New Star was Added to the Flag

Boomers Got Spanked

When we were young, spanking a child was considered a normal punishment for misbehaving. Whether in public or private, at school or home, a swat or two was delivered by parents, grandparents, teachers or virtually any authority figure in charge of the situation. By the end of the 1960s, spanking was on the way out as child punishment. Some attribute this to the immense popularity of Dr. Spock’s book, Baby and Child Care, first published in 1946, in which he proposed a more permissive and less physical approach to child discipline. As progressive education reforms began making inroads in the late ’60s and early ’70s, spanking was increasingly no longer welcomed in schools. Some later boomers will recall having to get a slip signed by their parents that gave permission to teachers to spank when they felt the necessity, or not to spank at all. By the middle of the 1970s, spanking had gone from a social norm to a pariah. The Supreme Court ruled in 1977 (Ingraham v. Wright) that spanking by a teacher or administrator in-and-of-itself was not illegal or a violation of a child’s constitutional rights, but deemed parameters be “prudent and reasonable.” The ’80s and ’90s continued the trend toward eliminating the practice, though it has only been banned in 31 states, and continues in the other 19 states, most of which are in the South. As far as society is concerned, though, spanking has been relegated to clandestine giggles between consenting couples who shared the same proclivity, or as the butt of jokes on TV sitcoms.

Now the practice of spanking may be poised to open a national debate once again, thanks to a bill that was considered in the Kansas State Legislature. State Representative Gail Finney proposed a bill that would allow “up to 10 forceful applications in succession of a bare, open-hand palm against the clothed buttocks of a child and any such reasonable physical force on the child as may be necessary to hold, restrain or control the child in the course of maintaining authority over the child, acknowledging that redness or bruising may occur on the tender skin of a child as a result.” The bill was slapped down in committee, but the question remains: after a generation since falling out of favor, is it time for society to revisit corporal punishment for disciplining a child?

Most baby boomers, including Mister Boomer, can attest to either being spanked themselves or have observed the practice administered on siblings or classmates. In schools, a paddle was often used instead of a bare hand, and most often it had the phrase, “Board of Education,” painted on it. In Mister B’s elementary school, the “board” was kept just outside the principal’s office, where the school secretary sat. In high school, the men’s gym teacher had possession of it. What Mister B witnessed in his early school days of the Baby Boom could today only be described as child abuse.

Mister Boomer was a “good” child who never gave teachers or parents a reason for resorting to corporal punishment. In his family, Brother Boomer was the sibling who most often incurred the wrath of his mother, the family disciplinarian. Her method involved “the belt,” which was a leather belt grabbed hastily from his father’s closet. Being of diminutive stature, Mister B’s mom never inflicted much damage to Brother Boomer, who mostly laughed it off. Brother Boomer was a pre-teen when his mother attempted to spank him for the last time. He ran as she tried to hit him, and she gave chase out the front door. When she caught him in front of the house, Brother Boomer grabbed the belt from her hand. Physically outmatched, she had no counter, except to say, “Wait until your father gets home.”

Spanking is another one of those long-standing practices that saw changes in the the Baby Boomer era. Yet when state representatives see the need to define and clarify the practice from a legal standpoint, it seems apparent that the question has yet to be completely resolved.

From Mister B’s point of view, what he witnessed as a child — especially in schools — was excessive and completely ineffective toward stopping the infractions from occurring again. On the other hand, observing children running amok in a restaurant or retail store begs the question of whether sparing the rod has indeed spoiled the child.

Did you get spanked as a child, boomers? Did you spank your children?

posted by Mister B in Education,Pop Culture History and have Comment (1)

Boomer History: The Cuban Missile Crisis

Fifty years ago this week — on October 14, 1962 — a U.S. reconnaissance plane flying over Cuba took photos that confirmed that Soviet missile sites were being constructed on the island, just 90 miles from the U.S. mainland. Since the U.S. had previously deployed more than 100 nuclear missiles in both Italy and Turkey capable of reaching Moscow, the Soviets had concluded that this deployment gave the U.S. an advantage for first strike capabilities in a nuclear confrontation. Therefore, their perception of the balance of powers required them to mount missiles in the Western Hemisphere.

As Soviet ships headed for Cuba, presumably with intermediate-range ICBM missiles on board, President John F. Kennedy ordered what was, in essence, a military blockade around Cuba to prevent the ships from reaching their destination. The action was officially deemed a “quarantine” in order to avoid using the term “blockade,” since doing so was considered an act of war. Nikita Khruschev accused the U.S. of an act of war and from there the incident crossed over into a crisis that has been described as the closest point to nuclear confrontation by the two countries than at any other time in the Cold War. It was at this time that the term mutually assured destruction was coined. Estimates of a full nuclear war between the two powers stated that the result would entail 100 million deaths on each of the sides.

While the Soviets publicly denounced the actions by the U.S., privately they were negotiating with the U.S. through the United Nations to resolve the situation. By early November, the Soviets agreed to dismantle the sites and return the missiles already on the island back to the Soviet Union. The U.S. agreed to dismantle the 100 sites it had deployed against the Soviets in Italy and Turkey and to publicly state it would never invade Cuba. These were amazing compromises considering the brinkmanship both had displayed, and the failed Bay of Pigs invasion that the U.S. had supported just one year earlier. Another part of the settlement was the creation of a hotline between Washington and Moscow. This is the often-called “red phone” that sits on the President’s desk in the Oval Office. The idea was that if another crisis arose, the two leaders could instantly talk and the situation might be diffused more quickly and easily.

The hotline plays a prominent role in the satirical nuclear movie, Dr. Strangelove (1964), when a rogue Marine commander initiates a first strike order against the Soviets without authorization. The movie is perhaps the greatest satire ever made on the folly of a nuclear exchange between countries.

Several books were written about the Cuban Missile Crisis, most notably the then-Attorney General Robert Kennedy’s Thirteen Days. A 1974 movie, The Missiles of October, was based on his book. The movie Thirteen Days (2000), though bearing the same name as Kennedy’s book, was actually based on The Kennedy Tapes: Inside the White House During the Cuban Missile Crisis by Ernest May and Philip Zelikow (1997). However, most of the movies have been criticized for historical inaccuracies by living members of the Kennedy administration.

In 1962, Mister B was in elementary school. He doesn’t recall the Cuban Missile Crisis being talked about openly in the classroom or by his parents. He does remember hearing about it on TV, and sensed the tension that was rising among the adults around him. This was especially confirmed when his school conducted “tornado drills,” where the kids would hunker down as low as possible against an interior hallway wall. Mister B knew that October was past the traditional tornado season, and had been “briefed” earlier by the government Duck and Cover movie on what to do in the case of a nuclear blast (see Mister B’s earlier post, Laughing Through the Cold War). He didn’t think they were about tornadoes at all. The factories of the Midwest had become the U.S. center of manufacturing during World War II and, now in the early 1960s, it was the engine that was propelling the economic boom that helped facilitate the Baby Boom. Even the school kids knew our area would be targeted by a Soviet attack. That’s why bomb shelters became so popular.

In the end, Mister B was too young to fully comprehend the severity of the situation until many years later. It is truly amazing to think how the leaders of the two countries were able to come to an acceptable conclusion while saving face with their own citizens, and the world. Now that history is part of our shared boomer history.

What memories of the Cuban Missile Crisis come to mind for you, boomers?

posted by Mister B in Education,Film & Movies,Pop Culture History and have Comment (1)