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Boomers Welcomed Spring Their Way

As winter’s thawing tentacles recoil and thrash, intent on crushing the young ambitions of budding crocuses, a wellspring of thoughts gurgle with the notion that spring will — no, must — arrive soon.

Mister Boomer hated this time of the season, that interval of neither here nor there. The time when you needed a winter coat for the walk to school in the morning, but by the time school let out, the temperature had risen 20 degrees. Still cold enough to require a jacket, Mister B and his siblings would have to strip off their hats and gloves and unzip coats to maintain a comfortable equilibrium with the day. He hated that.

Mister Boomer’s mom, like many boomer moms, was motivated by the coming of spring. Her actions on spring motivations began with the seasonal change of outerwear. Since a family of five had to share one small coat closet, a move to storage was always in order when the next season arrived. Winter coats, scarves and gloves were transferred to a basement chifforobe. It was a tall, wooden, rounded-cornered affair, probably dating from the 1930s or ’40s. Mister Boomer thought it must’ve been part of his parents’ bedroom set when they were married, a hand-me-down gift from one of their parents or siblings. However, Midwest springs being what they are, seasons can come and go in a matter of hours. Inevitably there were days when Mister B would have to make the trek to the basement to retrieve winter wear that was prematurely sent to the off-season storage. He hated that.

What’s more, the season ushered in annual spring cleaning chores, especially for the Boomer Brothers. Once Mister B’s mom had the hall closet switched to spring jackets, she’d enlist the help of the boys in various chores around the house. His sister was often exempt from participating. Mister B hated that. (See: Spring Cleaning for Boomer Youth)

T.S. Eliot may have christened April the cruelest month, but then, he may never have had to go to baseball tryouts in the Midwest in March. Mister Boomer didn’t make a Little League team his first year, but did the next three. Tryouts, though, in Mister B’s estimation, were problematic due to seasonal conditions. The air was far too crisp for Mister Boomer, the ground far too soft, the sky far too grey. Then there was the sting of catching a ball in a cold glove, and the zap running up each arm, like brain-freeze for extremities, when the ball made contact with the bat. Even as he took his place at the plate, Mister B knew that somewhere in this favored land, the sun was shining bright, but right there on that day, the weather had struck out. Mister B hated that. (See: Going Batty for Spring)

Mister Boomer has mentioned many times that he, like most boomers, spent a good portion of his time outdoors. As far as Mister B was concerned, he could layer up for winter, but this early spring business confounded his selection of outerwear and made it the most uncomfortable season to play in, in the Great Outdoors. One of the first spring activities in Mister Boomer’s neighborhood was kite flying, to take advantage of the seasonal wind. Like baseball tryouts — air, crisp; ground, soft; sky, grey — wasn’t Mister Boomer’s idea of a good time. He hated that. (See: Boomers Go Fly A Kite)

Meanwhile, back at school the march continued toward summer vacation at a snail’s pace. After all, what was spring to a school kid but the gateway to a summer of fun? It would be Memorial Day before Mister B could hope for a full day off for basking in the warm rays of late spring sunshine. Sure, he had a break over Easter, that strange holiday that hopped around the calendar like a crazed bunny hyped up on sugar. It could be a pleasant week off from school one year, depending where it was in the month, or it could snow. Mister Boomer hated that. (See: Our Sunday Best for Easter)

As the passage of time becomes more prescient to an aging Mister B, he hasn’t mellowed much in his thoughts on early spring days. However, hope springs eternal as March has a way of becoming April, which paves the way to May and on to June. Before you know it, we’re in a Frank Sinatra song singing about the autumn of our years. Mister B hates that.

How did you feel about early spring, boomers? How do you feel now?

posted by Mister B in Getting Older,Seasons and have Comments (2)

How Boomers Kept Warm

As winter makes a comeback this week across a good portion of the country, Mister Boomer is forever amazed at how thin the outerwear appears on the young Millennials he sees darting around town. If we saw coats and jackets like these back in the early Boomer Days, we would have put them in the same category as fashion from Star Trek — the stuff of science fiction. Advances in lightweight materials and especially insulation innovations have enabled modern outerwear to be a fraction of the thickness of what we had as kids, without sacrificing warmth.

If you were a kid in the late fifties and early sixties, your choices for winter warmth weren’t that much different than what your parents wore in the 1920s and ’30s. Wool and heavyweight cotton coats, hats, scarves and pants were the order of the day. While younger children had snow suits (as portrayed in the movie, A Christmas Story), older kids had snow pants that had buttons in the waistband to attach suspenders while teens tended to wear long johns under their regular winter-weight pants. Gloves and mittens were also wool or cotton, though lined leather gloves made it into Mister Boomer’s wardrobe for dress occasions such as Sunday church, family weddings and funerals.

As a youngster, Mister Boomer remembers wearing snow pants over his school pants, held up by suspenders. When he got a little older, he wore long johns under corduroy pants to school. The trade off was that warmth on the way to school gave way to potential overheating in the classroom. Jackets and coats were usually wool or had a wool lining, but as the mid-sixties introduced synthetics into the marketplace, acrylic pile linings were replacing the wool. For the most part, boys and girls wore the same type of garments, though in Mister B’s experience, girls tended to choose mittens and boys had gloves.

Most boomers will tell you they played outdoors every day. When kids expected to be outside for a few hours, they often doubled up on their layers. Two pairs of socks inside their boots, two pairs of gloves, a t-shirt, shirt and a sweater, and as previously mentioned, pants and snow pants or long johns and pants. Only the coldest of days would have much of an effect short-term, except when the fabric got wet from snowball fights, making snow forts, snowmen and snow angels. Mister Boomer and his siblings, when cold and wet, would enter the house through the back door and replace the wet garments with dry ones, hanging the wet ones on the clotheslines in the basement. We’d plan ahead leaving extra gloves, socks and pants for themselves since we didn’t want to cut into outdoor play time by having to remove our boots to walk through the house.

During the early years Mister Boomer remembers having black wool pants that had flecks of color threads in them. His parents often bought Mister B the same styles they got for his older brother. So the brothers had these pants and later in the sixties, matching brown suede pants, too. The wool pants were warm, though a little scratchy. In retrospect Mister B thinks the fabric must have been a quarter-inch thick. He wore them for several years, until he grew out of them. The suede pants were equally groovy, though not as warm.

As the sixties marched on and jeans became an everyday fashion, heavyweight or lined jeans were added into the mix for a lot of boomers. They were available for years, but in many areas jeans were not allowed in school, at least until the late sixties and early seventies. Too cool for black rubber galoshes, teens began wearing suede half boots that had a fleece lining. By then turtleneck and v-neck knit sweaters were popular for both boys and girls, and jackets were the choice more than three-quarter length coats.

Like everything we knew as kids, outerwear has evolved. While maintaining a fashionable silhouette indoors and out may have been top-of-mind for celebrities and wealthy folks, for the rest of us, form followed function. We needed warmth, and that meant bulk. Today’s kids have many more choices. Now if we could only convince them that “outside” isn’t a bad thing.

Do you have any fond memories of bulky outerwear, boomers?

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

Boomers Knew What Coal Bins Were

It’s winter, and that can only mean one thing to a vast swath of the country — time to pay the heating bill. However, the fuel we use to generate our home heating has changed dramatically since the dawn of the Boomer Era. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in the pre-boomer year of 1940, three out of four households used coal or wood as their primary heating source. By year 2000, that dropped to only 1.8 percent of U.S. homes. That means baby boomers were the last generation to live in homes heated primarily by burning coal.

Though an abundant resource in the U.S., coal wasn’t used much as the primary heating source until the Industrial Revolution. Factory steam-engine machines and steam locomotive transportation helped to change the source of heating fuel for Americans. Around the same time, coal had become an important source of fuel to generate electricity as well. Up to that point, water wheels powered factories and wood was the primary home fuel source. Wood was still the dominant fuel source in 1940 for the Pacific Northwest and the South.

In contrast, gas — both natural gas and propane — began making inroads into the fuel heating source market after the war. By 1960, one third of households used some form of gas as their primary heating fuel. Its use steadily rose until 1970, when 50 percent of U.S. households used gas.

Boomers, like Mister Boomer, were on the cusp of the home heating revolution. They saw two or more types of fuel used in their home heating systems during the 1950s through the 70s as many boomer homes converted from one type to another. The fuel favored also varied by region of the country. While Californians were mostly using utility gas, people in the Northeast used heating oil. Coal, though used across the country as a heating fuel for decades, was found as the dominant heating fuel mostly in the Midwest and South at the dawn of the Baby Boom. The coal bin was then referenced in popular culture as the source of the coal Santa could use to drop into the stockings of badly behaved children at Christmastime.

Based on population, then, when a high percentage of boomers were born, they were brought home to houses heated by coal. In order to generate the heat for growing boomer families, massive furnaces inhabited the basements of their homes. Near each furnace was a bin filled with solid chunks of coal. Unlike earlier days of chopping firewood and carrying it into the house, coal could be delivered in large batches by truck. That meant a method of delivering the coal to the basement bin was needed. For most houses, this meant a chute on the back or side of the house that dumped directly into the basement coal bin. Delivery men could shovel coal into wheelbarrows and transfer it directly through the chute.

Mister Boomer was too young to recall the time when his family lived with a coal-burning furnace. Mister B was told that around the time of his birth, his father was a coal delivery man for a short time. The family used his father’s coal shovel to shovel snow for decades. When his sister was born the family moved to a nearby suburb and the house was fueled by natural gas. However, an aunt and uncle who lived a few miles away still had coal — and a coal bin — until the 1960s.

Mister B remembers playing in his aunt and uncle’s basement with his cousin and Brother Boomer near their coal bin. It was a dark place, made even scarier by the mammoth furnace that occupied most of the basement. Lit only by the furnace flames, it looked like a giant robotic octopus, as arms jutted out from it to feed the heat to all the rooms of the house. Once or twice a day, Mister B’s uncle would have had to shovel coal into the belly of the beast. The boys were warned to stay away from the coal bin, not because anyone knew of any possible environmental hazards, but rather, to avoid getting the black dust embedded into their clothing, face and hands. However, piles are an inherent attraction for boys, whether they are composed of dirt, discarded lumber or coal. Mister B recalls one instance when his cousin was determined to climb the pile and exit the basement through the coal chute. Mister B and Brother Boomer, perhaps petrified from parental ramifications, chose to stay put. Failed attempts at opening the chute limited his cousin’s progress to the top of the pile.

All of Mister Boomer’s other aunts and uncles had houses that used natural gas. By the mid-60s, there wasn’t anyone inside Mister B’s circle — family, school friends or neighbors — who still used coal as a heating fuel.

The Boomer Generation has seen its share of change over the past half century, and home heating is another category to add to that list. Coal, though not completely gone as a home heating source — especially near the areas where coal is mined — appears destined to become another boomer-era item that will remain the stuff of memories.

Did your house — or anyone’s in your family — have a coal bin, boomers?

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

A Very Boomer Christmas

It’s Christmas Week and Mister Boomer is behind schedule. He is overwhelmed by the hubbub of the season, like a manic Lucy in a gift wrapping factory. Therefore, please enjoy this encore presentation of some of Mister B’s favorite Christmas posts from Christmases past:

Have Boomers Half-Baked the Holiday Cookie Tradition?

Why Boomers Love “A Christmas Story”

Visions of Aluminum Trees Danced Through Boomers’ Heads

Boomers Watched Santa On Radar

Boomers Had Their Holiday School Break Outside

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

Mister B Catches a Cold — and a Flashback

Mister Boomer has contracted a summer cold. He spent the weekend congested, sneezing and coughing, and, feeling like the Leader of the Laundromat, and that he walked right in the path of a runaway garbage truck. What struck him was he doesn’t recall ever getting sick much during any summer. Summer was the season for playing outside all day and forgetting all about school. Later, as an adult employed full-time, it was for looking out the window and remembering those days when he played outside without a care in the world.


Mister B feels his summer cold feels like walking straight into the path of a runaway garbage truck.

Mister B does recall the one summer when he and his brother were sick — so sick it required them to be isolated for a week during prime summer fun time. It was the very early 1960s, and a neighborhood kid came down with a case of the measles. Over a half million children were infected with the disease each year before the vaccine was developed and distributed. A vaccine had been studied since the 1920s, but it took until the fifties before a prototype was tested. By 1961, the New York Times reported the vaccine had proved effective and was readily available to the public by 1963 — but that was too late for the Boomer Brothers.

Once the neighborhood families got notice that a kid had measles, their first reaction was to keep their kids away from the infected. Somehow, though, the mothers had gotten together and conspired to do the opposite. Years later, in a discussion with his mother about what happened, she told him the women decided that if kids only get measles once, it was better to get it out of the way during the summer, when school wouldn’t be missed. As a result, Mister B and his brother, like a few other kids in the neighborhood, were instructed to go play with the infected kid. It only took a couple of days until both Mister B and Brother Boomer developed the measles rash.

At that point the boys were quarantined in the house with the drapes drawn as their eyes became sensitive to the sunlight and the rash itched like crazy. It was, in a phrase, pure torture for kids on summer vacation. For the next week, they remained primarily in the room they shared. Once or twice a day, their mother would come in with a metal basin, wash cloth and bottle of rubbing alcohol. Dabbing the alcohol on the rash gave a modicum of relief from the unending itchiness.

Mister B recalls that just under a week later, the rash disappeared and he and his brother were free to resume their summer. While a cold isn’t anywhere near as debilitating as the measles, it brought Mister B back in time since he has enjoyed many a summer since then without any semblance of illness.

Thanks to decades of vaccinations, today the center for Disease Control states measles has all but been eliminated in the United States, and is no longer the malady it was during our boomer days. Now if they can only do something about the common cold.

Did you get measles in the summer, boomers?

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

Boomers Shoveled Snow, and Then Shoveled Some More

It snowed again this past week. After years of fewer flakes, this year has been a snowy one for a good portion of the country, even in areas that rarely see the stuff. This past week Mister Boomer’s area added ten more inches to the season total. Growing up in the Industrial Midwest, Mister Boomer flashes back to those winters and the snow that was practically a guarantee. Yes, there would be snow, and it was on the ground from December through March, and sometimes into April. Snow didn’t often accumulate in great amounts at a time, but rather, it snowed often. Adding one to four inches several times a week allowed it to build up very quickly. Once it covered the grass, usually by the first week of December, you wouldn’t see the ground again until spring.

All that snow meant a lot of snow shoveling. It was understood that kids, from the age of seven or eight on, would at least help if not take the chore on entirely. After all, what were kids for? Our boomer parents saw to it that their kids carried their share of work inside and outside the house. For the most part, kids didn’t mind. As soon as the snow stopped, neighborhood kids would be outside with the family snow shovel, clearing sidewalks and driveways. It was understood that there would be no snowball fights, snowman making or sledding until the walkways were cleared.

Since most houses contained multiple children, the job was not too daunting a task for small suburban bungalows, unless there was a major snowfall. As a general rule, it was the boys who handled snow removal. A few households had only girls, so their shoveling skills would be pressed into service at those addresses. It was a rare occurrence to see the mother of the household out shoveling snow. Fathers might be out there if they weren’t at work.

Snow shovels of the era were made of metal and wood. In the early days Mister B remembers the family shovel had substantial weight to it. The shaft was a rounded pole of solid hardwood, attached to a rigid metal scoop. The edges of the scoop were perpetually curled where Mister B and Brother Boomer would hack away at the icy patches. Mister B disliked that shovel not only for its weight, but for the splinters and calluses it would dole out, even through two pairs of gloves. Lighter-weight aluminum models were making inroads into the neighborhood, but the family’s second shovel was an old coal shovel. This tool was fantastic for snow removal, with its large-capacity scoop and shaped handle. It was solid enough to chip ice, too. Mister B preferred this shovel, letting Brother Boomer handle the other.

For several kids in the neighborhood, the parental mandate was once the home shoveling was finished, the houses of the senior citizens on the block were next. Often groups of three or four kids would walk over and shovel the seniors’ driveways and sidewalks without saying a word or expecting a reward; it was part of being a good neighbor. More people should practice this simple rule today.

When the shoveling had ceased, it was time to warm up before heading back outside. While sometimes that entailed playing in the snow, there were other times when a group of neighborhood kids would get together to shovel more snow — this time for profit. With long johns on, layers of shirts and a sweater under a coat wrapped by a scarf and hat and dry gloves, the kids would march down the block slinging the family snow shovel over a shoulder like hobos heading for the nearest railroad track.

Since most neighbors knew each other, the houses that might need the service were pre-selected. There weren’t many left on Mister B’s block, so a walk to adjoining blocks was necessary. One boy would approach the owner by knocking at the door and asking if they would like their snow shoveled. The vast majority of the time there was no talk of payment. Once the shoveling was finished, the same boy would return to the door to announce the job was done. At that time the homeowner would hand over some money, from fifty cents to a dollar. The boy, practicing his politeness training, would thank the homeowner and the group was off to the next site.

A group of four or more might stay out until twilight approached, which was around 4:30. A day’s pay might be two or three dollars each. In retrospect, it amazes Mister B on so many levels:
• That kids had the stamina to do the physical work. Shoveling snow all day is rigorous exercise, yet kids did it for fun and profit. It was that same stamina that enabled the neighborhood boys to mow the lawn in summer, then go play four hours of baseball. It hurts Mister B to see dads out alone shoveling snow these days, when their teenage sons are inside playing video games.
• That kids would stay outdoors all day. The key was in the preparation. Layering helped stave off the elements, though frostbite was always a risk. Many a time Mister B recalls hands so cold as to loose the feeling of touch, even after donning two pairs of gloves.
• That kids would work hard for very little pay. To boomers like Mister B, any money was welcome. Not every household distributed weekly allowances, and fewer paid the kids for doing expected chores around the house, so any money earned was a chance to get a candy treat or a McDonald’s or Burger Chef cheeseburger and a small bag of french fries. Or, in Mister Boomer’s case, a chance to drop coins into his piggy bank or a dollar or two into his savings account. Mister B always tried to save part of his earnings, meager as they were.
• That kids of differing ages and backgrounds worked as a team. Leaders seem to organically rise in each situation. Each boy was counted on to contribute their best effort within the limitations set by their age.

Though electric and gas-powered snow blowers were beginning to appear, there were none in Mister B’s neighborhood in the early days. So much has changed between the 1950s and today. Technology has helped and hindered in snow removal, but it appears Detective Thorn (Charlton Heston) was right in Soylent Green: it’s people. The biggest change in snow removal these days is people!

What memories of snow shoveling come to mind for you, boomers

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