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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)

Now vs. Then: The Boomer Snowman Challenge

After the latest round of snowstorms in Mister Boomer’s region, he has noticed the lack of snowmen visible in the neighborhood. While it’s true that these particular snowfalls were icier, leaving the snow uncooperative for snowman-making, after consulting on the subject with some boomer friends, they concurred: in general there appear to be fewer snowmen being made than when we were kids.

The most cynical of this boomer panel attributes the drop in snowman frequency to the fact that, as one boomer put it, “It’s impossible to get my kids to go outside.” Others noted the schedules kids are expected to keep, leaving them little time for outside play. Others still point to the the Generation Gap between the ages; where making a snowman was once considered fun, and every bit a part of the suburban social norm, it now seems passé as community rules, smaller front and back yards, and less viable areas of public parks make the activity far more difficult than it ever was. Besides, most kids over the age of eight just don’t want to make snowmen.

The snowmen our generation made were hardly discernible from those of our parents’ generation. For us, the definitive description of a classic snowman has to be as sung in the tune, Frosty the Snowman. The song was released by Gene Autry (who also sang Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer to us) in 1950. The famous animated version with Jimmy Durante narrating and singing the song didn’t come along until 1969.

Frosty the snowman was a jolly happy soul,
With a corncob pipe and a button nose
And two eyes made out of coal.

The snowman’s top hat and scarf were mentioned later on in the song.

With this in mind, then, let the snowman smackdown begin:
THEN: Most often boomers made a snowman with a group of kids of varying ages. That allowed the youngest to be tasked with making the head, while the older kids could roll the base and torso. The goal was always the biggest snowman the group could physically manage to assemble.
NOW: It appears snowman making is not of much interest to kids by the time they reach the age of eight, leaving the activity to the younger set, accompanied by a parent. The result is not only fewer snowmen, but smaller ones. Some seem to be nothing more than hand-packed snowballs rather than the classic three stacked rolls of our generation.
ADVANTAGE: Boomers. Unsupervised outdoor activity with children of all ages playing together taught life lessons while providing great exercise.

THEN: We were the last generation to be able to use chunks of coal for a snowman’s eyes, mouth and buttons. Actually, Mister Boomer had an aunt who still heated her house with a coal-burning furnace in the 1950s, but the houses in his neighborhood were all fueled by natural gas. Consequently, that meant his neighborhood didn’t use the classic Frosty coal, but rather, small rocks or buttons from their mothers’ sewing baskets. More often than not, boomers used a carrot for a nose that added dimension to the face.
NOW: You’ll see small rocks used for eyes and mouths, and Mister Boomer has even observed a rare sighting of charcoal briquets employed as a coal substitute, but more often than not, today’s snowmen have eyes that consist of a poke of a finger, while the mouth is a hand slash to form a smiley face rather than the connect-the-dots smile preferred in our generation. Some carrots are visible as snowmen noses today, but it’s possible that carrots aren’t as prevalent in the fridge as they were in our day and that may explain the quantity disparity.
ADVANTAGE: Boomers. When working in a monotone medium such as snow, one cannot dismiss the importance of contrast.

THEN: While boomers seldom added a corncob pipe — though one was available in Mister B’s basement from previous Halloween costume props — scarves and hats were definitely required. For Mister B and his siblings, one of his grandfather’s old hats resided in the basement for Halloween costuming and snowman wardrobes. There was never a worry in the neighborhood that hats and scarves would be stolen. They remained until they were removed by the builders.
NOW: Hats are rare, though an occasional toque or watch cap shows up. The same is true of scarves. For the most part, snowmen appear unadorned.
ADVANTAGE: Boomers. Really, you’d let your snowman sit out there in all his naked glory?

THEN: Attempts were made to add hands. Most often these were tree twigs stuck in the sides of the center torso ball. Occasionally boomers would have a “hand” hold an upside-down broom, or an old pair of mittens might be placed over the twigs, jazz-hand style.
NOW: Tree twig hands are still seen on occasion, though it’s been Mister Boomer’s observations that modern snowmen tend to be armless.
ADVANTAGE: Boomers. Just because a new generation tries to redefine the parameters of acceptable snowman-ness, doesn’t make it so.

So, evolution marches on as the venerable snowman of our youth joins the ever-growing list of things that are changing with the times. To that, Mister B lends a grumpy old man exclamation of, “Bah, humbug.”

What have you noticed about snowmen in your area, boomers?

posted by Mister B in Fun,Getting Older,Pop Culture History,Seasons and have Comments (2)

Boomers Had Their Holiday School Break Outside

When we were young, school would close two or so days before Christmas, and remain closed until after New Year’s. Christmas was already an adrenalin shot for kids, but the week off from school seemed like Bonus Paradise — the natural order of the way things ought to be for a kid.

If there was one thing that would not happen during the holiday break from school, it was that kids would remain in their houses. For Mister Boomer and his neighbors, the week was mostly spent outdoors. There would be cold and, most often, lots of snow. That presented both logistical issues and play opportunities.

Dressing for the cold when you expected to stay outside for several hours meant layering was of the utmost importance. Many a boomer can attest to the dreaded clothing gifts from mom and dad. These items were practical in nature, so there weren’t many kids interested in the crew socks, underwear, scarves and hats that “mistakenly” got mixed in and wrapped with the “real” gifts, until they were put into service in the week after Christmas.

For many Midwestern kids like Mister Boomer, dressing for outdoors started with long johns. Consisting of a long sleeve cotton quilted top and separate bottoms, this was the first layer of defense against the elements. Next came jeans or corduroys and a shirt, followed by two pairs of socks. Mister B would have one pair of everyday socks covered with thicker wool crew socks before he slipped on his rubber galoshes. Boot purchases were planned accordingly.

After donning a coat came the hat — usually a toque style — and for some, additional earmuffs. A scarf was next, and two pairs of gloves. Making snowmen and snowballs was tough duty for gloves in the pre-Insulate, few-water-resistant fabric days. Most gloves were made of wool, cotton or leather, with a lining that stayed wet once the moisture got in. Two pairs helped delay the inevitable.

Looking like the kid from “A Christmas Story,” we boomers were set for a good four or five hours of outdoor fun. In Mister Boomer’s neighborhood, there would be snowman and snow fort building, and snowball fights, but a good portion of time was devoted to sledding. The city Mister B lived in built a sled run in a nearby park. This gave many of the kids the perfect excuse to try out their new sleds or saucers. Most of the kids had a traditional wooden sled with metal runners. Mister B and Brother Boomer each had their own. A couple of neighborhood kids had aluminum saucers. Mister B didn’t see the point to these contraptions, as there was little or no control of where you went or which direction you might be facing. He preferred the responsive handles on his sleek sled with the red runners. It was a Christmas gift sometime in the late ’50s or very early ’60s, and served him right through his school years.

The man-made hill was constructed with a gradual twenty degree incline, but the backside was closer to forty-five degrees. Naturally, kids weren’t supposed to sled down that side, but everyone had to try it at least once. Mister B was too fearful to attempt the run, especially after a neighborhood kid swooshed down it so fast that he hit a tree and cut his lip with his teeth. Seeing drops of blood red against that background of white was enough to dissuade Mister B, until the constant taunting from Brother Boomer literally pushed him over the edge.

There was no need to get a running start on the backside of the hill. After laying down head-first on the sled, a slight shove of the hands was all that was necessary as gravity took over. Mister B never felt such a rush, his heart pounding so fast he thought he could feel it in his throat. As if the steep incline and speed weren’t enough, there was a grove of trees at the bottom, so it required expert steering to keep the sled clear. Mister B had plotted a course before shoving off, but now he was fighting panic to the point that he was momentarily frozen. As the trees grew closer he regained his wits and pushed the handle of the sled to the left as far as it would go, leaning his body in the same direction. His ever-trusty sled didn’t let him down, literally or figuratively, as he zig-zagged through the grove and came to a stop. Brother Boomer came racing down behind him, yelling at him to steer, then when his sled came to a halt beside him, he asked him if it wasn’t a real thrill. Well, Mister Boomer didn’t find his thrill on this snow-covered hill. One trip was enough.

In addition to sledding, kids could ice skate on the frozen ponds that formed in natural depressions. It was here that Mister B learned the neighborhood’s version of hockey, which was made even more difficult by an uneven surface and not a rectangular piece of ice that resembled a hockey rink in sight. The creative side of Mister B liked the way water would freeze on the ponds in tiny waves, as if the wind blew it and it instantly froze. His ice skates were also a Christmas gift on more than one occasion, as his first skates were double-blades, then later, single-blade hockey skates. Mister B never became an accomplished skater, and all but stopped trying after spraining his wrist when he stupidly used a wall to stop when skating on an outdoor rink.

Whenever and wherever kids gathered, there would be the inevitable “What’d ya get?” line of questioning about Christmas gifts, but there wasn’t much thought about staying inside to play with the army men, construction sets or board games. Outside was where the kids wanted to be, as they knew soon they’d be back in their classrooms for two months before another break would arrive.

How about you, boomers? Were you outside looking in during your Christmas school break?

posted by Mister B in Fun,Holidays,Seasons and have Comments Off on Boomers Had Their Holiday School Break Outside

Boomers Watched the Evolution of Christmas Lights

The Boomer Era was host to any number of innovations that helped to create the technological landscape we inhabit today. In our parents’ rush to the future after the War, there was an effort to pick up life where they left off prior to 1941, but the bug of progress tugged at their core. By the time the 1950s arrived, virtually everything was thought to be improvable by modernization — including holiday decorations.

It was the Victorian era when electric Christmas tree lights were first used on indoor Christmas trees, and that started in the domain of the wealthy in 1882. Thomas Edison was beginning his push to electrify every household in America, but it was slow going as he literally built up the country’s electric power plants in the process. A vice president of the Edison Electric Company, Edward H. Johnson, asked Edison to make electric lights for his Christmas tree. Edison’s team came up with a hand-wired string of 80 red, white and blue walnut-sized light bulbs for Johnson’s New York City mansion. Since there was no electric appliance market at the time, there were no wall sockets to plug lights into. All lights were hard-wired into the house’s electric box. Years later, companies would make adapters that screwed into the ceiling bulb sockets.

Some say the whole thing was just a publicity stunt on the part of Edison to further his business. Whether that is the truth or Johnson’s bright idea, Johnson has become known as the Father of Electric Christmas Tree Lights. Businesses became the first adopters of electric Christmas lighting; by 1900, strings of lights were seen in window displays. General Electric became the first company to sell an electric light set to consumers in 1903. Nonetheless, it wasn’t until 1930 that electric lights replaced traditional candles on the tree in most people’s homes.

NOMA (National Outfit Manufacturers Association) was incorporated as the NOMA Electric Company in 1926, and began selling light sets out of their New York City base. Though GE was first to market in 1903, NOMA lights were very popular in the boomer years. Mister B recalls his aunt and uncle having the NOMA bubble lights on their tree, which one might say was a precursor to the lava lamp.

For the next couple of decades people struggled with the lights, which were notorious for being difficult to troubleshoot. If one light burned out — they were incandescent bulbs, after all — the whole string would not light because it was wired in a series circuit. It was a trial-and-error process to replace each one to find the bulb or bulbs that had burned out. Boomers born before 1960 probably recall Christmas lights stretched out on their living room floors, their fathers recruiting them into helping to find the burned out bulbs before stringing them on the tree.

For most of us, this was our first experience with Christmas tree lights. The bulbs were painted glass tear-drop shapes, about 3 inches long. The colors were highly saturated shades of red, blue, green, yellow and orange. When outdoor varieties of this same style of lights became more available as the 1950s turned into the 1960s, homeowners took to stringing them on their suburban houses, most notably along the eaves line at the base of the roof. Many boomers, including Mister B, recall their families driving around town to look at the houses lit up in their holiday colors.

Meanwhile, back indoors, innovation continued for electric Christmas tree lights. Boomers will recall the advent of the miniature bulb in the early 1960s. Less than half the size of the earlier bulb, they often twinkled as the light was refracted by plastic appendages affixed at the base of it, or surrounding each tiny bulb. Some lights blinked on and off when a special bulb was plugged in at the front of the string. Many boomers found these bulbs more attractive than the strings of lights their parents had been using for decades. In the Boomer household, it was Mister B’s sister who first suggested the family give the miniature lights a try in the early 1960s. Like many boomers, Sister Boomer found the old lights garish as the magic of a Victorian-style Christmas glow gave way to a Mid-Century Modern twinkle. The bulbs were a success and the large, old string of bulbs was relegated to the wooden box that held Christmas decorations in the basement.

The real innovation came in the 1960s when electric Christmas tree lights began to be sold with shunts in them that stopped the entire string from staying dark if one bulb was burned out. For the first time, the parents of boomers could plug in the string of lights and immediately see the bulb that needed replacing. If more than one bulb was burned out, however, the string would still remain dark. Mister B recalls it was much easier to find the culprits on these miniature strings, though, because the tiny glass tubes were translucent colored glass, where the earlier bulbs were painted on the inside with opaque colors. This allowed a visual inspection to see the broken filaments and any scorch marks inside the bulbs.

Today LED lights are becoming the next phase of electric Christmas tree light evolution. The colors are deep, the strings are more energy efficient, they do not get hot and are said to be better for the environment. Mister B has purchased a string of these lights, and finds them aesthetically pleasing. Yet he does feel a twinge of nostalgia this time of year for both the old-fashioned big bulbs and the miniature bulbs of our boomer era. Each year when the family Christmas tree was up (usually by mid-December), he and his siblings would turn off the living room lights and lie down under at the base, staring up into its branches. They could bask in the glow of the holiday lights, absorbing the magic of the color illuminating the tree’s interior structure and making boomer memories of Christmases past.

Which lights won out in your boomer household, or did your family stick with the color wheel shining on the aluminum tree?

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