Boomers Embraced Change

Recently, Mister Boomer observed a group of teenage boys horsing around (as our parents used to say) while walking down the street. They were punching each others’ arms and running away, like some sort of tag game, until one boy pulled pennies out of his pocket and started hurling them at his friends. They, in turn, picked the coins up and hurled them back, until all efforts focused on hitting one kid. When the dust settled and the group walked on, Mister B saw a couple of dozen pennies littering the sidewalk. He had seen abandoned pennies on this walk before, and wondered about their presence. After testing the hypothesis that by picking them up, all the day he would have good luck, to no avail … at least now he knew how and why they got there.

What was surprising to Mister B was the casual way in which these teens threw away money — yet after a little thought, it wasn’t surprising at all. They live in a time when a penny buys virtually nothing. In our boomer years, a penny could buy ten caramel swirl candies or two root beer candies. Five pennies bought a premium candy bar. Just ten pennies bought a McDonald’s hamburger. Boomers were used to carrying change, because it was spendable income.

Mister Boomer recalls in his early days, on occasion his father would race his kids back to the car in a shopping center parking lot. (Please don’t even THINK of such a thing as kids running through a parking lot these days.) As he ran, he’d have to grab his pants pocket to quell the jingling of all the change, which, if he hadn’t, would find its way out onto the pavement, thereby letting his kids win the race. His father carried a lot of change, and counted it out, coin by coin, to cashiers in supermarkets and ice cream parlors, department stores and drive-in theaters. Change was good.

Mister Boomer still has the first wallet he was ever given, though it has long been out of service due to its condition. The zippered leather wallet opened to an area containing picture-holding sleeves on one side, and a snap-closure change pocket on the other. Women regularly carried change purses, and many boomer women do so to this day.

Somewhere in the late sixties, there was a sea change in Mister B’s dad, and he no longer wanted to carry it. Instead, he’d stockpile any coins he got until they got unmanageable. Then he’d give Mister B coin sleeves that he picked up from the bank, and asked him and his sister to pack the correct amount into the sleeves. Often he’d give the kids a roll of pennies or nickels as payment for services rendered. When he passed away, Mister Boomer and his siblings discovered boxes full of jars in his room that contained what was probably years of loose change. There was so much change that it brought the supermarket coin machine to its knees, as a voice from within it said, “Please wait. My, you have a lot of coins.”

It turns out, he wasn’t alone. Many boomers picked up the habit of not carrying change lest it ruin the line of their trousers (we talked like that back then). By the 1970s, large water jugs were commonplace in boomer apartments, slowly filling with pennies or mixed change. Nonetheless, change was still money. There were many times Mister B recalled friends raiding their change jug for gas money.

Today we are at a crossroads concerning the use of coins. It was once thought that coins would always be necessary as long as there were vending machines, but the advance of electronic payment methods has rendered that argument useless. Then there was the fiasco of the dollar coin by the U.S. Mint. There have been predictions that we were heading toward not only a coinless future, but a cashless one, which have been bantered around for a couple of decades now. At this point, the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco has stated in a recent study that cash is still the preferred method of payment for roughly half of all transactions less than $50 in the U.S.

Even still, it looks like boomers lived during the Golden Age of Coins and Loose Change. Millennials (people aged 18-34) are changing the landscape on how transactions are paid. Studies show they currently use cash more than any other method, but that is only because they don’t want to incur debt through a credit card. Their preferred method, according to multiple sources, would be an electronic transfer via smartphone. Mister Boomer has observed millennials paying for a pack of gum with a debit card. As it turns out, this is not unusual as BankRate.com says one in three millennials pay daily transactions with debit cards. Capital One, the credit card company, chimes in that one in four millennials say they rarely or never carry cash because it’s “too inconvenient.” Business Insider adds that in their survey, 40 percent of millennials would give up cash today if easily workable methods could replace it. Apple, Amazon, Pay Pal and a host of others are attempting to do just that.

In 2015, a growing Chinese middle class made more purchases via smartphone than on computers. The pace of Internet purchases in the U.S. via smartphone is also increasing by leaps and bounds. By 2021, home personal digital assistants are expected to expand by 84 percent. Instead of reaching into a pocket for change in a brick-and-mortar business, you’ll speak to a disembodied voice that will arrange a purchase for you, and debit the money from your account.

What memories of loose change do you have, boomers? Are you lamenting the decline of cash and coins, or do you embrace this change?

Boomer Families Embraced Meals Cooked in Electric Frying Pans

Mister Boomer’s mother, like a lot of mothers of boomers, was all for time-saving devices in the kitchen. Somewhere in the late ’50s or early ’60s, she saw one of Mister B’s aunts cooking with an electric frying pan, and she was convinced it was the appliance for her. Mister Boomer does not know the exact way her electric frying pan entered the house. It may have been a prize choice from one his father’s company golf tournaments, or she may have picked it up with trading stamps. Those two methods were the main sources of small appliances in the Boomer household.

The electric skillet had its origins in the 1910s, when Westinghouse introduced the first one. It was more of a hotplate for warming than cooking food. Sunbeam began selling actual electric frying pans in 1953 under the name Automatic Frypan. The unit was made of cast aluminum and was a rounded square shape for maximum cooking area. A matching cover was included. The electric elements were sealed in the bottom, so the entire pan part of the unit could be immersed in water for cleaning. Sunbeam released a stainless steel model a year later.

Mister Boomer does not recall the exact brand of his mother’s electric frying pan — it may have been Sunbeam or Westinghouse — but what he does remember is that the control unit was a separate black plastic square that plugged into the side of the pan. The unit had a dial that was marked off in degrees like an oven dial.

In a very short time, it became Mister B’s mom’s go-to device for cooking family meals, especially for braising. His mom used the appliance so often that it rarely left the kitchen counter. It resided next the the family’s beige-plastic radio that sported a burn mark from when his mother rested a lit cigarette on the top while she talked on the phone — which was on the adjoining wall.

Mister B recalls his mom making liver and onions, Chicken Cacciatore, short ribs and cabbage, pork chops and chuck steak with her electric frying pan. For her, the electric frying pan was the ultimate in one-pot cooking. Mister B watched his mother make Chicken Cacciatore many times. To the best of his recollection, here is how she made her version. The beauty of the recipe, if there was one, was that everything could be tossed into the pan and braised, with little or no attention.

4 packages of chicken thighs and drumsticks, cut into chunks
Vegetable oil
1 onion, cut into slices
1 green pepper, cut into chunks
1 stick celery, cut into chunks
1/3 to 1/2 bottle of Port wine
Small can of tomato sauce
Tablespoon of tomato paste

Mister B’s mom would heat up a little vegetable oil in the pan and let the chicken brown while she cut up the vegetables. As she finished each, she tossed it into the pan. When the onions became translucent, she added the can of tomato sauce and the tomato paste, along with a healthy dose of Port wine. She liked to drink Port, so there was always a bottle in the house. It was inexpensive since the brand she had on hand was always made in the state in which the Boomer family resided.

At that point she’d lower the temperature on the dial (was it 250º? less?), put the cover on it, and walked away. An hour or so later, the alcohol was cooked out, the chicken was falling-off-the-bone soft and ready for the family. Sometimes she would serve it with rice, but more often than not, white Wonder bread was the accompaniment.

Her cast iron pan was still the item used for Sunday morning French toast, pancakes, eggs and creamed toast, but if braised meat was on the menu, the electric frying pan got the job.

Did your mom have an electric frying pan, boomers? If so, what was her favorite thing to cook in it?

Boomers Wondered, “Where’s My Jet Pack?”

As the world of science touched our lives during the Space Race, a vision of personal flight long imagined in science fiction entered the scene as a real possibility: the jet pack, or more accurately, the rocket pack, since it did not have a jet-propelled engine. A rocket pack was a device worn by an individual that contained fuel tanks and control mechanisms to propel the figure, in science fiction, across the skies.

The first rocket pack was invented by a Russian inventor, Aleksandr Andreyev, in 1919. He imagined a liquid fuel mix of methane and oxygen as his propellent, and affixed wings that were three feet long to the back of the device for stability in flight. A patent was issued to him years later, but his device was never built.

The idea was constantly cropping up through the years. The Nazis tested versions of flying platforms during WWII, but their plans fortunately did not result in operational devices. Various companies tested versions of rocket packs in the 1950s, and the U.S. Army was interested in possible military uses for reconnaissance, passing over mine fields, crossing rivers, ascending steep inclines, etc. The government contracted Aerojet General to develop and test a rocket pack, which the Army dubbed a Small Rocket Lift Device (SRLD). In 1960, the Army discovered that Bell Aerosystems was testing a rocket pack (which they called a rocket belt), and shifted their funding over to them. Bell’s version used a propellent made of a hydrogen peroxide mixed with a bit of nitrogen.

Testing was well underway between 1960 and 1965, first with trained test pilots, then, at the Army’s suggestion, by an untrained pilot. Bill Suitor, age 19 at the time, was hired to join the team of pilots. Between 1965 and 1969, the team executed 3,000 flights with a perfect safety record. While successfully getting its pilots airborne, the duration of each flight maxed out at 21 seconds by the mid-60s. Short flight duration coupled with expensive engineering and high fuel costs caused the Army to scrap its program. Bell continued to demonstrate the device at air shows and state fairs, so it piqued the imagination of many boomers along the way.

Boomers had watched episodes of Rocketman on TV and already wanted to fly with their own rocket pack. As if rocket pack fever wasn’t enough, James Bond entered the mix in the opening sequence of Thunderball (1965). Our man 007 made his getaway courtesy of a Bell Aerospace rocket belt. His stunt double was none other than Bill Suitor.

Mister Boomer recalls seeing a Glad garbage bag commercial on TV in the 1960s where the Man from Glad flies in with a rocket pack to rescue the woman struggling with an inferior trash bag. Despite his memory, he was unable to verify this memory online.

Today the rocket pack is alive and well, with several companies producing versions with various forms of propellant, and individual inventors have created their own devices with mixed results. Two practical applications did arise from the rocket pack idea, though: today astronauts use a similar device for space walks. The NASA device is a direct descendant of the Bell rocket belt. Enterprising inventors realized that if they could figure our a way to keep a fuel supply coming to the belt, fly time could be greatly enhanced. They found a way to pump water to the propulsion unit, and the water jet pack was invented. These devices propel a person, tethered to to the pump unit, above and around a body of water. Variations on the device include one that resembles a skateboard, and others that act like individual “jet shoes.” A recreational rental market has cropped up in several tourist-centric locations around the globe.

Did you want a jet pack, boomers?

Boomers Grew Along With Weather Forecasting

The rash of weather-related events in recent times — hurricanes, floods, tornadoes, wildfires, ice and snow storms — have never been better forecast and reported on than they are today. Continuous weather alerts via smartphones and 24-hour weather channels make us more connected to the weather than at any time in history. Boomers are especially positioned to have seen the evolution of that reporting, from the early days of television to today.

Of course, weather reporting did not start with the boomer years. It goes way back before the country was founded, but our Founding Fathers appreciated the advantage that weather reports could give them as merchants, mariners, farmers and military leaders. In particular, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were avid weather observers, noting temperatures and observations in daily diaries. Jefferson had a thermometer and barometer — one of the only instruments of its kind in the U.S. at the time — at Monticello, and took daily notes of the data.

Once the telegraph allowed for reporting from all parts of the country around 1849, the Smithsonian Institution supplied weather instruments to telegraph offices, which would report back on a daily basis. By 1870, a national weather service was instituted to inform military stations of impending storms, which for the first time gave ordinary citizens information that would affect their lives. In the 1920s, the National Weather Bureau provided daily reports to the fledgling aviation industry.

During WWII, weather reporting was vitally important in many battles, especially the Normandy Invasion. Weather data on winds and tides allowed analysts to correctly interpret how the heavy fog, rain and wind of that day would lift, thereby first giving cover to the approaching invasion fleet, then as the weather improved, a better fighting circumstance for troops. In 1945 there were 900 women working for the Bureau, filling positions that were held by men who had been called to military duty.

The Boomer Generation years of 1946-1964 were extremely important to the advance of weather reporting, especially on TV:
• In 1948, the U.S. Weather Bureau gave the first tornado warnings in Oklahoma; national tornado forecasts began being issued in 1952.
• In 1950, the first 30-day outlook forecasts were released.
• In 1954, the first radar specifically designed for meteorological use was put into service by the U.S. Air Force.
• In 1957-58, the year was named The International Geophysical Year to mark the first time meteorological research data was shared among world scientists.
• In 1958, the first U.S. satellite, Explorer I, was launched to observe weather. Data from the satellite is credited for the discovery of the Van Allen Belts, Earth’s magnetic fields.
• In 1963, the first polar-orbiting weather satellite, TIROS III, was launched. It provided, for the first time, continuous images of cloud cover across the globe.
• In 1970, the U.S. Weather Bureau was renamed the National Weather Service

The British were the first to broadcast a televised weather report, with the male meteorologist standing in front of a map on a chalkboard, in 1949. The first U.S. TV weather report broadcast came out of Cincinnati in the late-1940s to early 1950s. In 1952, the FCC opened up competition for local TV station licenses, and stations saw that weather was the one place where they could get attention and distinguish themselves from competitors. By the early 1950s, weather was seen as a chance to insert comic relief into the seriousness of the daily newscasts.

Heading into the mid-boomer years, it was understood that weather forecasting was far from an exact science, so anyone with sufficient charisma and charm was tapped to report the weather. Consequently, weather reports were, depending on the positioning of the local TV station, a serious affair or a comedic interlude. A series of people, from puppeteers and poets to serious meteorologists and newsmen, were given the job at local stations. All sorts of “wacky weathermen” were reporting from local stations coast to coast. Boomers will recall the joking and physical humor of their local weather forecasters while giving the weather report; they became much-loved personalities in their own right.

Carol Reed is credited with being the first TV “weather girl,” reporting for WCBS-TV in New York City from 1952 to 1964. She had no meteorological training, and was not on the wacky side of the equation, but was well liked by TV audiences. In 1957, the American Meteorological Society began issuing the AMS Seal of Approval as a way to get science-based on-air presenters more respect and make weather reporting less of a burlesque show. By the late 1960s, most of the wacky forecasters were replaced by increasing technological abilities onscreen and added scientific data.

Mister Boomer recalls the weather forecasters in his youth. Of course, the Today Show with Dave Garroway was part of the family’s morning ritual. After national news was relayed, local stations could insert their forecasts into the program slot, so mothers knew how to dress their kids for school. What seemed ubiquitous to Mister B in the early days were the chalkboards. It was all men reporting the weather in Mister B’s area, and they would painstakingly draw warm, cold and stationary fronts on national and state maps affixed to the chalkboards, indicate temperatures in the region and forecast the highs and lows for the day as well as a general indication of sun, rain, wind, sleet, snow, heat or cold. One local station had a guy who could turn every forecast into a series of weather-related puns.

Weather forecasting has come a long way, both in format and scientific accuracy, since our boomer years. If recent tracking of impending hurricanes and “snowmaggedons” are any indication, understanding the weather in the near future will be as commonplace as our personal home assistants telling us to put on a sweater as an Alberta Clipper approaches the area.

Do you have fond memories of weather men — and women — from your early boomer years?

Boomers Did Chores by Hand

It’s fall, and that intrusive noise in the neighborhood indicates that leaf blower season is upon us. After a thoroughly unscientific survey of the people Mister Boomer knows, he came to the conclusion that the days we knew — of hand rakes and push brooms — appear to be over, replaced by machines that blow things from one place to another. In Mister B’s limited survey, not a single homeowner owned a rake, nor were they interested in buying one; yet all had a leaf blower. Is this a sign that rakes are headed for extinction in the average home, destined to be equipment needed only for a few lawn care professionals in the near future? Many communities are seeking to ban gas-powered models these days, due to the pollution factor, but there are plenty of electric and cordless models around to take their place.

In our boomer years, raking leaves brought opportunity to some of us, as we could make a dollar or two. For others, it was a chore to which they would have preferred some technological solution because the task was accomplished by hand. For others still, the raking part was the prelude to making piles to jump in and play. For Mister Boomer and his brother, it was a bit of all three. Once the family lawn had been raked, the Boomer Brothers enlisted the help of a couple of neighborhood boys in finding houses that had the most leaves on their property. A lot of the time, people would prefer to do it themselves or have their children do it, but occasionally, the boys were employed. The pay was not great — usually less than snow removal — but it was a way to generate some discretionary income as a preteen.

That got Mister Boomer thinking about things other than leaf raking we used to do by hand — especially chores — that are now replaced with some device. Here are a few that come to mind:

Vacuuming. Today’s busy Domestic Engineers (who could be any man, woman or child) increasingly don’t seem to want to bother with pushing a vacuum over carpets and floors, pretty much the way it had been done since the beginning of the twentieth century. Little by little, robot vacuums are replacing the hand vacuum for household use. What’s more, with the addition of one of those home assistant thingies, the robot vacuum can be be started with a voice command. An interesting side note is that pets — boomer cats and dogs — were frightened of vacuum cleaners. Now, as can be seen in numerous videos, cats jump on the robot models for free rides, and dogs see them as a new plaything. (Rosey the robot maid was so old-fashioned with her built-in hand vacuum!)

Grass mowing. Mister Boomer remembers his first lawn mowing experiences with a hand-push lawn mower. It was a real step up when his father purchased the family’s first gas-powered mower. A neighbor had an electric Sunbeam mower that Mister Boomer thought was pretty cool, but there was always the extension cord to manage. Flash forward to today, and Mister B watched a recent episode of This Old House where a backyard robot lawn mower was installed for the homeowner. The thing was programmed to mow the lawn autonomously, activated by a scheduled program day, pushing a start button or selecting a command from a smartphone app — anywhere in the world. When it finishes the job, it parks itself back in its charging station (can you say, “George Jetson?”).

Dishwashing. Dishwashers were certainly available throughout the boomer years, but Mister Boomer knew very few people who had one installed in their homes. The kids took turns doing the dishes in the kitchen sink, by hand, with a washcloth and dish soap. Mister Boomer’s mother tackled the pots and pans. The family did not have a dishwasher until the last years of the 1970s. Visions of the future always included a method for cleaning dishes to relieve women (then the exclusive keepers of the household) of the daily chore. (Jane Jetson could “do the dishes” with a push of a button). Today, it’s practically a deal-breaker for a young couple to buy a home that does not have a dishwasher.

Car windows. There are few hand gestures that so perfectly describe the action to which one asks another to perform. There is that one, of course, but Mister Boomer refers to, for example, the universal symbol of “check please” by clasping the index finger and thumb together and air-writing a signature in order to get a server to bring the check. For the Boomer Generation, one such hand signal — though technically not a “chore” — was the making of a fist and rotating it in a circular motion. Everyone knew that meant “roll down your car window.” Power windows were around in the boomer years and before, but again, Mister B’s family wasn’t one to have such lavish technologies. He recalls the first time he saw power windows, while riding in a neighbor’s car. His friend’s father fancied used Cadillacs, so while driving the boys one summer day, Mister B watched as his buddy pushed the lever and down came the back door window. In Mister Boomer’s mind, that defined luxury.

Almost all cars come standard with power windows these days. This begs the question, how will you ask someone in the next car if they have any Grey Poupon?

The quick adaption of leaf blowers to replace rakes, house robots and power-everything gadgets signal that we are indeed heading toward the Space Age Future we imagined and were promised in shows like The Jetsons. Yet Mister Boomer has to ask, wouldn’t a leaf vacuum be more practical?

What hand chores have you replaced with technology, boomers?

Boomers Feared the Automation Reaper

The recent buzz about the coming round of automation is instilling fear and dread in the hearts of some, while fulfilling the promised dreams of a future world for others. The interesting thing to Mister Boomer is, like Yogi Bera said back in the day, “It’s deja vu all over again.”

This has all happened before. During the Industrial Revolution, thousands of jobs were rendered unnecessary in the wake of technological advances in modern machinery. At first, small jobs were automated — the types of jobs that could save a small business owner, farmer or homemaker hours of work — and were generally well received. In other words, these devices were viewed as labor savers rather than labor subtracters.

When steam-powered machinery entered the industrial world, things changed on a larger scale. One of the industries where jobs were particularly impacted by the automation of the late 1800s was the textile industry. Suddenly a single machine could replace hundreds that were needed to man looms to create fabric. The response from workers was predictably negative. Workers revolted, protested, sabotaged machines, and even burned down plants. Yet in the end, the jobs were lost as new methods replaced old. As time went on, new technology created more jobs than it eliminated, and the country prospered.

The end of World War II brought a new wave of innovation to the forefront in American business, and with it a national optimism for a new future that gave rise to the Baby Boom. However, a rising unease gripped the country by the mid-50s as automation found its way into offices and factories. The prevailing fear was that machines would be replacing people, and jobs would be lost. Ironically, in the decade after the War, the unemployment rate had steadily declined.

The auto industry, as it had done in the 1920s, brought a great deal of automation to their processes. Between 1951 and ’53, the Ford Motor Company constructed new automated stamping plants for engine parts in Buffalo, New York and Cleveland, Ohio, that the company hoped would relieve the stress of the strikes, outages and union negotiations experienced in the 1940s. Ultimately, it was discovered that people were still a necessary part of that equation at those plants — the loading and unloading of machines, and therefore the production pace of the machinery, needed to be managed by humans after all. It would be a couple of decades before robotic loading and packing could fully enter the process. While experiencing fits and starts with their automated processes, the auto industry had greater success in automating the dirtiest jobs, such as spot welding and spray painting.


Desk Set (1957) with Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. Isn’t it amazing that they got the automated function correct, but the computer now fits on a desk?

Fear of mass unemployment was growing as the 1950s became the ’60s and the country entered 10 months of recession. Lawmakers in Washington heard the buzz and wondered aloud what, if anything, they should do about it. President Kennedy addressed the public’s concerns in a speech he gave on May 25, 1961. The president proposed “… a new Manpower and Training Development program to train or retrain several hundred thousand workers particularly in those areas where we have seen chronic unemployment as a result of technological factors and new occupational skills over a four-year period, in order to replace those skills made obsolete by automation and industrial change with the new skills which the new processes demand.” Most people will not remember this part of Kennedy’s speech, because it is the same one in which he laid down the challenge to American science and business for “… landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth …” within the decade.

By 1964, concerns of automation causing unemployment had not been assuaged. This led President Lyndon Johnson to sign a law creating a National Commission on Technology, Automation, and Economic Progress. The Commission released its report in February of 1966.
In addressing the situation on behalf of the American worker, the Commission recommended several steps be taken. Among them:
• a program of public service employment to provide work for “hard-core unemployed” in useful community enterprises
• a guaranteed minimum income for every family
• removing obstacles to education, including universal high school education and up to 14 years of schooling guaranteed
• a national, computerized job-matching service to provide information to workers on where jobs were available
• relocation assistance for families

Boomers hit the job market in the swirl of this automation tempest, only to become the engineers of the automated future we are now facing. Some prognosticators are now forecasting that automation will affect nearly half of all workers in the next decade. Many jobs once held by boomers have long since been replaced by automation, with more sure to come. How many boomers were pinsetters in bowling alleys? switchboard operators? typesetters? keypunch operators? The list continues to grow.

Automation did not adversely affect Mister Boomer’s working life. He, like many boomers, became adaptable as computers entered various fields. In fact, he credits his embrace of the personal computer for his later-life work success. Now that he is anticipating retirement, Mister B looks back with nostalgia, but is very glad he doesn’t have to face a job market rife with the prospect of diminishing career opportunities.

How about you, boomers? Did automation play a role in your working life?