Talkin' 'Bout My Generation

Boomers Endured Heat Waves

As Martha & the Vandellas so succinctly put it in 1963, we’re having a heat wave. It’s been unbelievably hot in a good portion of the country this week. In Mister Boomer’s neighborhood, like many others, there has been yet another heat wave.

In earlier posts, Mister Boomer has mentioned how we boomers used to keep cool before air conditioning. There was another hot-weather family tradition of sorts in the Mister Boomer household that occurred around this time of the summer, that probably will resonate with many boomers. That is, once the temperature started rising for a few days in a row, Mister B’s mother would declare, “It’s too hot to cook.” And that was that. She had the first and last word on the subject, so the stove was off-limits. She couldn’t stand the heat, so she was staying out of the kitchen.

That was the cue for Mister Boomer and his brother to bring up the grill from the basement — where it was kept in its original cardboard box — for a rare midweek cookout. The grill was a round pan that sat on a tripod of metal legs that slid into metal sleeves welded to the bottom. Once assembled in the yard, the boys would make a pyramid of charcoal briquettes and Mister B would douse them with lighter fluid. Brother Boomer, being the elder, was the one to yield the matches. In this case, he flicked wooden kitchen matches into the briquettes. After a satisfying woosh and burst of flames, the boys’ job was complete and they could turn over the cooking duties to their father.

These “too hot to cook” cookouts meant that dinner was going to consist of whatever was on hand in the refrigerator, and that usually meant hamburgers and hot dogs. Most boomer households bought ground beef on a regular basis, and kept a package of hot dogs for the kids, too. Mister Boomer’s sister preferred her hot dogs like she ate her bologna — plain and charred, no bun, bread or condiments. Mister Boomer and his brother generally opted for hamburgers. In their yard, a hamburger on a grill was not gussied up with additional ingredients; there was rarely even a slice of cheese melted on top. Rather, the burger was lifted from the grill to a waiting bun — which was usually pulled straight from the package and not toasted on the grill — after which, mustard or ketchup was added by the recipient. Brother boomer liked mustard, but Mister B was a ketchup man. Occasionally he would retrieve the jar of pickle relish from the refrigerator door and add a teaspoon of the stuff to his burger.

There were no vegetables invited to the party, not even lettuce and tomato for the burgers; it would be a decade before Mister B’s family got that fancy. Instead, a handful of potato chips rounded out the dinner on their paper plates. After all, if it was too hot to cook, Mister B’s mom sure as hell wasn’t going to be washing dishes, either.

In the spirit of Mister B’s mom and her “it’s too hot to cook” declarations, Mister B presents this smattering of classic Mister Boomer posts about how we beat the heat:

Keeping Our Collective Cool
In an age when not many boomer households had air conditioning, people had their ways of keeping cool.

Boomers’ Cars Breezed Along … Without Air Conditioning
Mister B recalls the era of car air conditioning known as “460”; that was, four windows down at 60 miles per hour.

Boomers Grabbed a Cold One
Long before boomers were old enough to use “grab a cold one” to mean a beer, they drank a series of cold beverages that helped shape their attack on the heat.

How did you keep cool, boomers? Did your boomer youth training help you keep cool during this recent round of heat waves?

posted by Mister B in Food & Beverage,Suburbia and have Comment (1)

Boomers Took V-A-C-A-T-I-O-N in the Summertime

It’s summertime, and the living is easy … at least for kids home for the summer break. It’s commonly repeated that summer vacation from school was tied into the agrarian economy — that the break was needed so kids could work the family farm. However, that myth is simply not true. Up until the Civil War, there were several school calendars followed across the country. The majority did link directly to the agrarian schedule, and that meant kids would have more time off in the spring (for planting) and fall (for harvesting.) There was a winter term, and a summer term. There were no summer vacations.

The same was true for their parents; summer vacation was not part of the American culture. In fact, work was considered preferable to time off, and the mantra that hard work leads to the reward of financial success remains part of our national psyche to this day.

Naturally, the wealthy always could take time off any time they wanted. Even then, religious leaders vilified leisure time, proclaiming “an idle mind is the devil’s workshop.” Nonetheless, by the mid 19th century, doctors began to speak out on the benefits of time off to relieve fatigue. It was around this time that the railroads crisscrossed the country, facilitating travel and sparking a new hotel industry. The first summer vacations from school were created at the request of this elite class to bring their children away with them. People began to head to the seashore “for the fresh air” or natural springs “to take in the waters,” and therefore, improve their health. Religious communities established resorts as a way of controlling people’s free time, lest they be tempted into drunkenness, idleness, and God forbid, real fun.

By the 1930s, time off from work, even for middle class families, was commonplace — at least in Europe. Britain passed its first paid vacation requirement (one week) in 1939, around the same time France guaranteed a worker two weeks of paid leave and the world labor market was advocating the 40 hour work week. The U.S. went its own way.

After World War II, the economy was booming. In order to compete for the best worker candidates, some American companies offered paid vacation as an incentive, though it almost never exceeded a week. It wouldn’t be until the 1970s that the vast majority of U.S. employers offered at least a week of vacation time to all full-time employees.

The U.S. does not guarantee paid vacations, the only rich nation in the world to not require it by law. As a result, a quarter of American employers do not provide paid time off for full-time workers. By contrast, the European Union requires 20 days paid, while France, Brazil and Finland offer 30 days. Today, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that an average employee with ten or more years on the job gets 10 days off per year, including holidays.

Mister Boomer recalls that in the 1950s, since a good number of his uncles worked at union jobs in factories, they received two weeks off. Mister B’s father, however, received one week. The extended family got together for a two-week camping trip every year. For Mister Boomer’s father, however, it meant dropping his family at the campground over the weekend and heading back home to work for a week. The following week he would join the family for his week of vacation.

By the time the Interstate Highway System was well underway in the early sixties, Mister Boomer’s father had earned two weeks off. He was anxious to, as the commercials urged, “See the U.S.A. in your Chevrolet” (even if it was a Ford). It was then that Mister B’s family took vacations by car and drove down Route 66, went to the White House in Washington, DC, saw the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, counted bears in Yellowstone National Park and gazed at the Grand Canyon over the course of the decade. None of that would have been possible without two things that occurred during the Boomer Generation: the spread of paid vacation time, and summer vacation from school. Of course, like the railroads had done a century before, the Interstate Highways allowed people of even modest means to travel.

Did you spend part of your summer vacations traveling with your family, boomers?

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

Boomers Played Outside When School Was Out for Summer

The annual last day of school was one of the most anticipated days of the year for Baby Boomers. It would be 1972 before Alice Cooper coalesced what boomers were thinking in anticipation of summer vacation, in his song, School’s Out. Before that time, boomers everywhere repeated the refrain that was incorporated into Cooper’s song:

No more pencils
No more books
No more teachers’ dirty looks

Once the mad dash out the school doors was history, boomers couldn’t wait for a summer of outdoor play. And that is exactly what boomers did: spend as much time as possible in the Great Outdoors. A typical summer vacation day for Mister Boomer and his neighborhood was to get up the same time as when school was in session, have a bowl of cereal, and head out the door. He wouldn’t return until dinner time, though on occasion stopped by his house for a cool drink from the hose or a quick sandwich. Parents knew their kids were with a group of other kids, and didn’t know or need to know where they were at any given time. Truth be told, Mister Boomer, his brother and a host of neighborhood kids might very well be a close as a block or two away, or as far as many miles via bicycle.

For Mister Boomer, outdoor play fell into a few categories. One of the most popular among his neighborhood was the all-day baseball game. Innings easily reached double-digits as playing was more important than a game winner or loser. Another was to play in nearby woods and fields. The boys could imagine all sorts of army scenarios, hunt for snakes and mudbugs, pick wild berries and create make-shift weaponry from fallen branches. At one point the neighborhood was deeply involved in creating tree forts. More like platforms than actual buildings, the boys scrounged chucks of wood in alleys and fields, then borrowed hammers and nails from their fathers’ workbenches. Each fort in the forest was built and occupied by four to six boys, and ranged from 10 to 20 ft. off the ground.

Meanwhile, boomer girls in the neighborhood sometimes hung out with the boys, but more often they chose to play in the yards of their neighborhood friends or at the elementary school where the city had various day camp activities available. Mister B would ride Sister Boomer over to the school on his bike, where she could learn how to weave strips of vinyl into useless keychains, among other things, while Mister B might play a game of table hockey.

After dinner, most kids headed back outside. Mister Boomer’s neighborhood often had games of hide and seek. Both boys and girls from seven to early teens would participate. The games would encompass the entire block and have more than fifty players. Once the game was finished, kids could sit on porches or lie in the grass and stare at the constellations. No one had air conditioning in his neighborhood, so the night air felt good after being in the hot sun all day.

By comparison, today’s kids don’t like to spend much time outdoors. Everyone knows kids don’t have the freedom to roam the way boomer kids did, but the results of these changing times have short and long-term ramifications on the health of children. The birth rate has declined by 41 percent since 1960, so neighborhoods have fewer children who can get together as a group. Parental worries about heavy street traffic, pedophiles and missing children add to the mix. A survey by the Center for Disease Control and the Kaiser Family Foundation discovered that on a typical day a child is six times more likely to play a video game than to ride a bike. Bike riding is down 31 percent since 1995.

Many surveys are trying to get to the bottom of this trend, and have discovered some interesting reasons for the indoor preference. One line of thought blames air conditioning. In boomer days few people had home air conditioning. In Mister Boomer’s case, only some stores and the movie theater had it. Kids now have never lived without it, and have grown accustomed to indoor air rather than outside heat.

Others point to the parents. A survey by the Sports & Fitness Industry Association (SFIA) found that participation in every organized sport — including soccer,  basketball, football, track & field, baseball and softball — has dropped significantly in the past five years. Softball alone has seen a drop of 30 percent in participation. When asked, parents offered several reasons why they preferred their children not to participate in these organized outdoor activities: risk of injury; behavior of coaches; commitment of time; cost; and the emphasis on having fun over winning. All valid reasons, but other outdoor play does not seem to be substituted.

Some studies point to the release of Nintendo 64 in 1996 as the beginning of this downward trend away from outdoor play. Video games were around since the early 1970s, but the release of Nintendo 64 greatly enhanced the look and feel of the games, and expanded the amount of games available. The Kaiser study found, on average, today’s kids ages eight to 10 spend six hours a day watching TV, playing video games and using computers.

So, were we boomers outside more simply because we had no other choices? Or are today’s kids inside because of overprotective parents and an addiction to all things electronic? Scientists and physicians predict this trend toward less outdoor play will result in a less healthy generation, which is already reflected in the obesity rate among children. Could it be the answer to much of our country’s health concerns — especially among children — is more outdoor play?

What memories of summer outdoor fun do you have, boomers?

posted by Mister B in Education,Pop Culture History and have Comments Off on Boomers Played Outside When School Was Out for Summer

Jeans Shorts: Boomers Cut Them Down to Size

In the 1920s shorts were part of a boy’s dress look, but middle class adults rarely wore them. After the War things began to change. Women, more than men, wore shorts in warm weather and, with the introduction of the bikini in 1946, designs were shorter than in previous decades, during which they hugged the knee for length. By the time the 1950s rolled around it became permissible for men, women and children to wear shorts, but with two conditions: first, they had to be occasion-appropriate (they were never acceptable in church or in business-wear, for example), and second, they still had to fall within societal modesty standards.

Men’s shorts in the 1950s fell into a couple of categories: dress Bermuda-style shorts that were generally made of twill, khaki or seersucker, and swimsuit/boxer-style casual shorts, most likely made of cotton or cotton blends, that were often plaid or emblazoned with prints, including popular Hawaiian and tropical themes. Women’s shorts were usually solid colors, though that could include any color in the rainbow. Yellow, black, white, brown, navy blue and pink were among the most popular. Children’s shorts would be the same styles as adults in miniature versions.

As the mid-60s came along, shorts got shorter and sometimes tighter as people regularly took their fashion to be a form of self-expression. Into that mix of changing attitudes cut-off jeans shorts appeared and spread across the country like wildfire. No one knows exactly who came up with the first cut-off jeans shorts, but it seems appropriate to chalk it up to the rebellious spirit of the time. Jeans — called dungarees when they were adopted as casual teen-wear in the 1950s — became the ultimate garment of youthful rebellion. Jeans were associated with rock ‘n roll, so the many adult detractors of the music also opposed the wearing of jeans, especially in schools. Film characters such as Marlon Brando in The Wild One and James Dean in Giant reinforced the bad image jeans got in the minds of some adults, to the point that they were banned in many schools. So it seems a natural progression for rebellious teens used to customizing their looks in the 1960s, to take scissors to their denim in an effort to get some personal comfort while making a definitive statement that they were in control of what they would wear.

Cut-off jeans shorts was a unisex design in that both men and women wore them, though it was up to the individual to choose the length and how much of the fabric would then be unravelled to form a fringe along the bottom of each leg. Paired with t-shirts or peasant-style shirts, cut-offs were as definitive a style as long hair and beaded necklaces.

Mister Boomer’s earliest remembrances of shorts in his neighborhood and with his family date back to the 1950s. His suburban neighborhood, literally on the edge of what had been farmland decades earlier, was living the post-War Dream as couples became home owners and parents of Baby Boomers. Part of the Dream was a backyard where men could grill the American staples of hamburgers and hot dogs to their hearts’ content. Mister Boomer’s neighbors would take turns hosting backyard barbecues in the summer months, so shorts were the chosen mode of dress for kids and women, but not necessarily for men. The vast majority of men stuck with khakis and camp-style shirts or polo shirts, both worn over the belt, a concession to casual affairs that did not necessitate tucking into the pants.

Mister Boomer’s mother dressed her kids in the styles of the era, which in the case of Mister B and his siblings came in the form of complete sets of matching shirts and pants. Mister B especially recalls a set both he and Brother Boomer were dressed in that consisted of brown shorts matched with off-white shirts trimmed in the same brown and adorned with green fish.

It wasn’t until the end of the 1960s that Mister B made his own cut-off jeans shorts. One of the main reasons he didn’t succumb to the style as his neighborhood did was that he only had a couple of pairs of jeans at any given time, and tended to wear them until he either outgrew them or they became torn and ratty and his mother would make them disappear overnight. It seemed a shame to destroy jeans when they were still wearable as is, so he waited a while before designating a pair to become shorts. Mister B chose a typical length for boys and men at the time, which was a few inches above the knee. He carefully unravelled a row or two of the denim thread to produce the unique fringe signature of the homemade cut-off, but quickly learned that the strings bugged him as they brushed his leg, so he trimmed the longest strands.

Cut-offs all but disappeared in the 1980s and ’90s as store-bought varieties replaced the style (and became “hot pants”) but are reappearing now in some areas. Mister B still has the pair he made forty-plus years ago, sitting in the back of a dresser drawer. What are the chances they still might fit this aging boomer?

Did you make your own cut-off jeans shorts, boomers?

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

Mister Boomer Assisted a Protest

A nationwide movement to raise awareness and minimum wages for full-time workers, especially in the fast food industry, among others, has been in the news lately. That prompted Mister Boomer to recall his first minimum wage job, and how he became involved in his first protest at that job.

Mister B got the job in the summer before his senior year in high school. Like many boomers before him, he would start his working career at minimum wage, in a fast food burger joint. Less than one month into the job, he was confronted by a disgruntled employee, asking him for support in his grievances. This boy, a college kid, was employed full-time during the summer and had some serious allegations against the manager and assistant manager. He alleged kids at the age of sixteen were working later than the time allowed by law; that kids were working without their required health certificates; that kids were not being given their legally mandated rest times; and most egregious, that kids were being clocked out before their work was finished. For good measure, the boy felt he deserved a raise, along with all the people who worked until 1:00 am, like Mister Boomer. Mister B listened to the boy, and concluded that if the allegations he mentioned were in fact city, state and national violations, then they should be brought to light. Mister Boomer was all about people playing by the rules, and he had witnessed these circumstances first hand. Mister Boomer had met his first whistleblower.

Since the workers were fearful of retribution should they become visibly vocal, the boy became a relentless bulldog, and latched on to Mister B and his coworkers to try to spark some sort of protest about the allegations. His proposed attack was two-fold: first, he wanted to go to the Labor Relations Board and file a report, and second, he wanted all of the workers to participate in a walkout. Reluctantly agreeing to go along with the first part of his plan, the boy drove to the Labor Relations Board with Mister B and two others of his co-workers. There he did file a report. One of the other boys signed on as a witness. Mister Boomer remained silent.

The second part of the plan is where Mister Boomer tossed in his two cents. The plan was very loose, but called for a walkout at a designated time. Mister Boomer and most of his coworkers were more than hesitant about this action. Mister B pointed out that if the group followed the plan, they had no leverage with the company and it would probably result in immediate dismissal. Instead, Mister B offered a suggestion. Two weeks from the time of the report filing, the company had planned a giant “buy one, get one free” weekend promotion. Mister Boomer suggested a visible protest line a few hours before the promotion launch was set. No one would stop working, just employees not scheduled would be on the line. A call to a local TV station could get some coverage for the cause that same day during the evening news. After an hour or so, the picket line would disappear as the point would have been made. This plan was agreed on and everyone was sworn to secrecy.

As in any situation, people are of different temperaments and orders of agreement, so it was that one boy ran to the manager with the info in hand before any further timing could be worked out. As the following day was a Saturday, the manager called an emergency meeting at 8:00 am. The manager, flanked by his assistant, got straight to the point. It was through gritted teeth that he announced that he knew of the protest plan and the allegations. In exchange for canceling the protest, all legal requirements would immediately be followed, and no, no one was getting a raise. He ended the meeting saying he expected each person to show up to work their scheduled hours, and enthusiastically support the company’s promotion that was expected to increase traffic flow.

Just when Mister Boomer thought the matter was over and he got up to walk home, the assistant manager called him over. “Ché Boomer,” he called him, referring to the Bolivian revolutionary who was killed by law enforcement in Bolivia in 1967. Ché Guevara had become an international symbol of revolution and something of a folk hero, with his image emblazoned on T-shirts sported by many in the counter culture. “You are very lucky,” he continued, “the manager first wanted to fire the whole lot of you.” Mister Boomer must’ve looked puzzled because he didn’t recall instigating anything, yet it sounded like he was being fingered as the mastermind. Mister Boomer had been a model employee, but from then on, was referred to as “Ché” by the assistant manager.

The workers had won. Once this manager was confronted with his alleged illegal actions, everything was made right. Mister Boomer did learn, though, that even though right was right, sometimes it is best to discuss a situation before heading straight for a full-blown protest. Yet he knew from then on that he wouldn’t hesitate to protest something he believed in. When school started in the fall, Mister Boomer quit the job and worked on the school newspaper instead.

When did you first have a work grievance, boomers, and how did you resolve it?

posted by Mister B in Food & Beverage,Pop Culture History 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)