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?

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?