As boomer children, countdowns of various sorts were practically an everyday occurrence. There were seasonal countdowns throughout the school year; as the Space Race got going, the “T-minus …” phrase of the NASA countdown clock became household words; and Top 40 countdowns on your transistor radio played daily. The whole concept of countdowns is on Mister Boomer’s brain this week because a co-worker gave him a countdown clock to install as his screensaver. The countdown has now begun at his workplace for the time next year that Mister B joins the ever-growing number of boomers who have retired. Be that as it may, let’s explore what countdowns meant to boomers forty, fifty, or sixty years ago.
At the start of the school year, the students who couldn’t wait for the next summer vacation might set themselves up a countdown calendar until the next summer vacation, but for most boomers, countdowns became necessary as the holiday season drew near. About this time each year, countdowns cropped up as Thanksgiving approached. In Mister Boomer’s experience, while many boomers enjoyed Thanksgiving, it was more important as the beginning of the countdown to Christmas. Sometime between the Sunday following Thanksgiving and the first Sunday in December marked the beginning of the Advent Calendar for religious households. The Advent Calendar was itself a countdown device, in which the dates varied year to year and also might be of a different duration based on religious denomination. The point is, boomer kids were counting down the days to Christmas, when they could open their gifts from Santa Claus.
Of course, boomers watched the end-of-year countdowns on their family’s TV. For many years that countdown was delivered by Guy Lombardo, until boomer families could afford a second TV in their homes or finally convince their parents to ditch Mr. Auld Lang Syne in favor of Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve. A good many boomers watched that countdown for decades.
The drudgery of winter school classes after the holidays necessitated a reminder countdown of the days until summer vacation. Winter or spring breaks did little to replace the ultimate school year countdown to come. By the time May arrived, many a boomer “X’d” out days on a calendar that counted down the time until there would be “no more pencils, no more books, no more teacher’s dirty looks.” As boomers grew, there was the countdown until graduation day. For many more boomers than generations before them, that meant resetting the school countdown clock with college attendance.
When it came time to launch rockets into space, NASA’s live narrated countdowns amped up the excitement of boomers like Mister B, who watched intently on a black and white TV set rolled into his classroom. The phrase, “5,4,2,1… blast off!” became commonplace, especially among boomer boys. NASA preferred “lift off” to “blast off,” as there is a technical definition difference involving using a rocket to “blast off” under its own power as opposed to “lift off” of a manned capsule into space on top of a rocket. NASA used countdowns even before the first manned space flights. In Mister Boomer’s research on the subject, as far as anyone seems to recall, the use of countdowns to mark the launch of rockets was first seen in science fiction literature somewhere in the 1920s. It may be interesting to note that audible countdowns were not employed in the early days of German rocketry prior to and during WWII, then later in the Soviet space program. Instead, silent counts were observed via a clock. The Soviet Union did adopt them after a time, possibly as a way to interest the Russian public in their early besting of the Americans’ space progress.
Countdowns were a regular thing in boomer-era popular music. Boomers listening to their favorite radio stations could hear countdowns of the Top 40, or a DJ could play a countdown of the most requested songs of the week. In 1970, when the last boomers were just six years old, Casey Kasem began airing American Top 40 as a music countdown radio show. The Billboard charts were used to create the countdown lists. The countdown show still exists, with Ryan Seacrest as the host.
Countdowns mark the passage of time, shorter or longer term. It seems only right that boomers, who have witnessed so many countdowns through the years, have faced or now face the countdown to mark the end of their full-time working lives.
How about you, boomers? What did countdowns mean in your lives? Was the countdown to Christmas the most important thing in your life at the time?