See the U.S.A. in Your Chevrolet, Again?

This past week President Obama repeated an imperative he has stated several times in his young presidency: It’s time to fix our nation’s infrastructure. That got Mister Boomer thinking about the time when the first national infrastructure program was initiated. It was a time most boomers remember well. Before delving into boomer memories, it is proper that we explore the history of the infrastructure program that was so much a part of our youth, and how it has shaped the country to this day.

The story actually starts at the end of World War I. After the experiences of trying to move troops and vehicles along impossible terrain and roadways never designed for military vehicles in Europe, the Army set up a military convoy to travel from Washington, D.C. to San Francisco to test the feasibility of troop transport in the event of a defense emergency in the continental U.S. It was called the First Transcontinental Motor Convoy, and departed Washington, D.C. on July 7, 1919 — a little less than one year after the end of World War I. Among the nearly 300 officers, enlisted men and War Department observers who participated was a young Lt. Col. Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Thirty years later, Eisenhower was the Commander-in-Chief of Allied Forces during World War II, having taken part in the liberation of North Africa and Europe. Less than a decade after the War — in the prime boomer-time of 1950 — he was elected President of the United States. Throughout his ascent to the highest office in the land, Eisenhower recalled in his memoirs the lessons he had learned about the difficulties of moving troops from one place to another.

On February 22, 1955, Eisenhower said, in an address to Congress: “Our unity as a nation is sustained by free communication of thought and by easy transportation of people and goods. The ceaseless flow of information throughout the Republic is matched by individual and commercial movement over a vast system of interconnected highways crisscrossing the country and joining at our national borders with friendly neighbors to the north and south. Together, the uniting forces of our communication and transportation systems are dynamic elements in the very name we bear — United States. Without them, we would be a mere alliance of many separate parts.”

There was a national infrastructure program in place since 1944, building many two-lane highways across the country, but funding was inadequate to make the kind of impact Eisenhower wanted on a national scale. He proposed an interstate highway system that was unprecedented in its time, and remains so to this day. On June 29, Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, which guaranteed dedicated funding for the program. Construction on the National Highway Defense System (NHDS), as it was called, began simultaneously across the land.

For boomers, the building of these highways represented many things. For some, it meant employment for boomer fathers. For others, it cut apart whole neighborhoods as Eisenhower’s “broad ribbons” sliced their way through cities and country-side alike. Other boomer families seized the opportunities brought by the new highways to open restaurants, motels and businesses that catered to the new batch of mobile travelers. For many boomer families, the 1950s mantra of the Chevy commercials, “See the U.S.A. in your Chevrolet,” was now within the realm of possibility.

For Mister Boomer, and many fellow boomers to whom he has spoken, the NHDS first and foremost was an irresistible playground. Young boomer boys recall the mix of heavy machinery and deep gashes in the landscape as the ideal place to carry out war games and fantasy scenarios. In Mister B’s case, the interstate was coming through an area just three blocks away from Mister B’s house. Previously, the area had been fields and forests, inhabited by pheasants, rabbits, snakes and birds … the ideal habitat for a growing boomer explorer. Now his favorite region — the edge of a forest — was bulldozed into oblivion as a deep trench was dug for the new freeway. Every tree that rimmed the field had contained a hand-made treehouse composed of discarded wood scraps. Mister B and the neighborhood boomers would borrow hammers and nails from their fathers’ toolboxes to first nail horizontal slats up the side of the tree to establish a ladder system, then through a series of ropes, haul up lumber to an adequate place in the tree to build a platform. Sometimes they would stop at that, while in others, complete walls were constructed, suspended between branches 15 to 30 feet in the air.

Though the trees were sorely missed, the new “big hole,” as it was called, had its own draw. After school and on weekends, the machinery lay dormant, and workers were nowhere in sight, leaving the entire unfenced area as a smorgasbord of young boomer rock-throwing, hill-rolling, dirt-dragging, machinery-climbing fun. Once the hole began taking in water, for some neighborhood boomers, it produced a siren call that resulted in ill-thought actions as makeshift rafts were piloted to traverse the “lake.” Mister Boomer knew better than to attempt such foolishness, as certainly no one in the neighborhood knew how to swim.

The on-site headquarters for the contractors was not a mobile trailer, as it is today, but rather a couple of large panel trucks. As was the custom of the time, the trucks remained unlocked and thus, an invitation for exploring. The trucks were hot in the summer sun, and devoid of practically everything inside as plans and blueprints were most likely taken home each night. Boomer boys could sit in the seats and look out through the windshields, wondering what it was going to be like to drive this yet-to-be completed section, but that was about it. Inevitably, however, the trucks always contained a calendar with a pin-up calendar girl. A fully-clothed, buxom young woman was an interesting curio for the young boomers, but these images would hardly rate a PG in today’s marketplace.

Eventually, this section of interstate freeway and subsequent overpasses was completed. Not soon after that, Mister Boomer’s family did indeed use the system to travel across the country, taking in places far removed from the Midwestern milieu. Yellowstone Park, the Grand Canyon and Mount Rushmore became destinations for boomer families everywhere. In a typical scenario, boomer parents loaded up the family in the station wagon and hit the open road, being sure to get a sticker to place along a side window to show the many places they had driven.

Now, as this infrastructure is in need of attention, there is a renewed call to preserve and strengthen the system. How about it, boomers? What great memories did the NHDS bring in your life?

Something for Nothing and Your Gifts for Free

(Part 2)

Loyalty programs — the practice of giving a token gift of some kind back to consumers in exchange for their business — date back to the Industrial Revolution in the late 1800s. As far as boomers are concerned, the most ubiquitous programs from our youth involved trading stamps.

There were several different trading stamp companies operating in various states, with some states restricting and regulating their use to the point of keeping them out altogether. Merchants would buy the stamps directly from the companies, then give them to consumers as a bonus for their purchases. Often the stamp-to-purchase price ratio was one stamp for every 10 cents of purchase, with “bonus days” that could double the number of stamps given during periods of high local competition or marketing pushes. Stamps came in different denominations to allow for larger and smaller purchases. The stamps were perforated and the backs contained glue, like postage stamps, to allow consumers to moisten and paste them into pre-printed, 24-page books. Books were supplied free by the merchants.

The heyday of the trading stamp era was the 1960s. Gas stations and supermarkets were the biggest purveyors of the stamps, though some other retail businesses occasionally participated. In Mister Boomer’s neighborhood, three trading stamp companies were operating: S & H Green Stamps, Top Value Trading Stamps and Gold Bell Gift Stamps. Since Mr. B’s dad did the grocery shopping and gassing up of the family car, he would bring home the stamps. The Boomer kids would lick the backs and, like cats that had tasted something unpleasant, made sour faces and repeatedly stuck out their tongues in an effort to rid their mouths of the flavor. Before the glue could dry on the paper stamps, they would paste them on the book pages, being careful not to mix up the various denominations and stamps from the different companies. After a period of trial and error, the Boomer kids learned to use a moistened sponge instead of their tongues to wet the stamp backs.

S & H Green Stamps looked the most like postage stamps. A light green background had money-like swirls in a darker green that surrounded the red “S & H” in the center. The Top Value company used a plaid elephant as its logo. The animal’s Scottish cap and plaid body was a symbol of “thrifty,” which was a Scottish stereotype of the era. The stamps were printed with red banners above and below the Top Value name, which was also in red. Gold Bell stamps had a golden-yellow-orange background with a red bell in the center. The design, with its radiating rays from the top and bottom of the bell, looked more like a remnant of the 1930s or 40s.

The key to getting a “free gift” was the redemption center, run by the stamp companies. These were stores in their own right, but instead of purchasing merchandise with cash, the consumer used trading stamps. Completed stamp books were exchanged for merchandise that ran the gamut from housewares to small appliances; lighting and home furnishings to bicycles and toys; and more. Each piece of merchandise required a certain amount of redeemed stamps, in the form of complete or partial books. A shopper could pick up a catalog in the store to take home that would show the available merchandise, along with the redemption requirements for each. This resulted in people “saving up” their stamps for a particular goal.

Mister Boomer’s mom would walk, kids in tow, to the redemption centers. They were all clustered within a few blocks of each other in the city’s “downtown” area. There she’d shop for smaller items to carry back, or scope out larger ones that would require a family excursion on a Saturday to bring home the treasure. While the S & H and Top Value storefronts were rather non-descript, the Gold Bell Gift Stamp redemption center had a massive neon sign running the entire length of its storefront. Inside a series of concentric, rounded-corner rectangles were tall, san-serif letters spelling out “Gold Bell.” Just to the left of the name was an “animated” neon bell. When the sign was lit, it glowed a magenta-red. The bell would appear to “ring” left to right and right to left, an illusion created by neon tubes switching on and off between three positions.

Some items that Mister Boomer's mom obtained by redeeming trading stamps
A reasonable facsimile of some items obtained by Mister Boomer's mom. There sure were a lot of brown colors around in the days before avocado and gold entered the scene.

Mister Boomer’s mom was in charge of which items were acquired. As a result, household gifts were the biggest category of obtained items. Mr. B can recall the family taking home a card table and set of four chairs, a standing lamp, TV trays and that symbol of 60s suburbia, a starburst clock. Naturally, it was hung against a paneled wall in the living room, where it remained for at least a decade. The card table and chairs, often employed on holidays where it became the kids’ table for meals, is still in use.

It’s unclear if the giving of trading stamps ever swayed a single where-to-shop decision in Mister Boomer’s family. As is the case with most middle class families, they were more concerned with savings than store loyalty. As such, trading stamps were, indeed, a bonus.

Well, boomers, can you recall an item your family obtained through redeeming trading stamps? Was the item for personal or home use, or to give as a gift to someone else?