Laughing Through the Cold War

Following World War II, the U.S. and Soviet Union engaged in a “balance of powers” exercise that was termed the Cold War. The rules were simple: each country had to accumulate more nuclear weapons to keep the other in check. Consequently, there was a massive arms build-up on both sides as the public at large was gripped with the fear of total annihilation. As Eve of Destruction, that great Cold War ditty from the sixties so succinctly put it, “When the button is pushed, there’s no runnin’ away.” It seemed hardly the time for laughing it up. Throughout history, though, we’ve had a habit of cutting our opponents down to size with humor. If you could laugh at them, then perhaps it could lessen some of the fear.

Our parents had done so in World War II. It is said that each generation develops their own sense of what is funny, and surely they had the likes of radio broadcasts and Spike Jones laughing “right in der Füehrer’s face.” When you think about it, they surely didn’t have much to laugh about. Yet they grew up through more than a decade of the Great Depression, which was followed by a World War. Once the war was over, they still couldn’t relax as they were always on guard for potential enemies… and they found one in Communism. Perhaps this set up our generation to be uniquely poised for a comedy explosion?

The first set of baby boomers were only five years old when the U.S. Department of Civil Defense produced that classic comedy of the Cold War era, “Duck and Cover,” in 1951. Not that they intended it to be a comedy, mind you. There is the very real likelihood that in the preceding years before Mister Boomer’s class was shown the film, it was taken all too seriously. Yet Mister B recalls that film, like so many others that were projected onto the portable tripod screen in the basement below the church. Lessons on school safety and proper bike riding would surely help us to be better citizens, so why not inject some civil defense knowledge, for our own protection? In Mister B’s class, however, the reaction was probably not what was expected. The lights went out and the familiar sound of the clicking projector could be heard, cutting the silence. Then it began, in glorious black and white, with that likeable turtle cartoon and memorable jingle. OK — so far, so good. Once the live action began, though, snickers started rolling through the assembled pre-pubescent crowd. Muffled at first, it could be contained no more when the scene of The Typical American Family enjoying a picnic saw “the flash” and grabbed the picnic blanket to duck and cover. A raucous laughter erupted that left the teachers aghast. The film clicked on as we children laughed and laughed at the silly scene of plates and food flying, the screen children’s heads ducking under the cover of their picnic “shelter.” We couldn’t possibly understand the ramifications of a nuclear attack. We just knew funny when we saw it. They finally quieted us down and we watched the remainder of the film in mandated silence.

Ike was our President and Commander in Chief at the time. He successfully saw the country through D-Day, and now he was protecting us from the evils of Communism, especially as represented by the Soviet Union. The visible Soviet leader during boomer time was Nikita Khruschev. In the spirit of détente, Eisenhower had invited him to visit the U.S. in 1959 following Richard Nixon’s participation in the Kitchen Debate. Khruschev came with his wife and children, and although it didn’t further Ike’s agenda the way he had hoped, it did provide fodder for satirists and comedians. Of the many spots the Soviet Premier visited on his 13-day trip, he was impressed with the agricultural education from the University of Iowa, and the self-serve cafeteria at IBM headquarters. Comedy gold! Like the reaction of Mister B’s class, all sorts of jokes about Ike, Khruschev, their unlikely meetings at Camp David and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) became fodder for the laugh machine. By 1960, the jokes were flying on TV and in the nightclubs. One such seminal star that weighed in on the subject was Bob Newhart. The young upstart would release “The Button Down Mind of Bob Newhart” that year, based on his stand-up routines. In an interview years later, he recalled that they needed an extra track for the album, so he tossed in “Kruschev (sic) Landing Rehearsal,” a re-imagined scene of the Soviet Premier being greeted at the airport. Bob envisioned it as the concept for a new TV show (can anyone say, “Green Acres”?), which never materialized.

Most boomers, however, are going to recall the unbelievably great Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons (1959-61). The Cold War characters Boris Badenov and his sidekick, Natasha Fatale, and their Fearless Leader, were an integral part of the show. As Boris himself would put it, “It’s good to be bad.” In print media, Mad Magazine also got into the act with its long-running “Spy vs. Spy” cartoon series.

A few years later, we were still making fun of our stalemate situation. After years of depicting bumbling Russian spies, we now turned to creating bumbling idiots on our own side. On TV, Get Smart (1965-70), saw the likes of Maxwell Smart as Secret Agent 86. Clueing us in on the joke, the writers gave him the “86” moniker. The term “eighty-sixed” in common parlance means to throw or kick out. Somehow, Max always saved the day, with the help of his ultra-sexy partner, Barbara Feldon, as Agent 99 (one would presume out of a hundred).

The top of the heap of Cold War comedies for Mister Boomer is Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. In 2009, the 45th anniversary of this Stanley Kubrick movie was celebrated. The movie starred Sterling Hayden, George C. Scott and the phenomenal Peter Sellars playing three distinct roles. It described a “what if” situation where a U.S. military general started the process that triggered full nuclear response from both sides, and the possible planning for the rebuilding of civilization the remaining leaders would need to accomplish with the survivors. If you haven’t seen it in a while, run to your nearest online movie ordering site and buy it or put it on your list immediately! Viewing it as an adult, in our post-Cold War era, has made the dark humor all the more poignant. Go forth and laugh it up, boomers!

What made you laugh at the Cold War?

The Answer is Blowin’ In the Wind?

Recently, an “artifact” from the boomer age has resurfaced in the news. Clotheslines have been popping up around the country as personal expressions of energy conservation and “common sense.” Some boomers, however, disagree that the act of placing laundry on a line to billow in the breeze is natural and good; they believe dryers were invented to forever relieve us of this manual task. Some go one step further, and see the stringing of lines draped with clothespinned-garments as an assault on their sensibilities and a blight in their neighborhoods. As a result, homeowner associations have banned the practice in many states, to the point of fining offenders who break the rules.

Clothes dryers in various mechanical forms have been around in France and England since the 18th century. On June 7, 1892, George T. Sampson from Dayton, Ohio, was granted a patent for a clothes drying system that used heat from a stove, thus replacing the older models that required hand-turning a basket over an open flame. Despite the increases in technology throughout the years, it wasn’t until the boomer age — post World War II — that the popularity of dryers increased. By 1955, they came in electric and natural gas versions, but were too expensive for the average consumer. That year only 10 percent of U.S. households had a dryer.

Mister Boomer’s experience certainly follows the historical trend. Growing up in the fifties and sixties, there wasn’t anyone to object to the neighbor’s drying clothes on a clothesline because everyone dried clothes on clotheslines. Mister Boomer recalls helping Mom put up sheets on the backyard lines, securing the ends with that amazing little utilitarian invention: a shaped piece of wood that had a split three-quarters of its length, and a rounded head to easily grasp. Yes, the humble clothespin. There’s a great invention, if you ask me. We owned and used very few of those flat spring-type clothespins. Mister Boomer’s Mom reserved those for thicker and oddly-shaped garments that weren’t easily secured with the traditional pin.

Mister Boomer recalls the time — a decade before the Clean Air Act of 1970 — when clothes hanging outside weren’t exactly finishing fresh-air fresh. Little bits of rusty-brown soot from the nearby steel mills would sprinkle onto the drying laundry, forcing a good shaking before folding and placing in the wicker laundry basket. Winter was not much kinder. The snow and ice complicated outdoor drying. Mister Boomer used to get a laugh out of his jeans drying in the cold breeze — or rather, freezing — into a stand-up shape like the Invisible Man were somehow modeling them. The method then was to remove the jean-sicles from the line and bring them indoors. Propping them against the dining room wall by the heat register, they soon melted into a foldable fabric, like denim witches from the Wizard of Oz.

Mister Boomer’s family didn’t get a dryer installed until the mid-sixties. Mister Boomer had gone along for the ride when his Dad visited a local appliance store. “90 days, same as cash,” read the sign on the wall. Mister Boomer’s Dad double-checked on that before signing on the dotted line. A gas dryer was a helpful appliance in the Boomer household that lessened the drudgery of the modern housewife, allowing her to rejoin the workforce to enjoy a rewarding career in retail sales.

The debate, to outside dry or not, amplifies the point that the Boomer Generation, unlike others before them, is not one of a single mindset. While some find it a nostalgic glimpse at a bygone era whose time has come again in the form of energy conservation, others feel technology has reigned supreme for the past hundred years, and has made our lives the better for it. This has prompted some to go to the point of demanding legislation that allows residents “the right to dry.” Last month Vermont became the first state to pass such legislation, while other states, including Texas and California, have considered it.

Now, it’s far from Mister Boomer’s mission to get involved in political debates, one way or the other. But doggone it, we changed the world, man — so surely this is a problem we can solve on our own. Instead of new laws allowing people their “God-given” rights, how about if we require those persnickety homeowner associations to set up a fund from members’ dues that would subsidize the purchase of solar dryers? They could paint them in homeowner association-approved colors. Surely a box in the backyard wouldn’t offend the sensibilities of the gated crowd like colorful undies blowin’ in the wind.

And how about it, Mr. Boomer President? Can we make America number one in manufacturing solar appliances? What do you think, boomers?