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?

8-Track Mind

In 1964, Bill Lear and the engineers at the Lear Jet Corporation, in conjunction with the contributions of several other corporations that included Motorola, Ampex, RCA, Ford and General Motors, released the Lear Jet Stereo 8, the first consumer 8-track tape player. Magnetic tapes encased in a housing had been around since the fifties, most notably in 4-track form. Radio broadcasters had been using a similar cartridge in the mid-50s, to make it easier to play jingles and commercials on demand.

The 8-track cartridge as introduced by Bill Lear consisted of 4 programs, 2 tracks each, building on earlier inventions. In previous incarnations, the tape was set to run in a continuous loop. Tracks were switched by the means of a metal foil that activated the sensor in the playback mechanism. Lear’s main alteration in the cartridge was moving the rubber pinch roller, formerly part of a playback mechanism, into the cartridge itself.

By 1967, Ford offered an 8-track player as an option to all its vehicle models, and RCA began releasing 8-tracks for its catalog of artists. This combined effort helped the 8-track gain credibility and popularity. Once consumers saw its portability and convenience, the era of the 8-track was underway.

Plagued with consumer problems from the start, the 8-track cartridge proved large and kinda clunky, filling up interior console bins and making storage inside a car more difficult. That notwithstanding, what irked most people Mister Boomer knew was the constant tape hiss and loud ker-chunk heard when the tracks were changing, which often happened within the middle of a song. Restricted to the tape’s eight tracks, albums had to be readjusted to conform to the technology’s requirements. This meant reconfiguring song order in many cases, songs being broken between tracks, and, in some situations, songs repeated or content added to fill the tape.

By the 1970s, the 8-track was on the way out. Cassettes, though introduced in 1963, didn’t overtake the 8-track until the late 70s. Consumers discovered that cassettes were cheaper than 8-track tapes, and record companies had to take a hard business look at the various formats they were publishing: vinyl, 8-track and cassette. By the time compact discs gained in popularity in the early 80s, the 8-track’s day in the sun had waned.

Mister Boomer’s entry into the world of the 8-track began in the summer of 1972. His brother had installed a unit in his own car a couple of years earlier, and now was selling that car. He removed the 8-track player and, since his newer auto would have a built-in 8-track player, offered the older unit as a hand-me-down to Mister B.

Mister B's 8-track player
That's right, boomers. This is an actual scan of the owner's manual for Mister B's in-car 8-track player.

Brother Boomer helped Mister B install the unit inside the glove compartment of his 1964 Plymouth. The Mini-8 fit perfectly. Instead of permanently securing it to the included hanging bar, though, a locking mechanism was installed in the roof of the compartment. The male counterpart was attached to the top of the unit. This allowed it to slide and lock into the bracket so the unit could be removed and carried when leaving the car, providing an extra layer of security. Tape players were a common target of auto break-ins. Employing a hacksaw blade from their father’s toolbox, the two boomer boys cut holes in the door panels and back window deck to house the speakers. True stereo sound would now be achieved. A few wires and a fuse later, the unit was ready for a test drive.

Despite the easy fit of the player in the glove box, the 8-track tapes themselves were six inches long. Inserted into the unit, approximately two inches remained outside the entry slot to enable the cartridge to be grabbed and removed. This meant that when Mister B wanted to activate the unit, the glove box needed to remain open, as the tape extended beyond the compartment. It also meant the tape would be out of reach while driving. It was portable music on demand all right — as long as you inserted a tape before getting underway.

Nonetheless, the floodgates now open, Mister B began buying 8-tracks, and added more titles to his annual family Christmas list. His girlfriend at the time had an interest in Elton John (Rocket Man), Cat Stevens (Peace Train) and Chicago (Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?), so naturally those purchases had to be made. Sitting in the passenger seat, she could control the volume and, since there was no rewind, click through the tracks to her heart’s content. Yet there was more. Mister B took this new in-the-car portability as the chance to discover new music he might not be able to play on the home “Victrola,” as Mister B’s mother called the family phonograph. This experimentation resulted in Jethro Tull (Aqualung; Thick As A Brick), The Doors (Best of the Doors), Santana (Abraxas), Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young (Deja Vu; 4-Way Street) and even Iron Butterfly (In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida) joining the collection. As a free-thinking, red-blooded American male, classical music on 8-track sat side by side with the rock ‘n roll in the Mister Boomer 8-track library (Best of Beethoven; Best of Tchaichovsky; Mozart Symphony in G Minor; Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos).

It may have been clunky, annoying and inconvenient, but it was your music when you wanted it. In the early 80s, Mister Boomer was heading out to seek his fame and fortune away from Middle America. The entire 8-track collection, numbering in the vicinity of 80 tapes, were quickly sold, along with their storage cases, at a garage sale. Never climbing on the cassette bandwagon, Mister B’s personal portable music would have to wait until the introduction of the iPod before he forayed back into the realm.

Well, boomers, what is your happy 8-track memory?