One historical event that occurred during the boomer years made us the last generation to witness this event up to now: that is, the addition of a new state to the Union, and it happened twice in the same year. No state had been added since our grandparents’ generation, when New Mexico and Arizona were added in 1912 to make the country the contiguous 48 states.
Alaska was the first state to be added; it was admitted on January 3, 1959, in the middle of the prime boomer years. Three months later, on March 18, 1959, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Hawaii Admission Act that paved the way for statehood. A few months later, Hawaiians voted overwhelmingly, at 93%, to join the Union. On August 21, 52 years ago this week, Hawaii became the 50th state.
Like Alaska, Hawaii was not connected to another state by a common border. In fact, they were quite a distance from what became known as the Continental United States. But unlike Alaska, Hawaii could not be reached by land at all. It sat 2,390 miles from the coast of California, its nearest state neighbor. This distance, mixed with visions of an island paradise portrayed in the tales of servicemen coming home from World War II, would spark the imagination of the country and ultimately the new boomer generation. With the increased capabilities of air travel in the 1950s, the state of Hawaii was within reach for some boomer families. For others, a visit to this mysterious, far-off destination could only be a dream that would take a lifetime to fulfill.
The earliest memories of Hawaii for most boomers came from school. Teachers could latch on to information on pineapple farming, coupled with the same images of girls in grass skirts, dancing the Hula and wearing flower leis, that servicemen made famous in lamps and bobble doll souvenirs, and present them to students as the quintessential intro into the newest state. Such was the case for Mister B. No one he knew had ever been to Hawaii, or was going there any time soon. The closest he and his classmates could get were the Pan Am ads in Life and Look magazines.
One of the souvenirs brought back by servicemen lodged itself into the national psyche: the Aloha (or Hawaiian) shirt. Uniquely Hawaiian, the most prized were manufactured on the islands between the 1930s and the 1950s. Many noted celebrities from the era were fans of the garment. Elvis Presley wore vintage Hawaiian shirts in his 1961 movie, Blue Hawaii. Even John Wayne and President Harry Truman enjoyed wearing the shirts regularly.
Landing first in California along with the surfboard, the shirt was quickly adopted by the burgeoning West Coast surf culture. As the trend moved eastward across the contiguous 48 states in the 50s and 60s, imitations were made on the mainland for boomer boys and their fathers. Mister Boomer recalls his first imitation Hawaiian shirt: it was a muted yellow with island scenes of palm trees and coconuts drawn at seemingly random intervals. Brother Boomer had one too, but his was light blue and had a different pattern. Mister B’s father, however, didn’t join in.
Mister Boomer was able to see his early dreams of Hawaii come to life when he and the missus visited the islands to celebrate their 10th wedding anniversary. He found it to be every bit an island paradise as was described when he was a wee boomer. Ever since that time, he’s dreamed of returning to our 50th state.
What early memories of our Hawaii do you have, boomers?