Sunday, September 4, 2016

Were the “Good Old Days” Really That Good?

Eisenhower and Congress Leaders
The current election cycle has revealed a craving among a large segment of the U.S. population for a return to the way things used to be, to go back to the "Good Old Days." As a person who has lived more than eight decades in this country, I am not sure what part of the past these individuals want to restore. I suspect the time that they yearn for is the 1950s.

Why the 1950s? Perhaps that was the last decade in which people with only a high school education could aspire to get a well-paying job and enter the famed middle class. In the 1950s, activity was booming in the industrial cities of the North. If a person were a sharecropper, whatever your race, opportunity beckoned in the factories of the North. If you have read John Grissom's book, A Painted House, or seen the Hallmark Hall of Fame movie, you have witnessed this phenomenon from the viewpoint of poor white farmers. All across the South, cotton fields fell fallow or switched to mechanized farming while hundreds of thousands of farmworkers headed north. The "American Dream" was alive for large segments of the population.

Despite stresses of the "Cold War," peace prevailed in the U.S. for most of the 1950s. After the Korean War ended, American troops were not actively involved in combat.

In the 1950s, the Federal Government actually worked. President Eisenhower often conferred with the leaders of both parties in Congress to address national concerns. Compromise positions were hammered out in these discussions, and acceptable legislation was then proposed and enacted. "Compromise" was not a dirty word in those days. Our leaders still realized that compromise is the very lifeblood of a functioning democracy.

Peace, economic opportunity, and a functioning government are all worthy of nostalgia. Unfortunately, there are other factors about that era that are not worthy of restoration.

Rigid gender definitions still divided society. There was "men's work" and "women's work." Men were expected to work and earn the family's living. "Bringing home the bacon" was their primary task. Women were supposed to marry, have children, and become homemakers. Almost all of the myriad duties of maintaining a household fell to the woman: providing meals, childcare, housekeeping, and assuring clean clothes for the family. Just keeping up with family laundry during those days before modern washing machines was an exhausting process. In the 1950s, boiling clothes in an outdoor wash pot and scrubbing them on rub-boards was still commonplace. Soaking garments in starch and ironing them with flatirons could be tiring as well. My mother-in-law always said, "There never were any ‘Good Old Days' for women."

In the 1950s, the Southern states of the old Confederacy remained rigidly segregated by race. African-Americans were decidedly second-class citizens. Segregated schools for blacks were often starved of resources needed to provide a reasonable education. The Ku Klux Klan was still active in some areas. Many white parents still taught their children that blacks were inherently inferior. Finding a better way of life was another motivator for the mass migration to northern cities.

Medical care in the 1950s was primitive compared to what we have today. Preventive medicine was chiefly limited to smallpox vaccination. The current inoculations to prevent childhood diseases had yet to be invented. Most children endured Chickenpox, Measles, Whooping Cough, and Mumps at some time. Some died of these diseases. And in the background always lurked the specter of polio, the crippler, and killer of hundreds each year. Many parents would not let their children take swimming lessons because of polio concerns.

Most people only saw a doctor when they got severely sick or injured. Doctors did make home visits in those days, but the treatments available to them were only a fraction of what exists today. Standard treatments still included prescribing laxatives for just about everything to "purge the body." Bed rest was recommended for most ailments. Smoking, on the other hand, was viewed as a good way to relax from stress. Almost all doctors were heavy smokers. Alcohol was considered a stimulant, although it is actually a depressant. The number of hospitals was limited. In those that did exist, privacy was given limited priority. Most patients were confined in large open wards.

At least in the early 1950s, many country families still lacked indoor plumbing. Use of outhouses remained a necessity. Chamber pots were used at night. Of course, emptying these every morning usually fell to the woman of the household. Bathing usually occurred on Saturday night so people would be clean for church the next day. Galvanized washtubs in the kitchen were the usual bathing place.

I believe that the human mind tends to retain and augment the good things about the past while conveniently forgetting the not so pleasant ones.  Widespread opportunity, functioning government, and peace are all objectives toward which we need to strive, but I do not personally desire a return to the 1950s. There are many aspects of the current situation that need to be changed, but we need to hammer out new solutions in keeping with the realities of the world today rather than seeking to go back to the past.

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Warren Bell is an author of historical fiction.  He spent 29 years as a US Naval Officer, and has traveled to most of the places in the world that he writes about.  A long-time World War II-buff, his first two novels, Fall Eagle One and Hold Back the Sun are set during World War II.  His third novel, Asphalt and Blood, follows the US Navy Seabees in Vietnam.  His most recent novel, Snowflakes in July, is a Pentagon thriller about domestic terrorism.  He is currently working on a new novel, Endure The Cruel Sun, the sequel to his best-selling novel, Hold Back the Sun. For more about Warren Bell, visit his website at: or see him on twitter @wbellauthor.