50s: Authentic Post-war Boom Times

Boom times. We’d won the war and destroyed the industrial base of our main would-be competitors. There were jobs everywhere. Good jobs in manufacturing, on assembly lines, were readily available. Eisenhower, a war hero, was president from 1952 through 1960. Tax rates were historically high, upwards of 70%, but not a big political issue because they were progressive so only the truly wealthy paid the high rates. Families moved to the suburbs. Husbands worked and wives kept house. Kids were born. Suburbs exploded.

I turned two in 1950, twelve in 1960.

50s: Howdy Doody, B/W etc.

I was three years old. I sat in a basement family room straining to see a small black and white television set. The big kids, four and even five years old, mostly blocked my view. One of them was my older brother Chip. I was there only because he let me tag along. I watched spellbound as Howdy Doody bobbed back and forth and talked to Cowboy Bob, a middle-aged man in a stylized cowboy jacket with leather tassels down the sleeves. Clarabell the clown came on and off the screen, talking.

Television was new and exciting. It wasn’t just me, at three; it was just starting for everybody back then. The one in the basement was the first one on the cul-de-sac in Park Forest, IL. Ads called it a magic box.  The parents got together to watch it. Everybody wanted one of their own; but few actually had one. 

50s: Nomads

We moved around in the early fifties. I was born in Milford MA where my Dad’s family had lived for generations. He was a doctor in general practice at that point. Mom and Dad met in uniform, doctor and nurse, during the war. They married in 1945 and had Chip in 1946, me in 1948. We were a classic baby boom family.

After Milford we were in Fort Pickett VA because Dad got drafted into the army for the Korean War. I remember late-night phone calls, Mom and Dad worried. I learned later that because Dad had served during World War II he wasn’t supposed to have to serve again during Korea. But he lost that argument, and we lived in a small house on the base, looking out over a big field to a forest. Mom and Dad told the story of Dad being called to testify in Washington about the injustice of having to serve twice. They met Senator John F. Kennedy in the halls, and Dad liked to tell the story that he asked to meet Mom. She was beautiful, he was a womanizer.

Then we moved to Park Forest, IL. It was a socially designed suburb of Chicago, which was used later for research into the phenomenon of suburbs in the 50s. We moved there for Dad to become an ophthalmologist. Dad took a train into Chicago every weekday. Mom was a fifties housewife with two small boys. We lived in a cul-de-sac and the tiny kids played in the street while their mothers watched. I know this from stories, not from memory. I was too young.

and from there, they moved to California. They had seen California during the war, and they knew they wanted to settle there. Mom told us about arriving in California for the first time, during the war, in February. She’d been all night in the train and woke up in Los Angeles. The warmth, the deep blue sky, the flowers everywhere left her impressed for good. That dynamic fueled the growth of California after the war. People from elsewhere wanted to move there for its landscape and climate.

I heard stories of plane rides from Chicago to California. The planes were propeller planes. There was a stop for fuel halfway between Chicago and San Francisco.

We lived for a while in Marysville CA. I started kindergarten in Ojai CA. And then Los Altos.

We moved to Los Altos in 1953. It was a nice small town on the San Francisco Peninsula, on the edge of the Santa Clara Valley. The valley was also called Blossom Valley mainly for its apricot orchards spreading through the southern parts of Palo Alto, the flats of Los Altos and Mountain View, Sunnyvale, down past San Jose, which was the main town in the valley. That’s the same valley that’s now called Silicon Valley.

We lived at 629 Benvenue Ave, a rented house on a cul-de-sac, thoroughly fifties middle class America. I learned later that two forty-niners (pro football) lived on the same street. They were like the rest of us, living in flat suburban houses in the suburbs.

50s: Suburbia

There were a lot of other kids in that neighborhood. On weekends and during the summer, we’d leave home after breakfast and play with five or more other kids all day, without going more than a hundred yards from home. We played football and baseball on the Cimino’s large front lawn, directly across the street from our house. We played cops and robbers and cowboys and Indians through several yards and on the street. A pause to grab a peanut butter and jelly sandwich at home (I don’t remember any meals shared with the other kids) and then back to play. 

We biked to school. I was five when I started first grade with the nuns at St. Nicholas Catholic School, which was where St. Williams church stands now. Chip and I rode our bikes about a mile through Los Altos without any parental concern or neglect. Lots of kids our age rode bikes through town. Biking in Los Altos was safe as long as I was with Chip, my older brother, who was seven. 

The Los Altos theater in the 1950s. We’d bike there for the Saturday matinee.

I had Sister Clarissa to start first grade, but she disappeared after Christmas vacation. The kids said she’d been taken to the loony bin. Sister Clarissa was just fine with some kids and mean as hell with others. I still remember when she slapped the daylights out of poor Patty Vance (who had an obvious disability). She liked me, but she had hated Chip. My parents rolled their eyes, obviously glad to see her go.  

A view of Clint’s ice cream shop in the fifties. We took Jay there often while he was still a toddler. The commuter train stopped across the street.

Being Catholic was a big deal. We prayed morning and night and went to Mass on Sundays. God and Jesus were always lurking. And you had to pray a lot when you went to sleep, afraid you’d see a nuclear mushroom cloud before morning. 

From the first time I heard it, I couldn’t believe that supposedly only Catholics could get into heaven. I asked Sister Judith what about some poor kid in Africa who’d lived a good life … no heaven for him? Nope. Purgatory. Tough luck, kid. And that was the crack in the armor; made me start to doubt. 

We also rode our bikes through town to the Los Altos Theater on Main Street for the Saturday matinee. It took a quarter to get in, plus another five cents for popcorn. The matinee would start with a serialized black-and-white episode of Flash Gordon. Our favorites were the Disney movies. I never went alone; always with Chip; often with some of the other kids as well. 

50s: TV takes over

Throughout the fifties, as I grew up, television was mostly a family activity. Sure, we had endless cartoons on Saturday mornings if we wanted them, but we rarely did. We played outside. 

Mainstream television brought us together. In the middle fifties we’d stop playing even on sunny summer evenings in time to get home and watch Rin Tin Tin (a German shepherd), Lassie,  and Disneyland. You saw the shows right then, when they played on TV, or not at all. There was no catching them later. If you missed them when they were broadcast, you missed them forever. 

And football. Pro football. We were dedicated 49er fans. I sat with Dad and Chip watching the small TV and rooting for Y.A. Tittle, Hugh McElhenny, Joe the Jet Perry, Leo Nomellini. They played against the Rams and Norm Van Brocklin. 

Television was black and white in the fifties. Color came middle to late sixties, and it was bad for several years. I was in college when they got the first color set at home. 

And television was basically one to a family. There were no spare sets in the kitchen or the bedroom until decades later. 

Images from Wikipedia

50s: Oddly Rural

In 1956, when I was eight, we moved from the flats up into the hills. To Eastbrook Ave. We moved from classic fifties suburb to rural, although less than four miles away.  Oddly rural. It was barely half a mile from the Los Altos Golf and Country Club, and a one-mile bike ride to Loyola Elementary School. Five miles to Main Street in Los Altos or to Castro Street in Mountain View. But still, rural. 

Eastbrook Avenue was then a one-lane, poorly paved private road that ran a few hundred yards from Mora Drive south southeast to Permanente Creek. It started in a small flat valley just about where the landscape started to rise to the west up to the crest of the coast range at Black Mountain. To the east was an open field of tall weeds, waist high to a kid, for maybe three hundred yards before it rose slightly to an orchard on a hill across the way. To the west, chaparral covered hills rose steeply from our back yard, to coast range tree-covered mountains topped beyond the horizon at Black Mountain, which we heard about, but couldn’t actually see. To our right, if we looked out on the field from our house, the road dropped sharply down a hill to an even smaller valley fed by Permanente Creek, a year-round creek that was never wider than five or ten feet, never deeper than a foot or so in its deepest pools, full of water spiders, frogs, in inch-long fish. There was a house on the other side of the street and down from us, riding the hill. And there were two houses at the bottom of the hill, near the creek. The hill that started in our back yard and dropped down to the creek 200 yards below was a small part of the famous San Andreas fault. 

I most often rode my bicycle from there to Loyola School, about a mile. Sometimes I took the long bus ride that wound its way around the hills above and then dropped down Mora Drive to leave me off at the corner. Then I had a short walk down the street with the open green fields to my left and the one other house, before ours, to my right. I remember it with the sky bright blue, the evergreens around the neighbor’s house dark green, the open field a mixture of grass and grain colors, plus highlights of bright yellow when the mustard weeds were open. And when I say skies were bright blue, the field green, I mean real colors, as if you wouldn’t believe them on a postcard picture. We knew about smog, back then, in Los Altos and thereabouts, only because we’d seen it in Los Angeles. We’d driven through Los Angeles in the summer, on the way to Newport Beach, squinting, shocked by the strange haze that blanketed the whole area on summer days, smelling like exhaust and making eyes water. Smog was a local geographic phenomenon limited to Los Angeles. Or so we thought in the Bay Area, 400 miles north of that, blessed by crystal clear blue skies. 

When we moved there, I had a sandbox, a yard to play in, a two-year-old brother who often followed me around, and a 10-year-old brother who liked chess and opera. No other kids lived nearby. I chased frogs by the creek, and snakes in the chaparral above us. I kept lizards when I could catch them. I rode my bike to the pet store at Blossom Valley Shopping Center (halfway to Mountain View) and bought white mice and turtles. My best friend from Benvenue would come up for sleepovers occasionally, but I was mostly alone. I liked the sandbox, the back yard, and small cars and trucks. And the creek, and the hills behind the house. 

In a year or two, I connected with a couple of other kids near enough to play with in the summer, one of them a first cousin. We explored more of the hills and we practically owned the creek.  We built forts, dams, villages with tiny cars, and throwing rocks at water striders. 

It is now far from rural, by the way. The unincorporated area we lived in became Los Altos Hills. The hills behind us came to be called Pill Hill because a dozen or so doctors and families built large houses in the new streets where we used to wander through the chaparral. The field gave way to Interstate 280 first, on the far side – billed as a beautiful freeway when it was built, because of the way it wound through the hills above the San Francisco Peninsula – and then to densely packed and sadly pompous big houses that could have been the definition of what they later called Mac Mansions, big fancy houses squeezed uncomfortably into lots that left little room left over for yards proportional to the houses. 

As I write this, Dad, now 100, still lives in that same house we moved into in 1956, on Eastbrook Ave. It has a small winery on the lot now. It’s been remodeled twice, and it’s on its third lady of the house. And it’s now surrounded by Silicon Valley glitz and glamor. 

50s: Mom Held Court in the Kitchen

On most afternoons, middle to late fifties through middle sixties when I left home for college, Mom held court in her kitchen. She’d talk with whoever sat on the kitchen stool while she worked. When I’d sit on that stool, she’d drop her guard with me, open up, and share her views on the issues of the day. 

The kitchen window looked out over the street, across the quarter mile or so of open untended weeds, over a distant grove of high trees beyond the field, to the seemingly carved brown hills on the other side of the San Francisco Bay. We could see folds on those mostly bare brown hills, and dark spots where trees collected. They hinted of travel and adventure. In fact, one of the multiple moments of disillusion for me in my later teenage years was the discovery that those romantic distant hills we saw from the kitchen were the same empty foothills that formed the edge of the very unromantic town of Milpitas, a town that eventually took its place in the low end of the Silicon Valley, but was always a wrong side of the tracks kind of a place for us. But that was later, years after those kitchen stool days. 

Mom dearly loved the radio in the kitchen and talk radio, KGO, so much so that even decades later I can still remember the voice, commentary, opinions, and callers of Jim Dunbar and Ron Owens, the talk radio KGO stars who kept mom company every afternoon. When I was in elementary school, she and the radio talked about the Russians, and Sputnik, education, Kennedy vs. Nixon, and society. 

Sometimes I’d get home to find her and one of her two liberal friends sitting on a kitchen stool, drink in hand, talking while Mom cooked up dinner. That would be with Dorothy Gormeley, next door neighbor, wife of an executive at some big international enterprise. A true liberal, a great talker, and a pretty good drinker too. Or with Hester Beard, mother of a kid in my class, another great talker and true liberal. Mom loved their politics. And before-dinner drinks were a national custom. 

50s: Dad Taught by Example; Mom by Talk

We were a typical family of the fifties. Dad was the breadwinner and Mom kept house. We had a family meal at six o’clock every weekday and most weekend days too. 

Gender roles were set. Mom kept the house clean, did the laundry, managed the kids, did shopping, made dinner, bought our clothes, and took us to the library on Tuesday nights, took us to doctors and dentists, and managed our chores and did most of the child raising. She’d have occasional work days, like cleaning up our rooms on a Saturday, and sometimes even vacuuming the living room. Sometimes she’d “go on the warpath” and we’d all avoid her. 

Dad was the best Ophthalmologist on the West Coast. He didn’t have odd hours, so he was home in time for dinner every day, preceded by two stiff drinks every day except when he had surgery the next day. Mom also had two stiff drinks before dinner. 

Dad supported Mom’s child raising and pitched in with a united front when needed, but his interaction with us was mostly around fun. He loves sports and brought us along with enthusiasm. He taught us football, basketball, baseball, gold, and tennis. He shared his life with us easily, not really sacrificing, just being happy to have us with him doing things he liked to do. Dad was also in charge of the yard, and he’d also have occasional work days that we hated, outside in the yard. Chip and I worked with him planting a lot of trees and shrubs to landscape the house. 

Mom taught by talk, and, her special grace, talk as equals. She’d drop her guard with me, open up, and share her views on the issues of the day.  We talked about politics, the war, hippies, free speech, Betty Friedan, the greening of America, civil rights, Kennedy. And we talked about questioning authority, Mom’s deep sense of right and wrong, and her passion for ideas. 

Dad taught almost entirely by example. Dad taught by sharing part of his life that he liked. He taught us sportsmanship and achievement on the ball fields, concentration on the golf course, focus on the tennis court. He taught us love as doing things, being there, quietly, constantly, off to work, back at dinner, being the best ophthalmologist west of the Mississippi, being a good friend, being home with us when he was home, and being the best in everything from his practice, to his fathering. 

50s: Gender in the Fifties

We were taught to respect women. Even back in those gender-restrained days, as we grew up, Dad was never disrespectful to women. Not when he was alone with his boys, and — we knew — not when he was alone with his friends. If there is such a thing as “locker room talk,” which became a thing in 2016, there wasn’t in our house. Nobody commented on physical attributes of women, so the most you’d ever hear was that some movie star was “sexy.” We were taught to open doors and pull out chairs for women, although not to hold them to the forced gender roles. Ladies first was taken for granted. 

When I started noticing girls as girls, they were magic, worthy of awe. Touching, or holding hands, connected me to their glow. They were soft to the touch and smelled like spring and flowers. They were different from us boys in all the best possible ways, alluring. And they were better. Higher beings. 

Love for us elementary school kids was a platonic “going steady” that started in the third grade for me, with Nancy Pershing. The other kids knew about it and respected it. It meant nothing more than an extra smile at odd times and partnering up during the square dance sessions in PE. Jane Trowbridge and Penny Tie in fourth, fifth, and sixth. 

And it also meant relating to the love songs they played on KYA, the rock station of the Bay Area. Earth AngelDream LoverYou Send Me, in my radio at night, with me dreaming of holding hands when we weren’t doing square dancing in PE. 

A lot of the oddities of gender from the fifties seem horribly out of place as I write this in 2020. 

Girls didn’t do sports. Not the cool girls. They could maybe do field hockey, but that was about it. Only boys rode their bikes to school, plus the occasional oddball girl who was not cool. 

Women were generally expected to be nurses, teachers, secretaries, waitresses, or retail salesclerks and cashiers. 

Mom, although she lived the stereotype, objected to the tight gender roles whenever she got a chance. Later in life, after we grew up, she resented her role as housewife and wished she’d had a career. She never wanted Martha to be pigeonholed. 

Mom and Dad taught us to believe in equality, ending segregation, civil rights laws, integrated schools.  But the blacks were in the Fillmore and Hunter’s Point in San Francisco and East Palo Alto, and we never went there. We also avoided the so-called “Mexican” neighborhoods in Mountain View.  The fear of the other was unspoken, in the background. Prejudice and bigotry weren’t allowed in our house, but then our house was in a lily-white suburb. 

For more about gender, then and now, there’s a password protected piece on some related issues, in my section on reflections.