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.
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 Angel, Dream Lover, You 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.
Mom cried the day dad brought home a used 1960 dark red Oldsmobile Super 88 convertible. “Frank, you bought a red convertible,” she cried, with heavy emphasis on the word red, which shepronounced like a guilty verdict. “Burgundy,” Dad said. “Burgundy. It’s Burgundy.”
I felt like an accomplice. I was a teenage car nut. Dad took me along with him to kick tires at the seller’s house before we bought it, used, a couple years older than new.
We did the twist at middle school dances. Chubby Checker, who made the twist popular, played in a concert at the Cow Palace in San Francisco. A couple of my girl classmates were there, and they were the envy of the rest of us.
Meanwhile, also in 1962, the Beatles were getting going in England, but we didn’t know about it. And the Beach Boys started in California.
And speaking of the Beach Boys, surfing was infinite cool, especially in California. Southern California more than Northern, where we were. But it spread to national cool and affected what we wore, what we watched, what we listened to, and what we did as well. Woodies, station wagons with wood sideboards, and especially older station wagons, were prized. Surfers had blonde hair, bleached or not, male and female.
In Los Altos, nobody I knew actually surfed. There was surfing in Santa Cruz, about ninety minutes away; but nobody had wetsuits so those were special hardy people, in the cold Northern California oceans.
What we did do was make our own skateboards and ride them down the asphalt hills. You couldn’t buy a skateboard back then. You had to buy adjustable metal roller skates, pull them apart, and nail them upside down to the bottom of actual boards. Which is what we all did.
I mentioned wooden skis and cable bindings in this story from the fifties. In 1962 those wooden skis and cable bindings failed me as I tried to play hot shot jumping moguls at Dodge Ridge. It was, of course, the last run of the day. It was also beautiful spring skiing, bright blue sky, and sticky snow. Dad was done for the day and waiting for me at the bottom with Jay. It was the Sunday of one of those ski weekends Dad used to do for me, driving up Saturday before dawn, driving back Sunday after skiing.
I was only a couple hundred yards from the top, with about a mile to go, when snap, crackle, pop, I blew a jump and found myself laying in the snow with my left foot at about a 90 degree angle from my left leg. Which hurt a lot.
Funny that it was the last run. It’s always the last run, right? But in skiing, it is often a run that was set up as the last run that ends up with the injury. You’re tired, but you want to end it well, so you push that tired. Bad idea.
This was on my brother’s eighth birthday, April 8. I had turned 14 a few months earlier.
Back then, ski patrol was a lot like it still is now, but it took longer because no cell phones. I don’t remember it taking that long, so maybe the ski patrol were up at the top because the lifts were about to close. Anyhow, I lay there contemplating pain and the weird angle of my boot to my leg for a while but then I was strapped into a sled and guided down the mountain. They took me to the first aid place at the lodge and started dealing with an obviously broken leg — both tibia and fibia, and bad — while somebody found Dad (which meant scanning the parking lot for a red 1960 Oldsmobile convertible) and he appeared.
Dad didn’t trust the bone surgeons in Sonora, the closest town to Dodge Ridge. So he had them wrap me up as best they could and drove me back to El Camino Hospital, where the docs he knew took over. He put me on a lot of drugs and I sat in the back seat only half conscious (although I still remember it) for the four-hour-plus drive. He was very angry with a local drug store that wouldn’t give him the drugs he wanted to give me, despite his medical ID; but the second one did.
The broken leg changed my trajectory in athletics. I’d been an all-star in middle school flag football and I was going to play in high school, I thought. But I was in a cast from toes to upper thigh from April to August, and was on crutches until November of my freshman year in high school. By sophomore year it was too late … I couldn’t play on the freshman team, and didn’t feel good enough to break in as a sophomore.