Howdy Doody Time

Recently I received one of those mass emails that contained a short test. Geared to leading-edge Baby Boomers like myself, it asked questions like, “What builds strong bodies 12 ways?” ; “Before he was the skipper’s ‘little buddy,’ Bob Denver was Dobie Gillis’ friend named ——-?”, and, “I’m strong to the finish ‘cause . . . . .” , all of which came from the TV era as depicted in the movie “Pleasantville.”

To my delight. I scored 18 out of 20 and proceeded to send it to all my similarly-aged friends. Most made perfect scores and the rest only missed only one or two, as I did.

What was surprising, however, was the reaction I received from sending it. The act of doing so resulted in an avalanche of responses. I generally hate email-forwards, few of which I care to pass on.  This one sparked something unexpected.

One response I received was simply, “Reminds me of my jingle gyspy days. Stuff set to music sticks!”

Another friend wrote, “I must have watched too much TV. Actually, I was just a culture vulture from a very early age. To me the answers were obvious, but from a contemporary outlook, some of these slogans must look ridiculous.”

I began to survey  my own feelings at that point and was left with the conclusion that the ‘50s and ‘60s, much of which I spent in northern Calfiornia, were worth recounting.

It occurred to me that when I was eight years old, our streets were filled with kids on bikes, some from five neighborhoods away.  My siblings and I (all under age 12) could be dropped off at a downtown theatre double-feature with $1.50 each in our pockets for tickets and popcorn. Mom would drive up to collect us just as the theater emptied for the next showing.

As one of my respondents reminded me, there were only three TV networks. Each September, just as school started, we anxiously awaited our fall line-up TV Guide issue, rejoicing when some shows returned and in disbelief when others were cancelled.  Dad would gather us around the TV for Hallmark Specials, the Perry Como Show and The Wonderful World of Disney as if it were part of our educational enrichment.

I occasionally think back to my daily ritual after school — watching the Mickey Mouse Club with themes like “Fun with Music”, “Circus Day”, and “Rodeo Day”. And the nightly news consisted of one hour of unopinionated reporting with 30 seconds at the end for the anchor’s “thoughts”, during which my father yelled at everyone to shut up as we ate our dinner. The news was too important at our house to have meaningful conversations at that time of day.

Being a girl, I was proud that I could recognize the make, year and model of every car on the road. I thought people with convertibles and Cadillacs were wealthy.  Our two-toned 1955 Mercury looked contemporary and streamlined, but inside it  was adorned by clear plastic seat covers (just like our living room furniture) to which my little girl legs would stick mercilessly.

While on long road trips “back east” to see our grandparents each summer,  my brothers and I read Burma Shave signs out loud and played road games. We serenaded our parents with songs from out-dated 45s  donated to us by our San Francisco uncle, who gave us his restaurant jukebox rejects.  One of my brothers would bm-bm-bm the bass accompaniment as I sang the sultry melody to Peggy Lee’s “Fever,” trying to clone her singing tone.

It was tough for a nine year old to sound sexy. The other brother was, of course, percussion.

Fast food stops were non-existent, not just because there were so few along the road, but because Dad wanted to “make time.”  The  4:30 am reveille was my father yelling, “Rise and shine!,” after which three sleepy kids would tumble into the back seat of the car, pillows in tow, to stretch out on the floor, seat and back window to complete our night’s sleep. Seatbelts were only in sportscars at the time.

Along the sometimes uneven roadways, Mom bravely made sandwiches on a tiny cutting board placed on her lap.

We made it a practice to stop for “pictures with the Indians” and marvelled at important landmarks, like the Royal Gorge and the Great Salt Lake. One of my more unshakeable memories was enduring my father’s choice of motels for the night.  The ritual was always the same. After admonishing us  to stay in the car, Dad would  stroll toward the motel office like a non-chalant detective, slicking his hair back with a comb,  whistling  a 1940s tune. When the motel rate was higher than expected, he would order one of us to hunker down in the car so that the proprieter couldn’t see that there were five of us.  They charged by the head back then.

If the verdict was a motel whose neon sign included the word “pool”, we would whoop with joy.  And within seconds of throwing our luggage onto beds, we were in our swimsuits, ready to take a “dip” after an 800 mile day.  As the only girl, I had the dubious honor of sleeping on a rock-hard army cot wedged between the motel room’s two full-sized beds, taken up by the rest of my family. Fortunately, sleep comes easily to kids.

A heavy canvas water bag hung on our car’s front bumper on these cross-country voyages (I never quite figured out why), while a swamp cooler teetered precariously atop a partially rolled-down passenger-side window. It was filled with ice cubes each time we stopped for 25-cent-a-gallon gas and my brothers and I would be permitted to take turns pulling the cord for cool air to stream into the car. Those stout-hearty “filling station” attendants injected gasoline into our tank from art-deco gas pumps whose apexes were adorned with what looked like colored gumballs floating in tiny see-through domes.

School days were filled with committing the preamble to the Constitution and the Gettysburg Address to memory, singing songs in class like Over the River and Through the Woods, and struggling to pass the President’s Council on Physical Fitness test where we ran, climbed ropes and did push-ups.

Having moved from the patch-of-grass densly-built, foggy  “avenues” of San Francisco to a Sacramento suburb in the ’60s, I was to discover lawns that stretched like expansive golf greens throughout my new neighborhood, offering limitless room to play. The pigtailed, de-frocked girl depicted on suntan lotion bottles was ignorant of “SPF” factors, so during the summers we compared tans lines.

Our “rich” swimming pool neighbors would call our house to see if someone was ill on the sunny days when my brothers and I failed to show up for marathon splashes with their kids  And our backyard was large enough to serve as a “whiffle ball” diamond.

Some days I would plead with  my mom, asking why I couldn’t take swimming, ballet, and horsebackriding lessons, like the neighbor’s daughter. Mom did not mince words.  “We can’t afford it,” was her sucker-punch, illustrating that all incomes were not created equal.

Mom sometimes lost her voice after yelling out the window to call us home for dinner. We didn’t know a single kid in daycare or after-school programs.  And somehow, summer days seemed to last forever.

True, as a generation, we raged against the “establishment” as we got older. Our music, our garb and our slogans reflected a penchant to reject many of the post WWII conventions our parents revered. But just as we grew out of our crew socks, we grew out of our hippiedom as well, opting for paying jobs, walks down matrimonial aisles, the production of 2.5 children and, like many of our parents, houses in the suburbs.

I am surprised but oftentimes saddened by the sophistication levels of today’s kids.  Our parents’ generation no doubt looked at our generation precisely the same way, citing a loss of innocence. But that little 20-question test sparked some feedback that enabled me to look back on my childhood, making me realize just how charmed it really was. I know now that others grew up without the kind of world my parents provided us, but I can still recall the feeling of blissful unawareness with which I fell asleep every night.

Perhaps it’s challenging times, like our current economic crisis, prolonged wars,  and a general lack of confidence in things that make us hearken back to our childhoods for feeiings of comfort and reassurance, hoping that someday we’ll feel as unfettered as we did then.

I thank you for taking this little trip to the past with me.

Good night, Chet. Good night, David.

And happy trails to you . . . .howdy-doody-c


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