Wednesday has been Column Day for 11 years, and over 11 years some stuff will happen. My rule of thumb is that one should not re-read oneself unless one is willing to pay the emotional price, which usually involves groaning, but at least it’s some sort of record of what I was thinking, or not thinking. Some of these are collected in my books, but I’ve decided to ignore that for the time being and just find one from the past, every Wednesday, and post. If not for your edification, then mine. Groans are acceptable.
From November 2, 2005.
I’m a fan of The Fifties, and have been for a long time. I mentioned this in an e-mail birthday wish to my buddy, Clarence in Kentucky, who turned 65 on October 26. I’ve always accused Clarence of being Fonzie all grown up, a charge he accepts proudly.
Some of it is the music, of course, and some the movies. Some of it has to do with hearing stories from my parents, and some, I’m a little embarrassed to say, came from serious exposure to “Happy Days” in the 1970s.
It’s odd how that particular decade is often described as placid, calm, a respite from war and the Depression. It was that, surely, but it also was a time that kicked up its heels and started us down several interesting paths. The Fifties has legs.
The interstate highway system. The birth control pill. Rock ‘n’ roll, TV dinners (TV, for that matter), Buddy Holly and Jimmy Dean, the Bates Motel and “Stella!” Mass-produced neighborhoods and the genesis of suburbia. The Dodgers and the Yankees. Holiday Inns all over the place, suddenly.
There was Ed Cole, a man lost to anonymity now but who left his fingerprints all over the automotive industry, a driven, compulsive genius of an engineer who never saw a machine he couldn’t fix and make better and whose greatest achievement, a V-8, 160-horsepower baby that to car enthusiasts and the rest of us was and is simply called the ’55 Chevy.
Or Dick and Maurice, two brothers from New Hampshire who moved to California in the 30s, looking for work. They tried the movie theater business and a hot dog stand, neither all that successful. Moving to San Bernadino, they opened up a drive-in restaurant with all sorts of sandwiches, burgers and barbecue on the menu. They started making good money, but noticed that pretty carhops attracted teenage boys who clogged the parking lot, and also discovered that their top-heavy menu was still producing mostly orders for hamburgers.
So they closed the store for three months, redesigned the kitchen, cut the menu by two-thirds, sent the carhops on their way, figured out that infrared lights kept burgers warm for a long time, switched entirely to paper plates and cups, and suddenly there were long lines and lots of interest in copying their formula.
When they finally, reluctantly, sold their first franchise to an Arizona businessman, they were astonished that he wanted to keep their name above his restaurant. “What the hell for?” asked Dick. “McDonald’s means nothing in Phoenix.”
The word “superstar” hadn’t been coined yet, but the 50s produced its share, in sports, film, television and politics. Few would have much in the way of longevity, such is fame, either from self-destruction (Marilyn Monroe, Joseph McCarthy), a limited public attention span, or just simply attrition. In fact, of all the iconic players in the drama that was the 1950s, I can think of only two who made it into the 21st century with some viability still intact: an odd couple, Marlon Brando and Billy Graham.
And the quiet lady.
In the past week or so, we’ve been reminded of the story of Rosa Parks, both the moment and the myths. No, it wasn’t just that she was having a bad day, tired feet, etc. She was already an activist, a secretary of the local NAACP. If it hadn’t been that day, it would have been another. She was, in fact, a movement just waiting to be asked to move.
On Monday of this week, nearly fifty years to the day from that bus ride in Montgomery, Rosa Parks laid in state in the Capitol Rotunda, a place reserved for fallen presidents, the first woman ever to share that honor. And if that strikes some as perhaps political, an effort to drive the news cycle away from Scooter, well, then, it might also be noted that the Secretary of State, fourth in line for the presidency, grew up in the 50s and 60s in the war zone that was Alabama as an African-American girl, and surely had some thoughts on the matter.
It’s gender, actually, that interests me most in the passing of Rosa Parks. She was a woman.
She had to be. A black man refusing to surrender his seat in the segregated South risked fates worse than a misdemeanor arrest. A 42-year-old woman was merely an annoyance, or so it was thought.
The most important American social movement of the last century (and it has stiff competition) was given a running start by a seamstress who said no. Quietly, gently, firmly, and in a way that resonates and echoes to today. Ms. Rice is her heir. Oprah too.
But also Hillary Clinton. And my wife, and my daughter.
My sister. My mother.
The system of the 1950s was racist but also patriarchal. And it still is, but less so, and partly if not mostly due to an African-American woman who said no, and yes, and at the same time, and for the same reason. And if her name is linked forever with civil rights, then we need to understand, as Dr. King often mentioned, that “civil” and “rights” apply to all of us.
It took a woman, as it turns out. Who goes to her rest now, 92 years in this life, singular and random and marked by history, and perhaps not all that random, and perhaps free at last.