Seven Decades in America (Part 1)

What a Journey the Past Seven Decades in America Has Been

For me, the Seven Decades I’ve spent in America began on the year of my birth, 1947.

1947 was abuzz with stories of UFO’s landing in a farm field. The mystery of the Roswell UFO began with the reporting of Frank Joyce, a radio reporter at KGFL Radio who spoke to the farmer who found the debris shortly after he delivered it to Sheriff George Wilcox in Roswell. This major event during the summer of my birth was the beginning of my seven decades in America and what a journey it has been!

The news spread quickly and terrified my pregnant mother. She stayed glued to the radio for updates. A few months later, she delivered a baby girl. I remember all the stories she told of how colicky I was and how difficult it was to comfort me after my bottle.

Is it possible that her fear of an imminent threat from aliens had anything to do with my digestive issues? My father had served during WWII and I was a product of the baby-boom generation.

What a generation it was!

The Year 1947

In 1947, the annual wage averaged $2,850 and a gallon of gas cost only fifteen cents. We established the CIA in America. The United Nations created the Independent Jewish State of Israel. India and Pakistan became independent nations and the Americans broke the sound barrier for the first time.

It’s interesting that the year 1947 marked the beginning of the Cold War between Super Powers: the United States and the USSR. Emotions ran high in the aftermath of WWII and no one wanted to jump into another major world conflict. Diplomacy and shows of strength were at constant odds. World dominance became a topic of conversation in every home in America. Has anything really changed?

1947 was also the year U.S. Secretary of State, George C. Marshall announced the formation of the “Marshall Plan” at a commencement address at Harvard. One year later, the United States provided roughly $12 billion to help rebuild Europe. We honored our allies in our efforts to help modernize their homelands after WWII. As a nation, we committed ourselves to preventing the spread of Communism.

“Miracle on 34th Street,” one of my favorite movies, released in 1947. It continues to delight children every year at Christmas.

1947: The Year of My Birth

Shortly after I was born, Howard Hughes conducted the only flight the “Spruce Goose” would ever make near Long Beach, CA. I was finally able to view this giant in the 1990’s during one of my training trips to TRW (Now Experian). It was also the year that Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers. He became the first African-American to play major league baseball.

For me, the most important event in 1947 was the marriage of Britain’s Princess Elizabeth and Phillip Mountbatten, Duke of Edinburgh. It was truly a “Princess” year. My most treasured doll would be the Elizabeth Coronation Doll that I received on my eighth birthday.

1947 is the year the Yankees beat the Brooklyn Dodgers. The Diary of Anne Frank hit the shelves and became a bestseller. Tennessee William’s “A Streetcar Named Desire” won the Pulitzer Prize. It’s the year over a million veterans enrolled in college under the G.I. Bill. Drive-in theaters started popping up throughout the nation.

The ’50’s: A Magical Part of the Past Seven Decades

When I get in the car today, I hit the button on Sirius that takes me to the 50’s station. It’s the decade that formed my beliefs, opinions, and future. What I am today, links back to those years.

My classmates and I remember the poodle skirts and rock ‘n roll, but it was so much more than that.

Little Wesley United Methodist Church was a half-block from our home. It was the center of our lives. The majority of the town’s citizens belonged to the large Catholic Church on the west side of town. Our little church had no brick on the exterior or fancy statues. It was a simple white wood-sided construction. It did have beautiful stained-glass windows. My father and Uncle Bill helped fashion the altar and cross.

We went to church every Sunday. After church, we all got in the car and drove to the Amana’s, Des Moines, Cedar Rapids, and beyond. Sunday was our family day and Mom always made it an adventure.

Our house was a three-story green stucco. Since Mom was an interior decorator, she surrounded us with the newest colors and styles. My brother and I hated the year of extreme color – those colors were a Bright Rose and Chartreuse. The entire main level of the house sported those colors. It was impossible to relax in a living room that glowed under both sunlight and lamplight.

The Economy was Growing Along With Wages and Costs

Average wages increased in the 1950’s to a whopping average of $3,210.00 per year and gas prices skyrocketed to eighteen cents per gallon. I remember how my father complained about the ridiculous cost of gasoline and the millionaires who were padding their pockets at our expense.

Although we heard stories of the Great Depression from Grandma and Grandpa at family gatherings, the economy of the United States was on a roll. My brother and I watched Howdy Doody on our new black and white television set while we ate cinnamon toast and hot chocolate on TV trays in the living room on Saturday mornings. We loved The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin, The Cisco Kid, My Friend Flicka, The Roy Rogers Show, and The Adventures of Spin and Marty.

While Mom and I preferred to watch I Love Lucy, Leave it to Beaver, The Donna Reed Show and Father Knows Best, my brother and father were watching Gunsmoke and Maverick.

The 50’s were mostly good years!

I adored my big brother and tried to follow him everywhere he went. Trying to fit in, I rode a bike like the boys and participated in as many games as the neighborhood boys let me join in.

I used to wait until I heard the bell ring for school in the morning before I dashed across the street to get to my seat before the third bell. Kindergarten through high school aged children all went to the same school building. The big kids looked out for us little kids and made sure the bullies got their “just rewards.”

The decade of the 1950’s began with the invasion of North Korea into South Korea. Because my father earned the rank of a First Sergeant in WWII, he received a call asking him to take part in the current conflict. I was too little in the early 1950’s to remember much of anything, but I do remember the moment when the front door opened and a man in uniform swept me out of my mother’s arms.

My memory is a little girl who was absolutely terrified and screamed as her Mom tried to soothe her and re-introduce her father, back from the Korean Conflict.

The Economy and Threats

The 50’s was a time of enhanced economic growth. Everywhere I went, people were talking about the American Dream come true for our generation. Stories of the Great Depression faded in the intense light of the changes our country was experiencing. Housing developments were springing up everywhere. Milk came delivered to our door three times each week. Our meat resided in the huge chest freezer on the back porch. It’s where we stored the paper-wrapped packages from the half or quarter beef we had prepared by the local butcher. He just happened to live across the alley behind our house.

The Nuclear Threat

Growing up in the 50’s involved more than bobby socks and hip hop dances. The teachers taught us how to duck under our desks in the event the Russians launched a nuclear attack. Every night at the dinner table, my father talked about his plans to build a bomb shelter in the backyard where the old willow tree stood. Mom threatened him daily should anything happen to her favorite tree.

I went to bed at night scared that I would disappear in a flash of light before the sun rose the next morning.

The United States passed the 22nd Amendment, limiting terms for Presidential service in 1951 and President Truman fired General MacArthur for comments he made about his intention to use nuclear weapons against China.

It was in the 1950’s that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was formed by twelve nations for the defense of the United States and Europe. President Truman authorized the production of the hydrogen bomb as the world watched. For a grade school kid, they were frightening times.

WWII hero, General Dwight D. Eisenhower Is Elected President

My father believed Mr. Eisenhower would be a terrific leader for this country. Anyone who served this country in WWII was a hero in his

Grandma and Grandpa Burton dancing in our newly finished rec room downstairs.


Civil Rights Becomes an Issue

Racism existed in the United States in the 50’s. Since I grew up in an all-white community, I couldn’t understand why little kids couldn’t go to the same schools we all did.

I remember my father talking about the “Sundown Laws” and some black man who used to come to town selling something or other. My father laughed when he said the man knew he had to be out-of-town before the sun went down.

I was too little to understand my father’s concern.

My grandmother talked about the black nanny she had growing up in Missouri and how kind the woman was. I couldn’t understand what my father’s problem was.

What I remember clearly, is I wanted to yell at my father that he didn’t even know these people. We knew enough to keep our mouths shut. There was a certainty that he’d whack my mouth if I talked back, and his hand was as big as mother’s frying pan. The Civil Rights Movement had begun. For the most part, we were isolated from the effects in other parts of the country with a more diverse population.

If you think you are of a pure race, you need to watch this video: The DNA Journey. We are closer to each other than you can imagine.

Politics is a Constant Dinner Table Topic

We had no idea during the Suez Canal Crisis that the United States would begin a decades-long involvement in Middle-eastern politics. That event spelled the end of British and French dominance. We were becoming a global power far more formidable than anything the American people had seen before.

The federal government passed the Interstate Highway Act in 1956. Mom was over-the-moon that she would soon be able to travel from Keota to Des Moines and back in the same day. The construction of Eisenhower’s highways helped to escalate America’s desire to have more and better goods. Trucks would soon be able to transport the time-saving household appliances and personal goods from coast to coast at a cost compatible with the desires of the American public.

Entertainment in the 50’s

I loved jigsaw puzzles because they were like my life...broken and difficult to put back together. Seven Decades later, I still remember the bullying and abuse.
By 1958, I was getting used to being called “Four Eyes” in school. The taunts were nothing compared to my total lack of self-esteem

The popularity of the television exploded in the 50’s. From the time my father arrived home from work until bedtime, the television was always on in the background. Mom used to get so mad at him for never talking to her anymore. She commented over and over that he wouldn’t even notice if she walked through the room naked.

He always laughed at this comment until the night she decided to prove her point. She covered her naked body by holding two nylon stockings up in front of her.

Father never looked up as she pranced around dancing to the left of the TV screen. He watched Gunsmoke until he heard her scream as she ran from the room. (Our front door had a window in it. The minister was standing there with his mouth open and his hand raised to knock when she happened to look over and see him standing there.)


The Rock-N-Roll Years

Elvis appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1956 and the girls in my school went nuts. We had a little 45 rpm record player. I admit I played “You Ain’t Nothin’ But A Hound Dog” all the time. But, I always thought Elvis a poor example of what young men should be like. (Obviously, I favored my mother and grandmother’s notions of what proper behavior is.) Even my grandpa said the boy was going to get himself into a world of trouble with those shaking hips.

The library was about a block and a half away from our house. It’s the place I always went to escape the abuse at home and the bullying at school. I knew no one would hurt me at the library. My love of reading only grew stronger as I grew taller. “The Chronicles of Narnia,” “The Catcher in the Rye,” “The Lord of the Rings,” “Death of a Salesman,” and “A Raisin in the Sun” are only a few of the books released in the 50’s.

Music & Movies

Mom helped arrange sock hops in an upstairs ballroom in downtown Keota. She never failed to embarrass me by insisting we play at least one song she and father could dance the Foxtrot or Jitterbug to during those dances. True to her career path, the old lodge hall was always decorated like a prom at these dances. I wasn’t quite old enough to dance, but I’d go along and watch all the other people having a good time.

Our little town had the Avon Theater. Each week, they played the newest movie release.

I’ll never forget sitting in that theater to watch Charlton Heston in “The Ten Commandments.” Grandma and Grandpa Burton drove all the way from Ottumwa, Iowa the day before so they could go with us.

It was the biggest movie production anyone ever saw back then. My favorite actresses of the time were Elizabeth Taylor and Katheryn Hepburn. (I figured Marilyn Monroe already had far too many men in her corner.)

What’s It Really Worth?

Who could forget going to another movie at the Avon with my brother?

Jay bought some popcorn and then handed me a dime so I could buy whatever I wanted. I started to cry.

He wouldn’t listen as I kept telling him I wanted the nickel in his hand because it was bigger. (I was about five or six.) He tried to argue with me.

I got so mad, I stalked out of the theater and ran all the way home. Jay ran behind me, trying to convince me the dime was larger than the nickel. (I knew better!) I don’t think we ever saw the end of that particular movie.

Talking about the movies of the 50’s, I’ll never forget the weeks of whispering among the adults as they planned their trip to Iowa City to view the newly released “Peyton Place.” When pressed a few days later, Mom admitted they went to the movie. She said that I could certainly watch it when I was ‘grown up.’ At that time, she had no intention of sharing the theme of the movie with me.

Over Seven Decades, I Will Always Remember the Music of the 50’s

What I remember most about the 50’s is the music.

I fell in love with the music of Harry Belafonte and Fats Domino, while Mom swooned to the soft crooning of Frank Sinatra and Perry Como. We had bebop, Hard bop, Doo Wop, Jazz, Blues, Rock N’ Roll, and Calypso.

I couldn’t get enough of the Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly, and Nat King Cole. The Platters and Connie Francis appeared on American Bandstand. Every afternoon, I raced across the street from the school so I wouldn’t miss a single minute of it.

I had the soundtracks of all the musicals and the sheet music for either my organ or the piano: Oklahoma, South Pacific, The King and I, Singing in the Rain, The Band Wagon, Showboat, Porgy & Bess, and more. Would you believe that I knew the words to every song!

Music and books became my favorite escapes from the world that didn’t take kindly to me.

I cried when I watched Old Yeller and yearned to become an actress like Disney’s newest star, Annette Funicello.

Both Good & Bad

The years between 1950 and 1959 were filled with both innocence and loss of innocence. My family appeared to live the American Dream in public.

I learned to hide my secret of abuse from everyone. I’ve often wondered what life might have held if Grandma and Grandpa hadn’t lived so far away.

A Sense of Community

Brother Jay leading the band

Regardless of the bad things that happened, it was a blessing to have so many loving people in my life. There were many who inspired me in both life and faith.

The one thing I promised myself is that no one would ever have the opportunity to hurt my children. I planned to have at least four children one day.

My brother and I both rode our bikes all over town in the 50’s. Jay was one of the first kids in town to own a Schwinn.

They had parades down Main Street for Homecoming, Easter, and Halloween. The band played on stage in front of the drug store during the Christmas holidays and in the summer months. My brother was one of the conductors.

Women worked in the kitchen at home. (My father used to laugh and say women needed to be kept barefoot, pregnant, and in the kitchen at all times.) I learned to cook, but the older women did the canning and freezing of fresh vegetables during the summer months. Food was plentiful in southeastern Iowa. Locals dubbed Keota the ‘Golden Buckle on the Corn Belt.’

Vacations At Grandpa’s

My favorite days were the ones spent in Ottumwa, Iowa with Grandma and Grandpa Burton or over at our housekeeper, Fanny Henderson’s house. She had three daughters who were like big sisters to me in the 50’s. Fanny was more like a mother to me. She was the one who was there when I came home from school crying or when I was hurt. I looked forward to her coming over every day before we went to school, and she stayed until the evening meal was over and cleaned up.

Grandpa always made sure to plan my summer trip to coincide with the circus coming to town. I loved riding the ponies and watching the elephants perform in the center ring. Before I’d head home, Grandma took me shopping at Younker’s Department Store for new school clothes.

A Pledge For the Future: The First of Seven Decades

I certainly wasn’t a perfect child in the 50’s.

No, I was hurting and there were times I lashed out. By the time the folks got home shortly after five o’clock, my day was over. Mom wasn’t there to hear about the good and bad things that happened during the day. Fanny was the one who wiped my tears and comforted me.

I knew the question would come each evening at the dinner table: “So, what did you do today, Peggy?”

My answer was always the same: “Nuthin’.”

My parents weren’t there when I needed them. I had no intention of sharing my good and bad moments with them during the only time of day we had their complete attention…at the dinner table. I promised myself I would be there when I grew up and my children came home from school.

In the end, I never gave up hope that things would get better.

Watch for Part 2: September 14th




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