Hey, Wait a Minute!
SARASOTA, FL 1996: I like hearing good news as much as the next person. But from the unenviable
vantage point of having lived in this glorious commonwealth around seven decades,
and still owning my own gun (no thanks to you, Mrs. Brady), I find myself unable
to repress exclaiming, "Hey, wait a minute!"
It would be wrong to dismiss my scepticism out of hand as the nostalgia of
a sexigenarian (that isn't what you fear it is, Mr. Falwell) for "the good
old days". I want to tell you some of the little things that bother me
about the official pronouncements when I look at them from a personal
perspective. Oh, I know that the government has all the good statistics,
and that any recollection of my personal experience needs to be viewed
with the highest suspicion. It is simply not statistically relevant and is,
at best, annecdotal and likely to be heavily skewed by personal bias. But
I want to tell you a thing or two anyway, just for what it's worth.
Perhaps I ought to feel guilty for not having grown up in extreme poverty.
You see, I can remember only one short period of time when my father was
at home in the daytime during the work week. It was when my brother and I
brought chicken pox home from school and Papa discovered that he had not
acquired an immunity to it. If I remember correctly, he was home for three
or four days. I remember this because he was unable to shave and he looked
quite unusual. As soon as he was able to use his beloved straight razor
again he was back on schedule, arriving home at precisely the same time
Monday through Friday. He never made a great deal of money, but his
steady income supported a growing family quite satisfactorily. Sure, we
had split-pea soup, kidney pie, ground beef (I still have the old grinder),
lots of ground up fish, home-grown veggies, and home-canned stuff, but we
did not go hungry.
We and the bank owned our own two-story single-family house with a large
porch which ran nearly all the way around it, and there was a 1936 Ford
until my parents bought one of the earliest Fords made after the war in 1946.
That is the first and last new car they ever purchased, my father having
acquired a fondness for aged Cadillacs until his death in 1978. Oh, by the
way, my mother never worked (outside of the home, as is said today) a day in
her life. She never considered herself "un-liberated". If fact, that concept
would have amused her immensely.
Neither of my parents had a college education. They both valued language
and vocabulary, wrote well, shared an interest in good books, loved to read
Walter Lippmann daily, and, in short, had somewhere acquired an education. I
wonder if schools were better in their day.
Let me (try to stop me) tell you about my brother and me. Were we "poor"?
Well, we sure didn't have much (if any) loose change in our pockets, right
up until our first jobs. I have to admit, my brother was more enterprising
than I at an earlier age. He loved to own things (oddly, I have never
been much for owning stuff) and he figured that the way to acquire things (one
of his earliest toys was an English MG-TD sportscar) was to earn enough money
to buy them. He "moonlighted" in a local machine-shop when in high-school.
Other than lifeguarding (if you call that "work") in the summers, and a
half-dozen part-time jobs during college, I didn't get a "real" job until
the day after graduating from college. My brother and I were both able to
inexpensively go to college and get four-year degrees. He spent a few
years working following high-school, progressing from the machine shop and
reading mechanical drawings to becoming a competent mechanical draftsman.
His employer sprang for a college education in exchange for his agreement to
work for them a couple of years or so (I never knew the exact details) after
graduation. Unlike me, who squeeked by financially, Bob sailed through
undergraduate school quite comfortably. Working paid off early for him. In
fact, following his indentured term he returned to college (in style) and
went on to get a PhD in geology, an interest of his since childhood.
If I recall correctly, my cost to attend Ohio State University from 1951 to
1955 amounted to between sixty-five to eighty-five dollars per three-month
quarter, or around $225 per academic year. That did not include personal
living expenses. My goal each summer was to save five-hundred dollars. Had
I been more frugal, I could have done that, but the reality was that I
never saved the full amount (I had a lot of fun in the summer). By the
third quarter, the part-time job was critically important. However, I
generally worked part-time (including Saturday) throughout the school year.
I must be one of the very few OSU alumni who has never entered the football
stadium. If they had been more considerate of the working student, and held
games on Sunday, perhaps I'd have become a football fan. Then again, perhaps
Why am I telling you all this stuff? Hey, wait a minute! Think about it.
My brother and I were not exceptional in our experiences. My friends from
the small town in Ohio who went on to college had similar lives. But what
have I just given you a glimpse of? The "good old days", if you will. Two
boys who grew up on a family farm supported by the modest supplemental income of an
employed father, both financially able to acquire college educations through their
How many families can survive today on a single modest income?
Can kids without cash get college educations today without going into debt?
Was it the best of times? I almost forgot -- they tell us
that "the U.S. economy has never been better". I guess that is right,
figures don't lie, do they? Maybe they mean it for people who have money?
Hey, wait a minute!
There's more! The U.S. corporations were standing in line to hire kids who
got college degrees. There were all sorts of enticements to get on their
payrolls. There were "career days" when the corporate recruiters competed
with one another for recent graduates. Because I wanted to go to graduate
school (although I was, naturally, completely broke after a full year
at college) I took a full-time job with a respectable company within
walking distance of the campus. They even paid a portion of my fees for
part-time graduate courses. Within seven months I had earned and saved
enough money to return to school (with a graduate assistant teaching job)
full time. And when I decided against an academic career, a single phone
call landed me a job with a major corporation, a company car, a generous
expense account, and more annual income than my father ever earned.
It's been over forty years since my own college experiences. Have things
changed very much from an employment standpoint? They say that the U.S.
economy has never been so good. Maybe they mean it for people with money
in the stock market? Hey, wait a minute!
Race is such a touchy subject today, perhaps I should leave it alone. I do
know that we had a few (what do we say today, Afro-Americans, Blacks?)
students in my high-school class who lent racial diversity to an otherwise
lily white student body. Speaking of diversity, there seemed to be more of
it in certain ways then than today. For example, the top tenth of the class
socialized with one another, both at school and in one another's homes. It
was sort of a "we" and "they" situation. We got good grades; we went on to
college. They struggled academically; they seemed to have other interests;
they did not go to college. But it was not racially determined. Among the
"we" was one of my best friends, Willie Johnson (Negro). I won't pretend
that he or I was unaware of differences. I do know that our strong
friendship and the fun we had together was (unbelievable today) untouched by
racial prejudice and political awareness. Maybe we ought to have had some
sort of "sensitivity" training? Hey, wait a minute!
Willie's younger sister was beautiful. In fact, at Ohio State she
ran for May Queen (in the 1950's -- forget what you have been told). Any one
of us would have loved to have taken her out to a movie, except it was widely
believed that "old man Johnson" would be likely to shoot any white boy who
showed up with his daughter. I wonder, given the climate today, whether such
strong and easy friendships occur, unpoisoned by political mantras. One of
my closest friends in college and house-mate (in the 1950's -- forget again
what you have been told) was a brilliant Negro law-student (Fred loved to talk, was addicted to old movies, and could get his book work done in what seemed like seconds). I am sure that situations in what we called "the deep South" were deplorable. But when I hear that "we" have come such a long way, I protest (to myself, very quietly), "Hey, wait a minute!"
And there was Maurice, the hairdresser with long red hair, makeup, and who
loved to wear gaudy capes and scare the hell out of freshman college boys.
I don't know that I had ever heard the word "gay", but we all knew that
Maury was a homosexual (wasn't hard to figure that out). He was petulant
around straight young men (whose company, oddly enough, he seemed to
favor) but he never jeopardized a friendship by sexual aggressiveness. He
was a wonderful friend to have. Having won many national competitions and
awards for hair-dressing, he would work his magic on the hair of any girl
that I, or any of his other friends, was dating. He charged only for supplies,
and his art was greatly appreciated and rewarded in many ways. Maurice knew
about homophobia in the 1950's first-hand. His flame burned brightly
nevertheless, and he didn't think very much of closeted fags. I wonder what
he would say today (he died years ago - alcoholism played a role) about our
progress in politicizing sexual preference. I think I can almost hear him
exclaim, "Hey, wait a minute!"
Tomorrow or another day soon the government will release the results of yet
another study to prove that we are experiencing the best of times -- that the
U.S. economy has never been better -- that much progress has been made. . .
Hey, wait a minute!