California kids were a new species, although I would soon learn the truism that California is America’s future. They were simply further along the road to becoming consumers than suburban kids in the East. My California peers called everything by its brand name. They found my use of generics a source of continual amusement.
My “sneakers” were their “Keds.”
Adolescents were just beginning to be seen as a marketable group, encouraged to buy their own clothes, cosmetics, and attend their own movies and concerts.
Television emerged as the primary form of entertainment in the early Fifties. My parents got a set later than most in 1953. By the end of the decade, everyone had a TV. Its aggressive advertising and white bread programming gave us role models, told us who we were supposed to be. Uprooted from traditional environments, living in anonymous suburban developments or urban slums, many Americans no longer had any idea what they were supposed to be. We knew we were in a titanic struggle with communism and we needed a perfect image of ourselves to prove our superiority. Anything that made us look bad or even different had to be suppressed. Most people tried to conform to the television image. “Better dead than red.”
Fear of Communism and fear of the atomic bomb shifted the mood of the country from post war optimism to anxiety. When the Soviet Union tested its first atomic bomb in 1949, anxiety turned to fear and some near panic. The Truman administration released Duck and Cover, a film to teach schoolchildren how to react to an atomic bomb attack. A cartoon turtle, cheerful theme song and advice were supposed to reassure children. They didn’t show it at Berkeley High. We were not required to duck under our desks and cover our heads. But we heard about children who had nightmares after watching little Johnny dive off his bicycle and roll into a gutter. It made war more real but surviving seemed absurd to most of us. We joked about bending over and kissing our asses good-by.
There was no organized resistance to either the anti-Communist crusade or the manufacture and testing of atomic weapons. Public, organized opposition would come later in the decade. (A few old peace groups survived, like the War Resisters League, but I never heard anything about them in the early Fifties.)
Class and race segregated students at Garfield Junior and Berkeley High Schools. Different mean-spirited cliques staked out different parts of campus and beware the student who ignored territorial rules. Dress codes enforced a caste system. Cashmere sweaters at the top (white jocks and rich kids) and khakis and neat shirts with sleeveless sweaters for others on the college track. Working class kids and some outcasts wore Levi’s. They were made in San Francisco in those days and, for me at least, were redolent of the old west.
Berkeley High had over two thousand students. Rules were strict. Sit up straight. No slouching. Be respectful of elders. No shoving in hallways. Forty percent of the students were black, but I only met one African-American … a woman … in any of my classes. I was a good student by this time. All you had to do was tell the teachers what they wanted to hear even if it didn’t make any sense. Only in one Civics class did I challenged “manifest destiny” as the god given right of white Europeans to exterminate Native Americans and expand across the Pacific. I received my only “C.” I was amused to see this week (August 6th, 2015) that any negative mention of manifest destiny is once again being taken out of our textbooks … at least ion Texas.
An English teacher, Jack Barnes, was my most subversive influence. He was a gay man in the 1950s when homosexuality was “the love that dare not speak its name” (that’s from a poem by Lord Alfred Douglas published in 1896, but quoted frequently in the Fifties). Jack knew full well how hypocritical the dominant culture could be. Jack and his partner became close friends with my parents and visited them for years, long after I had gone to college.
Barnes introduced me to the books of several banned writers. Howard Fast’s Citizen Tom Paine inspired me with its passionate commitment to the common man and our revolutionary troops at their darkest moments. Barnes told me Fast had to publish his novel Spartacus in 1950 with his own money. Nobody would touch it after FBI agents told publishers that J. Edgar Hoover didn’t want the book to appear. Alfred Knopf, our most distinguished publisher at the time, sent the manuscript back unopened. Knopf told friends he refused to look at the book of “a traitor.”
Gary Cooper won a 1951 Oscar for his performance as the isolated sheriff in High Noon, the only man in town who would do the right thing. I hated that movie with its smug assumption that most people were cowards, but it sticks with me as a good metaphor for the early 1950s.
Paul Simon summed it up ten years later in Sounds of Silence.
People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening
People writing songs that voices never shared
No one dared
Disturb the sound of silence.