Don’t let any of the over-55 crowd tell you that life was better when they were growing up. It wasn’t. I know, because I was there. We didn’t know at the time how miserable we were, but only because we didn’t know any better. My grandmother’s family probably loved their old Model T Ford. They didn’t know any better, either.
To illustrate my point, I will set up a little scene for you. Let us return to those not-so-thrilling days of yesteryear. All things are as they were then, except … oh, what am I saying?
The setting is a typical American working class home, back in the 1950s. The family consists of a mother, a father, a 13 year old named Kathy (of course), a 9 year old named Diane and a 5 year old named Rick. Names like Caitlin, Brianna, Britney, River and Lucas were not in general use back then.
Mom has just told Kathy that her music teacher called, wanting to know if she can sing something at a church function a couple of days away. Kathy goes over to the plain, black rotary dial phone that sits on a small, square table between the kitchen and the dining room, plugged securely into the wall jack and never moved. She picks up the receiver and prepares to dial her music teacher’s number when she hears two teenage girls on the line.
Notice that the kids’ language is exceptionally clean. That’s because if any of us had ever verbalized any four-letter words we stood in danger of having our mouths washed out with soap or causing Grandma to suffer one of her spells, for which we would be held responsible for the rest of our lives. Catholic kids would be hustled off to Confession the following Saturday.
FIRST VOICE: Oh, come on! Who’s on the line?
SECOND VOICE: Who’s that?
KATHY: It’s me, Kathy. I have to make a really important call. Do you think you could hang up for a few minutes and let me make it? I promise I won’t talk long.
SECOND VOICE (disgusted): Oh, Emily, your parents have a party line!
FIRST VOICE: (sighing) Yeah. Pain in the neck. Kathy, hang up and wait until we’re finished. Now get off the phone!
Kathy shoots a loud Bronx cheer into the phone and hangs up so that they’ll think she gave up. She picks it up again. This time she doesn’t talk. She listens to the conversation, figuring: (1) she might pick up some really good gossip; and (2) she’ll know exactly when they hang up and she can make her call before someone else gets on the line.
Kathy’s little sister Diane comes into the room.
DIANE: Mom says to tell you to get into the living room. We need you to stand by the TV set so we can get a better picture on Channel 2. Dad just tried messing around with the aerial, but nothing works.
The family has a floor model black and white television set, with a “rabbit ears” aerial on top of it. They only get two channels, but they still fight over what they will watch, because they only have one set in the house. One channel comes in clearer than the other one, and having someone stand near the television set sometimes clears the picture.
DIANE: By the way, what did you do with my skate key? I can’t find it.
KATHY: How would I know where your skate key is? What would I want with your stupid old skate key, anyway?
DIANE: Well, I can’t find it and you know where I keep my skates. How am I supposed to clamp them onto my shoes without a key?
KATHY: Why don’t you use your teeth? You’re bucktoothed anyway.
DIANE (shouting): MOM!!!!
Let’s leave Kathy and Diane to their sibling rivalry, and discuss what you have learned. You have been introduced to:
Black rotary dial telephones that are never unplugged from the wall
Party lines (one telephone line that is shared by more than one household)
Black and white television sets with aerials on them, difficulty in getting a clear picture and a limited number of television channels1
Clamp roller skates that required keys to tighten and loosen them
So you see, life in the old days wasn’t all sunshine and peaches. We were technologically deprived, and we didn’t even know it, which was tragic when you think about it.
1A few people had color television sets, but they were expensive and the color could get pretty weird. If someone adjusted the color wrong, you could end up with green-faced people or with red all over the place. Once the color was adjusted wrong, it was really hard to get it to any semblance of normal.