I've heard a lot of people say that the fifties were dull and drab with nothing much going on, while the sixties and the seventies were the wonder years. As far as I'm concerned they're full of crap. In my book the fifties, especially the early fifties, were a golden age, a time when everything was possible, and it seemed like it would never go away; the sixties and the seventies were dull as hell.
Life was good back in those days. Of course, when we're talking about any "old days," life is always good, but looking back from this distance it was particularly nice. It was before the Interstates, so when you went anywhere it took you longer, since the main roads ran slowly through every little town. But since we were going slower, there were always interesting things to see along the way, and you got a chance to see them, rather than just looking at the blur of farm fields while trying to keep from getting run over by the passing semis.
It was before the days of fast food chains, so when you stopped for something to eat everything was always a little different; there was a sense of adventure when stopping at a strange roadhouse. It was before Lady Bird Johnson went to war against the billboards, so there was a lot of individuality along the road. People talk with nostalgia about things like "Burma-Shave" signs; we really had them, and some of them were pretty good. Yes, there were billboards all over the place, at least on the main roads. Some of them were pretty ugly, but they gave you something to look at as you were driving.
Most of all, it was back before television really took hold. People didn't just settle down in front of the box and tune out the world; they made their own entertainment and were a part of things. They went out, and went out as families. Although gas was fifteen cents a gallon, the average annual income was around $3,000, so often people didn't go far. It was a treat, a special occasion, to go out to a ball game, or to a movie, or to the races.
Yes, especially to the races. I won't say that every small town had its own little dirt track speedway, but there were a lot of them around. Add to that horse tracks just about everywhere, even baseball fields or hay pastures were among the places that you could hear a small Offy or a V8-60 in a midget, or a larger Offy and other bigger engines in sprints and modifieds, not to mention stock cars of every description.
In the big places like Chicago you could watch racing every night of the week. Admission was twenty-five or fifty cents, hot dogs and pop were a dime each. You could take your girl and have a really fun date on a couple of bucks. Rock and roll came in during this period, and one of the songs that sticks in everybody's memory is Hank Williams' Hey, Good Lookin', where a punk talks about taking his girl out in his hot rod Ford with a two-dollar bill. It might have been the races that they were going to.
In some places there was racing once a week, or sometimes once a month. In others, it was a big event when the Midwest Midget Sportsman Association came to town; it might only happen once a year, or not even that often. Then, that little local horse track or ball diamond or cow pasture would become a place of magic, with engines roaring, flying dust, spins and wrecks, thrills and chills – things that would go a long way toward perking up the normal day-to-day dullness. For one afternoon or evening there would be excitement, something to look forward to, something to remember – some were times to remember for a lifetime.
The next morning, the racers would be gone somewhere, over the hill, the next town, a town a hundred miles away, someplace else that seemed magical just because it was someplace else. They still had steam engines on a lot of the trains in those days, and the steam whistle called to you in a way that diesel air horns never did, calling to your desire to see what was down the tracks.
The racers knew what was there, here and there and everywhere else – another dusty track, another small town that had people who wanted to know what elsewhere was like, another set of crummy tourist cabins – and sometimes, not all that often, another small-town girl with dreams of romance and adventure.
It was a hard life – dusty, dangerous, and primitive, with no place to call your own, meals eaten on the fly, never enough money. We lived damn rough, but most of us were veterans and we knew how to live rough since we'd done it for a while. Some of us were children of the Depression like I was, and we'd never really known anything but rough, so things like having a job, having fun, and seeing the world made it seem like we had it pretty soft, too.
I wouldn't have traded it for the world, and I wouldn't trade the memories for the world, either.