Saturday, September 15, 2012

What Was It Like in 1958?

     Last weekend I started reading Stephen King's recent book, 11/22/63. I haven't quite finished it -- the thing is over 800 pgs. long! -- but the story has me entralled and so I enjoy plowing through it.

     The book tells the tale of Jake Epping, who in 2011 is a 35-year-old divorced teacher at a Maine high school. Epping is one of the few people in town who frequents Al's Diner, a silver trailer standing on concrete blocks near the railroad tracks. One day the owner of the diner, Al Templeton, calls Epping and asks him to come over. He has a secret.

     Epping arrives to find Al Templeton looking pale, coughing up blood. Al is dying of cancer. He escorts Epping into the pantry in back of the diner, and tells him to walk forward ... toward the steps.

     What steps? Epping wonders, as he slowly enters the pantry. But suddenly it seems as though he's stepping down, and down again. And then the warm sun comes out, and he has arrived in 1958.

     When Epping climbs back up the steps, back to 2011, Al Templeton explains how he's been going back in time for years. When he goes down the stairs, it's always 1958. While he's there, time proceeds normally. But whenever he comes back to 2011, it's only two minutes later. Al Templeton has been away for years, which is why he's now old and sick -- even though he has only been gone two minutes in 2011 time.

     Templeton was trying to stop the assassination of John Kennedy. But now he is too old, and dying of cancer, and he has missed his chance. His dying wish is for Jake Epping to do it for him.

     Epping travels back to 1958. He has a few scores to settle of his own; then over the course of the next five years he proceeds to put together his plan to stop Oswald from killing Kennedy.

     This explanation only scratches the surface of the book (remember, it is over 800 pgs.). But I was curious about the observations that Jake Epping makes regarding how the world was different back in 1958.

     The thing that first seduced him into taking on the project, into agreeing to go back in time, was the taste of the root beer. "I sipped through the foam on top, and was amazed. It was ... full. Tasty all the way through."

     As we look back on 1958, perhaps a lot of us can see that things were better then. (Do you have any opinions on that one?) I can certainly recall the sodas I drank when I was a kid. And I agree with Jake Epping. They tasted better.

     What else was different back in 1958?

     The first thing Epping couldn't help but notice. Everybody smoked their heads off, even on public conveyances. In 1958 nobody worried about smoke. They didn't worry about cholesterol either.

     As he settles in to his new (old) life, Epping notices that in 1958, you rarely saw a man in a supermarket. Men did not buy groceries in 1958. He also notices that the cars and the houses were not always locked up, and he observes, "People might not have been more honest, but they were more trusting."

     He also says there was less bureaucracy, and a lot less paperwork in 1958.

     Following on the trust theme, when Halloween rolled around he met a young girl with her dad, on the street, and to be friendly he bent down and offered her a piece of candy. The days of candy doctored with LSD, or spiked with a razor blade, were far in the future -- as were the days of "Do Not
Use If Seal Is Broken."

     In 1958, people read TV Guide. They read Life and Look and Reader's Digest.

     Of course, back then people had rotary dial phones; and there were pay phones at gas stations and drug stores.

     Milk was delivered to your door.

     According to Epping, in 1958, which was the heyday of Jayne Mansfield, full breasts were considered attractive on a woman, rather than the embarrassment they are today.

     And, yes, there is a love interest in the book. Apparently this was before birth control pills; but Jake Epping says the condoms back then were no better or worse than they are today. (I can't verify any of this myself; I was nowhere close to being sexually active in 1958.)

    Also, back then, there were plenty of good, fast roads crisscrossing the countryside. Many of them were new. By 2011 those roads were choked with traffic, but back then they were almost deserted, and driving was actually a joy.

     Epping doesn't offer an opinion about whether the cars were better or worse (although he seems to love the used 1954 Ford Sunliner convertible he bought for $315, when gas was 19 cents a gallon). He doesn't weigh in on whether the music was better or not.

     On a more serious note:  People worried about nuclear war, but no one worried about global warming or suicide bombers flying hijacked jets into skyscrapers.

     It was acceptable, back then, for people to make jokes about three jigs stuck in an elevator . . .  or three Yids on a golf course.

     Once, Epping stopped at a gas station in North Carolina to use the toilet. There were two doors and three signs. MEN was stenciled on one door, LADIES on the other. The third sign was an arrow on a stick, pointing down a small hill. It said COLORED. He walked down the path and saw, amidst some unmistakable signs of poison ivy, a narrow stream with a board laid across it on a couple of crumbling concrete posts.

     "If I ever gave you the idea that 1958's all Andy-n-Opie," writes Stephen King, "remember the path, okay? The one lined with poison ivy. And the board over the stream."


Douglas said...

I remember 1958. That was the year I turned 12. And I was living in Dade County in Florida. Burger King sold a Whopper for 39 cents. And it was freshly cooked, broiled, on a conveyer belt when you ordered it... not pre-cooked and nuked in a microwave. McDonalds only bragged about "Over 5 million sold." Yes, there was still segregation but it was disappearing. And there were never "colored" facilities like King described... at least, not in my neck of the woods. Full restrooms for each but labeled. Same with water fountains.
You did see men in supermarkets but they usually worked there or were bachelors. No, it wasn't perfect, it was not all that idyllic, but it was a lot more polite. And those roads? Freeways were far from rampant (mostly in California) and you could drive from New York to Miami in 3 days on US 1... even with all those towns and traffic lights and speedtraps.
I'll have to get that book.

Mac n' Janet said...

I remember 1958 too. I would come home for lunch on school days, the door wasn't locked and my mother was at work-a very unusual thing, none of my other friend's mothers worked.
I lived in California and there was no segregation. Divorce was rare, families ate meals together, yes we had nuclear disaster drills at school.
Girls couldn't wear pants or jeans to school.
Was it perfect, no, was it better than what's going on now. Does every generation feel that way? Probably.

schmidleysscribblins, said...

I've always lived in a time warp of sorts. By that I mean I, as most people, am a product of the "time" in which I came of age. 1958 was a banner year for me..the last year of my childhood.

I look back now at old photos and realize I am very much the way I always was, and that self is based in 1958.

We might think we change as we age, but lurking underneath the surface is the child within, our rockbed of self formed when we were younger.

As Alice Munro pointed out in one of her books, we always have that self and everyone we knew lurking in the background. I can remember the boys I liked, the teachers, the cars, two-lane roads, the popular music, the movies, various world crises, etc.

I don't recall much poison ivy although I suppose it depended on where you looked.

I wasn't particularly happy, 1958 was not that bad.

I wouldn't want to go back there either. Dianne

Knatolee said...

I wasn't around in 1958, but it was the year my parents came to Canada from England. They flew, which was expensive. They figured the wouldn't see their families again for a very long time because of the cost of flying (the alternative being an ocean voyage.) Things changed fast because by the time I was born six years later, they were able to afford to fly me over there to meet my grandparents when I was six months old!

Juhli said...

I read that book too - it was an interesting story. The world continues to change and each era has its pros and cons.

Olga said...

I was ten in 1958. I was relatively carefree, but I do recall my parents and grandparents referring to the "good old days." We sure do not live in a perfect world now, but I would not want to go back.

Linda Myers said...

I loved this book and felt right at home in both of its time periods.

June said...

A friend of mine read the book and her mentions of it enticed me far less than your provocative observations have. Oh. 1958. I was seven. My father was alive and, I think, so was his mother. We were on the farm and my sister and I collected eggs from the chickens every morning. In the winter there were mountains of snow and in the summer we played croquet all day long.
Would I want to go back now, burdened as I am with what I now know? I think not.

Stephen Hayes said...

I was born in '52 so much of this is hazy. Everyone says things tasted better in the old days but it might be because we lose taste buds as we get older. Eight hundred pages? A walk in the park for Stephen King. The last King I read was "Dome," a three hundred page story at best but he stretched it into eight or nine hundred pages. I'll consider giving this one a read.

Janette said...

I was one. I didn't read yourentirecommentary because I would now like to read the book. Come on Christmas break!

Anonymous said...

I was ten, it was an idyllic life, berry picking, bean picking, swimming in the evening at a pool that only accomodated families, we got to go cause we worked during the day..Hamburgers I never ate out at all, but my dad and my grandmother made fabulous food, my Mom had already died, people said things to me about my Mom dying of cancer you would never say today..I loved 1958 summer, root beer floats on a huge porch a used hammock, talking with my daddy and going crazy with my favorite brother, popsickles went from a nickel to 7 cents, my dad always had to make sure my brother and I had enough to go to the corner store and get one together..I never remember any serial killer or any kidnapper of course he watched us and my grandmother like a hawk, different times, he made little money and we were technically broke most of the time, my Grandmother did all the housework and she was elderly, she cooked and cleaned and I learned to do the same and my many brothers was a different life but I don't think the past should be re-visited you just can't turn back the clock..thanks for a synopsis of Stephen King's newest book he is the same age as my husband of nearly 40 years, 65 soon or he just turned 65 the past should stay in the past!!!!!!!!!!

Dick Klade said...

Return to 1958? No way. In the first part of that year I was a respected editor of the only newspaper in De Pere, Wisconsin. Suddenly, I was a draftee in the U.S. Army, respected by no one.

In basic training (only Marines called it boot camp) we slept in old wooden barracks. Fumes from the coal-burning stoves the cooks presided over wafted through the windows, disturbing the few hours of sleep those nasty drill sergeants allowed us to have.

After several months, and two fairly automatic promotions, my pay was $111 per month. Of course, we got "three hots and a cot" in addition.

Everything in Lawton, Oklahoma, where I did most of my time, was segregated. It was disgusting that we could go to a movie on base with our African-American friend, but could go nowhere in the city with him, other than to the black American Legion club where he was a member.

If others want to return to 1958, fine. Just don't offer to take me along.

Warren Lieberman said...

I thought Jake went back for a good hamburger. See my thoughts on 11/22/63 and time at