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."