Te informal essays that follow represent
my observations on a number of social
and political issues.
I am the first to admit that I’m not a
qualified expert – a political scientist
or
a sociologist. My only credentials are
those
of an alert eyewitness who has paid close
attention to the evolution of our American
culture
and our government institutions
for the past
50 years.
My family and friends have their own
opinions on the subjects I cover – which
oFen differ from mine – so the following
is no more or less than my own personal
reflections.
A Boomer Looks Back
See the U.S.A. today!
A Boomer Looks Back
161
160
I remember being puzzled about why Santa Claus always seemed to give
the very best toys to rich kids± Tat’s when my oldest brother ²ony
explained how Christmas really worked, spilling the beans about Santa±
By the fourth grade I became infatuated with Superman, because the
Man of Steel from the lost planet Krypton possessed
super powers,
and
his adventures expanded my concept of the universe±
During fiFh grade, real life became more interesting and I soon
dumped
Superman
for
Perry Mason.
Te unflappable big city
lawyer held my keen interest for a couple of years± Mr± Mason
defended innocent people who were charged with murder± Armed
only with his wits, a loyal secretary and a private detective, Perry
consistently outsmarted the real murderers, maneuvering them
into dramatic courtroom confessions – just in the nick of time±
Each fall, a generous offering of new sitcoms and dramas reassured
young boomers that life was based on fair, dependable rules and that
bad people would inevitably suffer, in a manner appropriate to their
misdeeds± In the golden era of television, each show’s story
had a “moral” and criminals were
always
caught± Life
returned happily to normal by the end of each episode±
Like most boomers, I did some couch time watching
Leave
It to Beaver.
When the show first aired in the late ’50s, I was
the age of the young main character, Beaver, and my brother, Greg,
was the same age as Wally, Beaver’s older brother± With all due
respect to the legendary show, I confess that as a kid I thought that
most of the episodes were lame± Beaver was too gullible or dumb to
be believed, and the kids in
Mayfield
(wherever that was) didn’t
seem as smart as Larry Leslie and my other friends around Carmel
Valley in California±
In 1959, Greg and I started watching a more sophisticated show with my
Dad, called
Te ±wilight Zone.
Each episode was introduced by the writer
Rod Serling, the program’s creator, who smoked cigarettes, had heavy
black eyebrows and spoke in a deep voice that was not so reassuring± He
had tricks up his sleeve that he knew about and that his innocent viewers
were about to discover± Each week different actors were caught in
uncanny and oFen frightening predicaments, and many of the endings
were darkly ironic if not downright chilling±
Another one of our favorites was
Have Gun – Will ±ravel
, starring
Richard Boone as Paladin± Paladin was a gentlemen gunfighter with a
strong code of conduct – “A knight without armor in a savage land” ran
The
Twilight
Zone
WILL TRAVEL
WIRE PALADIN
SAN FRANCISCO
HAVE GUN
Leave It
to Beaver
“The Beav”
American
Made
I
T WAS
very good to be a suburban kid in America during the 1950s±
My childhood revolved around my immediate family, which was fine
with me± Life got even better when my father brought home a new
Magnavox ²V and suddenly
Te Lone Ranger
rode into our living room±
A cowboy with a mask, silver bullets, a loyal Indian companion and a
mysterious past was my first hero± Lured by the triumphant call of
“Hi-ho, Silver!” and fortified by a big glass of milk and a stack of Oreos,
I became glued to the ²V±
Te Lone Ranger
was the No± 1-rated show on ABC in the early ’50s±
Te boomers were the first young American generation to learn the ways
of the world via television± Te bright moving images were exciting
and came directly into the privacy of your home± Te nation’s newest
source of fun and information didn’t require the quiet discipline of
reading a book or newspaper – you could
just sit there
and be
entertained± Tere was a constant parade of new shows for kids, with
advertisements that gave the inside scoop on the latest new Schwinn
bicycles, Duncan yo-yos and board games like
Clue
and
Monopoly
±
I was hooked± All the kids I knew were hooked±
Popular programs like
Father Knows Best
and
Te Donna Reed Show
always
had pretty moms and kind fathers, happy endings and solid life
lessons± Te shows made it clear that parents, teachers and policemen
were to be respected± ²elevision taught kids that if they ignored the good
advice of adults and behaved badly there would be a price to be paid±
Christmas was the big day that youngsters could count on to receive their
biggest rewards for good behavior± School let out for a week and at home
we enjoyed an endless supply of Christmas cookies and candy canes and
oFen new kitchen appliances that thrilled my mother±
Perry Mason
The Lone Ranger
Father Knows Best
Superman
A Boomer Looks Back
163
162
President
Eisenhower
saved by a train wreck on his way to his execution± He will begin a long run
from Lieutenant Philip Gerard, a policeman as determined as Javert, Jean
Valjean’s pursuer in
Les Miserables
± Te story of the just man who must
unjustly suffer to prove his innocence and save his own life would strike a
new, strange and resonant note in American culture, and now seems a kind
of omen as America began to face contradictions that it could no longer
escape±
Te ’50s and early ’60s were truly a ²V era, but most of the more complicated
and serious lessons about life were oFen learned in a dark theater± A soda, a
bag of popcorn and some Milk Duds were the perfect nourishment to
sustain me through the two- or three-hour sagas± John Wayne, Cary Grant
and Gregory Peck were my favorite stars and each gave his unique take on
how a real man should operate in the world
.
My dad regularly took us to foreign films and Alfred Hitchcock mystery-
thrillers± AFer a complicated movie by the
Master of Suspense
, my dad
always asked Greg and me if we’d noticed “any holes in the plot,” which made
for fun discussions± My mother didn’t like Hitchcock movies± She preferred
to accompany us to “real theatre” – usually the corny stuff, like
My Fair Lady
or
Te
Sound of Music
.
America had been on a roll± By 1960, revered President Eisenhower was
finishing his second term, and most middle-class American families had
full refrigerators, vacuum cleaners and multi-cycle washing machines± It
had been nearly 20 years since the attack on Pearl Harbor and for many
millions of Americans our country was awash with abundance±
In 1961, John Kennedy, the rich and handsome P²-boat captain and war
hero, was confidently in command of the White House± Te television
networks presented America’s first family as royalty, although it wasn’t until
aFer J³K’s death that
Camelot
became tied to his time in office± Jackie
Kennedy told the historian Teodore White that Jack had always loved the
“Kookie”
part of the theme song that opened each show± He was a
good guy
who wore
black, had an engraved business card and was comfortably headquartered
in a fancy hotel in San ³rancisco± He was fast on the draw and one cool
dude±
Around 1960, I became so infatuated with the teenage, hot-rod driving
Ed “Kookie” Byrnes – one of the stars of
77 Sunset Strip –
that I
asked my parents if I could take “Kookie” as my middle name
and become “Clifford Kookie Branch±” ³or some strange
reason, at my birth my parents had decided that they would let
their youngest son pick his own middle name at some future
date± My mom said “Okay” to my “Kookie” request, but a few
weeks later I began to have second thoughts± When I checked
back with my mother, I was relieved to find that she’d misplaced
the official name-change paperwork±
“Kookie, Kookie – Lend Me Your Comb” was a hit song,
playing constantly on the radio± Te catchy tune paid homage
to Kookie’s ducktail hairdo, which he combed on the show about every five
minutes± I tried to grow my hair long like Kookie’s but one day my baseball
coach made fun of my attempt, so I immediately went back to my regular
buzz haircut± And, to this day, I have no middle name±
If
Te ±wilight Zone
was one of the first ²V shows to suggest that things
don’t always run like clockwork and turn out as we expect and hope,
Te Fugitive
, starring David Janssen, was just a few years away and sent a
similar if more personal message± It would first air the fateful fall of 1963,
with the ominous words of an unseen narrator:
Name: Richard Kimble. Profession: Doctor of medicine. Destination:
Death Row, state prison. Richard Kimble has been tried and convicted
for the murder of his wife. But laws are made by men, carried out by
men. And men are imperfect. Richard Kimble is innocent. Proved guilty,
what Richard Kimble could not prove was that moments before
discovering his wife’s body, he encountered a
man running from the vicinity of his home. A
man with one arm. A man who has not yet
been found. Richard Kimble ponders his fate as
he looks at the world for the last time. And sees
only darkness. But in that darkness, fate moves
its huge hand
.
Kimble, wrongly accused, convicted, and sen-
tenced to death for a crime he never committed, is
A Boomer Looks Back
165
164
School ±Te±second±pole±caught±me±at±the±bottom±of±a±hill,±when±I±ran±off±
the±road±on±my±bicycle±and±was±knocked±unconscious ±Te±ensuing±visit±
to±the±ER±was±one±of±five±before±I±was±12
Some±of±my±older±boomer±friends±reminisce±with±pride±about±the±era±of±
soda±fountains±and±bobby±sox,±but±for±me±any±nostalgia±about±the±1950s±
starts±to±grow±thin±when±viewed±through±a±wider±lens ±Our±public±schools±
in±the±South±were±segregated±by±race,±as±were±restaurants±and±hotels±
across±the±country ±Women±were±treated±as±second-class±citizens
I±doubt±that±many±African-Americans±share±fond±boomer±memories±of±
’50s±America ±It±was±still±a±time±when±“Negroes”±could±face±a±prison±
sentence±for±using±white±bathrooms±or±drinking±fountains ±Other±than±a±
few±sports±heroes±and±giFed±singers±and±musicians,±I±don’t±remember±
seeing±many±black±people±on±television
In±1950±we±sent±young±men±off±to±war±in±Korea,±where±
some±400,000±American±troops±became±bogged±down±
in± a± military± action± that± did± not± go± as± planned ±
America’s±Air±²orce±ravaged±North±Korea,±but±the±war±
soon±turned±into±a±quagmire±and±ended±in±a±stalemate ±
Over±128,000±U S ±troops±were±killed±or±wounded
Te±Soviet±Union±had±developed±an±A-bomb±in±1949,±
and± the± U S ± and± Russia± were± locked± in± a± “cold± war”± that± terrified±
Americans ±A±couple±of±times±in±the±early±’60s,±we±practiced±“duck±and±
cover”±exercises±at±school±in±anticipation±of±nuclear±bombs±exploding±on±
U S ±soil,±the±drills±a±clear±signal±that±at±any±given±moment±the±world±
might±come±to±an±end ±I±remember±being±under±my±desk±on±my±hands±
and±knees,±staring±at±Marsha±Sherman’s±pale±green±underpants±as±she±
crouched± under± the± desk± in± front± of± me ± Te± experience± leF± me±
wondering±if±our±desks±were±really±strong±enough±to±protect±us±if±the±roof±
caved±in±–±I±worried±that±I’d±never±get±to±see±a±naked±girl±before±I±died
Young segregationists
Signs of the time
story±of±King±Arthur±and±the±Round±³able±and±that±he±oFen±listened±to±
the±album±of±the±Broadway±musical
Of±course±there±were±a±few±bumps±along±the±road±leading±up±to±our±short-
lived± Camelot ± Our± nation± was± trying± to± shake± off± an± imaginary± mass±
invasion±of±craFy±and±amoral±
communists
±who±were±purportedly±lurk-
ing±in±the±shadows±from±sea±to±shining±sea ±Beginning±in±1950,±Joe±
McCarthy,±a±U S ±senator±from±Wisconsin,±managed±to±whip±up±a±Red-
scare±frenzy±that±obsessed±many±of±our±leaders ±²or±a±time,±paranoia±
swept±through±the±halls±of±the±Capitol±and±across±U S ±cities±and±towns ±
²BI±boss±J ±Edgar±Hoover±ran±a±clandestine±operation±with±hundreds±
of±his±G-men±to±ferret±out±American±citizens±who±in±his±mind±had±
secretly±transformed±themselves±into±avid±communist±sympathizers
.
Conservatives±of±every±stripe±were±convinced±that±a±large±band±
of±
commies
±had±taken±up±residence±in±Hollywood ±In±1947±the±
House±Committee±on±Un-American±Activities±struck±fear±into±
the±lives±of±writers,±actors±and±movie±producers ±Over±300±
were±placed±on±an±industry±“blacklist”±and±most±of±them±were±
never±able±to±rebuild±their±careers
Troughout±much±of±the±’50s,±ministers±and±priests±from±
across±the±land±encouraged±their±flocks±to±keep±a±watchful±eye±
for±any±signs±of±
communist activities
±in±their±communities ±
Many±churches±led±the±rallying±cry±to±ban±rock±’n’±roll±music ±Newspapers±
ran±articles±with±helpful±tips±on±“How±to±spot±a±communist ”±It±was±a±time±
when±politicians,±claiming±to±be±patriots,±joined±in±a±crusade±to±“save±the±
soul”±of±America
In±all±those±years,±I±don’t±think±I±ever±met±a±communist ±Te±biggest±
danger±in±my±life±came±from±telephone±poles ±Te±first±one±found±me±
when±I±was±running±for±a±pass±on±the±playground±at±Carmelo±Elementary±
JFK,
PT Captain
Jacqueline and President Kennedy
Joe McCarthy
J. Edgar Hoover
A Boomer Looks Back
167
166
Fallout shelters were a hot topic in those days and some families spent
their hard-earned savings on building concrete underground bunkers in
their backyards± Most bomb-shelter dealers recommended the following
basic provisions: dehydrated survival food, water, flashlights, first aid kit,
a Bible, board games, cigarettes, playing cards, a box of ammo and a
shotgun± Gas masks were optional±
Shelters seemed to make sense because our scientific community was
busy inventing new weapons of mass destruction± Our military tested
progressively larger nuclear warheads – blowing up parts of the
Marshall Islands in the South Pacific and detonating nuclear blasts in
Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado and other areas of the United States±
In all, the military tested more than 900 nuclear warheads – about 250
of them above ground, in the open air±
In good faith and with God on our side, we spread tons of radioactive
dust into our own atmosphere, all in the name of preparing for an
inevitable war with the commies, or aliens, or with some other yet
unidentified evildoer± During the ’50s, American foreign aid was o²en
a euphemism for supplying other countries with weapons of war± We
kept our factories humming± Somehow, our government managed to
sustain an economy based on war – in peacetime±
Leaders in our government and our pulpits were also vigilant when
it came to enforcing morality in our bedrooms± Any sex between
unmarried couples was strictly taboo and any
deviant
behavior (such
as oral sex) was illegal± Some states even passed laws that forbade any
discussion about masturbation with anyone under the age of 21±
Adult magazines like
Playboy
were considered the work of the Devil±
Any person who happened to be born homosexual in America lived
with the fear of being exposed, humiliated or placed on trial and sent
to the slammer±
During the ’50s, our legislators may have been uptight about com-
mies and sex, but not about smoking± Tobacco giant R± J± Reynolds
ran national advertisements bragging that “More Doctors Smoke
Camels than any other cigarette!” Full-page ads for Camels also
appeared in
Te Journal of the American Medical Association.
³e American medical community promoted a new generation of
tranquilizers and prescribed them to millions of housewives who con-
sumed the
happy pills
like a new flavor of Chiclets, in an effort to cope
with “modern-day anxiety±”
Notwithstanding these issues, rock ’n’ roll and Elvis prevailed
.
Since 1997, a character named “Vault Boy” has been
central
to
a
video
game
called
Fallout,
set
in the mid-22nd century, in a world devastated
by a 1960s nuclear war that began over dwindling
petroleum supplies.
Fallout
features a violent post-
apocalyptic storyline set in a mutated future. Vault Boy –
bomb shelters are called “vaults” – is a recurring symbol in
the game, a cartoon remnant of a pre-war ad campaign for a company
that manufactured shelters, before the nukes finally fell. Seriously.
Nuclear testing, 1958
January 1962
1962
A Boomer Looks Back
169
168
be ending on a very good note when the blazing
fastball of southpaw Sandy Koufax brought
prominence to the West Coast± Te L±A± Dodgers
toppled the New York Yankees in
four straight games
during the World Series and everything in my young
teenage universe was blissfully aligned± It turned out to
be a very brief moment in time
.
A Voice Came Over the Intercom
It was a Friday a²ernoon and a short announcement came over the
classroom intercom and our teacher quickly le² the room± She returned
in a few minutes and stood squarely in front of the class± With a quivering
voice and tears steaming down her face, she gave us the news that the
president of the United States had been shot and was dead±
Life stood still for the next couple of days± On November 25, 1963, I sat
numbly with my family, watching the television coverage of President
Kennedy’s funeral procession±
I’d never witnessed so many adults openly weeping
and it was the first time I remember seeing tears in my
father’s eyes±
It was the end of innocence for many in my generation,
and it was certainly a turning point in my own life
.
Fi²y years have now gone by± It seemed like a good
time for some personal reflection about what I
experienced since that time± I had an urge to write
some thoughts down, before I forget±
What follows is simply one boomer’s perspective±
n
Te imperfections of Camelot did not generally interrupt the childhood
of the majority of the 78 million growing boomers, except on rare
occasions± Sometime during 1961, Larry Leslie shocked our class during
Show and ³ell when he announced, “I heard a man on the radio say that
we were all going to die from the H-bomb±” Larry’s pronouncement
seemed to catch our teacher, Mr± Glodd, by surprise± Te entire class
grew quiet as Mr± Glodd calmly reassured everyone that the man on the
radio was misinformed± He explained that America was protected by
two very large oceans, by the strongest military in the world, and by
President Kennedy – who would keep us all safe±
Tat same night, at the dinner table, my parents confirmed Mr± Glodd’s
promise of security and peace± Such assurances, from parents and
teachers across America, strengthened the core belief among boomers
that our lives were solidly grounded in Superman’s “truth, justice and the
American way±”
Tat’s the most important stuff I remember about the ’50s and the
beginnings of the ’60s± It was decades later that we learned that during
the Cuban Missile Crisis our president was encouraged by our military
leaders to drop nuclear bombs on Cuba, as a preemptive measure to
teach Nikita Khrushchev and the Russians that we were still the biggest
kid on the block
.
President Kennedy chose not to push the red button, life went on and to
most of us it was all water under the bridge± But the stand-off with the
Soviet Union had scared us, them and the rest of the world± A²er those
frightening days in October 1962, when JFK and his advisors were
uncertain that we could avoid an atomic war, the White House and the
Kremlin became connected by a hotline± Te first faint glimmerings of
an eventual end to the Cold War had begun to flicker in the darkness±
Most of the adults who ran the country between 1950 and 1962 are long
gone and there’s not much point in dwelling on what now seems like
ancient history, except to understand that it lay the foundation for all the
events that took place as the turbulent ’60s unfolded±
“Boomers” are the subject of this section of the book± In 1963 I turned
14, which means I came of age as a member of the Pepsi Generation± It
would be a tragic year for the country, although in October it seemed to