- Historic Sites
America looked good to a high school senior then, and that year looks wonderfully safe to us now, but it was a time of tumult for all that, and there were plenty of shadows along with the sunshine
December 1994 | Volume 45, Issue 8
It was a very good year. Certainly it was if you were seventeen. I was a senior in high school in 1954, a member of the class of January 1955, at Lincoln High School in Jersey City, New Jersey. They told us these were the best years of our lives, so we had better enjoy them. We all laughed at that, of course, but as I look back, they may have been right, particularly in September of 1954, when the first Thunderbird and the totally new 1955 Chevy V-8 lit up our limited horizons.
More important things happened then—the H-bomb, the Salk polio vaccine, and the rise and fall of Joe McCarthy among them—but I doubt that there is a male my age in the country who does not remember the first time he saw the T-bird or the amazing new Chevrolet and looked under the hood and at that new overhead-valve 162-horsepower V-8. I could give it historical significance by pointing out that putting a big engine in a small car meant that for the first time the poor (or at least the middle class) could drive as fast as the rich. I know I’m not alone on all this. Who do you think are the men buying those “classic” Bel Airs today for upward of thirty thousand dollars?
Back under the hood forty years ago—and here’s the point—a guy could understand everything in there. The fan belt and the generator, the plugs and the points, the needle valve on the carburetor. It was not that anyone I knew could afford a car, especially a new car—the Chevies started at $1,593—or needed one, really. Only one of my classmates, Donny Sherman, had a car, an old Dodge, I think, because his father, who ran a hardware store, got sick and Donny had to make deliveries or something. What we knew about was Pep Boys on Bergen Avenue. We could walk through the store and build a complete car in our heads.
Our riches seemed the natural order of things, the will of the Almighty. But in fact, we were scared all the time.
In 1954 we knew how everything worked—or thought we did. A typewriter, for instance. Now open up the hood of a computer and tell me how it works.
That, of course, can be interpreted, and usually is, to mean it was a simpler time. But I am not at all sure it was. In retrospect the past always seems simpler because we or somebody survived to tell the tale. History is the way we clean up the mess we made. Ah, yes, America was number one then. With only 6 percent of the world’s population, we had 60 percent of all the automobiles on the planet, 54 percent of the telephones, 45 percent of the radios. And twentynine million American homes already had television sets.
Just in case anyone doubted where we stood, President Eisenhower modified the Pledge of Allegiance, adding two words, under God . But partly because of our Calvinist background, we did not think about that at all; our riches were considered the natural order of things, the will of the Almighty. That’s the way it seemed and is usually written. But in fact, we were scared all the time. We were scaring ourselves to death in those days.
Scared of what? Of the Bomb. Of the Reds. The United States exploded its second hydrogen bomb in March of 1954. It was small enough to be used, big enough to vaporize Pittsburgh. (The first one, exploded in secrecy in November of 1952, weighed more than ten tons, and the Soviet Union had exploded one too big to be delivered, late in 1953.) Life magazine, which was still the national mirror —portable television before we realized that television was not a new mass medium but a new environment, more like weather than communication—tried to cheer us up with a photograph of President Eisenhower, grinning, leading his staff to the bomb shelter under the White House. Beacon Wax celebrated the explosion by running a newspaper advertisement saying: “The bomb’s brilliant gleam reminds me of the brilliant gleam Beacon Wax gives to floors. It’s a scientific marvel!”
The fact that the Russians seemed so close behind us was as surprising as it was terrifying to believers in our God-given number-oneness. Sen. Joseph McCarthy and more than a few others made a career out of that confused fear by saying that the only way the Russian communists could have gotten the Bomb, or running water for that matter, was that traitors had given them our secrets. His list of the dirty spies began with former President Truman and his Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, and sometimes, when he had a drink too many, he hinted maybe Eisenhower was in on it too. And we believed him. At least we did in my house.