Two wallets of American snapshots, dated 1949 and 1955
“Most of American life consists of driving somewhere and then returning home, wondering why the hell you went.”
On Tuesday, June 16, 1949 a middle-aged couple board a tour bus in Tampa Florida. We know his name is James, and she signs her photos ‘Mum’. Maybe they are retirees, like their companions John and Greta Nell, though a lot of people in the 1940s looked prematurely aged. They also look like Republican voters but then all white Americans did in 1949. James wears a ring on the little finger of his left hand. Is that significant? He’s a swarthy character, and while this may be unfair, bears a passing resemblance to Alvin Karpis, the real head of the Ma Barker gang. (Can’t be of course; in 1949 Karpis is midway through a thirty year stretch in McNeil Island Federal Prison.) Mum looks like, well, Mum. Her facial features hint at an ancestry that could be Italian, perhaps Jewish central Europe, but she is an American. She cooks American, not well mind you but who had to in 1949? That year you could buy a frozen chicken at the supermarket and two aisles away stood shelves of sauces in a myriad of colours. Heat and serve or, as the voices on TV kept stridently insisting, let “it” do the work for you.
Where are they heading? To begin with, where are they? McCarthyism is in full swing, sniffing out communists wherever such types congregate. Hollywood, full of liberals and émigrés, is an obvious place to search and a couple of weeks earlier the FBI identified Edward G Robinson and John Garfield as fellow travellers. Do James and Mum care? Perhaps, but last night, 19 year old Ruth Steinhagen shot baseballer Eddie Waitkus in a Chicago hotel room. Everyone is talking about that. Not all American men pay loving attention to the sport pages but it is important to be able to discuss them, especially at work. On Friday night Ezzard Charles and Jersey Joe Walcott are fighting for the world heavyweight championship. John Nell has strong ideas about that contest; Dempsey would have licked the both of them. The world is essentially a good place. If there is a communist threat, the FBI can sort it out. Ruth Steinhagen is real enough but she was a lone wolf and no proof of a social phenomenon. And Joe Louis was champion for twelve years. Whoever wins on Friday, a change is for the best. Welcome to the summer of 1949.
The bus pulls out on to a highway fringed with palmettos. Every billboard rolling past tells the passengers to relax. In the small towns they stop to stretch their legs the wooden churches are scrubbed and gleaming white. Sons wear the same clothes as their fathers. The motels with their neon palms and tepees are called the Starview, the Tropicana, Crystal Bay and Seminole Lodge. Every one of them has ‘air-conditioning!’ and ‘TV!’ and Mum thinks they belong in a dreamland. In her day, motels were cheap, sinister places inhabited by girls like Ruth Steinhagen. But Mum has other issues on her mind. It’s a long way to Kansas, especially in the summer. Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, into Missouri then across the last state line, and she has a touch of gout, needs pills for her heart and she can’t sleep on a bus no matter how streamlined its exterior or friendly the other passengers. Cars the size of bedrooms overtake the bus. In a Mississippi gas station the pump jockey is listening to some godawful music on a wireless. He jitters across to the bowser like an injured rattlesnake. It’s a sight, and another reason for her not to sleep well tonight …
Easter, April 10th, 1955.
Her mother and father, sister and her husband have come for the long weekend. Her own husband’s parents can’t make it. Mum is back in hospital and James won’t travel far. Never mind. They will go down to see them in the summer, if her husband can get a break.
They are standing on the front lawn, waiting for her parents to attend to final details so everyone can go to church. She hopes the preacher desists from his usual sermon about reds being the enemy of freedom. Not that she disagrees but there are other problems in the world. It would be a nice change if today he talked about the sacrifice Jesus made.
For her birthday in February her husband gave her a Contax camera. The instruction booklet was intimidating at first but the camera is actually easy to use. Look through the viewfinder and adjust the dial on the lens until the little arm touches the circle, then press. It’s foolproof; even her nine year old nephew can use it. Actually, she is used to instruction manuals. The new washing machine, the vacuum cleaner, TV, every appliance these days comes with a booklet written in an obscure language more complicated than it needs to be. “Smile Honey.” She tells her husband, having directed him to stand, as the manual recommends, with the sun over her shoulder. Now it’s the nephews’ turn, now her sister’s.
After church they will come back for lunch. The chicken will only take an hour in her new GE Electric Range to cook through perfectly. It takes five minutes to make instant gravy and about the same to make instant potato whip (though her mother insists that is a travesty of the real thing). The carrots and peas are ready to boil and she has three tins of pears on hand for dessert.
She has another reason to worry about the preacher’s sermon. If he does talk about the red threat his words may follow the family back to the dining room table. The problem here is that after his year’s duty in Korea, her husband has certain views about communism, or rather, ways of expressing them. It’s upsetting, and he sometimes uses language the boys shouldn’t hear. Still, they will probably avoid all that. Most likely they will talk about life insurance, or ways to minimize the mortgage. One thing she knows about men; it’s a matter of pride that in front of their wives they should sound knowledgeable and responsible about financial affairs. In the old days they probably wore face paint and thumped their chests. These days they outdo each other analysing the fine print in insurance policies and which fund is best for their sons’ college years.
She and her sister have their own rituals. First they will dispense with domestic matters, the new words her eighteen month old son is using, and the measles epidemic that swept through in January, but they really want to talk about the new Sears Roebuck catalogue and the latest Butterick patterns available. Her sister shows off the new skirt she made and their mother smiles indulgently. Both girls accept she knows more about dressmaking than they will ever learn. Growing up in small town Wyoming she had no choice. In her youth she didn’t have electricity or a telephone or any of the appliances her daughters take for granted.
Food is a good topic too. How does Betty Crocker get her desserts to look so perfect? It’s no accident both daughters look just like the women on the packets of instant cake mix. The companies put a lot of research into packaging these days. So do women.
She lives in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. Sometimes it seems America is becoming a troubled place. Her husband agrees that McCarthy is going too far accusing the Army of harbouring reds, then again, he warns, Russia now has the bomb. A few weeks ago Claudette Colvin, a black teenager, was dragged kicking and screaming off a bus in Alabama because she refused to give up her seat to a white passenger. On television last night a spokesman for some organization was fulminating against a younger generation turning godless and amoral. She wasn’t sure if he was referring to her generation or one just below. Either way, she agrees with her husband that he was taking things too seriously. Life in America is different today. They don’t have their parents’ problems, the Depression is a distant memory and everyone it seems is going to college. But here is the main thing. Whatever is troubling this country, she is certain their little suburb is immune from it. It’s an enclave of peaceful quietude. Not so long ago this part of North Carolina hummed to the sounds of cotton mills and dredgers on the river, now it’s the spin dryer and Mystery Theatre. As she collects the plates and takes them to the dishwasher she subconsciously brushes her stomach. She doesn’t want to tell anyone yet but her period is two weeks late.
“America is a vast conspiracy to make you happy.”
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