In Anne Galjour’s Character Building Workshop at San Francisco State University, we were assigned to read Fences by August Wilson. In preparation for class discussion we researched pop culture, circa 1957, the year in which the play is set. For most of my fellow students, this was like studying ancient history. Even Ms. Gajour, a lively, talented playwright and instructor, doesn’t remember 1957. But I do. I was born in 1952 so I didn’t have to look the decade up on the Internet. I thought I deserved extra credit.
In 1957 my father had a full head of hair and he drove a Cadillac Eldorado, which had only modest-sized fins. I was in my second year at Mrs. Turner’s pre-school. Mrs. Fox picked me up for school every morning in her yellow Chevrolet. The back of her car was soft and velvety. Squeezed between Patty Willis, Diane Eberley, Donna Hambrecht, Ralph Leeds, Timmy Sellen, and Cheryl Fury, we all hung onto a strap that ran across the backseat. There were no seatbelts. As I recall, Mrs. Fox turned around in our dirt driveway fast, and headed, like a bat out of hell, up the hill for Mrs. Turner’s.
I used to sing along with Dinah Shore, “See the U.S.A. in your Chevrolet”, and think of Mrs. Fox.
I wore little red leather oxfords and plaid dresses. It would be another 13 years before I would be allowed to wear pants to school. I was a happy, optimistic child. I didn’t develop a bad attitude until sometime later.
In 1957 decent men like my daddy wore t-shirts under a button-down, collared shirt or sweater. Back then they were called undershirts and they were supposed to be hidden. My mother had her hair rolled, teased, sprayed and lacquered every week at the beauty parlor, my grandmother smoked cigarettes using a long, thin holder, my grandfather could still beat everyone he knew in tennis, and then drink them under the table afterwards.
I remember getting polio vaccines and tuberculosis inoculations, going to the dentist and receiving nova cane, memorizing The Cat in the Hat, and watching The Mickey Mouse Club on our black and white TV with its rabbit ear antenna. Annette Funicello was my hero.
My brother Danny was three and my brother Billy was one. They wore cloth diapers and they were often trapped inside a wooden playpen in the middle of the braided rug in the living room. Ten years later that rug would be replaced by a beautiful orange, (flecked with green), shag carpet. Eisenhower was president, the Cold War hadn’t yet started; a few more years would pass before I began worrying about Khrushchev and the Russians coming to get me. Nobody took anti-depressants, but all the adults I knew drank martinis and it made them very happy. My dad used to give me the olive out of his drink.
In 1957 I went to a movie theater for the first time. I saw Old Yeller and it made me cry. On Saturdays I wore Gene Autry cowboy boots and watched Sally Starr and Chief Halftown on TV, local Philadelphia celebrities. I also watched Captain Kangaroo and Wagon Train. I ate cheese steaks and tuna casseroles, Jell-O and canned fruit cocktail. I had a special fondness for butterscotch TastyCakes.
On January 1, 1957, my grandfather took Danny and me to see the Mummers Day Parade in downtown Philadelphia. A native of south Philly, Grandpop dragged us to the after- pageant celebration, a rowdy, drunken version of the earlier, more sedate procession. Grandpop ducked into a corner bar and left my brother and me outside in the cold, among the revelers. Men in blackface carried signs of protest against Arlen Specter who, as Philadelphia’s young, brash District Attorney, had banned the practice. I remember being scared. Even now I have to wonder what kind of grandpa would leave two little kids on a city corner in the midst of a semi-riot, while he drank beer with his buddies. It’s a wonder I turned out to be as normal as I am. For actually surviving the Fifties, as opposed to just researching them, I think Ms. Gajour should give me an A.
Anne Galjour’s Okra will appear this spring at the Southern Repertory Theatre in New Orleans. She is working on a new play, Stars at Night, with David Dower of Z Space Studio and David Cale. k