(Editor's note - the following column was written by Don Coppock, an American ex-pat now living in Thailand. Living 8000 miles away from the United States provided Coppock time and space to reflect about the dramatic changes in American life that has evolved during the past sixty years)
As we get older eventually everyone emerges from the life lived and looks back in silent awe. What the hell happened?
I imagine every generation does the same. Things mutate, for better or worse, and the world we entered often bears no resemblance to the world we leave. Ultimately everyone comes to the realization life used to be so much simpler. Perhaps it was.
One thing is certain…things have changed since I was a boy. The average American worker earned less than $6,000 yearly, but homes were under 30K. Stamps cost 5 cents. Cars cost $3,000. Gas was around 30 cents a gallon. Houses might run you 15 grand.
Bar codes and retail scanners weren’t around, nor were metal detectors at airports.
American cars ruled, and the number 1 selling foreign car was Volkswagon. Marriage was for life in those days, for better or for worse, divorce was a stigma, and unhappy marriages were often endured in tortured silence. Family was important.
Gays hadn’t come out of the closet. AIDs hadn’t been identified. Prolonged exposure to the sun was considered healthy. Oral contraceptives became available. Abortion was illegal in all 50 states. Sex was behind closed doors. There were no warning labels on cigarettes. People smoked because they didn’t know any better, not because they didn’t care. Winston tasted good like a cigarette should, and cigarette ads with Joe Camel and the Marlboro man were everywhere urging people to light up.
Television was still relatively young, there was no remote control. Most TVs only had 3 channels you had to get up and turn the knob to change. Broadcasting abruptly stopped around 11 PM. People trusted the news. Walter Cronkite was a God.
Our family gathered around our black and white TV and watched as though it were a religious ceremony, a marvelous glimpse of imagined worlds. Favorite shows at our house were Leave it to Beaver, Andy Griffith, Outer Limits, Bonanza, Twilight Zone, the Addams Family, any of the numerous westerns. There were no TV shows starring African-Americans.
There were 20 major league teams. Steroids weren’t even a rumor. Mantle ruled. All the records were held by white players. Baseball cards came with gum and were collected by children for love of the game, not for the price they would fetch on Ebay. Rock and roll was in its nascent stages and hadn’t branched out. There was no punk rock, no techno, house, metal, new wave, disco, or rap. Roger Miller came out with ‘King of the Road’.
Record players were still how people listened to music. Motown introduced Marvin Gaye, the Supremes, and the Four Tops, while the British Invasion introduced the Beatles, the Stones, and Herman’s Hermits.
I recall studying my first transistor radio, thinking technology had finally reached its apex and how the heck did they fit all that music in that tiny little box? Even malls were a new concept and there were no Walmarts. If we wanted to go shopping we would walk down the main street in Chula Vista. Al’s Cigar store, the main magazine and book store in town, was one of my favorite hangouts. I spent hours feeling I was at the very center of the world browsing thru their limited inventory. I bought my first Mad magazine there, and later my first Rolling Stone for a quarter.
If you wanted your children to have a good education you made an investment in encyclopedias. There were no computers. No computer games. Hell, there were no hand held calculators. You had to use your brain.
Obesity wasn’t the problem it is now. I recall the fat kid in our high school because he was THE fat kid in high school. There weren’t any cell phones or even touch tone phones. People dialed. Nor were there answering machines or call waiting…you’d just have to call back.
Microwaves hadn’t been invented and frozen dinners were a new concept. Fast food joints and convenience stores were in their infancy. Now 7-11s are on every corner of every major city in Thailand. There were no DVDs or videos, no rental stores, no Netflix. People watched movies, they didn’t possess them.
At the time our town had one indoor theater, the Vogue, and we would eagerly line up for Saturday matinees to watch the latest movies such as Tarantula, Attack of the 50 foot woman, and the Incredible Shrinking Man. They dazzled our young minds without being graphic celebrations of violence and cruelty.
This was long before video games indoctrinating youth into the joy of killing, before Columbine and weapons checks. Life was considered more than an extension of a video game, and terrorism hadn’t yet received mass publicity as a tool of the lunatic fringe.
For entertainment after school we’d play games, games involving tagging, running, tackling, throwing, catching and other physical pursuits. We roamed the neighborhood freely. People trusted their neighbors and didn’t worry about things like child molesters and other predators.
This was the early 60s…drugs hadn’t hit the mainstream yet, at least not in our neighborhood, and weren’t recognized as a national problem. There was no drug war, and no one I knew was aware of anyone with a drug problem.
As for the economy, my parents paid everything by check or cash. Those were their options. Credit cards were a relatively new phenomenon and there were no ATMs. Today the average American household owes over $7000, and the gap between those households and the wealthiest 1% has widened significantly. According to the Economic Policy Institute, in 1965 the average CEO earned about 24 times the salary of an average worker. Today CEO’s earn 275 times that of the average worker. In 1965 a millionaire was taxed 55 %...today, it’s roughly 32%.
World perception has changed as well. America remains a dream for many of the truly ambitious, but when I asked my Thai students where they’d like to visit someday their answers surprised me. Korea was mentioned most often (mostly by girls--Korean boy bands are very popular) followed by China, Italy, France and occasionally England. Only a tiny fraction answered America. We are no longer perceived as the country around which the rest of the world revolves.
But perhaps the biggest change has been in Americans themselves.
In the late 50’s and early 60’s, World War II was still fresh in American’s minds. People knew exactly why we fought that war, and learned precisely why we try to avoid wars. People believed in America …believed in each other, democracy and the American dream, whether they liked election results or not. They counted their blessings and believed there employers would always be there. That confidence is gone.
Now people nervously wonder about their employers and only believe in democracy when it suits them.
We’ve also gotten more insular. We're worried about Muslims, Asians, Mexicans, and are generally distrustful of any non-Christian with an accent who dresses funny. And we don’t trust Christians that much either. The confident, compassionate nation of immigrants that once beckoned, saying ‘give us your poor, your tired your hungry’ now screams ‘Katy bar the door.’
Maybe this is just a rough patch. We've had them before.
But things have changed.