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  •   1950-1960
    Onward and Upward in an Edsel

    Sixth in a series


     '50s illustration
    (By Juliette Borda for The Washington Post)
    By Henry Allen
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Monday, September 27, 1999; Page C1

    S mell it, smell it all, smell the sour cities you leave behind in bosomy cars that smell of dusty sunlight and thump over Eisenhower's concrete interstate highways whose joints ooze tar that smells like industrial licorice till you arrive in a suburb smelling of insecticide and freshly cut grass outside identical houses full of the scents of postwar America: baked air hovering over the TV set; the mucilage on stickers for your art-appreciation course – "Mona Lisa," "American Gothic" ... ; the cozy stink of cigarette smoke freshened by Air-Wick deodorizer amid sweet pine paneling whose knots watch over you like the loving eyes of Disney forest creatures.

    How sweet and new it all is, this incense of mid-century, this strange sense of coziness and infinite possibility at the same time.

    Don't worry, Ike seems to say as he smiles and hits another tee shot. You light another Camel, knowing that "It's a psychological fact: pleasure helps your disposition: For more pure pleasure – have a CAMEL."

    There's a cartoon fullness to things. Everybody is somebody. Everything is possible. Hence a cushiony give in the national psyche, a pleasant ache that feels like nostalgia dispensed by a spray can. You believe in the future, be it a perfect marriage, racial integration, commuting via your personal autogiro, Formica countertops, or a day coming soon when everybody will be sincere and mature. ("Sincerity" and "maturity" are major virtues.)

    Ignore the viruses of dread that float through family rooms: the hydrogen bomb erupting from the South Pacific like a cancerous jellyfish the size of God; or the evil Sen. Joseph McCarthy and the evil Commies he never catches one of, not one, though he does manage to strew the land with damaged lives and the liberal tic of anti-anti-communism; or Sputnik, the first satellite, built by Russian slave labor, no doubt, while our top scientists were developing the Princess phone, 3-D movies and boomerang-shaped coffee tables.

    Ignore Marilyn Monroe saying: What good is it being Marilyn Monroe? Why can't I just be an ordinary woman? ... Oh, why do things have to work out so rotten?

    Marilyn Monroe
    Marilyn Monroe in 1954 (National Portrait Gallery)

    And ignore the Korean War, which is nothing but ugly except for the embroidered silk dragon jackets the soldiers bring back. Ignore the newspaper pictures of racists with faces like wet-combed hand-grenades, screaming at Martin Luther King's boycotters and schoolchildren who will overcome ... people whose isolation and invisibility in this white society are incalculable ...

    Progress will take care of everything.

    Amid the Ford Country Squire station wagons and slate roofs, wealthier homeowners boast that neighborhood covenants still keep out Jews and Negroes. They offer you highballs and cigarettes. They show you black-and-white photographs of themselves waving from the rail of the Queen Elizabeth II. They turn on lights till their houses blaze like cruise ships. What lonely darkness are they keeping off? Do they know their time has gone?

    Meanwhile, amid the tract housing and developments, the genius of William Levitt and Henry Kaiser creates the loneliness of growing up in your own bedroom, in your own house where the green grass grows all around. It takes some getting used to, but do you really want to go back to the apartment with three kids to a bedroom and Nana mumbling over the cabbage? You know your future is here. You wish you knew what it held.

    "Children, your father's home!" Mom yells.

    A father's Florsheim Imperials are heard. A Dobbs center-dent fedora is seen, with a jaunty trout-fly feather on the grosgrain band. Dad exudes the tired authority of cigarette smoke and Arrid underarm deodorant cream. His knuckles whiten on a Christmas-present attache case.

    "Can't you kids get up off your duffs and do something instead of sitting there watching ... "

    "Hey, Dad's home."

    " ... 'Howdy Doody,' a little children's show?"

    "There's nothing else on, Dad."

    Dad shouts over his shoulder: "Doris! You have any chores for these kids?"

    "No, hon, everything's hunky-dory. You hungry?"

    "Hell, yes, I'm hungry."

    "Be dinner soon's I do the limas."

    Sighing as if he has made a huge decision, Dad walks into the kitchen. He cracks ice for a drink.

    "The kids," he says. "It's like I'm not even here."

    "Well, it's like I always am," she says. "They're scared of you, but they take me for granted."

    "Make you a drink?"

    "Not too big, now."

    His face struggles toward some home truth, but doesn't find it.

    "Ah, Doris," he says. "Turn off the stove and let's go to the Roma for veal scaloppine. Please. Just the two of us."

    "I have to drop Tommy at Boy Scouts, and then Kitty Kennard is doing her slide show at L'Esprit Francais. Forgive me?"

    Doris and Tom Sr. are only trying to live by what their parents taught them – manliness, graciousness, a day's work, good posture – and pass it on to their children. The problem is, they they don't quite believe it themselves, anymore, but they have to teach their kids something. Should they really confess their emptiness and bad faith instead? Should the children feel betrayed by parents who are only trying to do the best they know how?

    How squalid. Let's leave all this behind. It's a symptom, not a cause, a failure where success is what you see on "Ozzie & Harriet" and all the other shows about breakfast-nook families where no one is taken for granted and everyone says hello. Hi, Rick. Hi, Pop. Hi, Dave. Good morning, Mom. Dad's a bit of a bumbler, and what won't those darn kids think of next! Nevertheless, perfection is attainable. How smug one feels to know this. How inadequate one feels to know one hasn't attained it yet, oneself, but one can put on a long-playing record of the perfect Ella Fitzgerald singing the Jerome Kern songbook perfectly.

       
    If I could have just one day when I wasn't all confused. ... If I felt I belonged someplace.

    – James Dean as the anguished son
    in "Rebel Without a Cause"

    Some of the young folks seem to have a hard time adjusting.

    Be part of progress like everybody else – the everybody you see on television and in Life magazine. Here's the equation: If you're just like everybody, then you're somebody.

    The way to be somebody is to buy something that makes you like everybody else who's bought the same thing – Ford owners reading their Ford Times, Parliament smokers joined in aromatic sophistication. Remember: Consumption is a moral good. Madison Avenue admen are cultural heroes, with cool slang like "Let's run it up the flagpole and see who salutes."

    Look at all the college kids stuffing themselves into phone booths and Volkswagens. And a lovely girl whose picture appears in Life next to the comment: "She has forgotten all about emancipation and equality. To belong is her happiness."

    And Mary Ann Cuff, a regular among the teen dancers who appear on Dick Clark's "American Bandstand": "What it is we all want is to get married and live on the same street in new houses. We'll call it Bandstand Ave."


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