Friday, November 22, 2013

Assassination of President John F. Kennedy                                     November 22, 1963

The assassination of President Kennedy is without parallel the event that had the most impact on high school teachers and students in the 1960s. The following is a personal account of that unforgettable day:

On Friday afternoon, November 22, 1963, I was overseeing a study hall in B-1
when near the end of the period there was a light tap at the door. I opened it to find Sally Walters, a senior. She motioned me to step outside the room as she proceeded to whisper the frightening information coming out of Dallas, Texas. “The President has been shot,” she said solemnly, adding that she had been sent to notify all faculty in B-wing. It was understandable that such news be delivered personally and not announced over the PA system and I thought later of that wise choice made by Mr. Curtis Taylor, the high school principal. Sally appeared to be calm, entrusted with her heavy burden, but no doubt was in as much shock as those to whom she had been instructed to deliver her staggering news. 

Shortly thereafter we were called to report to the auditorium. Word of the shooting had begun to spread, but not all students had yet heard the details. Teachers were exchanging glances of disbelief, sorrow, and fear, for none of us had ever faced a national event of such import. We were filled with our own thoughts as well as how we would handle the students. Of course, none of us had any more information that what Sally Walters had delivered, and we were hoping for more information at the assembly.

The principal didn’t need to ask for silence. We already had been struck dumb by the gravity of the situation. Mr. Taylor, with overwhelming sadness evident in his face, announced that the president had been “mortally wounded.” (Later many of the students said they had not known what “mortally wounded” meant and were left in even more perplexity. As Dr. Janet Calhoon ’66 recalls, “There was a scheduled school assembly that day, but I don’t recall the subject. Walking home that day were two girls walking in front of me asking what ‘mortally wounded’ meant; they truly did not know and did not grasp that the president was dead.”) Mr. Taylor gave us the information that he had and asked us to pray for the country. As no other news was available and it was near the end of the day, the students were asked to go to their lockers and get what they needed to take home, as no one yet knew what the next steps would be. Grief-stricken, the faces of most of the adults were ashen. We just looked hopelessly at one another, or bowed our heads.  The silence was deafening until Mr. Seitzinger raised his baton and, as the students stood to leave, we all were startled to hear the full force of a rousing John Philip Sousa march, as disquieting as the news of the death of our president.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

1937 Birth Cohorts: The Epicenter of the Silent Generation

1937 Birth Cohorts: The Epicenter of the Silent Generation


1937: Historical Highlights

The broadcast in 1937 of the crowning of George VI, following his brother Edward’s abdication announcement, was the first worldwide radio program heard in the United States, and it can be presumed that many in the United States tuned in for the broadcast. In addition, 1937 saw the completion of the Golden Gate Bridge, the death of millionaire-philanthropists Andrew Mellon and John D. Rockefeller, the Hindenburg dirigible disaster by fire, and the loss of Amelia Earhart on a flight over the Pacific. It also is marked as the year of the first true supermarket, which opened in Queens, New York.

Our Arrival

Arriving as depression babies, we were dramatically fewer in number than in previous or following years. In 1933 the birthrate for women in their prime childbearing years had dropped to the lowest ever recorded in the United States and remained there for several years, including 1937 when 2,413,000 babies were born, the first American generation to be born mainly in hospitals. We were also part of a group that increased the population by only seven percent, the lowest decennial growth rate in American history. And the life expectancy for those of us born this year was 60 years of age. (Eighty percent of our graduation class survive at this date in 2013; however, only sixty percent of our eighth grade cohort are still living.)

Of the more than two million 1937 birth cohorts, 101 would become graduates of the Class of 1955 of Curwensville High School located in the central hills of Pennsylvania. While a few of our class members had been born prior to 1937 and one not until late 1938, all were in the same class by eighth grade and are being counted in this cohort. Approximately a third of us would have spent all 12 years of public school together.

In our eighth grade year (the year when Curwensville High School became Curwensville Joint High School) the Class of 1955 became 142 in number. [1] In ninth grade we held a similar number at 145[2] (including five sets of twins). In tenth grade we numbered 128[3] and in eleventh grade, 106.[4] We were 101 as graduating seniors (reduced to three sets of twins, one male set, one female, and one mixed).

There were various groupings of these 101 classmates during these twelve years, both during the school day and in spending time together in sports, musical groups, dancing lessons, scouts, and church activities. There were different pairings of friends, several short-lived “secret clubs,” many combinations of best friends (although there were some coteries who pretty well stayed together for the 12 years), a few best friends who never varied or wavered, and some dating pairs. We were each other’s teammates, competitors, steadies, nemeses, and, perhaps later, lovers. We laughed, shared private jokes, harbored secrets, kept things from each other, but rarely if ever betrayed one another.

We are a generation and of representatives of a generation, of children who for the most part were cherished, who were watched over by the town, who were cared for, taught, and guided by the same teachers, who were influenced by peers and adults, and who, for the most part, remained true to themselves and true to one another.

We were, like all cohorts, shaped by our time and we share the destiny of that time and place. As a cohort we were unique in that all of us, from the time of our birth, encountered the same national events, moods, and trends at the same time. We developed a sense of collective identity and, in many ways, a common personality with boundaries “fixed” by that personality. And, like any cohort, as we aged, our inner beliefs retained a consistency, a collective inner compass, much like the personality of an individual growing older.[5]

We held a common age location and we reacted to history as a cohort, that is, we generally all responded in the same way, but in a way that was different from another age cohort. For example, while D-Day empowered those of the GI generation, it intimidated us. GIs remember the bombing of Pearl Harbor as the call to their country’s service; we saw this same event through the eyes of the awe-struck children we were, trying to figure out just who Pearl Harbor was. Boomers regard Pearl Harbor as the possible reason for their large number (fathers returning home from the war eager to procreate), while Generation Xers view Pearl Harbor Day as simply a part of past history. 

We born in 1937 were the unobtrusive children of the Depression and World War II and would become the conformist “Lonely Crowd,” Peace Corps volunteers, and middle managers of an expanding public sector. We later came to realize that we had come of age too late for combat in Korea and too early to feel the heat of the Vietnam draft. Notably, where practically every society can recognize a discrete coming-of-age moment (historic rite of passage), we did not have one. We did not experience any social moment when we perceived that a single historic event was radically altering our social environment and would impact everything around us forever after.

All points of reference for us are in terms of our next elders, the Greatest Generation. Their benchmarks of World War II are our benchmarks as well, because the Korean War was not historically important enough to qualify to be ours. The members of the Greatest Generation were our unmatched heroes in all regards—war heroes we adulated, football players and majorettes we emulated, and later, the country’s leaders we followed.

George Arnold, himself a child in the mid-fifties, calls us “The In-Betweeners,” whose members, in market research studies, tend to display remarkable similar tendencies, but tendencies unlike any other demographic group of this century.[6] Arnold, a marketer and publicist, also notes that this is a demographic group that consistently displayed irreverent, if not outlandish, tendencies in study after study of attitudes and usage.

Strauss and Howe (Generations) placed us in their generational category of Recessive Adaptive, characterized as a generation that grows up overprotected, is suffocated in youth during a secular crisis, matures into risk-averse conformists, produces indecisive midlife leaders who act as arbitrators, and who maintain influence (but garner less respect) as elders.[7]

Among the few children’s books we had, favorites were the Little Golden Book Tootle, the train who always stayed on track, and Paddle to the Sea about a little boat that floated safely with the current. We were both pampered and commanded, our worlds regulated with the “heaviest hand of the twentieth century,”[8] but we enjoyed the lowest child labor rate. We also were the earliest marrying and earliest-baby-producing generation in American history, but marked less by what we ourselves did than by what those older and younger did.[9]
We were the last generation of Americans to suffer the dread diseases of childhood—and to survive them without antibiotics, penicillin, or even the sulfa drugs then needed for the “war effort.”[10]

Feeling disquieted by our lack of connectedness, we were less successful in forging a sense of national or personal direction than any other generation in living memory, leaving us with what Gail Sheehy calls “resignation, a vague dissatisfaction with jobs, families, our children, and, most of all, ourselves.”[11] The result is a wounded collective ego, what Daniel Levinson described as a silent despair and fear of becoming irrelevant.[12] The board game “Sorry” that was so popular with us may serve as an appropriate metaphor for what we were.[13] And, perhaps most telling is that our cohort group has scored highest of all groups in geometric reasoning, second in logical reasoning, but last in “word fluency.”[14] It is troubling to consider that it was believed there was no need for us to have language fluency, only acquiescence resulting in silence.
Of course we didn’t know all of this in 1937. If we were hungry, we were fed, although fewer at the breast than at any other time in history. We were kept clean, and we were loved; however, according to conventional wisdom that child rearing should focus on building discipline and that babies should not be "spoiled" by picking them up when they cried, we were not cuddled and coddled. Did that make us more stoic? Perhaps. Is that why we as a generation are less demonstrative? Most likely. Is this a reason we didn’t speak out? Very probably this is a contributing factor.

This was the era of playpens (caged), harnesses (confined), and sometimes ropes (leashed)—all, as it was said, so we would not get hurt. Yet, since it was still the era of mothers who did not work outside the home, what was the need for restraints?
Our parents wanted their children to be obedient, to behave courteously, to feel close to the family group, and to be religious. Character training was a deliberate parental task with the focus on keeping the child from being a nuisance to the adult world. Our parents were strict about manners, toilet training, sex education (or lack thereof), and gender behavior. Children were “brought up” rather than, as some would say, “loved up,” then continued to bring themselves up, feeling throughout life that their characters were something to be worked on.[15] There was an insistence by all adults that we be “normal” children, with normal being defined as cooperative, congenial, well-adjusted, conforming, and adaptable.

There were regulations on both our language and our appearance. Certain words, like “stinker,” were off-limits in many households[16] (and many of us still are uncomfortable using such words). Mothers spelled the words they couldn’t make themselves speak, and they avoided terms for sexual matters as if such matters simply did not exist. They conscientiously kept a child clothed at all times because nudity was “not nice.” This, of course, resulted in prudishness, particularly in little girls.
As might be expected, there was also a stricter prohibition regarding sexual activity in children that was stronger among mothers of girls. Boys were allowed more aggressive behavior, but girls were expected to be clearly feminine. The emphasis on daughters needing to be “ladylike” was united with a strong emphasis on good manners, especially table manners. Chores were gender-geared and, in general, boys were held to a higher expectation than were girls to achieve scholastically.

In retrospect it becomes clear just how much alike we all were and are. While not all of us had the same family background or day-to-day experiences, our lives were very similar. The family rules that governed all of us were very much the same, the holidays we shared were spent in much the same way, and events were framed by the same parameters.
Our houses were of various styles, most of them plain boards or clapboard, some unpainted; some were fronted by sidewalks, some houses set back and some had porches as the first step up from the abutting walkways. Sidewalks allowed for a place to skate, ride bicycles, and pull wagons. Most houses were two-storied, most with excavated cellars, some of these with concreted floors, most with furnaces. Some exteriors were covered with shingles, typically gray or red, some of octagonal shape. These shingled houses we viewed as “old fashioned,” although that may have been only because the older, more run-down homes on our streets were predominantly of this covering. Street lights in neighborhoods were not typical—nor are they yet in many towns.

Those homes that were set back from the street prided themselves on the large trees that provided shade for the requisite porches, preferably large enough for a porch swing or glider (or a lawn swing in the front yard) where families sat on summer evenings, looking out and down the street. Lawns were mowed and a few backyards contained a sandbox and/or a swing set. (We had a sand/dirt pile and a swing hanging from a limb of a tree.) The house I was brought into, following the usual week’s stay in the hospital where I was born, had been purchased by my parents whose growing family had led to the decision to move from Hill Street, which was one of the few streets in Curwensville not built on a hill.

[1] counted from a class picture in the high school yearbook
[2] the number given in the yearbook
[3] pictured in the yearbook (likely about 130 or so enrolled)
[4] pictured in the yearbook (likely at least 108 enrolled)
[5] Strauss and Howe, Generations, p. 66.
[6] Arnold, p. 1.
[7] Strauss and Howe, Generations, p. 74.
[8] Strauss and Howe, Generations, p. 286.
[9] Strauss and Howe, Generations, p. 281.
[10] Eisler, p. 31.
[11] Sheehy, in Strauss and Howe, Generations, p. 292.
[12] Levinson, in Strauss and Howe, Generations, p. 292.
[13] Strauss and Howe, Generations, p. 292.
[14] Strauss and Howe, Generations, p. 50.
[15] Reisman, p. 61.
[16] Breines, p. 61.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Reunions, Part II, Regrets

Reunion, Part II: Regrets

I’d give a million tomorrows for just one yesterday…

Lyrics by Milton Berle, 1950
Music by Jerry Livingston

What always surprises me as I read accounts of class reunions is the focus most authors have on what one of them termed the “muted sexuality” of the class reunions. I wasn’t aware of that at our reunions, any more than the usual and very same kind of kidding that went on in high school, which I never thought of as “muted sexuality.”

Perhaps, as some authors suggest, with the passing of years memories of high school crushes grow more desperate or one is freer to be open with these feelings when less can be done about them. Or it could be that the one who does the approaching just wants the person to know that he/she was the object of their affections in high school.

Authors who write about reunions often describe incidents of persons who hold the fantasy of consummating a relationship that was not completed in high school. They further indicate that almost every one of these persons expressed a poignant regret at the loss either of friendship or, in some cases, of the continuation of the shared love never to be realized. What an intriguing thought it is, however, that many of us now have the adult resources to fulfill any lingering passion of our adolescence. I wonder how many people actually do.

What is most touching to me, however, is the deep caring many people have for particular classmates and the number of them who have the courage to express these feelings. I am amazed that these men had the courage to express their feelings. The following are examples classmates have shared.

Why didn’t you tell me how you felt about me?” was his question.

He admitted that he, as well as others, had been intimidated by me because they thought I was so smart that they were afraid to ask me for a date.                                                                  

You always were special to me.                                                                                             

I had a letter from him today in which he told me he had had such a crush on me in junior high.  A couple of years ago he told my daughter that he and I had dated, and sure enough, written on March 15, 1951, as only an 8th grader would write, is, “I do hope Bob likes me.  Lucille asked him if he likes me and he said, “She knows I do.” I hope he does.                                       

He thanked me for preparing special football scrapbooks, adding, “Thank you for all you are and do. This all goes to show what I said a long time ago—you scare me with all your smarts, talent, and energy. You bury me!!” I’m still not sure if that was a compliment.   

Personally the compliments I most treasure are from (1) those who told me I should have been our class president, (2) those who said the class had made a mistake electing the same male for four years, and (3) those who think I really was the class president. I hold to my heart being termed the “soul,” or the “memory keeper” of our class.

The photos you found hit me like a tsunami of time and memory. A collection of our youth and changes and how we all were integrated with each other, our families, and other friends. Thank you.               

One of the positive results of reunions is getting to know classmates better. By listening to them talk about how they saw themselves as teenagers we often can gain insight as to how they see themselves today. What is curious, however, is that while classmates seem to be willing to talk conversationally, many still hold back on discussing substantive topics or talking about anything personal. A few misunderstandings have been aired among our own class, but never quite to the point of resolution. And some misunderstandings never will be overcome, because the persons with the unresolved issues do not attend reunions.

How sweet and wonderful we all were, remembering and finding nice things about each other in our emerging selves.  It is heartwarming to share such memories of the tender time we passed through together.                                         

Every year, even prior to the reunion tours, I find myself imagining all of the local buildings as being the way they were in 1955, and I still get a lump in my throat on the last wide turn, under the railroad bridge, heading into Curwensville. The passenger train station is no longer standing, but I can’t help thinking of my Aunt Jessie waiting there in the summer of 1924, full of the sense of adventure as she headed to Clarion Normal School.

I don’t want to go back to Curwensville to live, but there is something compelling about the momentary sensation of thinking I am going home. The most difficult part of returning—every time—is the absence of the Teen-age Center, the Patton Building (our high school), and my family’s fine, late nineteenth century home on lower Thompson Street—all of which were razed.

However, every year we go back with heads full of pleasant memories, a few amusing stories to retell, and hearts full of goodwill. The most difficult time in recent years has been saying good-bye at the end of the week-end, wondering how many we will see again the next time. As one of the fellows wrote, after he had remained in Curwensville for another day after the reunion and then had taken a long, circuitous flight home the day following, “Things felt empty yesterday after you all left.”

My reply was, “It was empty also to those who left. I suddenly felt very lonely on the way home.”

Friday, July 26, 2013

Class Reunions, Part I

(Excerpt from Chapter 14, “Reflections, Reunions, and Regrets” in Growing Up Silent in the 1950s:Not all Tail Fins and Rock ‘n’ Roll, Yesteryear Publishing (2013), by Judith Thompson Witmer, Curwensville Joint High School, Curwensville, PA Class of 1955)

Class Reunions are the social process by which periodically we have the chance to see our high school classmates all in one place at one time. While there is fertile ground for a research study of alumni groups and class reunions, generalizations about reunions can be made through observation, experience, and reading both fiction and non-fiction. All researchers agree, however, that our perceptions of high school remain with us and that we are today who we were then.

It is in high school that friendships are created that have a unique depth to them and a hold on those who have forged the friendships. While we can’t choose our classmates, most of us form very close associations with them because our high school years are the only ones many of us ever spend with a social and economic cross section of our peers and is the only time we share an extended common experience.

Even though this experience is partly one of discord because adolescents are in the throes of conflict much of the time, we still turn to our peers for acceptance. Most of us never stop trying to win the love of classmates—at least for as long as the high school experiences continue through class reunions. We all pretend that acceptance by classmates doesn’t matter, but it does, and we want to be a part of the whole.

Classmates share experiences that are unique to those in the class and unique to the time, because the friendships are tied to events and these events are not repeated. For any particular class there is only one freshman dance, one sophomore selection of class rings, class color, flower, and motto. There is only one junior prom, and one senior experience of everything else that matters.

We remember the football cheers word for word, the pep songs, lines from the class play we were in, the songs we sang at Commencement, what we wore the last day of school our senior year, Class Day, how many times our pictures appeared in the yearbook, who wrote what in our yearbooks, what was written about us in the school newspaper, who drove us home after a school event or an evening at the Teenage Center, who commiserated with us the time we didn’t win the coveted award, who passed notes between classes, the names of our homeroom teachers freshman and senior years, favorite outfits … and gym suits.

Even today we frame much of our conversation in high school terms, describing someone as a cheerleader type, or the boy/girl who never paid attention to us in high school, the person who always knew the answers, a high school mentality, and the senior prom jitters. And we find ourselves still using the slang from those days, sometimes noticing people looking at us uncomprehendingly. Then we remember: they weren’t there.

Mainly, we all listened to the same music and watched the same movies. We recall whom we were dancing with or necking with or even sitting next to in the theatre. And for a brief moment we are there again.

Other than the casually asked, “Where did you graduate from high school,” high school experiences are almost never a topic of conversation once adulthood is reached. Not even those who were graduated in the same year or same decade, but in a different location, offer information about their years in high school nor do they ask about ours. It is almost a closed subject and an unvoiced agreement that “if you don’t ask me what I was like in high school, I won’t ask you.” And there is no question more provocative to ask a grown woman than “Were you a cheerleader?” The responses usually are strong and immediate, either something like “Why did you ask me that?” or “Why? Do I look like one?”[i] In any case, the response is always defensive.

As Keyes says, “I think the rest of our lives are spent making up for what we did or didn’t do in high school.”[ii] We never forget, ever. Mia Farrow (actress) remembers the time every girl except her was asked to dance; Charles Schultz (cartoonist) says that the yearbook staff rejected his every cartoon; Warren Beatty tells about the ten football scholarships he turned down; and Dory Previn (lyricist, singer-songwriter and poet) cannot forget the role she didn’t get in the class play.[iii]

In actuality, reunions are more a social history than the class yearbook, for reunions are fluid over as many years as classmates continue to hold them, sometimes for as long as there are enough surviving classmates to meet. And while they are fascinating and widespread, predictable yet arbitrary, and create both anxiety and hope, class reunions remain virtually an unstudied American phenomenon.

With all of the angst, then, why do people attend these fearful, emotionally charged events? When even receiving the announcement is unnerving, why do we go? Reasons given for attending reunions include looking forward to reminiscing, thinking one might look better now than in high school, “letting people know I am still the same friendly person who will talk to everyone,” or showing one has changed.

The primary reason people attend, however, is because they want to see particular classmates, especially a rival of the same sex, a high school steady, or the person who might have changed their life—“if  only.” What may be surprising is that those at their fiftieth reunion remember no less vividly than those at their fifth who it is they really want to see.

Reasons for not attending one’s reunions include not wanting to be reminded of being (or not being) in a clique, unhappy memories, or feeling like one did not belong. Further, people without good news to report don’t usually attend. Whether or not one decides to attend, we share a fear, held over from high school, of appearing ridiculous.

For all my own fussing about it (more evidenced by my diary entries than my memory which recalls few negatives about those days), I loved high school. I must assume that those who return to our reunions also did. The reunion attendees are much the same group every time. For the most part we remain the core of the class and were the nucleus (although not all of the same clique) in the 1950s as well. Even so, we are comprised of a cross-section. For the most part, we have remained true to each other and to our class.

Three of the seven high honor students in our graduating class have attended every reunion and three have never attended. Approximately ten percent of our entire class have never missed a reunion, but a larger percent have never attended. Our class president attended only one.

[i] Keyes, p. 83.
[ii] Keyes, p. 57.
[iii] Keyes, p. 7.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

James Dean, The Hero, The Icon, The Defining Moment of the Silent Generation

Ah, yes, James Dean, who indirectly had more impact on those growing up in the 1950s than even Elvis. Rebel Without a Cause was venerated among teenagers, giving those graduating in the mid-1950s the momentum to begin to understand the latent yearnings we had felt throughout high school. In some ways it empowered us and in other ways it made us long for a second chance to go through school asking more questions and perhaps challenging more of the adults. Rebel was the stark reminder of how repressed we had been and how compliant we still were. Mainly, the movie marked us as being a generation that may have been waiting for an opportunity to rebel and hadn’t yet verbalized it even to ourselves, but rather had chosen to remain unresisting and silent because we weren’t sure how many of us felt the same way.

While Dean’s movies were not released in time for us in my own class to have seen them prior to high school graduation, when I first saw Rebel Without a Cause in Chicago on November 25, 1955, I recall not being able to move or speak at the end of the movie. I was stunned by the performance, the message, and the sudden realization that this was a movie that was ours, one that defined us and our time. Jim Stark was the first screen character that we knew for certain was who we were, and a cult (albeit a silent one) was born. While we didn’t completely understand the epiphany, we knew something had happened to us. (Perhaps that was our defining moment that all historians missed.)

For more on James Dean, see the attachment below from my book, Growing Up Silent in the 1950s: Not All Tail Fins and Rock and Roll (2013).

Reflections on a Rebel

The memorable teen-age movies with which we most identified include Pat Boone’s “April Love,” the surprise smash hit “Blackboard Jungle,” Elvis’s “Jailhouse Rock” and “Love Me Tender,  “Rock Around the Clock” with Bill Haley and the Comets, “Marjorie Morningstar,” “Peyton Place,” “A Summer Place,” Brando’s “The Wild One,” “The Young Stranger,” “The Young Don’t Cry,” and the iconic “Rebel Without a Cause.”

Rebel Without a Cause, while very different from Blackboard, was perhaps the most famous and influential of the 1950s juvenile delinquent films. Its sympathy was completely with the adolescent characters in the film, making it symbolic of the time and creating a legend of its star, James Dean. Dean was likely the first manifestation of a youth culture that was just surfacing.  Rod Serling described the story as “a postwar mystification of the young, a gradual erosion of confidence in their elders … (and) in the whole litany of moral codes. The young just didn’t believe in them anymore.”[i] 

Miller and Nowak say that Rebel is the film that linked affluent teen-agers and rebellion, leading us finally to question—at least in our own minds—the authority of our parents and providing the rationale for any overt, even modest, challenge to parental authority. More importantly, teens from this time forward began to understand what power a shared culture could hold, and this realization strengthened their identity as a group.

Rebel caused such a stir that the Board of Education in Indiana, Pennsylvania (50 miles west of Curwensville) made a resolution “deploring the exhibition of moving pictures such as Rebel Without a Cause.”[ii] This, of course, only called attention to the movie, drawing even more viewers. What made the movie so startling is that such edicts demonstrate how wide the gulf had become between parents and teenagers.

Rebel was venerated among teenagers, giving those graduating in the mid-1950s the momentum to begin to understand the latent yearnings we had felt throughout high school. In some ways it empowered us and in other ways it made us long for a second chance to go through school asking more questions and perhaps challenging more of the adults. Rebel was the stark reminder of how repressed we had been and how compliant we still were. Mainly, the movie marked us as being a generation that may have been waiting for an opportunity to rebel and hadn’t yet verbalized it even to ourselves, but rather had chosen to remain unresisting and silent because we weren’t sure how many of us felt the same way.

The movie made a hero of James Dean and even in his short career, Dean impacted mid-1950’s teenagers—both girls and boys—like no one else. (I likely am not alone in having a nearly life-size portrait of James Dean in my bedroom, his films on videotape, and a cardboard cutout of his personage that I carry to our reunions.)

I just came back from seeing “Giant.”  All I can say is that Jimmy Dean wasn’t in enough scenes.  I really like him.  …I was on his side all the way.                                                      Tom Ball, January 3, 1957

Wild One, Rebel, Blackboard, and, later Blue Denim, broke new ground in the movie industry because they managed to do what every filmmaker dreams of—generate controversy while at the same time stimulate enormous interest that, at least with our generation, did not wane.

I just bought the DVD of all James Dean’s movies.                                        Tom Ball, December 2010

Seventeen percent (all female) of our class named Marlon Brando as their favorite actor and 15 percent (mostly boys) named John Wayne. However, it was the transcendent James Dean in East of Eden, Rebel Without a Cause, and Giant (movies respectively released March 9, 1955, October 27, 1955, and November 24, 1956, months before they were shown in small towns) who became our hero.

Judith Thompson Witmer, Class of 1955 and also author of two recent books about Curwensville’ s social history, Jebbie, Vamp to Victim and All the Gentlemen Callers: Letters Found in a 1920s Steamer Trunk, available at The Strawberry Tree and on Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

[i] Halberstam, p. 482.
[ii] Gilbert, p. 178.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Growing Up Silent: Chapter Previews

 Growing Up Silent in the 1950s: Not All Tailsfins and Rock and Roll is now avaialable on Check it out!
Growing Up Silent in the 1950s

…in his carefully dirtied white bucks, wearing a pair of chinos with the vestigial buckle on the back, and his shirt collar perfectly turned up.

Chapter One: In Our History Lies Our Voice

What kind of future did our parents dream of? Were they surprised thirty years later to find their own offspring—(us) would be viewed as similar in many ways to their own generation in its youth?

Chapter Two: The Youth of Our Parents

William Bartell, born in 1889 to a family who lived in houses rented to stone cutters, became the first student of Italian ancestry to enter the Curwensville school system where he was bullied by other students. 

Chapter Three: In Our Beginning

The Curwensville Golden Tide became the Western Pennsylvania Football Champions of 1936, an event still talked about even by those who couldn’t possibly remember it.

Chapter Four: Out of a World of Darkness

The best part of an evening’s sled riding was coming home and finding the remarkable aroma of baked potatoes being kept warm for hungry sledders and finding dry snow pants on the radiator for our next trip out.

Chapter Five: Into a World of Peace

By the time we were twelve years old most of us were frightfully self-conscious as we entered the river to swim or exited to dry in the sun. We were sure that all eyes were on us, judging us.

Chapter Six: Public Normalcy, Private Chaos, the 1950s

First Period: 1950-1952: In these early years of the 1950s the country still resembled the 1940s in many ways, Teenagers were not yet a subculture and we were barely distinguishable from our parents.

Second Period: 1953-1956: Americans had fastened onto the idea of “togetherness” to deny their loneliness as they reached for a sense of community which no longer existed.

Third Period: 1957-1959: Russia’s invasion of Hungary brought us to the brink of nuclear war, the incident at Little Rock brought us close to a division over race, Sputnik I terrified us, and the rigged quiz show with Charles Van Doren and the payola exposé of Alan Freed squashed our trust. 

Chapter Seven: Are You Perfect Yet

We knew we had to be well-mannered, attend to personal appearance, defer to adults, refrain from acknowledging or expressing differences, and do well in school. However, the most important thing in our lives was how we looked.

Chapter Eight: Blinded by the Media

I can’t remember a time that we didn’t have comic books. …Television changed the family dynamics by interrupting family personal encounters. … Much of what we learned about life was learned in the movies.

Chapter Nine: Rock Around the Clock 

We were careful to not share anything about ourselves with anyone else. We spoke to each other, but we didn’t really say anything of importance. We were secretive of our personal lives, to the point of not knowing we had one.

Chapter Ten: Shake, Rattle, and Roll

Cars  ruled our culture. Whether or not we had the use of our own or the family car, had a driver’s license, or simply were very willing to be passengers in whatever vehicle was going somewhere, we wanted to be in a car.

…………Regardless of size, high schools were judged by their game scores and season records, not their SATs.

…………Pep rallies for major games could be as thrilling as the game itself, particularly the one held the night before the end-of-season game between rivals.

… Above all activities, however, was the magic of the Curwensville Teen-Age Center. We viewed this place as our own, our birthright, our haven, and our social hub.

Chapter Eleven: The Dating Game

We girls never seemed to know where we stood with boys. Whether we were liked or not, how long the relationship might last, and how “far” we might go were only some of the questions that troubled us.

Chapter Twelve: Rituals, Customs, and Traditions

Among the best events in high school—parties included—were the special occasions that were unique to any graduating class. These were carefully planned affairs that held special and individual memories for each class member as well as collective remembrances that bonded teens together as a Class: selecting and ordering class rings followed months later by their arrival; holding class meetings, choosing class colors and a class flower.

Chapter Thirteen: Education and the Lost Sex

Everything about our lives was private or hidden, and most of us girls walked hunched over as we made our way through the school halls and to and from school, carrying our books tight against our chests, our glasses tucked away. Boys, of course, with nothing to hide and full of bravado, carried their books down at their sides.   

Chapter Fourteen: Reflections, Reunions, and Regrets

Remembrances are what we think, reflections what we reveal, and reunions often are the catalyst for the other two. Reunions are complicated to explain and tend to stir up feeling of regret, unexplainable even to ourselves. Perhaps this complexity is best summarized by Jim Marra, “How sweet and wonderful we all were… sharing such memories of the tender time we passed through together.”


Tuesday, January 1, 2013

What Are You Doing New Year's, New Year's Eve?

The signature event for our ninth grade group was a New Year’s Eve party held in the Wright family’s basement rumpus room which we futilely had tried to transform into a crepe-papered canopied dance floor. Despite the failed attempt at ambience, this turned out to be the night when our stumbling with dancing and fumbling with kissing games opened our eyes to a promising world.


“We had a wonderful time. …We worked all day decorating. We strung crepe paper across the ceiling and had signs on the wall and it looked beautiful. But that evening when we started dancing, we bumped into the streamers and they fell down. . . .”                                                       Scrapbook of the author


Thus, 1952 was ushered in by selected members of the freshman class and, like freshmen everywhere and in every decade, we believed we were the center of the universe


We were on the cusp of discovery that particular New Year’s Eve and this party became the event by which all other high school parties were measured. It also was the last time the unimpressed boys tore down the crepe paper before the end of the evening. After this party we seemed to realize that spin-the-bottle or post office or spotlight were just junior high excuses for necking, and the more interesting activity would be to put on a slow dance record so we could tentatively press our bodies together and go from there.


We could not have known that in coaxing the boys to dance we were only a handful of the 32 million people using long-play phonographs that New Year’s Eve. Soon dances and parties—and a portable record player—marked the greatest freedom all American youth would have when they no longer needed to depend on the family radio in hope of finding danceable music.[i]

[i] Halberstam, p. 473.