Continuing my memoir-in-progress, in which I ponder the way my life developed in the context of the main fiction published in those years. To read earlier chapters click on the label at the end of this post. This is the 13th chapter.
The Happy Family
My memories of this year of my life are slim. I went from 3 1/2 to 4 1/2 years of age and it seems to me now to have been a year of settling in to family life without a lot of change. The world was in a state of flux with major political changes in Israel, Iran, Ireland and Czechoslovakia, while the United States and Great Britain moved ever more towards conservatism. Congress passed the 22nd amendment, limiting service as President to two terms. The Korean War waged on with North Korea (and thus Communism) winning for most of the year. Because of this and due to some of his wackier ideas, General MacArthur was relieved of his command, yet all attempts to negotiate an armistice failed.
By the end of 1951, thanks to the Marshall Plan and billions of American dollars, many Europeans countries had recovered economically and production-wise to levels higher than before WWII. Americanization of Europe was well on its way in terms of pop culture, though resentment towards America was also present. Rearmament in Europe and the United States had raised taxes.
The problems facing the last years of President Truman's term as President of the United States included inflation, labor troubles, discrimination against Blacks (especially in the South with poll taxes and lynching still going on) and poverty. But the main story of the 1950s was the Cold War: the fight between communism and democracy and the threat of nuclear weapons. The discovery and conviction of Russian spies in 1951 was fomenting an extreme fear of communism in our country which would lead to the abuses by Senator Joseph McCarthy and other witch hunters. While the Korean War was anything by cold, I see it as a dramatization of this conflict between democracy and communism while the Marshall Plan demonstrated that democracy won when money and expansion were present.
In the books I read from 1951, war and military subjects dominated the Bestseller list with five out of the top 10 books being about WW II. Three of the bestsellers were religious in content and only two were historical fiction. The #1 bestseller was also my favorite: From Here to Eternity by James Jones was a big war book with strong emotional impact. The other novel which stuck with me was Hangsaman by Shirley Jackson which ranks with any of the top literary titles of today. I read five books of science fiction in which the authors were busy predicting futures which are the present today. Except for the war books and the religious, the literature of 1951 was mainly concerned with the present and the future.
In film, the award winning films were two about contemporary times and one historical. "All About Eve" won Best Picture and Best Director (Joseph L Mankiewitz), starred Bette Davis and told the story of an upstart young actress usurping the reigning actress of the day. "Born Yesterday" took Best Actress (Judy Holliday), who played a dumb blond who gets wise and busts her criminal boss. This movie was remade with Melanie Griffith in 1993 and it would be hard to pick which version is the better one. "Cyrano de Bergerac" took Best Actor (Jose Ferer). It was based on a play which is pretty much a romantic comedy set in 1640s France.
In popular music, two of the hit songs of the day were from "The King and I", which was playing on Broadway that year. "Hello Young Lovers" was recorded by Perry Como and "Getting to Know You" was recorded by many. "Kisses Sweeter Than Wine", a re-write by Leadbelly and Pete Seeger of an Irish ballad was made famous by The Weavers. Also this year, Gian Carlo Menotti wrote the operetta "Amahl and the Night Visitors" on commission from NBC TV. Once we got a television, I would see this every Christmas of my childhood. The great synergy of theatre, film, radio and television had begun.
The world of science continued to develop peacetime uses for discoveries made in wartime: chemicals for fertilizer and atomic energy for electricity. Penicillin and streptomycin were in wide use in the United States getting kids through their childhood ailments, thus helping the population grow.
In out little house in suburban Pittsburgh, my parents were creating a safe haven. Daddy went to work everyday and my mom was playing the role of 1950s suburban housewife. My sister Linda and I had chicken pox at the same time, but most of my memories are happy. There were evenings when Mom would play songs on the piano while Linda and I marched and danced around. We visited neighbors with children and went to birthday parties. An older man from across the street would come and take me for walks in the woods behind his house. Mr Muchow was childless with an invalid wife but to me he was a personification of Santa Claus and Jesus combined, as he took me quite seriously, talking to me about my life and the trees and animals around us. I've had dreams about this amazing man all of my life.
Sometimes we had guests for dinner, which was called "having company." I was always willing to sing a song or tell a joke for the adults. My mom says this was my idea and I never had to be persuaded. I did love that feeling of being the center of attention. My dad had a great sense of humor and taught me the jokes I told. My signature song was "Jesus Loves Me."
Mom always had a pile of magazines in a corner of the living room. I would sit there for hours and "read" them, making up stories about the pictures. I also had blocks to build with, though Linda would most often come along and wreck my structures while laughing with glee. I kept my rage in check because pretty much all was right in my world and I didn't want it any differently.
Despite the occasional crisis with my grandparents which Daddy would have to handle, even though money was probably tight, I think my parents felt they had somewhat arrived in their own life. Through education, Mom escaped her small farm town life and Daddy had escaped his parents' home. They shared a strong Christian faith, a work ethic and a love of children. The happiness and safety I felt that year were in a large part created by my parents in the spirit of the "better world" America was supposed to be building. Though the next year would bring new changes for them and me, I was content and adjusted to our home and my little sister.