Sunday, November 02, 2008

READING FOR MY LIFE: 1953

LOOKING EAST


In 1953, my family moved to Princeton, NJ, the town where I would live until I went away to college. It was a good move for the whole family. My parents were able to put a fair amount of distance between them and my father’s parents and found intellectual stimulation in both the town and at their church. My sisters and I got to grow up in a college town, go to excellent public schools and live in a fairly hip town. Of course, none of us, except possibly my dad, knew about all this when we made the move.

This year was the beginning of the Eisenhower era, as our 34th President was inaugurated, after a landslide victory over Adlai Stevenson. The campaign at the end of 1952 was the first to utilize television as well as public relations and advertising firms, techniques with which we are now nauseatingly familiar. Though fighting in Korea had reached a lull, it took six months of negotiations to finally arrive at a truce with North Korea on July 27. The death of Stalin, the threats of Eisenhower to use atomic weapons against China and the weariness of war in both the US and China finally brought the war to an end. Aside from demonstrating a commitment by the US to fight the expansion of communism in the Asia, after years of fighting nothing much changed politically in Korea.

Meanwhile the Marshall Plan to revitalize and rearm Europe was making headway. England got a new queen crowned, Elizabeth II, but carried on with Churchill as Prime Minister. Both western and eastern European countries were still trying to recover from WWII and undergoing various political shifts, but it seems that in America people felt that war was behind them, prosperity ahead of them and life could now be orderly and secure. It may well be that the Eisenhower campaign did much to advance this viewpoint because in reality the Cold War was escalating with the USSR and the USA being the main opponents. As far as I can tell by studying a bit of the history of the time, it was extremely tense. In 1953 the USSR exploded their first hydrogen bomb, following ours of the year before and despite the rhetoric in the United Nations and elsewhere, any efforts to regulate the proliferation and use of atomic weapons came to nothing.

What I am trying to get at here is a certain mood of false happiness and security with an underlying theme of danger and fear that characterized the lives of children growing up in the 50s. Of course, at the age of five going on six, I couldn't say that I had any knowledge of all this. I do remember seeing pictures on the front page of the New York Times of soldiers coming home wounded from the Korean War and asking my father about it. Those pictures gave me a feeling of doom.

Pop culture as usual for the 50s kept it light. “The Greatest Show on Earth” won the Academy Award for Best Picture, featuring romance in the circus. Best Director went to John Ford for “The Quiet Man”, in which John Wayne plays a retired boxer gone back to his native Ireland to woo Maureen O’Hara. Gary Cooper won Best Actor for “High Noon”, a classic western. For a taste of the dark side, Shirley Booth took Best Actress in “Come Back Little Sheba”, a drama about a woman married to a recovering alcoholic.

“Doggie in the Window” was a big pop song and I knew all the words. The very romantic “Ebb Tide” was a hit for Vic Damone. In 1953 you could still have a hit song from a musical, so “Stranger in Paradise” from “Kismet” was recorded by Tony Bennet.

Literature in 1953 was a mixture of just about everything. Out of the top ten bestsellers, the top two were about Christianity, though The Robe, by Lloyd C Douglas was revived from 1942 by the release of a movie based on the book. The majority of bestsellers were historical fiction ranging from the 18th century to post Civil War. The High and the Mighty by Ernest K Gann was one of three with a contemporary setting: a commercial airplane flight from Hawaii to San Francisco which almost went down in the Pacific Ocean because there was no radar on commercial flights in those days. This was surely a first in fiction!

Among the other books were two about the Korean War: The Bridges at Toko-Ri, by James Michener and very patriotic contrasted by The Long March by William Styron, though in both a main issue was soldiers from World War II brought back into the military just as they were getting well settled in civilian life. Most of these books dealt with postwar life in America and had themes about the generation gap, small town versus city life, anti-communism and racism. I read several books on women, feminism and female roles in modern life, though two were by South African writers (Doris Lessing and Nadine Gordimer) and one (The Second Sex) by that feisty French woman, Simone de Beauvoir.

The overall theme of these books is gaps; between war and postwar, communism and democracy, men and women, patriotism and dissent, black and white, young and old, city and countryside. Once again, the issues that would become huge in the 60s were showing up as hairline cracks in the smooth fa├žade of the Eisenhower years.

My family was creating our own gaps. By the beginning of 1953, my dad was working at the New York headquarters of US Steel, but the rest of us were still living in the suburban Pittsburgh house. Daddy would commute to New York for the week and come home on weekends. He was also finding us a place to live. It turned out that he had an old friend from high school who lived in Princeton, NJ. Visiting the home of Princeton University with its lovely residential neighborhoods, colonial history and big leafy trees, he felt it was the town for us. Many men commuted daily on the train to the city for work, a trip that took about an hour including the subway from Pennsylvania Station down to the financial district. He found the Lutheran Church and called the pastor who hooked him up with a realtor.

The house in Pittsburgh had not sold, but my mother was eight months pregnant and had to get settled. So in March, the house in Princeton was rented, the movers (paid for by US Steel) took our stuff away and we got on an airplane headed for Philadelphia. I have no memory of my first airplane ride, but my mom remembers that Philadelphia was fogged in, so we had to circle and she got worried. When we finally got to our new house, rain had leaked in the windows and it was way below my mom’s standards of cleanliness. Luckily she was at the nesting instinct portion of her pregnancy and had us unpacked and organized in time for the new baby’s arrival. Grandma Engle, my mom’s mother, said the baby would be born with big hands because of all the cleaning Mom did.

Patricia Lo Succop was born, with normal size hands, on April 28, 1953. Grandma Engle came for a week followed by Grandma Succop for another week. I loved this new little sister from the first moment I saw her and I always have from that day on. I loved our split level house which seemed cool and cozy to me. Linda and I slept on the third floor, probably a converted attic with a slanted ceiling and small windows right above our beds. The house was close to the quiet street with the neighboring houses right there on either side. A side door off the kitchen led to a small yard and around to a fine backyard.

What I remember is playing all summer with kids from the other houses on our street, riding my tricycle, racing in to the kitchen for snacks, sleeping and sweating in our hot attic room and feeling even more free from my family than ever before. The boy next door, whom my mother could not stand, lived with his grandmother and was often in trouble. He could catch flies and pull their wings off, he ran fast, talked tough and I was at once scared of him and entranced. Since we moved in March, I never went back to kindergarten and after my ears popped in the airplane, I had no more earaches. The doctor in Princeton said I could keep my tonsils, which I still have.

In August, I turned six so when fall came and it was time for me to go back to school, I was a much tougher girl than I had been the year before. I started first grade at Valley Road School and I had to take a school bus. The first day, I remember standing in a long hallway-like room with what seemed like a thousand other kids. I felt alone and afraid but I was determined to be brave. Somehow we all got sorted out and into the right classrooms. Mine was in the basement with metal grilled windows looking our right onto a concrete surface. I had my own desk; the kind with an attached chair, an inkwell hole and a lid that lifted.

School was exciting to me but also had its hardships. Miss Large, our teacher, was small and nervous with her first class since graduating from college. I was a bit afraid of her but I think she was terrified of us. It seemed to me that she was very strict and serious and yelled too much. Recess was on a big blacktop playground with swings, merry-go-round, jungle gym, rubber balls and mean pushy girls. Either they knew each other from kindergarten or were friends from the same neighborhood, but there was a group of girls led by Margery who somehow sensed that I was new and would chase me around, grab me and not let go and laugh in my face. If I tried to get on a swing they would push me off. Even then I didn’t like to tattle plus I heard the teachers tell other kids to work out their conflicts on their own. The teachers seemed to like to huddle by the doorway and talk to each other.

Finally, I was rescued by Toni Marshall (one of the few black kids in the class) who gave those mean girls a mouthful and became my protector. I also got my first boyfriend that fall. I do not remember his name but he gave me a ring that turned my finger green. My mom refused to let me wear it when she saw that, but I would take it to school in a pocket and put it on there. One day when I was in the lavatory, it slipped off my finger and went down the toilet. I was heart broken and too embarrassed to tell the boy what happened, except that I had lost it.

Meanwhile, my parents had found a house for sale just up the street and bought it when the old Pittsburgh house finally sold. I am told that we moved in November though I remember that not at all. My first airplane journey, two new houses, and a new school must have been just a bit too much change. Overall it was a time of happiness for me. My parents seemed more relaxed, our family was complete and we had the house we would live in until all of us sisters grew up. Daddy went off to work everyday, Mommy was basically in charge, on weekends they took care of the yard and on Sundays we went to church. Except that we had no pets, it was just like that Golden Book that I loved the best: The Happy Family.

No comments:

Post a Comment