“Happy (School) Days”

Donald Trump’s Strangest Bedfellows: Part 8

“Happy (School) Days”

This is Part 8 of a blog series titled “Donald Trump’s Strangest Bedfellows.”
Click here to go to the
first entry in the series, Part 1.

The two previous entries in this series provided an overview of several areas of nostalgia about the era of the 1950s and early (pre-Beatles) 1960s embraced by many Conservative evangelical Christians as evidence that that era was the heyday of a truly “Christian America.” A significant proportion of these folks voted for Donald Trump in the recent presidential election specifically because they had…and still have…high hopes that, as part of his promises to Make America Great Again, he will be able to put in place policies and projects that will realize their hopes to also Make America Christian Again.

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Part of the conviction that 1950-1963 America was “holier-than-now” stems from the popularity of re-runs of old TV shows that seemed in line with the “family values” of Christians, shows such as I Love Lucy (1951-1957), Father Knows Best (1954-1963), Leave It to Beaver (1957-1963),  and the Andy Griffith Show (1960-1968). Marriages on such shows were shown as being loving and stable…

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Strong husbands and/or fathers were the focal point, pillar, and guide of the family…

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Wives were stay-at-home moms who always cooked and served scrumptious home-made breakfast, lunch, and dinner meals on pretty china.

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And who always performed all their wifely and motherly duties while wearing a pretty house dress (topped often with an apron)… with high heels, classic jewelry, and flawless hair and makeup.

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Children and teens in these model families were all polite, respectful of their elders, and ready to confess quickly and repent if they happened to get caught in minor mischief.

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Yep, “that’s the way it was” back then in the average American family. You can be sure of that because…TV wouldn’t lie.

Other parts of the conviction that the Happy Days era was also God’s Era can be substantiated in many minds by the fact that Bible-themed films were wildly popular on the big screen at motion picture palaces…

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And millions of people were attracted to the Godly Preaching and Teaching of the Reverend Billy Graham and Bishop Fulton J Sheen on the small screens in their living rooms.

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Starting in 1949, an organization called “Religion in American Life” (RIAL) made sure that all citizens helped to create and sustain this Christian America by constantly reminding everyone through billboards, TV and movie theater ads, prayer cards on restaurant tables, articles and ads in popular magazines,  and more that they should be sure to “Go to the Church of Your Choice” every week, and pray regularly.

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Yes, many modern evangelicals are convinced by all this evidence that if they could only go back to The Way It Was in God’s Era, all of American Life would be permeated with piety. And not just in the movie theaters and living rooms on TV, and on the highways and in the churches…the piety was particularly prevalent where it was the most influential on the next generation of citizens: For God Himself was in the grade schools and high schools of the United States! He must have been…for one of the strongest claims and loudest complaints in many circles about what brought the end to the Great America of those Happy Days was that “God was kicked out of the schools.” That very phrase shows up on thousands of websites, so it must be true.

Yes, many claim that throughout the land in the 1950s and early 1960s virtually every school day started with heartfelt prayers by the children and teens, and reverent consideration of various  admonitions of the Bible—with Bible passages read aloud either by a teacher or perhaps even by the youths themselves. This was evidently the equivalent of “God being in the schools.”  And that presence was what assured a society of a generation of well-behaved, respectful, obedient, patriotic young people.

A significant number of evangelicals claim, as a matter of fact, that this had been the regular custom of all public schools since the founding of the nation in 1789. And thus it was one of those significant factors which led to God’s unbounded blessings on the nation throughout its history, culminating in the Greatest Era of them all.

There’s just one slight problem with this theory from my point of view. You see, I happened to attend public grade school and high school throughout those Happy Days, starting in kindergarten in 1951, and finishing in high school in 1964—just after God had been allegedly kicked out. For the first four years I attended grade schools in a major metropolitan area (Dayton, Ohio), and later I attended grade school, junior high, and high school in a small Midwestern town, Traverse City in northern Michigan. During the full 13 years of my school career, I don’t have any memory at all of any “group prayers” in classrooms, nor any Bible readings. Oh, there were invocations at graduation ceremonies and such. But no mandatory in-school praying or Bible reading.

I don’t doubt these things occurred in some parts of the US. I’ve seen pictures from back in  those golden olden days of my youth, obviously kids being led by a teacher in praying at the beginning of the day, or maybe even before eating a snack or lunch…

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But the bottom line is this…I haven’t seen the evidence that those prayers and Bible readings—yielded the fruit that they supposedly produced in that generation. I haven’t seen the evidence that the supposed “presence of God” was so strong in schools that it produced piety. Quite the contrary.

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Yes, most modern evangelicals seem blissfully unaware that the problem of juvenile delinquency was so prevalent in the nation during those gentle little Leave it to Beaver days that Congress created a subcommittee to investigate the problem, and called special hearings in 1954 to address the issues.

Juvenile delinquency was considered a major social problem in the 1950s. Americans under the age of eighteen were committing serious crimes in growing numbers; their elders were horrified at the severity of the crimes and at the young criminals’ disregard for authority. Most of all, though, people were concerned about what the rate of juvenile crime said about how the nation was raising its children. Of course, there had always been youth crime in America, even vicious youth crime. But in the 1950s, because of the growth of cities across the United States, it became a national cause for concern.

As early as 1953 the statistics suggested a youth crime wave. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover reported: “persons under the age of 18 committed 53.6 percent of all car thefts; 49.3 percent of all burglaries; 18 percent of all robberies, and 16.2 percent of all rapes. These are the statistics..

As a result of these factors:

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The United States Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency was established by the United States Senate in 1953 to investigate the problem of juvenile delinquency.

The public hearings took place on April 21, 22, June 4, 1954 in New York. They focused on particularly graphic “crime and horror” comic books of the day, and their potential impact on juvenile delinquency. When publisher William Gaines [Gaines had begun publishing Mad Magazine in 1952, but also had a large stable of horror comics] contended that he sold only comic books of good taste, Kefauver entered into evidence one of Gaines’ comics which showed a dismembered woman’s head on its cover. The exchange between Gaines and Kefauver led to a front-page story in The New York Times the following day.

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Chief Counsel Herbert Beaser asked: “Then you think a child cannot in any way, shape, or manner, be hurt by anything that the child reads or sees?” William M. Gaines responded: “I do not believe so.” Beaser: “There would be no limit, actually, to what you’d put in the magazines?” Gaines: “Only within the bounds of good taste.” Sen. Kefauver: “Here is your May issue. This seems to be a man with a bloody ax holding a woman’s head up which has been severed from her body. Do you think that’s in good taste?” Gaines: “Yes sir, I do – for the cover of a horror comic. A cover in bad taste, for example, might be defined as holding her head a little higher so that blood could be seen dripping from it and moving the body a little further over so that the neck of the body could be seen to be bloody.” Kefauver:(doubtful)”You’ve got blood coming out of her mouth.” Gaines: “A little.”

What none of the senators knew was that Gaines had already cleaned up the cover of this issue. Artist Johnny Craig’s first draft included those very elements which Gaines had said were in “bad taste” and had him clean it up before publication.  (From Enotes.com)

Magazine articles and books abounded which dissected the growing menace of juvenile delinquency. Traverse City where I attended high school had a population less than 10,000. We had a few “greasers” or “hoods” in town, who wore long, greased-back hair (in the style known as the D.A. because in the back it looked like a duck’s… ahem…tail) and black leather jackets over white t-shirts, and got in very minor fistfights outside the school grounds after school. Our own versions of The Fonz.

fonz

But it was mostly just for show. There were no real “gangs” and no actual hoodlum activity in town. So I wasn’t exposed very much to the kind of problems that went on in metropolitan areas. But in my freshman year at Michigan State University in the fall of 1964, I met my new roommate, who was from Long Island, New York. She had a much more urban youth than mine, and would regale me with stories of the escapades of the girl gangs from her area. I particularly remember her explaining that they would tease their long hair into a “ratted” mass to create the beehive and other “big-hair” styles popular at the time … and then secretly tuck away within the tangled mass…razor blades. That way when the kind of “cat fights” that such girls got into began, and their “rivals” would grab a handful of their hair to try to yank it out, they’d get their hands bloodied.

I later found that this type of scenario was meticulously documented in Rebels in the Streets, a 1964 expose’ book of the time by NY Daily News reporter Kitty Hanson.
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In describing the typical girl group arsenal, she doesn’t mention those razor blades…but plenty else.

Weapons include iron pipes, brass knuckles, bicycle chains, belt buckles, the honed handles of garbage can lids, beer can openers, radio antennas sharpened into sabres, knives (of course) and guns.”

Not to be outdone by the ladies, of course, the young male gang members of the time had bigger and badder arsenals, as described in this 1962 investigative reporting book, The Shook Up Generation.

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The variety of gang weapons is endless. Some possess hand grenades, dynamite-and-caps or acid bottles. One gang leader in Queens goes into battle with a can of lye into which he has urinated. Broken bottles, steel chains, lead pipes, tire irons–almost anything makes a deadly weapon in street combat.

There is a Brooklyn gang which is known to have in the arsenal half a dozen old Navy cutlasses. Machetes are common because they can be bought from a bin in many hardware stores. Some boys make Molotov cocktails…

The automobile, where gang members have access to it, is the most feared weapon. It inspires the kind of terror among street boys that the tank aroused when it was sent against infantry in World War I. Cars are driven with lethal intent straight at enemy boys. A youngster trapped in the open street is simply run down. Survival is sheer luck.

As early as 1949, the juvenile delinquency epidemic had started enough to make it a hot topic for comic books.

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The topic even made it onto Broadway in 1957 (and later into a movie) with West Side Story, with its battles between the Jets and the Sharks.

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And while there were indeed a number of movies about the Bible in the 1950s…there were a WHOLE lot more addressing themes of juvenile delinquency. Starting with the classics, Wild One (1953)…

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Blackboard Jungle (1955)…famous for Rock Around the Clock in the soundtrack…

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And Rebel Without a Cause (1955)…

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Although these films may have had a “moral” at the end that “bad behavior doesn’t pay”…I can guarantee you that the teens (and often pre-teens) who filled the theaters of the land every weekend to watch them (and maybe neck and pet in the dark balcony…or in their cars at the drive-in) were not going home fortified with renewed resistance to temptation to bad behavior. Many of the young men wanted to BE the “bad boys” like James Dean and Marlon Brando, and many of the young women hoped to woo their own bad boy.

When I wrote “every weekend” in the paragraph above, I wasn’t exaggerating. In the 21st century, we are used to movies having a grand opening at the theaters, and then, if they prove popular, having a “run” of many weeks. But it was typical in the 1950s and early 60s for theaters to swap out their films every single week, except for the very MOST popular Hollywood blockbusters. And, in fact, many regularly showed “double features” every week, two films shown back to back for the price of one ticket. (Plus cartoons and a newsreel!) So Hollywood was required to crank out an almost unlimited supply of films.

Many film buffs are familiar with the term “B-Western movies,” and with the many low-budget horror, sci fi, and gangster films of the era. What are sometimes ignored are the many, many cheaper versions of the classic juvenile delinquency films mentioned earlier. Those three films have been praised over the decades for their cinematic values. But most of the rest of the genre didn’t quite rise to that standard…I guess you’d call those “Teensploitation” films these days. Such as these gems, just a sample of the ones released in 1958.

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Something is wrong with a scenario that insists that the “culture” of the 1950s was all sunshine and rainbows, that most of the children and teens of the era were all sweet, gentle clones of Opie on Andy Griffith and Wally on Leave It to Beaver. And that this pure and wholesome world all came to a crashing halt because “God was kicked out of the schools” with Supreme Court decisions in 1962 and 1963 regarding mandatory prayers and mandatory Bible readings in public schools.

Don’t get me wrong…I know that there really were some children like Opie and teens like Wally in the 1950s.

But see…there STILL are. Just yesterday I was at the checkout at an area Walmart, with a big load of groceries in my cart. I don’t think of myself as “an old lady”…but I guess the white hair and creaky joints give me away when I’m trying to unload a grocery cart. Suddenly I heard a voice behind me, and turned around. There stood a little girl about 10 years old or so, politely trying to get my attention. And then she very sweetly and cheerfully asked me if I needed help unloading the cart! This sort of thing happens to me quite a lot these days…from children, teens, and young adults in all sorts of settings.

It really saddens me to hear people talk as if almost the whole generation of youth in our time are selfish brats and hooligans, somehow inherently inferior to the “quality” of kids back in the 1950s. That has not been my observation of the young people I’ve been exposed to in my grandkids’ generation. “As a group” they seem little different to me than the kids who surrounded me at school and in my neighborhood in my youth. Back then there were nice kids, naughty kids, respectful kids, bratty kids, kind kids, mean kids, gentle kids, hateful kids. In about the same proportions as I see them now.

What’s odd is that many of those same people, who are so convinced everything fell apart in 1962/63, seem to be particularly scornful of the college-aged “hippies” of the late 60s and early 70s. Have they forgotten that those are the very same people who were going to grade school and high school in the 1950s…when God was supposedly in residence there? Are they tacitly admitting that the mandatory prayer and Bible reading of that decade didn’t REALLY yield the fruit they claim it did??

Or are they just smitten by a huge dose of Cognitive Dissonance, refusing to admit to themselves that reality doesn’t line up with their theories? What they DO seem to be smitten by…is a man who was indeed, himself, a Child of the 50s. Donald J Trump was born the same year as I. I don’t know if his exclusive private K-12 school in Queens, New York, had regular Bible readings or prayer when he was there. If so, that supposed Presence of God wasn’t very successful at creating a Wally Cleaver clone…he didn’t go on to high school there—because he was so rebellious his family decided to send him off to a Military Academy boarding high school to, as he put it, “Get me in line.”

Even if God’s influence didn’t work too well in his own youth, he’s evidently now convinced by his Strange Bedfellows that he ought to do his part to help them realize their dreams to recapture that supposedly devoutly Christian America of his youth, get God and mandatory prayer and Bible reading back in the public schools…and mandatory “Merry Christmas” greetings back into the public marketplace.

Donald’s Strangest Bedfellows…and many others who voted for him…have more fuzzy memories about the Happy Days era too. The next entry in this series explores their perspective on another set of circumstances back then that affects their perspective on what needs changing to Make America Great Again. Click the link below to read about…

“History’s Biggest Coup?”

 

 

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