The Kids of 1941

Dear Fred,

I just want you to know how much I like the fact that you feature people of all races and, even, more so, writers of all ages. It is good to see people of my generation still active and being highly creative.

We turned 75 this past year, three-quarters of a century, inching by and yet flipping past us like pages torn from a calendar. The U.S. decided to enter World War II the year we were born. Dad was holding me in Omaha on December 7, 1941, when he and Mother stood by the radio to hear that the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor. She probably got that little worry line between her eyebrows, knowing the United States could no longer remain neutral. Some of our fathers enlisted, and some were drafted. Some never came back. Dad was inducted in early 1945, when they were calling in men with deferments, those with children or older than the average draftee. He served until the war ended in August, 1945 and used the G.I. Bill to get his PhD and a VA loan to buy a house in Billings, Montana for his family that would eventually grow to eight daughters.

We learned to read with Dick, Jane, and Spot and were forced to study penmanship in school. We were herded into auditoriums to have all our immunizations at once. Our mothers tied the sashes of our carefully-ironed plaid dresses in big neat bows for school. The boys wore corduroy pants. In the afternoon after kindergarten our mothers listened to The Second Mrs. Malone on the radio, while they ironed dress shirts or pressed sheets in mangles. We played with coloring books, paper dolls, Tinker toys, Lincoln Logs, Erector Sets, and Tiddywinks on the carpet.

We saw Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Bambi at the movie theater. When television became available, we watched Howdy Doody, “yessiree, Bob.” We played Cowboys and Indians, Cops and Robbers, Kick the Can, and Tag with neighborhood kids in the summer twilight. We yelled “Geronimo” as we jumped out of swings. At school we were rounded up in two lines on the playground for Red Rover, Red Rover.

We ate Campbell’s tomato soup with grilled cheese sandwiches. Our milk was delivered in glass bottles on the doorstep, often in the snow, and the first oleomargarine had to be kneaded in a plastic tube to spread the yellow around. We ate enormous chunks of chilled watermelon or Popsicle halves in summer. We hopped over the revolving lawn sprinkler. We drank Nehi pop in glass bottles. We agonized over which penny candy to buy at the movie matinee, bought cereal for the prize inside, and collected box tops to send in for the Magic Decoder Ring. Some of our mothers gave us frizzy Toni permanents in August to prepare for the first day of school.

We said, “See you in the funny papers” and then, as teens, “See you later, alligator.” We learned manners and the fox trot. Our mothers made us send thank you notes. We addressed our friends’ parents as Mister or Missus, and boys stood up when a female entered the room. They opened doors for mothers, aunts, or dates and removed their hats indoors. Our parents might have given us a swat on the butt if we misbehaved. Usually, they just had to drill us with the look of death when we needed reprimanding. We learned hygiene and geography at school and were taught to be kind to others. We learned that it’s rude to stare.

Our parents were terrified of polio and may not have allowed us to go to pools, but we still learned to swim. We got the polio vaccine, when it came out in our teens. We listened to FDR’s Fireside Chats, Amos and Andy, and the Great Gildersleeve on Fibber McGee and Molly. We were fans of the Lone Ranger and The Creaking Door on Alka-Seltzer’s Inner Sanctum.

We used keys to tighten our metal roller skates, asked Santa for Red Ryder BB Guns, wood-burning sets, Flexible Flyer sleds, Toni Dolls, bow and arrows, and Hop-along Cassidy guns and holsters. We played hopscotch, jacks, and marbles during recess.  We checked out The National Geographic for naked pictures and loved comic books, which often advertised how we’d no longer get sand kicked in our faces if we purchased the Charles Atlas body-building program.

We saw the Atomic Bomb obliterate Nagasaki and Hiroshima at the theater on Movie-Tone News. We heard the little Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret talk to the children of war-torn Europe on I Can Hear It Now, narrated by Edward R. Murrow, or heard the sobbing reporter describe the Hindenburg explosion. In high school, we watched news footage of concentration camp victims bulldozed into pits.

We were the first generation to grow up on television. We saw the coronation of Elizabeth II, the wedding of Charles and Princess Diana, the Kennedy-Nixon debates, and Elvis the Pelvis. The Ed Sullivan Show filled our Sunday nights and Your Hit Parade told us what was at the top of the charts. Gorgeous George fake-wrestled for us, and we were hooked on American Bandstand, which showed us what to wear and how they did it in Philadelphia: the Stomp, the Watusi, the South Street, the Mashed Potato, the Jerk, the Hop, the Stroll, the Swim, and the Hully Gully. 

We bought 45 rpm records and went to sock hops at school. Our favorite cheer at Billings High School was Rock Around the Clock, where shades of charcoal and pink were popular, and guys slicked back their hair in ducktails with Vitalis, not that greasy kid stuff, and wore Levi’s slung low on their hips, held up by thin belts. We did the Dirty Bop because adults hated it.

We girls pin-curled our hair or slept on curlers. Ponytails were popular. We slathered ourselves with baby oil and baked in the sun. We wore circle pins on our Janzen sweaters to show we were virgins. We bought saddle shoes, flats, crinolines, pleated skirts, and wide belts. We turned the collars of our blouses up and wore small silk scarfs around our necks. We weren’t allowed to wear slacks to school and suffered through acne, girdles, and pointy Maidenform bras. Our parents bought us Lane cedar chests in preparation for marriage.

It was a confusing time. Our parents usually didn’t tell us much about sex, except not to do it. Our sex education consisted of the minimal information given in gym class and misinformation from peers. We knew where babies come from and how they get there, but not much more. We were in our early twenties when the first oral contraception was available and in our thirties when Roe V.Wade was decided. The Feminine Mystique was published in 1963, the year we graduated from college.

We can recall exactly how and when we learned that John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, Jr. had been shot and were glued to the television that Thanksgiving weekend after JFK’s death. We cried at little John’s brave salute and were horrified when Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald in the basement of the jail. When Neil Armstrong made the first step on the moon, we secretly hoped to see space monsters pop out. We witnessed James Meredith’s painful integration of Mississippi State and the struggle to enact the Civil Rights Act. We saw southern blacks blown off the sidewalks with fire hoses on the nightly news. Many of us were civil rights activists in Mississippi or Alabama after college.

Some of us grew up in communities with party lines. Talking on the phone was a luxury, not a necessity, particularly in my large family. Long distance was expensive, so a collect call to parents could be a code we’d arrived safely at our destination. Dad thought that was dishonest, so our calls were brief: “Hi, I got here.  Love you, bye.” If we got stuck somewhere, we needed a dime for a pay phone, which were almost everywhere. ATM’s weren’t part of our world; banks were crowded on Friday afternoons with folks taking out the cash they’d need for a weekend.

We grew up with Brownie cameras, Polaroids, and Snail Mail. New connections to people and things inundated us in middle age: Facebook, Skype, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, and Selfies. Some of us struggled to accept computers and access to everything on iPhones, while others took to them right away. We went through tie-dye shirts and bell-bottoms, the rise of Black Power, Rubik Cubes, go-go boots and disco pants, Pong games, Mister Bill, Pet Rocks, Nehru jackets, puffy hair, huge shoulder pads, leg warmers, and ads for Veg-o-Matic. Some of us moved from straight kids to flower children to Jefferson Airplane freaks, our young adulthood in synch with the Beatles’ creative changes, starting out all sweet and bouncy, and ending up wildly psychedelic. Many of us didn’t change much at all, just added layers of wisdom.

We voted for the first time in 1964, served proudly in the Armed Forces or protested the Vietnam War, went to college or learned a trade, became feminists or hated the idea, were homemakers or worked in corporate boardrooms, burned our bras or just  took them off for a while, were scientists or engineers or insurance agents, smoked marijuana or became deeply religious, or both, went through the Human Potential Movement or scoffed at it, got married, and sometimes divorced, came out about our sexuality, raised children and spoiled grandchildren, or chose to remain childless, bought Harleys or travel homes, became hip and/or got hip replacements, were fiercely loyal to friends and attended class reunions. We’ve always been suckers for the happy ending and defenders of the underdog. We kids of 1941 are all grown up now, aging a bit, but still full of the hope and wonder we had back then, sure that when our world seems most damaged, right will win over wrong.

(After being a resident of a California’s San Francisco Bay community, Kara now lives on a ranch in Eastern Montana and pursues writing with continuing enthusiasm.)

© Kara Jane Rollins, 2016.  All Rights Reserved.

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