Thursday, January 7, 2010

What, Exactly, Was Mayberry All About?

Mayberry has evolved into a kind of nostalgic metaphor for the America of the 1950s and early 60s, and that idyllic America is gone forever. The decade of the 1950s began with some jagged edges thanks to the Korean War and McCarthyism, but by 1955, life in the United States had smoothed itself into time of ease and contentment, the likes of which will never be seen again on this planet. The good times would last for another ten years.

To begin with, in 1955 the earth held little more than 2 billion human beings, and the ultimate positive significance of that would not be clearly understood until that global population had tripled fifty years later. The United States had emerged from World War II with half of the world’s GDP and half of all the manufacturing capacity on earth, and by 1955, those percentages were still well above 40%. Airline travel was glamorous, in airplanes that were all built in U.S.A. All around the world, the term, ”automobile,” meant an American car. Oil reserves had recently been identified on the Arabian peninsula, but all of our cars ran on gasoline refined from oil pumped out of Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas and Southern California. The home computers and the microprocessors that power them were still 20 years in the future, but clunky and gigantic mainframe computers were already being supplied to industry and the military by IBM and NCR and Honeywell, and America had 100% of that market. To keep from falling behind, even the Soviet military was forced to secretly buy American computers through clandestine third-party nations. At the dawn of the 1950s, 12% of American households had television, and by 1959 that percentage had grown to 93%, and all of those TVs were American made.

The effect of all this production on the American standard of living was nothing less than miraculous. 94 % of American teen agers were graduating high school, and with nothing more than their high school diploma they could land a job that would support them for life. In the auto companies of Michigan and the steel plants along the Ohio River, a high school grad could start at a job that would pay the modern equivalent of $50 an hour, and this was in a time when $2500 would buy a nice home.

Granted, life for black Americans, known at the time as “negroes,” was a life as a second class citizen, but divorce and out-of-wedlock births happened in fewer than 5% of black households. Those rates were actually lower than the rates in the white community. Today those rates are at 70%. Black schools were segregated, but nearly all of the youngsters attending those schools lived with a father in their home.

The term, “drugs,” in 1955 meant hard heroin or marijuana rolled into “reefers,” and the use of these illegal substances was so far off the public radar that it was almost totally confined to the dark underworld of ghettos and back alleys. As for legal drugs, antibiotics were something totally new, and communicable diseases were not just being controlled and treated, but many of them were actually being eliminated.

This, then, was the backdrop for all of those rock-and-roll films and records, and the tailfins on the cars, and the be-bop dances in the malt shops, and all of the cultural icons that we associate today with the 1950s and early 60s. That culture was superficial, but the American greatness behind it was real. It wasn’t, however, something that could last forever. And somewhere between “I Love Lucy” and IBM computers that went to the moon, there really and truly was a land and a time like Mayberry. Then it went away.

In 30 years, all of us who lived in that time, and who remember it will be dead and gone. The young people of today will look at their world and believe that everything is just fine, but it won’t be Mayberry.

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