Sunday, November 17, 2013

It's just 50 years, but in a way, it seems like 200

If you were born after 1980, it may be hard to imagine the small but important ways in which the world of 50 years ago--the world of my childhood--was different from today. There were no ATMs. Postage stamps cost 5 cents. There was no internet, no e-mail, no Twitter, no Netflix, no cable TV, no cell phones, no Wikipedia. Most cars did not have seatbelts. There were no SUVs--people bought large station wagons with fake wood panels on the side. Telephones had dials on them, but the very first pushbutton phones had been introduced. We had not yet been to the Moon.

Most people smoked. Most men wore hats, and most women wore hats to church. Most women wore dresses. Many cars were still not air-conditioned.

When you flew on an airplane, you were served an actual meal, served with tableware and napkins, like a restaurant meal but on a plastic tray.

Real-time TV broadcasts across the ocean only became possible in 1963, with the introduction of the Telstar satellite. My parents called me into our livingroom to watch a real-time broadcast of French people singing folk songs.

Many TV shows were in black and white, and if a show was in color, that was special. A peacock symbol would come on TV, and the announcer would excitedly say, "The following program is brought to you in living color!" Words like "sex," "pregnant," etc. could not be mentioned on TV. Married couples in TV sitcoms were shown going to sleep in twin beds, not touching. Seriously.

What did this mean on the day Kennedy was shot?

Walter Cronkite had to announce the news first on audio only, because it took 20 minutes to get a camera set up.

Half the President's cabinet, including the Secretary of State, next in the line of Presidential succession after the Vice President, was on a government plane flying from Hawaii to Japan. Their only connection to the day's events were radio transmissions to and from the White House situation room. When they heard what had happened, they turned around. Their being informed and turning around was a matter of a couple of hours.

When a federal judge in Texas, Sarah T. Hughes, was tapped to go on Air Force 1 to administer the oath of office to Vice President Johnson, she said, "Is there an oath?" No one could find it, and they had to devise one.

CBS News didn't know for a couple of hours if President Johnson had been sworn in, or where he physically was.

Compared to today's instantaneous communications, via Twitter and other means, this all sounds like the era of parchment and quill pens. And yet it was only 50 years ago.

© Michael Huggins, 2013. All rights reserved.

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