Whilst cleaning out some file folders recently, I came upon an old article written by syndicated columnist George F. Will of the Washington Post. The piece, typically excellent, is titled “Innocence Lost” and was written a number of years ago. Scanning the column, a paean to 1950’s America, it became clear that it was in part a book review, that book being “The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid” by Bill Bryson. It is, apparently (I have not read the book), an account of the author’s youth in Des Moines, Iowa.
According to Will, Bryson had some startling facts in his book, as well. To wit: in the early 1950’s America controlled two-thirds of the world’s productive capacity, owned 80% of the world’s electrical goods, produced 60% of its oil and 66% of its steel. Americans made almost all of what they consumed: 99.93 percent of new cars sold in the U.S. in 1954 were domestic brands. By the end of the 50’s, GM was a larger economic entity than Belgium and Los Angeles had more cars than did Asia! (The 1958 Lincoln Continental was 19 feet long). Yet “There was, too, a wonderful simplicity of desire. It was the last time that people would be thrilled to own a toaster or waffle iron.”
Ballpoint pens and long-playing record albums hadn’t yet been invented. Words and phrases still commonly in use then included: icebox, dime store, bobby socks, panty raid, and canasta (a card game).
Today, nearly everything you can do to- or put into- your body has at one time or another been considered bad or dangerous. Back then? In Las Vegas, downwind from some atomic weapons tests, government technicians used Geiger counters to measure fallout: “People lined up to see how radioactive they were. It was all part of the fun. What a joy it was to be indestructible.”
Yet, as Bryson noted dryly, people knew- without a warning label- “that bleach was not a refreshing drink.”
Nothing has changed more for the worse since the 50’s than childhood. The lives of children were, Bryson remembers, “unsupervised, unregulated and robustly physical. Kids were always outdoors- I knew kids who were pushed out the door at eight in the morning and not allowed back in until five unless they were on fire or actively bleeding.”
Today, parents- or likely parent- want to protect their kid(s) from all physical harm- if they didn’t abort them. They’ll put them in a helmet before placing them on a tricycle. Yet mental or spiritual harm isn’t a concern. ‘Outside’ is scary and unregulated in their view (though they may profess to love nature). Many kids today spend a large percentage of their time in malls. Just chillin’. Hangin’ out and coveting the newest shoes. And of course on the internet, playing video games and watching television. What could possibly go wrong?
There are distinct reasons for the American decline. It isn’t just the emergence of the third world, a broader sharing and usage of resources or demographic changes. Most of it is self-inflicted. As in the Carter days, we are now questioning our own worth and capabilities. It is worse than that, however. We have leadership that doesn’t want to lead, and despite all historical evidence to the contrary, believes America is nothing special. In fact, wants to see us “taken down a peg”. Incredible.
Yet we can come back from this new abyss, as Reagan proved after Carter. It can again be “Morning in America” for us, and indeed the world. It is a question of will and character, one that will be answered- one way or the other- by the American people.
There is a reason why we don’t let our kids play outside anymore. There is a reason why we haven’t been back to the moon and the space shuttle program is no more. There is a reason why our power and influence is waning, not waxing. And with that waning of American power we see a more belligerent Russia and a more aggressive China filling the void.
What a joy it was to be indestructible.