Grim Times in the Fifties Lounge


September 19, 1992|By HAL PIPER

It was Ozzie, all right. Accustomed to seeing him in black-and-white, I was slow to recognize him in color. ''Where's Harriet?'' I asked.

''She doesn't like to come to the Fifties Lounge anymore,'' Ozzie sighed. ''She says it's not worth the hassle.'' He gestured to the knot of protesters outside the lounge, carrying signs with messages like: ''Down With The 1950s!'' and ''Admit It, Life Was Rotten Then, Too!''

Inside the lounge everything seemed reassuringly familiar. Jim Anderson was tossing a football with a son. The spaghetti sauce had exploded in Lucy's kitchen, but Lucy, dressed for some reason in a baseball uniform, was flipping fish to some seals that somehow had gotten in. Ralph Kramden had a scheme that would make him and Ed Norton millionaires. Pat Boone crooned in the background.

As I took a chair by Ozzie, a smiling woman in high heels and kitchen apron -- Wow! It was Mrs. Cleaver! -- approached and set down a plate of freshly baked cookies and two tall glasses of milk.

''Gosh, it's Golden Guernsey milk,'' I said. I hadn't seen it in years, but I remembered the milk commercials B.C. -- before Cal Ripken. I broke forth in song:

''Gurgle, gurgle, how I love my Golden Guernsey milk.

''It's such delicious, scrumptious stuff,

''I just can't seem to get enough.

''Gurgle, gurgle, how I love my Golden Guernsey milk.''

Ozzie was touched. ''You really are a child of the Fifties,'' he said, crinkling his eyes and placing a fatherly hand on my shoulder.

''Mr. Nelson,'' I asked, ''why are they dumping on our decade? Why don't they like family values?''

''I blame it on Elvis,'' said Ozzie.

''Elvis! But Elvis had nothing to do with family values. In fact, many of us were shocked by Elvis.''

''True,'' said Ozzie, ''but the Fifties Elvis won the stamp election over the Seventies Elvis. I think that helped further the idea that everything was better in the Fifties.''

''And wasn't it?''

''Well, I enjoyed it at the time,'' Ozzie admitted. ''But now the scholars say the whole decade was one big fraud. For instance, here's what Stephanie Coontz says in 'The Way We Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap':

'' 'Commentators noted a sharp increase in women's drinking habits during the decade, even though many middle-class housewives kept their stash hidden and thought no one knew that they needed a couple of drinks to face an evening of family ''togetherness.'' ' ''

An appalling thought struck me. ''Excuse me, Mr. Nelson, did you say that Harriet is home alone?''

Waving away my doubts, Ozzie continued: ''And Frank Rich says in The New Republic:

'' '. . . The halcyon '50s never existed, except as an illusion kept in place by segregation, by consumer industry's unquestioned and often unscrupulous clout with the media and government, and most of all, by the shackling of women. . . .' ''

''Surely the point isn't that other decades don't have problems?''

''No,'' said Ozzie. ''It seems to be an attack on what the Fifties are thought to stand for -- consumer prosperity, happy families.''

''But that's exactly what both the Clinton and Bush campaigns are promising the voters.''

''It's what most folks want. I guess the need to debunk the Fifties reflects our unhappiness in our own time. It makes us feel better if other times couldn't live up to their ideals either. After all, it's not as though we thought then that we were living in halcyon days. There was 'The Organization Man,' 'The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit,' 'The Lonely Crowd.' ''

''True,'' I said, ''but even then there were rebels. James Dean, the beatniks. You mentioned Elvis. You mentioned racism, too, but there were also Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King.''

A commotion erupted at the door, where Norman Rockwell, an unlighted pipe clenched in his teeth, was trying to slip past pickets waving signs reading ''Sidestream Smoke Kills!'' and yelling ''You Never Knew America!''

I decided to go tour the Palace of the Centuries.

''Spare yourself,'' said Ozzie. ''There are no good centuries either. Fifteenth century -- Columbus was intolerant of ethnic diversity. Seventeenth century -- unconscionable economic injustice at the court of Louis XIV.''

''I wanted to drop in on Camelot.''

Ozzie laughed mirthlessly. ''King Arthur was intolerant of Druids, the Knights of the Round Table employed barbaric negotiating strategies in their encounters with dragons, and worst of all, everybody was courteous to ladies.''

I settled back into my chair, and Ozzie hailed Mrs. Cleaver. ''June, may we please have some more milk and cookies?''

Hal Piper edits The Sun's Opinion * Commentary page.

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