Tuesday, October 6, 2009

1952: The inside story

Ontario. 1952. It was different. It was what old people refer to now as "The Good Old Days." You can judge for yourself.

Banks opened at 10:00 a.m. and closed at 3:00 p.m., Monday to Friday. No one new why, they just did. It didn't matter that those were the most inconvenient hours for everyone who wasn't a minister or working the night shift. To get money, you went to the bank, filled out a withdrawal slip, stood in line with 20 other people, then passed your slip to the teller who stood behind a metal grille looking very serious. Financial transactions like these were very serious.

When you ran out of money, you went home and sat on the porch, or went to visit friends and sat on their porch. You did not stop by an ATM or use a credit card or debit card because there were no ATMs or credit cards or debit cards. I realize this all sounds completely insane to all you young fry, but that's the way it was, and we considered it normal.

The CBC actually started broadcasting television programs in 1952, but no one had a TV set so it didn't really matter. I'm not sure anyone outside the CBC even knew about it.

Nonetheless, your home entertainment options were virtually unlimited. On the radio, you had the singing cowboys --- Roy, Hoppy, and Gene. You had the Lone Ranger. You also had The Happy Gang, The Shadow (Now that was creepy), Amos 'n Andy, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Bob and Ray. You get the idea. If reception was poor, you pulled out the cribbage board, or the crokinole board, or the euchre deck.

Of course, the movies always offered a good night out, and the big flicks in '52 were High Noon, starring Gregory Peck, and Singin' In The Rain with Gene Kelly. They showed us how to relieve stress --- shoot somebody or dance our troubles away.

Alcohol was frowned upon. In Ontario, if you absolutely had to have alcohol, you went to the Liquor Control Board. The law prohibited the display of adult beverages in the store because that might encourage customers to buy them. Instead, you filled out a form with the name of the product you wanted, and presented it to the clerk along with proof of age. He (it was always a he) went back into a mysterious chamber and emerged with your bottle, which he would wrap in brown paper and surreptitiously slip to you. You would then stealthily make your way home, being careful to ensure that passers-by did not glimpse the telltale brown package.

Public drinking also had its protocols. Drinks had to be accompanied by food, so hotels offered wrapped sandwiches for purchase. It was understood on all sides that these sandwiches were not to be consumed, and were for legal purposes only. When the patron left, the waiter would recover the sandwich for sale to subsequent customers. Many sandwiches were over the age of 21. Unaccompanied gentlemen were not permitted to drink in the presence of women, so all Ontario taverns were segregated into the "Beverage Room" (men only) and "Ladies-and-Escorts." The latter was a misnomer because anyone drinking in the L&E would never be considered a lady.

Teenagers did not have cars. In fact there were no teenagers. The term "teenager" had not yet been invented because rock and roll hadn't been invented, and you can't have one without the other. The shortage of cars meant that there was no sex between young unmarried ladies and gentlemen. Well, hardly any. Well, there was some, because young ladies sometimes had to go "visit their aunts" for a few months.

While we're on the subject of cars, there were Ford products, GM products and Chrysler products. And Studebakers. No one had a Studebaker. Regular people had cars with six cylinder engines. The Prime Minister, funeral directors, and real estate brokers had V-8s. There were two options available on new cars --- radios and white wall tires. There were two kinds of gas --- regular and high-test. A "grease monkey" filled your tank, checked your oil, and cleaned your windshield. You paid him with money.

In the city, the latest phones had rotary dials. Country folk had wooden phones that hung on the wall. You spoke into a kind of horn thing that stuck out in front, and held the "receiver" to your ear to hear the other party. There was only one phone per house, it was on a "party line," and each had its own combination of rings, kind of like today's ringtones. Ours was 1 long and 2 shorts. To call someone, you gave the side crank a brisk turn. The operator would say "central," ask for the number you were calling, and make the connection for you.

Now, about that party line. This was a kind of perpetual conference call. You assumed that all the other houses on the line were listening in to pick up the latest trivial gossip. I'm pretty sure the founders of People magazine and Twitter were inspired by the concept of the party line.

There was just one phone company, so you paid whatever they thought was fair. You would only make one, maybe two, long distance calls in your lifetime. Long distance calls cost as much as a college education, and were only for births and deaths in your immediate family. These habits were deeply ingrained. People from that era still won't call you if they have to dial "1".

Your alternative to the phone company was the postal service. There were two kinds of mail --- regular and registered --- no PriorityPost, ExpressPost, FedEx, UPS. None of that. People didn't expect anything same day, next day, overnight. They expected that, in due course and the fullness of time, it would show up.

Morally, there were a few things you'd rather your neighbours didn't know you were doing. Borrowing money was one of them. About the only legitimate reasons for borrowing were to buy a house, and... Correction, buying a house was the only legitimate reason for borrowing. You dressed up in your Sunday suit and met with the bank manager, who gave you a little sermon about things like amortization and repayment schedules. You proved you had the 30% down payment. You signed a lot of papers. There were no sub-prime, high ratio, adjustable rate, variable, or split-term mortgages. You said thank-you, and made the payments.

There were no retirees. A man worked until he was 65. Then he sat around the house listening to The Happy Gang, and within a year you were going to his funeral. Of course, what was he going to do? There was no Canada Pension Plan. No RSPs. Freedom 55 was 40 years in the future. Bad timing.

Those women who absolutely insisted on working outside the home were allowed to be teachers, nurses, or secretaries, on the understanding that they would work for half pay and wear uncomfortable shoes. Otherwise, the fairer sex was expected to be an attractive appendage and tender of the home fires.

Fuelled by lime-jello-and-cottage-cheese salads, the Women's Institute and church women's associations were hotbeds of controversy over the merits of Dr. Spock's child-rearing advice. To spoil or to spank, that was the question.

It was mostly white Wonder Bread. 97% of the population claimed to be Christian. Atheists and agnostics were not allowed. Everyone dressed up for church on Sunday, and sat in the family pew. Nuptials between an Anglican and a Presbyterian were considered a mixed marriage.

Overhanging the whole thing was the cold war. This was the serious stuff. The Russkies, vodka-swilling, godless people who spoke Russian, were a sure bet to mess up somehow and trigger global destruction. My uncle built a bomb shelter under his Scarborough bungalow. People hoarded canned goods.

Ah, the good old days.

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