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Jack Smith

Prehistory repeats itself as the class of '38 is heard from again

February 04, 1985|Jack Smith

You may remember that I recently quoted two paragraphs from a Wellesley magazine article by a Wellesley graduate, Class of 1938, listing all the wonders of the 20th Century that they didn't have back there in '38.

I quoted only two paragraphs, explaining that I respected the copyright of the author, Nardi Reeder Campion, and regarded plagiarism as the one sin still available to me; but only those two paragraphs contained enough familiar items that were missing from life in 1938 to make it seem like some prehistoric era.

And a good many arguments were set off by Campion's items. What did she mean, wrote several readers, that there were no vitamins in '38, no Frisbees; no Scotch tape. At least no one denied that the class of '38 did have to live in a kind of dark age before the three Ps--Penicillin, the Pill and Panty hose.

Since quoting her, I have heard from Campion:

"Way out here in freezing New Hampshire," she wrote, "I am being deluged by copies of your column. I love it!

"You are clearly unique. Not only is your readership vast, so is your integrity. Fancy regarding plagiarism as a sin! That talk, which I gave at my 45th reunion at Wellesley, has been reprinted far and wide, usually without permission and often without byline. The motto seems to be all work and no plagiarism makes a dull column. May your tribe increase."

She also enclosed a copy of her full article, and said I was free to quote it at will.

Here, therefore, are a few more items that the young Miss Reeder and her classmates were "before" in '38:

"At Wellesley, students were forbidden to wear slacks. We were before drip-dry clothes. Before ice makers and dishwashers, clothes driers, freezers and electric blankets. Before the opposite sex was allowed above the first floor. . . .

"We were before Leonard Bernstein, yogurt, Ann Landers, plastics, hair dryers, the 40-hour week and the minimum wage. We got married first and then lived together. How quaint can you be?

"Pizzas, Cheerios, frozen orange juice, instant coffee and McDonald's were unheard of. We thought fast food was what you ate during Lent.

"We were before . . . FM radio, tape recorders, electric typewriters, word processors, Muzak, electronic music, disco dancing--and that's not all bad.

"In our day cigarette smoking was fashionable, grass was mowed, coke was something you drank, and pot was something you cooked in. American schools were not desegregated; blacks were not allowed to play in the major leagues; "made in Japan" meant junk; and the term 'making out' referred to how you did on an exam.

"In our time there were 5-and-10-cent stores where you could buy things for 5 and 10 cents. For just one nickel you could ride the subway, or ride the ferry, or make a phone call, or buy a Coke, or two copies of the Boston Globe and get change, or buy enough stamps to mail one letter and two postcards."

But then she asks us to consider some of the things that Wellesley girls had in '38 that are unknown today.

'We had girdles with garters on them and petticoats and serge bloomers for gym and nude "posture pictures" required for Phys. Ed., which Harvard men tried to steal.

"We had all the big bands . . . Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Gray, Guy Lombardo. Unlike the remote-control dancers of today, we knew how it felt to have your partner hold you close and double dip.

"We played thick 78 rpm records with cactus needles . . . . We had Toscanini and Koussevitzky and Flagstad and Edward VIII and saddle shoes and cars with rumble seats. And when Ray Noble played 'The Very Thought of You' on his piano, we melted."

Now, Campion says, she feels "unstuck in time--in the springtime of my senility, I am a misfit."

"I don't go in for consciousness raising or sensitivity training. I don't like to jog. I don't like pesto sauce. I don't know how to pump my own gas. My legs are white and stockings are brown when the opposite is the style. I'm not 'into' veggies or yoga or Zen or punk. My idea of a good time is to walk with a man, not jog with a Walkman.

"I seek silence in a day when silence is as rare as a Gutenberg Bible. The man I live with is my husband and after 42 years he's still the same one.

"How embarrassing."

If I had graduated from college, I also would have been in the class of 1938, though it is unlikely that I would ever have met a Wellesley girl.

Even so, I am of Nardi Reeder Campion's generation. I knew what it was like to live without credit cards and ballpoint pens, without drip-dry and pizza parlors and tape recorders and the Pill. Yes, the Pill would have been as great a blessing to us young men as to the women of our time. Or almost, anyway. (I'm not sure I care that much about panty hose.)

I don't remember that I was ever very good at double dipping. One had to be rather strong and athletic for that; but I was good enough at cheek to cheek, and it was in that intimate embrace, gliding across the ballroom with my lips against some young lady's shell-pink ear, that I grew proficient in the husky delivery of sweet nothings.

In this day of the Pill, and assertiveness training, and the liberated woman--are sweet nothings never spoken anymore?

How embarrassing to have an outmoded skill!

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