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FAMILY LIFE

The 1950s Weren't Always Happy Days

May 24, 1990|MIKE SPENCER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It turns out that my 12-year-old--who lives what many, including me, would consider an idyllic life--envies my childhood.

Why?

Because it occurred in the '50s, that's why.

"Gee, it must have been great," he says, "with all that neat music and old cars and clothes and stuff."

Oh, it was, it was, indeed--if you measure an entire decade only by its cars, clothes and music.

But if you want to widen the lens on your MTV camera, you will find there was a lot more, some of it extremely unattractive.

Polio epidemics, for example. No one born after 1955 can imagine the terror that gripped whole communities before a vaccine was perfected. Theaters closed down, as did public swimming pools, children were kept indoors, and even the halls of L.A. County General Hospital (as it was then called) were jammed with iron lungs, huge pulsating machines that kept victims breathing.

And if you think racial discrimination is a problem today, take a look at the '50s, when it was rampant and--even more tragically--taken for granted, even in "progressive" Southern California. Blacks, Latinos and Asians all had their places and were expected to stay there. Most neighborhoods and restaurants were off limits.

In the Los Angeles area town where I grew up, blacks were allowed to use the public plunge only on Thursdays, or what was called "international day" (white residents were assured the pool was emptied and thoroughly scrubbed afterward).

You had to live in a minority community to know what was going on there because the media ignored its happenings, good or bad. I had a black friend whose engagement photo was rejected by the local newspaper because, as the society editor told me with a straight face, "their pictures don't reproduce very well, you know."

It's true that prices were a lot lower, but so were wages (that $1,500 new Chevy looked awfully expensive to someone making $50 a week).

On the plus side, the streets were safer, drugs were confined to a very few, and it was possible for the average family to buy a home.

What concerns me is the extremely narrow and unbalanced view of history our children receive from television, resulting in a pervasive and terrible ignorance of our nation and its roots and negating the great strides our society has made.

How, after all, can people know how far we have come if they don't know where we started?

Of course, television isn't the only villain. Motion pictures haven't helped keep the record straight, either, and there does seem to be a human trait to remember only the good times. As Benjamin Franklin said, "The Golden Age is never the present age."

Most of us, including one recent President, seem to believe that there once was a time in America when there was no poverty, hunger or crime, when the air, water and food were pure, when peace ruled and life was just plain good.

In one national poll, conducted in the mid-1980s, the public narrowed down those "good old days" to a specific period--the 1890s, known to films and television as the "Gay '90s."

Prompted by that poll, I spent several months researching the period for a documentary film project. Some of the findings were startling. For example:

* The same diseases that plagued mankind during Christ's time continued unabated through Grover Cleveland's. And nutritional diseases were rampant, even on the farm, where people's diets were restricted by what they grew.

* Two-thirds of the residents of New York City lived in slums without proper ventilation, lighting, kitchens or toilets.

* More than 300,000 horses lived in New York City, each dumping 25 pounds of waste on the streets daily--and there was no sanitation department, so it lay until rain or melting snow swept it into the sewers, which emptied into the rivers or ocean.

* The air was so foul that people had to cover their noses whenever they ventured out.

* The New York Police Department was so corrupt that the state Legislature ordered it disbanded, and when the police refused, the state militia had to be sent in.

* As a result of two major financial crises, bands of homeless and jobless men roamed--and terrorized--the countryside.

* Most children were forced to go to work in factories at about the age of 8 to help their families.

The list of the joys of living during those good old days goes on, but I assume the point is made.

The truth is that the Golden Age lives in our memories--and the Hollywood back lots--but not in real history.

It seems to me that it's important for our children to understand that every generation has faced monumental problems and overcome them.

And even more important that they learn real history--which they will find in books and not on MTV.

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