Saturday, March 21, 2009

How did We Make it in the Good Old Days?

I might be a little weird, but sometimes I like to imagine a former version of myself, or perhaps someone else from an earlier time, transported into the present day. My former self, or time-traveling companion, would be in awe of the technological goodies that we all take for granted today that didn’t exist in the 1960s.

Then I wonder what I would think if I were suddenly transported 50 years into the future. What kind of techno-wizardry will exist five decades hence that I cannot possibly imagine today?

But it’s not all about technology, I occasionally wax nostalgic to the times when I was a kid or maybe a teenager and compare the world back then with the world now. Some things were better then. Mostly, I’m glad to be alive in the modern era.

My first real job was as a bagger at a local grocery store. I remember the price of bread was 25 cents then. A double bag of potato chips was 59 cents. As far as I could remember, it always had been that price.

I was only about 14 years old, but I remember thinking then that some products never changed prices. Yes, there was inflation going on back then, and some prices on grocery items rose almost weekly, but prices on some items seemed remarkably stable. The bread and the potato chips had always been that price. Hostess Twinkies and cup cakes had been 12 cents a pack ever since I was a kid. Candy bars were a nickel for the regular size and a dime for the larger size. And a can of pop from the vending machine was a dime.

A small fountain drink from the local diner was a nickel, as was a small ice cream cone from Dairy Queen. When I bought my first banana split it cost 49 cents. I could barely afford it and I remember not being able to eat it all. And, according to their TV ads, you could buy a hamburger, french fries, and a small soft drink at McDonald’s for 99 cents.

When I started to drive at 16, gas prices were about 32 cents per gallon. They hovered somewhere in the low to mid 30s until the Arab oil embargo in 1973. Then, prices zoomed as high as 85 cents a gallon. Before the embargo, I remember pulling into a Texaco station and seeing the price on the pump at 44 cents a gallon. I pulled right on out. That was far too expensive for a gallon of gasoline.

Although I long for those 1970s gas prices I much prefer the way the telephone company operates today. Back when I was a teenager and into my early adult years, the phone company was a monopoly. When I was in my early 20s I wanted to hook up an answering machine. Yes, they were available back then, for a hefty price. And they used the reel-to-reel tapes to record incoming messages. But the phone company wouldn’t hook them up for you – something about a tariff. So I just wired it into the plug on the wall myself.

It was the same way with telephones. If you didn’t buy them from the phone company, you couldn’t use them. There was no going down to the Wal-Mart (which, by the way, didn’t exist at the time in my state) and purchase a telephone. No, you had to buy your phone directly from Ma Bell.

Going back a little further in time, when I was about eight or nine years old, I remember my dad getting our first telephone. It was a rotary dial phone, but the dialer didn’t work. To call my friend, I had to pick up the receiver and wait for the local operator to ask “number please.” Everyone in my town had a three-digit phone number.

But it was only a year or so later that seven-digit dialing went into effect. It still took a while to place a long-distance call, though. There was no direct dialing then, at least not where I lived. To call long distance, you had to dial 0 for the operator and then wait for several minutes while she spoke to several other operators between you and the party you were calling.

It’s so much easier today. We take for granted how easy it is to make a phone call anywhere in the world just be pushing a few buttons on our handset. And a phone call that would have cost five dollars in 1965 is free today if made on a cell phone and only pennies from a landline.

TV shows have changed quite a bit since I was young. All in the Family was the first sitcom to feature the sound of a toilet flushing. Such things were considered taboo back then. Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore had to sleep in separate beds, even though their characters were married. And some of the words you could never, ever, say on TV included ass, piss, and boner. Those words are spoken regularly today even on shows produced primarily for family viewing and shown in early prime time. I’m not complaining; it is a better reflection of the real world than the imaginary, squeaky-clean world of 1960s television.

Whether it’s how TV has changed, how making telephone calls is easier and cheaper, or just remembering the cheap prices of my youthful days, it is sometimes fun to pass the time in a regressive mode. I like nostalgia, sometimes because it makes me feel like I’m far better off today and sometimes just because it takes me back to the less hectic days of my youth. Either way, my imagination is just as active today as it was back then. And I am glad about that. But it makes me wonder sometimes how I survived those good old days without my modern gadgets.

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