(Edited version of original 2019 post)
Many of our fathers were part of a mass of millions of young American men who had grown up thinking that after high school they would be truck drivers, pipe fitters, machinists, farmers, laborers, or carpenters et al, just like their fathers had been. They would marry their high school sweethearts and live to ripe old ages in their hometowns. Not a bad plan, that.
It turned out that Uncle Sam had a different plan for many of our soon-to-be fathers. He targeted several million for military service, and when the most horrid conflagration in human history was over, Uncle Sam paid for college or technical training for vets who had been on active duty for at least 90 days during the war years and who had been honorably discharged.
According to a Wikipedia entry, “by 1956, roughly 7.8 million veterans had used the G.I. Bill education benefits, some 2.2 million to attend colleges or universities and an additional 5.6 million for some kind of training program.” The vast majority of those vets were white men (see: Selma). The photo heading this post was taken on the day that my father, Jerry, received his degree from the then Pennsylvania State College: February 7, 1950, in State College, Pennsylvania. He holds me and his diploma and stands next to my mother, Lois, and the Nittany Lion.
The impact of the G.I. Bill on growing up Boomer was profound. Our fathers were ultimately provided employment opportunities not available to them before the war. They fell in love and married girls who were not from their hometowns, and that fact, coupled with job offers from around the country meant many of our fathers never returned to their hometowns; instead, they moved into sprawling suburban communities with names like Levittown or into smaller ones named Cedar Cliff Manor, a phenomenon that is referred to as the Era of Mass-Suburbanization.
This relocation, unprecedented in the first half of the Twentieth Century, meant a significant change in American family life. Instead of stopping at Granny’s house on the way home from school for freshly baked chocolate-chip cookies as our parents had done, many Boomers came to know Granny in the flesh once or twice a year and during rare, brief, and very expensive long-distance phone calls. (In 1955, the daytime rate for a long-distance call was $3.70 for the first three minutes, which equates to $35.95 in 2020 dollars).
There was a sense of common cause and purpose during the Fifties that was a natural extension of a mindset that had been essential to the winning of a war, and I sometimes think that might explain our parents’ focus on general compliance and conformity against which we Boomers rebelled in the Sixties. As a boy, I felt and complied with my parents’ expectations to be like everyone else, but I also knew that compliance meant, “be like everyone else in public.”
By five, I had begun to believe that what went on behind closed doors at our house or in the family sedan was unlikely to be happening in any other family. Seven decades of living have confirmed the inaccuracies of my childish conclusions, so while, as a child, I considered my parent’s behaviors as being unique, often quirky, sometimes dark and violent, I now know that there were and remain parents sprinkled across the country who were and are as idiosyncratic and malignant as my own had been.
Jerry was a king of secret idiosyncrasies, and many of those idiosyncrasies came from a need to be perceived as perfect by others and from the burden of being armed with the skills that came with a degree in Industrial Engineering. One of the kinds of things that delights industrial engineers are time and motion studies, analyses that perfect the efficiency of, say, manufacturing an automobile or managing a wife and children. For eighteen years, I lived a perpetual time and motion study orchestrated by my father.
Because of the importance of maintaining perfect appearances, it was important for the crazy things occurring in our house to remain a secret. Even things that seemed benign were kept quiet. I did not understand any logic as to why I should, but I maintained the secrecy because I feared the consequences of telling someone something I should not tell. This meant that nothing of import was ever shared, even with grandparents, especially anything about Jerry’s broad range of idiosyncrasies. Most of them were silly to me then and now, but some were far from silly. I have long believed that the origin of Jerry’s obsessive behaviors lay in the tragedy of the Great Depression when his father was deathly ill for a long period of time and could not work, his mother took in washing, and he had an early morning paper route (for years) to help the family make ends meet.
I believe Jerry had an existential need to please his parents because he saw their suffering and feared their loss. Long after each had died, he would reference personal, professional achievements by saying, “I only wish Mom and Dad could be here to see this.” I don’t know the specifics as to how they instilled his need for their approval in him—he was an only child and maybe that had something to do with it—but Jerry applied fear and pain to instill obedience in me.
Jerry’s silly idiosyncrasies with which I had to deal included all of his rules for acceptance, the rules he lived by so that he would be worthy of his dead parents’ approval. The fact that his father died in 1949, or that his mother was the least judgmental person I have ever known, do not seem to have mattered to him. Looking back, I can create three broad categories of acceptance rules: “being a responsible and efficient man,” “consideration of others,” and “waste not, want not.” The latter category included Great-Depression-related behaviors, some or all of which other Boomers may recall (and may still implement!):
- Don’t let the water run while you’re brushing your teeth.
- No more than three minutes in the shower (“I’ll be checking my watch!”).
- No more than three sheets of toilet paper (“This is how you fold it”).
- Turn off all lights when you leave the room.
- NEVER stand in front of an open refrigerator door deep in thought.
- Eat everything on your plate.
- Don’t ever break or lose anything. Ever.
Being considerate of others was a category that had active and reactive components; the active components came with the expectation that one should be totally non-obtrusive, whenever possible:
- Stay out of the neighbor’s yard.
- Don’t ask anybody for anything. Ever.
- Never comment out loud about a person’s obvious physical flaw.
- Always act like an awful gift was the best gift you ever received in your life.
- Be aware of your personal space and do not impede anyone else’s progress in a grocery store, on a sidewalk, or when you’re driving a car.
- Never say anything critical of anyone else to their face (but it is okay for Mom and Dad to do this in the car on the way home from Uncle Bill’s).
- If you’re a boy or man, hold the door open for women (This was big!).
- Fill up the water bottle in the fridge if you’ve emptied it (“Who put this goddamned bottle of cold air in here?”).
- ALWAYS replace an empty roll of toilet paper (in our house, we were big on toilet paper management).
- ALWAYS roll the tube of toothpaste from the bottom; NEVER squeeze the tube from the middle.
- And my favorite that I may revisit in a future post: on our long trip to the Pacific and back, we always left the motel at 4:30 in the morning. Jerry insisted that each of us—Lois, my bother Rick, and I—hold our doors open as he pulled out of the motel’s parking lot, and when we were a block away, Jerry would count to three (only God knows why), and on “three” we would slam our doors shut, all because Jerry did not want to wake folks in the motel.
The reactive component of “consideration of others” was a constant stressor for Lois, Rick, and me, especially when riding in the car. If another car pulled out in front of Jerry, or failed to use a turn signal, or did not advance the instant the light turned green, or any one of several things that impeded his progress, Jerry would turn red in the face and rail about the inconsideration of others. The other father’s transgression in the duel of the third lane fell into the unforgivable category of inconsideration. Jerry’s obsession with consideration of others imprinted on me so significantly that it is hard to go through a day without my falling prey to either worrying about whether I’m being considerate of others (not necessarily a bad thing) or getting angry at someone else’s inconsideration (definitely not a good thing!).
Responsibility and manhood were big with Jerry (see: Growing Up Manly). It was my constant regret that it took so long to actually grow up to be a man because by five, I already knew how to do it:
- Stop crying. Men don’t cry. (Classic!)
- Never leave the house without a handkerchief (“You might as well not have your pants on!”).
- Put your pants on last (yes, over your shoes) in order to minimize wrinkling.
- Think about what you’re doing before you do it (I’ll acknowledge this as good advice!).
- Never start a fight but never back down from anyone.
I must say that in the category of good things, responsibility was delegated to me when I was old enough to do something, but with that responsibility came the expectation of efficiency and quality. There was seldom a time when I performed a task to Jerry’s standards, but one task that I nailed was making sure that the house was locked and sound whenever we left it, even if it was just to go to the store. The industrial engineer in Jerry knew that it takes more time to recite words than it does to recite their acronym, so just before we left the house, he would bellow, “S-W-D,” which stood for stove, windows, doors.
Jerry was obsessive about locking down the house as though there were hordes of Abyssinians waiting in the neighboring woods to invade our home and steal our paltry belongings. Doors must be closed and locked. Windows must be closed and locked, and that source of the worst of disasters—the stove—must be turned off. Upon hearing “S-W-D” (not that I needed to hear the command, but I waited every time until I did hear it), I would make certain that the stove was turned off and that the windows and doors were closed and locked.
Going away for a longer period of time—say a weekend in McKeesport to visit Lois’ family—Jerry would holler, “S-W-W-D!” Like a fine-tuned instrument, I ran to make sure that doors and windows were closed and locked, the stove was off, and I verified that there was not a single faucet from which water—the second W— was dripping.
When I got into the car, there was never a “thank you” or any other recognition, but I didn’t care because by the age of ten I had already learned that real men don’t need somebody else’s recognition. Real men just do their jobs, and as the years wore on in that Cedar Cliff Manor split-level, I read the American Management Association brochures that my father left lying about and learned that when it came to S-W-W-D (and its ilk), Jerry had followed a foundational belief of a man who was to become one of my personal management heroes, Peter Drucker. Drucker believed in respect for the worker (and) believed that employees are assets not liabilities. He taught that knowledgeable workers are the essential ingredients of the modern economy, and that a hybrid management model is the sole method of demonstrating an employee’s value to the organization. Central to this philosophy is the view that people are an organization’s most valuable resource, and that a manager’s job is both to prepare people to perform and to give them freedom to do so. (from Wikipedia)
When I was a child, I can’t imagine that my parents’ tutelage caused me to believe that children were a family’s most valuable resource, but looking back as an adult, maybe I have to give it up to Jerry as a good manager (but not the greatest father) for giving me responsibilities like S-W-W-D: he did prepare me to perform, and he did give me the freedom to do the task.
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