Last time: From 1940-49, Cambridge residents joined the ranks of Americans and Allies at home and abroad to fight and win WWII.
Chapter 24: The Baby Boomers, 1950-1960
The Census Bureau pegs the Baby Boom Generation from 1946-1964, but the last few years are less historic and more current events for many readers, so 1960 is our arbitrary cutoff here. By the early Fifties our fighters were back home hard at work as war production lines were retooled from Jeeps and Sherman tanks to Packards and Caterpillar tractors. GM targeted five demographics, from everyman’s Chevy and the junior officer’s Pontiac, to the mid-manager’s Olds, the colonel’s Buick, and the CEO’s Caddy. They sported ample chrome like the Buick Roadmaster (see the photo) with its "million dollar grin", billed by Europeans for a job well done on their shores. In Cambridge, victory gardens became peace gardens of vegetables and flowers germinated from packets produced by JB Rice/Asgrow Seed Co. on West Main.
The H-bomb and the emerging Cold War soon defined how we’d pace our lives in the years ahead. Grizzled Cambridge veterans grumbled but saddled up again and headed off across the Pacific, William Bennett, the Catellier brothers Robert and Jack, Vincent Cristaldi, Gus Dering Jr., Jack Falkenbury and Claude LeBarron. Maj. Earl Harrington led a maintenance group for a USAF squadron of F-80 Shooting Stars, our first combat jet fighter that completely controlled Korean skies. In 1953-54, Army Col. Charles W. Raymond II was attaché with the U.S. Embassy as the Demilitarized Zone was drawn along the 38th Parallel. Sixty years later we’re still "at war" with only a cease-fire in 1953; no formal treaty was ever inked by Stone Age North Korea. Today the DMZ—160 miles in length by 2½ miles wide, the most heavily armed border in the world—offers a lab like few places on earth, land untrodden by humans in over a half century where wildlife is able to sustain and evolve non-habituated by man. Scientists can’t wait to get in and take a look around, if only….
Back home in 1950, Mayor Gardner Cullinan, who served from 1947-53, oversaw new activity with the Cambridge Fire Department. A new Fire House and Village Hall were proposed with a final contract cost of $36,500. After the old fire house came down, the Village Board met temporarily at the Hotel, the new School, and the Washington County Post building. Land for the facility at its present location was purchased and the Board met in the new brick structure for the first time on May 1, 1951. A deal was struck with Mary McClellan Hospital in 1952 to trigger the fire siren, while parking across the street from the CFD was now prohibited. In December 1950, the Lions Club donated Christmas lights to be strung up zigzag over Main Street in front of the three business districts, a tradition for decades. After the new Cambridge Central School (K-12) opened on South Park, the walkway from Avenue B to the school grounds was installed in 1952, cost split by CCS and the Village. In early 1951 W. Artemas Scott left as Village Treasurer after 35 years; since 1916 Scott had tallied Village dollars and saw it all, from the lean years of WWI, through the boom of the ‘20s, the depths of the Depression, WWII, and the post-war recovery.
John Day Briggs was appointed Assoc. Justice in 1952 and two years later was made Justice, a role he held for years. In 1953 Police Chief Charlie Cantwell, serving since ‘37, was given a good bonus and the use of a police-band short wave radio. Charlie Ackley was tabbed as mayor from 1954-57, then Floyd Smith took over (until ‘67.) In 1957 New York State was asked to fix the rough, rutted and dangerous concrete Route 22, a project completed about a decade later with new pavement and gentler curves running from the Hoosic River up to town. Talk surfaced for the first time in 1960 of blacktopping Main Street, the cherished yellow brick road, but greeted by ample booing. An era ended for Cambridge in 1957 when D&H requested discontinuance of the 12 daily trains through town, and in 1958 and ’59 another familiar village friend bit the dust when dozens of elms were taken down; Dutch elm disease had been diagnosed in 1946 as killing this magnificent shade tree around the nation. In 1960, Phil Sica was promoted from Patrolman to Police Chief, and the Village of Cambridge assumed care of the Public Library that year.
Public health got a boost in the early 1950s when Jonas Salk released his signature polio vaccine, the first time it was "safe to go back in the water again", in swimming pools. We peeked at our toe bones through X-ray machines down at Sears—soon banned, duh—as Watson and Crick imaged the first DNA with this high power radiation. In 1954 a new Cambridge ordinance followed the national trend of approving pasteurized milk, a controversial process of heating and quick cooling which kills bugs, mostly bad, but good ones as well, and vitamins. Culturally, we began to embrace, or tolerate, Rock-n-roll and American Bandstand, as blue suede shoes and sideburns made fashion statements in Cambridge and across the land. Vaseline Petroleum Jelly kept the guys’ hair in place, waves curling up or flattops that could balance your physics text. The gals wore pleated skirts and bobby socks as they eyed the glam of misses Monroe and Taylor on display in the front window at Charlie Shapiro’s on the West side (see the photo). If you ever planted a kitschy pink flamingo on your front lawn, thank Don Featherstone (from Mass not Miami) in 1957, and the new plastic mold injection technology that would otherwise change your life.
In the mid-1950s, pro mechanics and wannabes at Horace Maxwell’s out in Coila, and Cambridge Garage, and Bell & Costello’s (see the photo) in town, pumped Esso and Texaco Fire Chief, and chatted up the new "sports car", paced by the 1953 Corvette. At first it had an underpowered in-line 6 but it did scoop the ‘57 T-Bird. In ’55, though, Chevy dropped a small-block V8 into the Vette, standard for decades (through ‘98.) The boys-to-men scrubbed up with Lava soap, bars of gritty gray pumice then (not today’s pea green.) American Lit giant John Steinbeck offered East of Eden in 1952, soon brought to the screen by James Dean before his young life came to a screeching halt on a remote California highway in 1955. He did just three flicks (also Rebel Without a Cause and Giant.) Beatniks swapped materialism for pessimism and headed out On the Road.
Television—mainly B&W but color for the upper crust, and available at Charlie Ackley’s—grabbed America with variety shows, sitcoms and Westerns, and made entertainment history. Disneyland Park premiered summer of ‘55 in La La Land, drawing kids of all ages, while The Mickey Mouse Club brought Annette to millions of males fixated on those big, uh, Mickey Mouse ears. Other billion dollar entertainment industries also trace roots to the Fifties. In ‘53 Ian Fleming, down Jamaica way, mon, typed up his first James Bond, Casino Royale, and released a spy thriller a year through the decade. In 1956, Forbidden Planet (Walter Pigeon, Robby the Robot) paved the way through the galaxies for Star Trek, and Luke and Leia. The real Space Age was launched, of course, in October ‘57 when Russia scooped us by shooting a beeping basketball
into near space which was picking up on the AM dial. We’d join the orbit club ourselves early in ‘58 as NASA was born (and given focus with abundant reward from Ike to Bush 43, but blithely set adrift by Obama.)
On the field of dreams, the Yankees kept winning through the decade, inspiring the Faustian novel The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant (G. Abbott and D. Wallop), and the 1955 Broadway musical Damn Yankees (Gwen Verdon.) That is, when they didn’t win: not in 1954 (Polo Ground Giants), ’55 (Brooklyn Bums), ’57 (Braves of Milwaukee), ’59 (LA Bums), ’60 (Pittsburgh Bucs and Bill Maz’s blast.) While Willie Mays was amazin’, in 1956 Mickey Mantle won the Triple Crown and AL MVP, and every red blooded kid wanted to play centerfield in Yankee Stadium. That was also the home of the Football Giants and the NFL title that year.
During the ‘50s, UPI (remember them?) and AP reported the French getting whipped by the Commies at Dien Bien Phu, Indochina—recall that mysterious, far off French colony from your stamp collection—and Soviet tanks crushing East Bloc uprisings. In 1954, as Joe McCarthy chased phantom Reds (did he ever actually break any laws?), the phrase under God was added to the Pledge; agnostics scratched their heads and atheists got heartburn. The issue’s been booted about the courts for years but wise men and rational women like it as is. In ’56 the Suez Canal was nationalized by Egypt but the UN, with Britain on the point, said not so fast. Adlai Stevenson (D) challenged Dwight David Eisenhower (R) that year but liberals had no answer to Ike’s liberating hundreds of millions the prior decade, plus his end to Truman’s (D) Korean War. Pacific atolls got toasted with thermonucleonics as the USA raced to stay ahead of the USSR as we remembered the 1943 words of US Army Gen. Hap Arnold: "Someday, not too distant, there can come streaking out of somewhere – we won’t be able to hear it, it will come so fast – some kind of gadget with an explosive so powerful that one projectile will be able to wipe out completely this city of Washington." Our new vocabulary included acronyms like ICBM, DEW Line, CONELRAD, SAC, B52. For decades there was always a flight 24-7 over North America with a senior general aboard, the possible next "president" of the United States. This gave us all some sense of security when we practiced diving under our school desks.
The decade ended with a vibrant new voice as John Kennedy entered stage left. He and incumbent Veep Richard Nixon engaged us in the fall of 1960 with the first televised presidential debate; you know, when Bobby Kennedy turned up the studio thermostat causing Tricky Dicky to sweat bullets, and other conspiracy theories. Sen. Kennedy was narrowly elected via gerrymandering by the well-oiled (oily) Chicago machine—alive and well today—that drew voting bounds around graveyards. If Nixon wasn’t quite squeaky clean, he at least honorably declined his party’s push for a recount because he didn’t want to further divide the nation (hello, Al Gore.) Kennedy would be sworn in as our 35th C-in-C, offering a promise of four years, perhaps eight, of spreading world peace in our time. DDE warned JFK to stay out of Vietnam, but instead all we heard was of Camelot, of prosperity and serenity that would sweep across America’s heart, from coast to coast, out to the new states Alaska and Hawaii, after the familiar 48-star flag had added two more in ‘59 and ‘60. In the early Sixties we were going to go "where no man has gone before", at least set foot on the moon and return by decade’s end. We’d end Jim Crow once and for all. The president’s grand plan was lifted through the skies in Boeing 707s and prop-driven Super Connies, and trucked over the new Interstate Highways of his predecessor, a system of speedways and sweeping clover-leafs, superbridges and supertunnels. His words carried out to burgeoning suburbs and mega-malls, into reborn city centers, from the new Boston dawn to the bright lights of LA, from rainy Seattle to sunny Miami, with just a quick stop for lunch in Dallas. (One Friday afternoon in late Nov ’63 an announcement came over the CCS PA. The first Baby Boomers began to grow up that day.)
Next time:A final look-back at two years of looking back, the last of the series Cambridge History Lives.
Sources: Cambridge Village Archives; Old Cambridge 1788-1988 (R. Clay, et al, 1988); A History of the Cambridge Area (R. Raymond, 2010); Around Cambridge, White Creek, and Jackson (Ken Gottry, 2010.)
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CAMBRIDGE HISTORY LIVES © 2011