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GROWING UP IN TEXAS IN THE 1950s

by

Robert M. Young

In 1950 I entered high school, having left Texas only once before — for a week — in my life. In 1960 I arrived by boat at Southampton and have lived in England since then, in Cambridge and London. During that decade I went to Yale, always held onto my wallet when in Manhattan and ended up studying medicine in upstate New York. Up until 1954 there was a quality about living in America that's hard to convey, but come to think of it, was rather like now: consensual and ostensibly apolitical. I say ostensibly, because, of course, everything is political, in the sense that we live out values, willy-nilly and these occur in the framework of institutions and power. But in the 1960s we knew that it was a time when 'the politics of experience' — experience itself — was crucial, vivid, earnest. Everything was at stake. The 1950s was the time of the Cold War. A machine politician had inherited the presidency when Roosevelt died, had dropped the atom bomb and had astonished everyone by winning the 1948 election. For all but the first two years of the decade the President was an avuncular war hero, Eisenhower, born in Texas but raised in Kansas. Even he got round to stirring the tranquillity of the times when he left office, warning the people against the military-industrial complex:

In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, of the military industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machine of defence with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together....

The prospect of domination of the nation's scholars by federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present—and is gravely to be regarded.

Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.

He may as well have been Cassandra: he went unheeded. What he warned against has occurred and is now taken for granted in the customer-contract basis of our industry, research and development, with its priorities, funding and curricula largely determined the high-tech goods and services of both civil and military.

The quality of experience in the fifties was utterly different. Wartime manufacturing had got us out of the depression. The firm my father worked for had gone from the doldrums to manufacturing artillery shells, and the government-supported resources were then converted to a booming trade in cotton gins and heating and ventilating equipment. The company was bought out by Rockwell, a leading high-tech military and aerospace company, and there is now a green field where the plant was. Rockwell had wanted another subsidiary of the company and had simply asset-stripped the remainder, sacking everyone, without compensation.

In the fifties the quality of experience had a mixture of post-war optimism and utter paranoia about communism. I had no idea what it was — beyond Godless and wrong. I never heard of Freud, Marx or Darwin before entering university. I never a met a communist until I arrived in Cambridge in 1960, expecting him to be a hard man. In fact, he turned up late for Christmas lunch, because he got lost.

'Politics' was not part of our values. The word conjured up — not a set of issues — but a career for opportunists, for gregarious and corrupt people. Lyndon Johnson had become a Senator from Texas in 1948; many votes had been bought; many names came from gravestones; others voted many times, since the electoral rolls were out of date. He was a crook, albeit a benefactor of the poor through rural electrification. The building of hydro-electric power dams in the 1940s transformed the life of people who had hitherto carried water from streams, tended wood-burning stoves and lit their homes by candle and kerosene. This enlightenment was part of Johnson's strategy, because his mentors, Brown and Root of Houston, got the lucrative contracts to build the high dams which provided the energy for the hydro-electric turbines. The corruption was so widespread that Johnson became Washington's most effective power broker. It is said that when one went into his office, the conversation could not begin until an envelope containing cash had been placed on the table. It is he who coined the boast: 'I never trust a man unless I have his pecker in my pocket'.

People who stood for elective office at school, locally, in the state or nationally were on the whole despised as seekers of popularity, and popularity was something one was supposed to evoke, not seek. Every high school annual had its 'Favourites', but that status was mystically conferred from above, never pursued so that one could see the works. Politics was 'tacky'; running for office wasn't 'neat'.

And yet I was up to my neck in politics. The mother of a close friend was an ultra-conservative organiser. The (then) richest man in the world had founded 'Facts Forum', an ostensibly open organisation on current issues. I was privileged to be among its first cohort of youth members. We were also invited to swim in the swimming pool at his home, which had been built as a replica of George Washington's Virginia mansion, Mount Vernon. Mr Hunt's replica was, however, built to a larger scale. We got regular questionnaires framed in the narrowest terms, but the cocooning of our experience from the outside world prevented us from realising this. I recall one about school desegregation, centring on a Supreme Court decision which insisted on integration of black and white pupils. The Chief Justice was Earl Warren, and the choices, as I dimly recall them, were whether he should be shot, hung or merely imprisoned. My relation to all this was that I felt privileged to be an acolyte, a junior member of a professional and commercial elite — with the right connections at such an enviable early age.

It was odd to be of good family but without money (my grandfather had pissed it away). A few years after the war my friends all had imported motorbikes from Britain — James, Excelsior, BSA - all with Villiers 125cc engines. My paper rounds wouldn't stretch to supporting one of the best motorbikes, so I had a belt-driven Servi-Cycle. We were as obsessed with cars as with motorbikes. Everyone I knew could tell you the year and make of any car that went by, and we often sat on street corners doing exactly that. Our other preoccupations were football for everyone, guns for most and going to dances. There were two or three a weekend during the season, and everyone was preoccupied with whether or not they were going to be invited. I sometimes still catch myself checking to see that I have my invitation in my pocket on the infrequent occasions when I go to an event with an engraved invitation.

It was the time of the Korean War; the Russians had the bombs; all of us were in the cadet corps — the ROTC (Reserve Officers Training Corps). We went to camp every Summer, wore military uniforms at school three days a week (inspection and parade on Tuesday) and expected to serve in the armed forces. I became Cadet Colonel, Regimental Commander, head of the Summer camp and was asked to take up place at West Point or Annapolis. And I was very proud of it.

No one told us that the Korean war was unjust or that we lost it. We had been brought up at the time of the justest of wars and saw military service as good. I was in my second year at university before the concept of pacifism even entered my mind, and when I told the head of the Naval ROTC that I wasn't sure, a ton of bricks landed on my head, and I nearly had to leave the university. I vividly remember opening the textbook of the second-year course and taking in the meaning of the first sentence: 'The primary value of naval weapons lies in their power to destroy.' Such things had not occurred to me before, as we played at soldiers in the forties and learned to fire bazookas and howitzers at Summer camp. It is probably difficult for a post-Vietnam generation to grasp in imagination that the military was good, even glorious, in the 1940s and fifties.

The other thing that mattered was sport. You had to have one. Mine was swimming, and it got me a scholarship to any university I wanted to attend. The same was true for most accomplished athletes, whatever the sport, but football was king. I went to Yale, because it was posh and because I didn't have the money to go locally and afford the life-style of a fraternity — the centre of college life for my class. So I made a smart career move and went East to college. What I encountered was amazing. I'd had no idea that one could think about values and the meaning of life outside religion. I'd heard the word 'philosophy' but had no sense of it. Similarly, I came upon a rich new sense of politics. My first year at Yale was the time of the army-McCarthy hearings.

It turned out that my peer group in Dallas had bankrolled the anti-communist crusade of Senator Joseph McCarthy. His paranoid witch-hunting overreached itself when one of his minions was drafted into the army, and McCarthy tried to get special treatment for him. The resulting hearings (like the Watergate ones in the 1970s) were an auto-dissection of a world view. And we saw it all on television. It was the first nation-wide trial by television, and everything stopped for it. The denouement was when the army's counsel, Joseph Welsh, shook his head and wearily removed his spectacles, while alluding to McCarthy's having no 'decency'. The demi-God was destroyed in that moment by the contrast between their characters. He was dropped by Eisenhower, drank heavily, was censured by the Senate and died ignominiously three years after the hearings.

But the atmosphere of anti-communism remained pervasive. Anyone suspected of leftism was a subversive, an agent of the Kremlin. After all, spies had given the atomic secrets to the Kremlin. I recall the thrill of learning that leftists weren't agents of the devil but gentle people who played folk songs and gathered in basements at Hootenannies. I met some, especially Pete Seeger, who was lovely and populist and was for peace and brotherhood and helping the unfortunates of the world.

So politics had another meaning. Just as philosophy offered a non-fundamentalist view of knowledge and the problem of how to live, populist left politics offered a vision of society that wasn't paranoid. Along with a small number of people who were also doing well at Yale, I became a member of the John Dewey Society and The Student League for Industrial Democracy, precursors of the student movement and New Left of the 1960s.

But in my social life I never shared a swimming pool with a black person until I was eighteen, never slept under the same roof as one (except servants) until I was twenty, had no black, working-class, Jewish or Catholic friends or girlfriends until I was that age or older. We lived in a cotton-wool world, never even driving past slums, never really wanting. Though my own family was constantly in debt, it was possible to buy the clothes, run the car and pay for corsages from doing odd jobs. This was the meritocratic version of the elitist world that produced George Bush, who was at Yale shortly before me and was a member of one of the exclusive secret societies, for which about ten per cent of the senior class were 'tapped'. His was Skull and Bones; others were Book and Snake. and Wolf's Head. It meant that you were set for life as a member of the commercial aristocracy. Like many other members of Skull and Bones, Bush went into the CIA. Rather like the wearing of silly clothes at Christ's Hospital or Eton, members of those secret societies spent every Sunday evening doing secret things in large buildings, with no windows, which looked like tombs. Secret. Exclusive. Elite. They were called 'spooks', because no one saw them entering those mausoleums. But it was different where culture was concerned: Radio, movies, music, honky-tonks. The mainstream on the radio was as consensual as my suburb: 'Slow Boat to China', 'You Belong to Me', 'Tenderly'. But our radios could get low-powered local black stations and high-powered ones from the Texas Mexico border, especially XERF from Villa Acuna. The adverts were hilarious. There was the Blade Man, selling reconditioned razor blades, another selling Acid-X crank case plugs to prolong motor oil life, another selling lanolin for the hair, still another hocking life-size busts of the Virgin Mary that glowed in the dark and personally autographed pictures of Jesus Christ. The music was amazing: 'She's long gone. Where did she go? She boogied her way to Mexico', 'A huggin and chalkin (my fat girl)', 'When they made her they broke the mould', 'I've got the cutest little dinghy in the navy, and all the girls say that it is so. I've got the cutest little dinghy in the navy. Heave ho, me lads, heave ho.'

We danced dirty bop at Lou Ann's, a honky tonk on the edge of town. We bopped, Charlestoned, waltzed, dipped and whirled. We heard the (as yet un-megastar) Elvis on the Big D Jamboree and The Louisiana Hayride. His was a hybrid between the purity of black blues and the original country and western sound of Hank Williams ('Love Sick Blues'), Bob Wills and the Light Crust Doughboys, all heirs to Jimmy Rodgers whose 'T.B. Blues' was the best and saddest of the blue yodels of the 1930s.

All of this now makes me a member of a golden age, but to us it was only a way of escaping from the oppressive blandness of our suburban existence. We could take off our dinner jackets or suits and ties and dance and drink and be outside our roles. We knew we were escaping. It was the roots of rhythm, and the roots of rhythm remain.

A small number of us also found ways of learning something about the broader outside world. I can recall two or three friends who had saved their money and bought communications radio receivers. We listened to the BBC World Service and Radio Moscow. Indeed, I recall (whether it was true or not) that the FBI visited my home when I wrote off for the wavelength schedule of Radio Moscow. We went to films in an art cinema which showed all of the Ealing Comedies and classic films like Oliver Twist. and The Red Shoes. Long before I emigrated, I had seen all of Alec Guiness's films.

I cannot emphasise too strongly that the newspapers that I delivered at four in the afternoon and when I was older at four in the morning every day of my life gave us no sense of cultures other than our own. There were events in the world that were not to our liking, but there was no alternative world view which could be discovered. That was why going to Yale was such a piece of dumb luck for me. I had no idea what would open out when I left Texas.

In addition to the music, there was another transcending medium — the movies. Every Saturday, without fail, we went to the movies. We saw the classic westerns, the film noir of the fifties, adventures — all part of our ordinary fare: The Asphalt Jungle, The Postman Always Rings Twice, The Killing, the westerns of James Stewart, John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Gary Cooper, and Burt Lancaster, both swashbuckling and in the saddle.

We lived in an utterly conformist culture and pursued the hobbies and careers expected of us. Yet our cultural consumption was of oppressed people — white blues and black deviants, outlaws, people who stood up alone, if necessary, against cowardice and the system. People crushed by the miasma of atomic diplomacy — The Incredible Shrinking Man. I shall never forget seeing that film at a cult cinema at Yale. Halfway through, a wag brought the house down with, 'It's incredible! He's shrinking!' So was the world into which we were expected to enter.

But in the cinema — produced and directed, don't forget, by the very leftists who were being persecuted by the anti-communists — we saw High Noon, On the Waterfront, Rebel Without a Cause.

I owe everything to raunchy music and to movies in which people stood out against the system. I can't sufficiently convey the sheer pressure of conformism — white socks and loafers in high school, white socks or cordovan shoes, black flannel or chino trousers, tweed coat or blazer in college. We were to be doctors, lawyers or businessmen or wives. That some of us became academics was apostasy, no matter how little deviant this may seem. My college produced a year-book twenty-five years on from graduation in 1957. Only a tiny number wrote against the grain of corporate satisfaction. Most celebrated their roles in expected careers and suburbs. The 1950s was the decade of The Organisation Man and The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit, and we really did inhabit those cosy spaces.

Then how to square this with the appeal of film noire, country and western, blues, rock and folk? The answer lies in a profound — but unconscious — sense of alienation. I say profound, because it was gestating in the 1950s. Otherwise how could it blast forth in the Civil Rights and anti-Vietnam War movements — burst forth with such strength and clarity? Racists and rightists controlled the network media. Pete Seeger and The Weavers were top of the Hit Parade until he said to the House of Un-American Activities Committee that he wouldn't betray friends' confidences about their politics. He declined to 'take the Fifth Amendment' — to appeal to his constitutional right not to incriminate himself. He and many others were hounded from radio, the movies and television. Network radio was filled with wall-to-wall celebrations of middle American values. This is the origin of the concept of 'soap opera' — sponsored by Lux or Camay or Lava soap. 'The Lux Radio Theatre', 'The FBI in Peace and War' (L-A-V-A; L-A-V-A to lock step music), 'Gangbusters', 'One Man's Family', 'Ma Perkins', 'The Right to Happiness', 'Fibber McGee and Molly'. For kids there was 'The Lone Ranger', 'Green Hornet', 'Captain Midnight'. I was brought up on the voice of Orson Welles as 'The Shadow' and those of Jack Webb and Mercedes McCambridge in the nightly 'I Love a Mystery', to which I listened against my parents rules at ten o'clock at night.

My sense, looking back, is that the values of the consensus gave me my basic belief in a right to belong — to be a member of the culture — but the country and western and the black music, and the men who stood up in the westerns and the films noire gave a sense of the legitimacy of being stubborn and of the dignity of subversion as the right stance if the community was corrupt. And it was, though no respectable person said so.

There was something else that was strong for me: Realart Pictures. They brought out The House of Frankenstein, The Mummy's Curse, The Bride of Frankenstein, The Wolf Man, Dracula, The Invisible Man, Doctor Jekyl and Mr Hyde, even Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. I owe a lot to Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney Jr. and even Bela Lugosi. Nearly everyone of those monsters was tormented and suffered agonies of the soul, and they were reviled and destroyed (always temporarily) by a witch-hunting culture which might have understood them and granted their humanity (perhaps not Dracula’s). These films appeared in a culture that was otherwise droning on about inevitable progress through science and technology. A regular subscriber to Popular Science, Popular Mechanics and Mechanics Illustrated, I was unable to sleep with my closet door open or enter the kitchen without reaching round and turning on the light first, lest the Mummy or the monster get me. Think it simplistic if you like, but at a distance of thirty or more years and after lots of psychoanalysis, I find the fascination and foreboding I felt for those films was more than a child's love of being scared. I think it resonated with a sense of the too-perfect, too-optimistic and touched on the destructive forces of Thanatos in fifties America and an unconscious sense of something deeply wrong — that the suppressed would not remain so, that blacks, Vietnamese, women, Hispanics, the Third World, would rise up and smite, if not overwhelm, the consensual and conformist empire of what came to be known as Middle America.

What we now have to figure out is how these forces got re-contained in the present. Someone said to me in the seventies that once we'd seen through the system, there could be no forgetting. He was wrong. Social amnesia and a cynical approach to modernist fragmentation are prevalent, if not hegemonic. Who'll be our role model, now that our role model's gone? My neice tells me that in our suburb in Dallas, alcoholism and widespread use of both hard and soft drugs are now commonplace at the high school my sister and I attended. I had not even heard of dope until I was eighteen, and I was twice that old before I smoked any.

I had written all of the above before it had dawned on me that I'd said nothing about religion or sex. Of the three taboo topics at an English dinner party, I've dwelt on one — politics — and have been silent about the others. I don't find them easy to write about, even though I've spent two thirds of my life thousands of miles from Texas.

Religion was important, because it taught us to split. We went to Sunday School as kids, to 'big church' in latency, and became baptised members of the church in adolescence. We read our Bibles. It was the only grown-up book I'd read all the way through before going to university, and more than once. We went to vespers on Sunday evening. We went to Young Life and sang hymns during the week. My father was a Deacon, and my grandmother had been a missionary in China.

It was a harsh doctrine. We were given a powerful sense of original sin. We knew that we were or were not among the Elect, but not which. We knew that we had to do good works. My father never tired of saying that the only sure way of doing God's work was to be 'a hewer of wood and a drawer of water'. So one had a sense of impending divine retribution and a powerful sense of work. I can still hear echoes: 'That's idle, and what's idle is sin.' As I say, we knew about sin — all sorts of sins. And we committed most of them. I first saw a condom at Sunday School, lusted after the girls in church, vespers and hymn sings. But we never petted or made love with members of our own class, no matter how agonising the pain in our balls from kissing and sexy dancing. We went to whores. Hard as it is to say, it is what we did. The night I won the state swimming championship at the tender age of fourteen, I was taken to a whorehouse. And again at intervals much less frequent than my peers — not out of hesitation but because I didn't have as much money as they. It was considered unremarkable and normal, like learning to drive. I was in my third year at Yale before I made love; before that I fucked. We all did in Texas, and my friends who went to college there went on doing so, largely in weekend jaunts to Mexico.

You can imagine the problems this created for anyone who came to want to relate to women as people, not part-objects for sex. Just as we split in religion, between Sunday ethics and the day-by-day values of the society, we split in our sex lives between (pre-marital) Madonnas and whores. The more money people had, the more they went to whores, year in and year out from early teens onward. That's where Sonny and Duane went on their wild weekend in The Last Picture Show, with Sam the Lion's blessing and an extra bit of money. Good ole boys sowed their wild oats on Third World putas. The joke told was of a small boy in a border town saying, 'Hey Meester. You want my mother? She virgin.' As far as I know, they may still be at it, though I imagine Aids has made a pretty big impact. Rumour had it that the Favourites in high school made love, but we ordinary mortals didn't. We fucked whores. And went to church and married in church and — for the most part—became pillars of the community, educated in every sphere of life to double standards. That's why Bush could be head of the CIA, screw around, run a dirty Presidential campaign and still advertise himself as for family and community. Kennedy did the same. So did Johnson. And Slick Willie. They had their wives and their affairs — Kennedy by the dozens.

I'm not being priggish, nor am I justifying the whoring. I am saying that we were taught that way in our most intimate lives — in our consciences and our relations with women. In my experience, men don't talk much about such things. Therefore it may be only lack of information that leads me to think that middle-class boys from elsewhere in America or in Britain don't learn their sexuality in quite that way. A woman from my high school wrote The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, and it ran on Broadway for over four years. The film version starred Burt Reynolds and Dolly Parton. The television series Dallas was based on the community in which I grew up. Come to that, the Ewing family was based on the man who founded Facts Forum and lived in the outsized house (not South Fork) which I visited from time to time. That's how it was to grow up in Texas in the 1950s.

From Ideas in Production: A Journal in the History of Ideas, Special Issue on ’Culture and Experience in the Nineteen Fifties’, Issues 9 & 10, 1989, pp. 31-43.

The Author

Address for correspondence: 26 Freegrove Road, London N7 9RQ

email: robert@rmy1.demon.co.uk

 


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