My best guess is that most State Journal readers look back fondly on the days of their childhood. For many baby boomers those years primarily took place in that era often broadly referred to as the 50s. 

Looking back, the 50s seem to have been one of America’s golden periods: Rock and Roll was born, the country strongly approved of President Eisenhower, our economy was the largest in the world, the birthrate skyrocketed, Disneyland opened, and gasoline cost between 18 and 25 cents per gallon (the equivalent of $1.90 and $2.16 today).

So, life was good then for all Americans? Well, perhaps not. There was the Cold War to worry about, the McCarthy hearings created a massive Red Scare, racial segregation was a hugely divisive issue, Emmett Till was murdered, Fidel Castro established a Communist regime in Cuba, and two-thirds of New York City residents lived in slums.   

Chris Helvey

Chris Helvey

Undoubtedly, each person who grew up in that time has unique memories of that America. That is, even if we were all born on the same day of the same year in the early 1950s, we would each recall events of that era differently.  

Does this matter, you might ask. I submit that it does. As I’ve noted in columns and talks over the years, one of my philosophies is that we become not only what we eat, but what we read, hear, and see. If this is true, the past is not dead. Rather, it is with us, and within us, although perhaps in a form that is more perceived reality than what truly occurred. 

You may disagree, but the novelist William Faulkner is staunchly on my side. In his 1951 novel "Requiem for a Nun," Faulkner put the following nine words in the mouth of one of his characters: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

Faulkner’s quote floated to the surface of my mind earlier this spring while reading "Remembering Jim Crow, African Americans Talk About Life In The Segregated South." Registering what those men and women had to endure brought the 1950s swirling back to the forefront of my thinking, and provided the seed for this column and, I hope, for many columns to come. 

While the Jim Crow era started decades before the 1950s and lasted many years beyond, it was certainly prevalent during that period. For the purposes of this column I am using the term the 50s (often perceived as one of American peace, prosperity, and preeminence, which many baby boomers look back on with wistful longing) quite broadly. Let’s say it began with the first inauguration of Dwight Eisenhower as president on January 23, 1953. I had originally planned to end it just over a decade later with the assassination of President Kennedy on November 22, 1963. However, in an effort to create a broader spectrum of memories to share, let’s extend it through LBJ’s Great Society, and end with the chaotic Democratic Convention held in Chicago in August 1968. Yes, that’s stretching the 50s, but I think a strong argument can be made that the “Golden Era” lasted that long. 

Most of us remember much of our childhood years as primarily happy ones, and I am certainly no exception. Growing up in the small Missouri towns of Pineville and Crane, I knew little want, experienced virtually no trauma (striking out in a baseball game doesn’t count), and had only the vaguest concepts of poverty, child abuse, discrimination, or racism. I don’t remember ever seeing Black person, except during family trips to St. Louis, where my paternal grandparents lived, until my family moved to Williamsburg, Kentucky in 1963.

During my Williamsburg years, I went to school with a number of Black children, played baseball and basketball with several on Little League and high school teams, became close friends with a few, and gradually became aware that not all Americans were treated the same by every inhabitant of my town.  

Since those youthful years, reading about the prejudice, discrimination, and dangers that Blacks faced during the 50s and 60s has made me wonder if my childhood years were as wonderful and golden as I remember. 

Certainly those years held some very good times for me: walking alone as a young boy to the small public library in Crane (where I checked out my own book choices), learning to ride a bicycle, helping my dad turn the crank on our ice cream freezer, passing ball with my dad after he came home from work, and hundreds more.  

My childhood America was a safe, pleasant place in which to grow up. The Helveys went to church on Sunday, watched television as a family, and my mother read to me and my siblings every evening. Your childhood may have been similar, or perhaps your memories are massively different, far darker, full of sadness, pain, and loss. 

What I would like for those of us who grew up during the days of Ike, JFK and LBJ to do over the next several months is explore our pasts together.  

If you will write down a memory or two, or three, from the 50s or early 60s and mail them to me at: Chris Helvey, P.O. Box 655, Frankfort, KY 40602, I will work some of them into a series of columns for this paper. Then we can all see those bygone days through the eyes of others. By doing so, we may find more similarities than differences, or perhaps the opposite will prove true.  

Please be sure and share as accurately as your memories permit. Not everyone will have happy remembrances to convey, and that’s fine — life is never all good, nor all bad. What I’m looking for is how you personally remember the 50s (with apologies to Clint Eastwood): the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Please sign your name, use your initials, or, if you prefer to maintain greater privacy, credit your submission as coming from a reference point readers can relate to: retired nurse, truck driver, teacher, etc. Please know that your stories may be printed in whole or part, and that we may edit for grammatical correctness or to fit space limitations. Thank you in advance for sharing. I look forward to reading and passing along your memories. Please reach out to me if you have any questions. 

Chris Helvey is a Kentucky writer, editor, and publisher. Author of over a dozen books of fiction and poetry, and a founding member of the Bluegrass Writers Coalition, Chris’ latest novel is “Looking at Kansas.”He can be reached at adobechris@hotmail.com or 502-330-4746.

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