The other night I rewatched Ron Howard’s iconic movie American Graffiti which perfectly captured what life was like for teenagers on a Friday night in the early sixties. Every time I see that movie I can connect each one of the characters with someone I knew and grew up with in real life. We all knew a Steve and Laurie (played by Ron Howard and Cindy Williams) the perfect couple, the sexually precocious Debbie (Candy Clarke), and a nerdy Terry (Charles Martin Smith) trying to score.
Bob and John (Harrison Ford and Paul Le Mat ) were the ultra-cool guys everyone wanted to ride with but knew we were forbidden to by our parents. One of the coolest guys in our town, when I was growing up, was a big guy who drove a hot rod, and oddly, his nickname was ‘Bunny’. I was definitely not one of the cool, cute ones like Cindy Williams’s Laurie, so I occupied a spot as a bystander rather than a participant in Paradise By The Dashboard Light.
In the early sixties, I worked as a carhop on the weekends at a tiny drive-in restaurant behind the bowling alley in our small town. That put me front and centre to witness all the comings and goings of the Chevy Belairs, Oldsmobiles and Pontiacs cruising around on Friday and Saturday nights. There were also a lot of old Ford and Dodge farm pickup trucks and a few VW bugs—the originals. Working as a carhop didn’t generate a lot of tips from fellow high school students but it was an invaluable experience as life goes.
The first year (when I was 14) I made 65 cents an hour and a year later got a raise to 75 cents an hour. We’d work until 1:00 a.m. on Friday and Saturday nights when the restaurant closed. Then, we’d spend the next hour washing dishes by hand, cleaning the single unisex washroom, scraping the grill, washing the floors, and generally cleaning up for the next day’s business. And we didn’t get paid for that final hour of cleanup. I kept that job until I left home at 17.
When I was growing up in the fifties and sixties, small-town life was considerably different from today. A couple of times a year our family might make a big trip to Peterborough, 35 miles away to buy a new spring coat or Sunday shoes. But most of our shopping was done locally at the stores in town.
Even though our town had a population of only 3,200 at the time, in the fifties and sixties we had a vibrant downtown. There were several jewelry stores, multiple family grocery stores, a couple of small department stores, several hardware stores, ladies wear shops, pool rooms, restaurants, two professional photographers, and shoe stores. We even had an Eaton’s and Simpson’s catalogue order pickup office. The shops closed on Wednesday afternoons to give the shop-keepers some time off to compensate for being open Friday nights and Saturdays.
Friday nights were always special though, particularly in the warm summer months. Being a rural community, the farming families came into town to do their grocery shopping and pick up a few things in the shops. Just like in Amerian Graffiti cars would cruise up and down the main street, go around the block, and back around again, often parking in front of one of the shops to watch the “action” and enjoy an ice-cream cone. With the car windows rolled down, people passing by would stop and get caught up on the latest news or share a few words.
We had packed churches in every denomination as churches often provided much of the social life for boomer kids in a small town. The church basements were ground zero for weddings, Brownies, Girl Guides, Scouts and Cubs, strawberry socials, Rotary Club lunches and other community events. Everything was prepared by volunteer women from the community.
Back then, Friday nights on the town were our Facebook, Twitter, email, and dating sites. We knew everyone and we often put extra effort into what we wore to look extra smart for the Friday night stroll. “Put your nylons on, dear; we’re going to town.” Local baseball games at the high school field attracted good crowds of local people and eventually, a lot of them ended up at the drive-in where I worked.
With the exception of Canadian Tire, Stedman’s and the IGA, none of the stores or restaurants in town during the fifties and sixties were chains or franchises. I never had my first taste of pizza or Chinese food until I left home at seventeen and moved to Toronto. Local restaurants and shops were all small family businesses, just like the little farms that surrounded our community. We all had a vested interest in supporting these businesses as they were the people who provided our food, our medicines, supported our various churches, and their kids attended our schools. The father of one of my school friends even went so far as to insist his family only support businesses owned by veterans. The Second World War had only been over for a few years then and loyalties were strong. They only bought their meat from a butcher who was a veteran, got haircuts from a veteran and gassed up their car each week at a veteran’s gas station.
Our town had (and still has) an independent movie theatre, now run by volunteers, mostly boomers who treasure the memories. In the fifties and sixties we caught the latest westerns, Bowery Boys and Annette Funicello movies on Saturday afternoons. We’d throw popcorn at the screen during the exciting parts and all the boys would boo if there was a kissing scene. My 25-cent allowance covered admission (10 cents), a bag of popcorn (5 cents), and a trip up the street for an Archie and Veronica comic book (10 cents) after the movie. Our noisy group of neighbourhood kids would emerge from the theatre around 4:00 p.m., blinking as our eyes adjusted to the bright sunlight.
It’s not a myth that our only instructions were to be home by the time the streetlights came on. The main switch for the streetlights back then was located at the fire hall and managed by my grandfather who worked as the night watchman in the fifties. He often fell asleep on the job and my grandmother would have to phone him and remind him to turn the town’s streetlights on. Back then, boomers pretty much ran free from an early age. Our mothers took us to our first day of kindergarten; after that, we walked with the rest of the kids on the street and eventually by ourselves. We attended school with most of those same kids from kindergarten until we finished high school.
My father once sent me downtown in the mid-fifties to the hardware store with some loose change and an empty brown whiskey bottle with a cork in the top. He gave me instructions to get it filled up with coal oil (they sold it in bulk in those days) for cleaning something in his workshop. By the time I got to the store I’d forgotten what I was supposed to get (I was only 7 or 8) so I just handed Mr. Vice the money and empty whiskey bottle and told him my dad wanted it filled up. Being a small town, Mr. Vice knew who I was and called my Dad for more specific instructions. Imagine that scenario today. The police, child services, and who knows how many other agencies would be alerted and my poor dad would probably still be serving time. As they say, it takes a village, or in our case, a small town.
The downtown I grew up in doesn’t exist anymore. Storefronts are empty. Parking is a snap as there are hardly any cars anymore on the main street. It’s a sad sign of progress. Every family now has a car and many have multiple cars so it’s easy to make the 40-minute drive to a larger urban centre for a visit to Costco or Walmart. Tim Horton’s has replaced little family hamburger joints and churches are closing. Socializing is done impersonally, online and if someone is deemed not cute enough, you just swipe right. Steve and Laurie now have trendy names like Mason or Madison.
Years ago I saw the play “The Trip to Bountiful” at the Fairview Theatre in Toronto. It’s about an elderly woman who lives unhappily with her son and daughter-in-law. She knows she’s reaching the end of her life and all she wants to do is return to the home town where she grew up, where all her best memories reside. When she finally gets there, nothing is the same as she remembered but she sees only it’s beauty.
I have no illusions of returning to my own “Bountiful” but there is always a gravitational pull to where we were born or grew up, isn’t there? Baby boomers had the wonderful experience of growing up in times of great change, strong family values, and amazing historical events, both bad and good. Much as we enjoyed our liberation when we left home and started lives on our own, we always feel nostalgic about those amazing years growing up in the fifties and sixties. And the music was and still is, in our opinion, the absolute best.
I sometimes find myself wondering how I’d fare as a young person if I’d been born a few decades later in today’s world. The entire world is a very different place now, which is a natural and logical progression. I only hope today’s children and young people remember their childhood to be as well-rounded and colourful as we remember ours. They have their share of problems like COVID-19, Trump, school shootings, and terrorism to deal with. But, we had the Cold War, Vietnam, Diefenbaker, and polio. Every generation has its pandemics, its wars, its stupid politicians, and its very own joys. There’s no place I’d rather be than here and no time better than now, retired and happy to be alive. Thanks for the memories.