Monday, July 25, 2011

Window on the World

1960s coffee table
Window on the World
by Greg Larson

     My best friend, Mike, and I crawled on our bellies through the warm Bermuda grass. It was important to keep a low profile while moving to the next shrub or evergreen bush for cover.  Playing army was a typical pastime in the heart of summer in 1960.  We were closing in on our reconnaissance target, a cocktail party that was just getting underway at a neighbor’s patio one early Friday evening in the Wichita suburb. We sneaked to the backside of a low hedge along the patio and peeked through the leaves.  For nine year-old voyeurs, this was prime time excitement.

     The setting looked just like the cigarette ads in Life magazine.  A hi-fi record belted out a Frank Sinatra tune from the low, horizontal cabinet in the living room.  Men and women in their thirties stepped onto the patio through a sliding glass door, clinking glasses and holding cigarettes as they chatted.  Women with bee-hive hairdos and pointy-toed shoes wore shift dresses or Capri pants and sleeveless blouses.  Some of the men, with five o-clock shadows, wore white starched shirts with rolled-up sleeves and loosened ties.  Other men wore seersucker pants and Hawaiian shirts. The cigarette smoke made lazy patterns in the air, wafting out over the patio and hedge.  The jovial atmosphere made me think this must be the good life.

          Mike and I timed our exit.  As several party goers returned to the living room, we stealthily slipped around the corner of the house. We laughed and jumped with glee, amazed we hadn’t been caught.  Our mission accomplished, we ran towards our respective homes. 

     I went into the living room and sat on my knees in front of the magazines which were placed next to the turquoise ashtray on the mahogany coffee table with tapered legs.  My world was expanding, and Life magazine was a key lens through which I formed an image of the good life in America.  The large tabloid-sized publication, with high-quality advertising and professional photography, wooed me like a crystal ball.  I slowly turned the pages and went on a magic carpet ride. 

     The advertisements became addictive.  The perfect American family needed to have a new Buick, a two-story house with large trees and green grass, and a swimming pool in the back yard.  A motor boat was necessary for fishing and skiing, and if Mom were lucky, a dishwasher on wheels would magically appear in the kitchen.  Dad would drink Seagrams whiskey, smoke Camels, or better yet, a pipe, and wear a muffler and a long coat in the winter.  Mom would have a mink stole.

     Cigarette ads were carefully scripted and included staged photography or Madison Avenue artwork.  Pall Malls claimed they were “outstanding . . . and they are mild.” Chesterfield Kings were “air softened with top porosity paper.”

     Brands like Nabisco, Kelloggs, and Duncan Hines dialed up my appetite for quality products.  Minute Maid promoted their frozen orange bars, claiming there was “juice from an entire orange in each bar.”  Life never tasted so good.

     Car ads usually included a handsome man with creased slacks and loafers, standing next to a smiling woman, perfectly coiffed and wearing a big skirt and low-cut top.  They embraced each other, beside a shiny new automobile parked at the curb of a country club.     

     Tires, batteries, spark plugs, oil and fuel ads were sprinkled among the stories and articles.

     The photos and articles took me a step further, beyond the advertisements.  Politics, fashion, modern living, and sports kept me up to date with all the latest news. Human interest stories, miscellaneous fads and unusual pictures captured my attention.  As I got older, I began to wonder if the magazine created our culture, or if the culture created the magazine.

     The good, the bad, and the ugly, all appeared in the photographs, from dictators in Africa and the Caribbean, to mafia bosses and snitches, like Joe Valachi.  All was laid bare, or almost bare, with photos of Brigitte Bardot and Marilyn Monroe, along with many aspiring starlets.  JFK and Bobby Kennedy appeared in silhouette, seated and leaning towards each other, strategizing the upcoming years in Camelot.  Space walks and trips to the moon were shown in great detail.

     The world was a fascinating place, and America was leading the way with all the gusto and products it could create.

     But as the ’60s rolled along, the image of the good life began to unravel.  Disturbing pictures appeared as I turned the big pages.  President Kennedy’s assassination was followed with Lee Harvey Oswald being shot at point-blank range by Jack Ruby.  The world wasn’t quite so idyllic.  Blacks and whites confronted each other in the south, while Martin Luther King, Jr., bravely marched in protest of segregation.  Images of Vietnam came in volume, almost too much to bear.  Helicopters, napalm-burned villages, body bags, and makeshift airbases put my brain on overload.  Then Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated.  Society seemed out of control.

     In 1967, Life magazine began a prophetic series on “the struggle to be an individual.”   Americans wanted to “find themselves” and develop their own identity.  They began to create their own definition of the good life.

     A feature article showed “Bob Dylan, Sloppy, Steamed Up, and Successful,” with his cigarette creating a fog around him.  Other articles showed hippies in Haight-Ashbury purchasing drugs to seek nirvana.  Doctors and medics treated hundreds of drug overdose cases at rock festivals.  The Beatles were experimenting with acid. War protests and draft card burnings were frequent.

      The craziness continued to crescendo into the ’70s.  Just before I loaded up my car to leave for college, I saw a photograph of a judge in Marin County, California, being held hostage.  A sawed-off shotgun was wired to his neck.  Another image showed the dead judge, limp in the back of a van.  The trigger to the shotgun had been pulled during a shootout in the parking lot.

     When would the violence end?

     As I drove down the highway towards Manhattan, Kansas, I wasn’t sure what “the American good life” meant.  In a short few years, the world had cracked to expose the underbelly of life in America.  Our society had fractured into little pieces.  

     It seemed like yesterday when Mike and I viewed the cocktail party and I naively thought everyone sought the Life magazine vision of the good life.  I would have to find new windows and lenses to view the world around me.  The haunting music of the Beatles “Helter Skelter” came to mind as well as Simon & Garfunkel’s song describing the lost youth who have “all gone to look for America.”

     I was resolved to keep searching as I continued down the highway.


  1. Maybe the good old days weren't quite as good as we remember them, but we did survive them. I wonder how we will look back on the events of today 20 years from now. Nice piece. Russ

  2. Really enjoyed your memoir. I found it thought provoking. The 1960s were a pivotal decade; a contrast to the 1950's naivety. I believe the frank reporting of the underbelly that was always there, somehow, had a hand in the changing mores of society.