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I C London, I C France

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by Howard Waldrop

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1. In olden days, a glimpse...

(We seem to be on a nostalgia kick here, what with the last column on the Retro Hugos, etc. Someday soon I'll get back to the near-past, the present, or the future...)

Fifty years ago, 1954, was a truly horrible time to be an adult in the US. I don't know how our parents, or anyone over 21, did it. There were the Oppenheimer loyalty hearings. (He, who had been in charge of developing the A-Bomb in WW II, had shown insufficient zeal for the H-Bomb.) These were held in secret; the outcome was that his security clearance was taken away, so that he couldn't even read papers he had written ten years before. We had the televised circus of the Army-McCarthy hearings, wherein Cohn, Schine, McCarthy, and company were given enough exposure so people could see their Red Scare tactics for the lies, hooey, and insinuendo it was. It came down to weekend passes for Pvt. Schine so he and Cohn could pork. (Schine later married a Miss Universe and had 5 kids.)

Stalin had only been dead a year. No one knew if Khrushchev or Bulganin was going to be Top Dog Commie, until Bulganin left to run a tractor factory ("Wonderful opportunity for you in Magnetogorsk, Comrade!") — signaling a kinder, gentler USSR, the first time someone hadn't been promoted by means of the pistol. It would be another 2 years before Khrushchev gave his "cult of personality" speech — a merde pie for Stalin — to the plenary session of the Party Congress, that signaled the Real Thaw.

Eisenhower, for god's sake, was President of the US, probably the blandest man who ever held the job, except when he was pissed off, which, according to newly-released documents, was all the time. His major failing was that he listened to Nixon and John Foster Dulles too much. The Korean War had reached an armistice the year before — 33,000 Americans dead and things were just like they had been on June 25, 1950, only there were lots less Koreans around to enjoy it, and they're still staring at each other across a DMZ.

The economy — which was flat or down during the Korean War — had finally shown some signs of being alive. There were more consumer goods than ever, and the TVs jumped off the shelves. The unveiling of next year's models of cars was still the big September event — '54 was slightly too early for tail fins and tit-grills, but they were trying to break out of the smooth forms of the cars, like compound fractures just below the skin.

Times were conformist and puritanical for adults. Conspicuous consumption was the norm. (These aren't platitudes: it's the truth, Ruth.) Adults still lived under the shadow of the two Big Events of their lives, the Depression and WW II.

Germany and Japan were still in the limbos of quasi-occupation — there had been MacArthur in Japan before the Korean War, and a series of High US Commissioners in W. Germany. (Both became independent nations by 1955.) The US had already started on its downward spiral of World Cop and Superpower that led to Vietnam, the cowboy years in Chile, and Nicaragua, playing Syrian-roulette by backing the wrong camels in the Mideast, and on to its current quagmires in Iraq and Afghanistan, and its War on Terror, which it brought on its own head (by listening to Nixon, Kissinger, Reagan, and John Foster Dulles too much...)

And all the adults paused once every day to look up into the sky, from which radioactive death could come, any second now.

1954 was also a terrible time to be a teenager. For one thing, rock and roll was still a year away. Sure, the music stirred and seethed below the surface; people like Alan Freed and Arnie "WooWoo" Ginsberg were playing black rhythm and blues on the radio for mostly white audiences. The Keefauver Crime Commission was investigating juvenile delinquency. (If your parents were conformist, money-grubbing, keep-up-with-the-Joneses, commie-hunting, barbiturate-soaked morons, what could you do for kicks?) Blackboard Jungle and Rebel Without a Cause weren't even in the script stages yet. AIP — which was still ARC, the American Releasing Corporation — was just releasing its first pictures and hadn't even come up with the idea of monster movie double-features for drive-ins yet. Roger Corman had just written his first move script (Highway Dragnet).

There were pressures on you, man, if you were a teenager. School was slow torture. ("Teacher don't know how mean she looks," Chuck Berry would later sing. In 1954, Chuck Berry was unthinkable as a viable concept...) Teenagers, as a discrete unit, had only been around since the 1930s, when a high-school education became compulsory in most states — so the few available jobs could be given to adults; the kids being locked up in school-stir most of the day. They had more money, and not many places to put it or spend it, except as mini-adults, and that wasn't exactly what they wanted. (They wanted cars, of course, but couldn't drive one til they were 16.) They didn't need a personal refrigerator; there was nothing on the radio unless they could pull in a black station from Chicago or Cleveland; there was already a TV in the living room. They didn't know what they wanted, but they wanted it bad. In another year they would have it: rock and roll, and movies made for them. In 1954, they were still on the dry side of the watershed, like, with pressures on you, man...

1954 was a GREAT time to be a kid. I know, I was one. I was the most enthusiastic 8-year-old that ever was or ever could be.

There were a couple of hundred reasons, For one, it was the last year of glory, before things got so bad, because of congressional investigations and Reader's Digest articles by Dr. Wertham, and the adoption of the Comics Code Authority (the publishers' equivalent of the Motion Picture Production Code that had kept movies from having any ideas that would shock the vicar since 1934...) In late 1954, there were still all the great horror comic books around. ECs — filled with puns, good writing, great art, and gore! — go get some of the hardcover reprints and look at Shoe-Button Eyes or By George! or some of the adaptations of Ray Bradbury's stories from The Martian Chronicles in them, and see what I mean. Besides the ECs, there were crime and horror comics by publishers ranging from the near-EC level to that of the barely literate. There were something like 300 different comic book titles a month published, 52 or 48 pages, all in color for a dime (except Classics Illustrated, a.i.c. for 15) Gore! Bats! Skulls! Guys in tanks disintegrated into green goo by acid in Blackhawk! Airboy, and The Monster of Frankenstein were still running. Airboy had The Heap in it, a sort of Old Testament revenge-minded haystack golem. Dick Breifer's Frankenstein was sui generis; it had started as a horror feature in Prize Comics in the 40s, then transmogrified into a humor comic in the late 40s, and changed back to a horror comic in the early 50s. Guys feeding babies to man-eating plants! Guys pinned to town clocks by the broken-off hour hand! Fights with mummies in the tunnels beneath the pyramids! Gah! (I remembered when I'd covered my eyes to keep from seeing the Queen transform into the witch in the 1952 release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs; the next day, with a rare dime I'd gone out and bought a Frankenstein comic book. My mom had a shit-fit: "How can you not watch Snow White and then go out and buy that!?" As I said somewhere else, being a kid I didn't have time to explain the difference between the low and high mimetic modes of narrative...)

Anyway: Comic books everywhere! The best writing in them was in Walt Disney's Uncle Scrooge (Carl Barks) and Marge's Little Lulu (John Stanley et al.). There were SF comics, crime comics, war comics, jungle comics, funny animal comics! A kid with a genuine American birthday dollar could buy ten of them, or visit a store that sold used comics for 5¢ each and get 20 of them. Kids traded comics. Moms and PTAs threw them out, or burned them (really). It was pig-heaven for an 8-year-old.

The Movies: the ones I talked about in the Retro Hugos last time had come out the year before. You could go to a kids' matinee on Saturday morning. For 15¢ you'd get: 8 or 9 cartoons; a newsreel; a Three Stooges (with Shemp) or a Leon Erroll short; the chapter of a serial (they still had two more years of production to go in 1954); and two movies — maybe a Western and an Abbott and Costello ("another god-damned Abbott and Costello movie released" as The Onion says), or, best of all, Flight To Mars (1951) or Phantom from Space from the year before. Then, along about 5 pm you could STAY FOR THE REGULAR MOVIE!! In the summer you went in at 11 and came out at 7pm and it was still daylight! And you'd seen ALL THAT STUFF! Then you went next door to the drug store and bought a comic book with the 10¢ you had left over...

1954 was a great year for SF films — it was at the end of the 3-D cycle and just before Cinemascope, Cinerama and Panavision, and color became the norm — all the wide-screen processes ("3-D without the glasses!") were just cranking up. Disney got in on the act with 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. The blockbuster Creature from the Black Lagoon, in 3-D, was released that year. Riders to the Stars, Tobor the Great, Killers From Space, Target Earth!, The Atomic Kid (destined to become a kids' matinee staple into the 60s), Gog, The Rocket Man (co-written by Lenny Bruce!), and The Snow Creature, the first Abominable Snowman movie, all came out in '54. On definitely lesser notes, so did Monster From the Ocean Floor, Paris Playboys, and The Bowery Boys Meet the Monsters (with 40-year-old teenagers...). Best of all, 1954 was the year of Them!, the original giant-bug movie, in regular black and white (except for the hairy red letters of the title), a swell SF film and a first-rate mystery at the same time, one of my all-time favorites.

And why all this production and floundering around in formats, shapes, colors?

Because in 1954, the moviemakers were still fighting against the One-Eyed Living Room Monster that caused movie attendance to drop from 90 million people a week in the late 40s to 40 million a week in the early 1950s.

And what was keeping us kids home 6 days a week?


I C London, I C France, which may be the Web's most technologically primitive blog, is brought to you through the typing, proofreading, editorial, and coding efforts of Team Waldrop, also known as Mary Kay Kare (proudly reality-based) and L. Blunt Jackson (Seattle, Philadelphia, Tau Ceti), and via the steadfast couriers of the United States Postal Service. Much thanks to all involved!

New: Locus Magazine is offering a special deal on the issue with the superb Heart-of-Waldrop photo and interview. Che'ekidaou'ut.

Howard Waldrop is a legend in his own time. He writes, he fishes, he builds bookcases. He does not have a cellphone, a computer, or an email account.

For someone who is about as wired as an echidna, Howard has a pretty substantial online career. He has had a website since 1997. You can read The Ugly Chickens, The Other Real World, Winter Quarters, D = R x T, and his collaboration with Leigh Kennedy, One Horse Town, on SciFiction. Mary Margaret Roadgrader is available on the excellent Strange Horizons. He has an occasional column, Crimea River, on Electric Story. And now he has a blog. Go figure.

For additional embellishments of the Waldrop legend, see Who Is Howard Waldrop, Anyway? For extravagant lies about Howard, see Alternate Waldrops, on Strange Horizons. Howard's most recent books are Custer's Last Jump and Other Collaborations and Dream Factories and Radio Pictures. Buy 'em.

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