Today, I was sitting in the waiting room at an eye surgeon’s office, waiting for them to call my wife back for her follow-up exam for cataract surgery, and someone came through the waiting room towing a little Radio Flyer red wagon.
They use these down at the pumpkin farm where we get our Halloween pumpkins. It’s the pumpkin-farm shopping cart. They never really triggered any strong memories for me.
This one did. I think it was because it was new and shiny.
I grew up in an outlying housing development of Cheyenne, Wyoming. It had five long, parallel streets lined on both sides by 1960’s-style single-family houses, with an elementary school on one end, and a runoff ditch on the other, and an old two-lane blacktop highway on the other side of the ditch. Street #1 was the oldest, where houses were larger than ours, were set on relatively spacious lots at a pleasant angle to the street, and had actual trees. We were on street #4, and the houses were packed together in straight lines along the soon-to-be-paved road, separated from each other by the width of a driveway and a path just large enough for a lawnmower. The houses were small but well-built, with brick veneer exteriors and hardwood floors: the basic 1500 sq. ft. three-bedroom crackerbox, with a front yard and a back yard.
It was solidly middle-class.
The Radio Flyer red wagon was all the rage among my peers when I was young, and I wanted one for Christmas oh-so-badly. But when it eventually arrived, it was not the little red wagon all the other kids had. It was the Upgrade. It had a white-enameled extension around it that stood maybe four inches tall, with a rolled-steel top rim.
This presented a number of problems. For one thing, it made the wagon quite a lot heavier: hauling it up a hill was, for a painfully-skinny seven-year-old, an ordeal. For another, it made it difficult to put things into it, and take them out. The normal red wagon is low enough that if you are seven and are carrying a big rock, you can walk over and just drop it into the wagon. With this higher rim, you would have to walk over, then lift the rock and drop it in. You couldn’t easily use an old board as a lever to slide something into the wagon, because it was too tall. If you filled the wagon with dirt, or small rocks, it was almost impossible to dump. The rim also made the wagon top-heavy, which caused problems on turns.
But the worst problem with this wagon was that it was elegant. Stylish. Two-toned. It was Deluxe.
I don’t really know why my parents bought it. But I can speculate.
My father grew up in lower Manhattan, the son of Hungarian immigrants who met and married in the US. When his father died, about the time my father was in high school, the family fell on very hard times and all six kids had to pitch in to survive. Dad never talked much about that period of his life. Men of his generation didn’t.
My mother grew up on a farm in Oklahoma, and while her father was a reasonably successful farmer, it was a farm life, where nothing went to waste. On top of that, their religion — a little prairie fundamentalist sect — put humility and thrift on flagrant display.
They both came of age during the Great Depression. Neither of them grew up with Nice Things. They kept a tight budget on my father’s income, and lived according to the ethic of frugality they had grown up with.
They did want Nice Things for their children, however, and so we usually got the upgrade. I don’t think they ever understood how much trouble it caused.
I grew up in the 1950’s. Not literally: I actually grew up in the 1960’s. But Cheyenne — Wyoming in general — has always been at least a decade behind America, when it isn’t a half-century behind. So it was the 1950’s. It was the era of the Organization Man, the Corporation, the Man in the Grey Flannel Suit. Those “damn hippies” and that “damn rock music” were all objects of scorn and anger. We had no homosexuals. We had no Communists. We didn’t have school uniforms, but boys were in the Cub Scouts, (girls in the Brownies), with uniforms and meetings and ranks. We saluted the flag every day, though most didn’t know what “indivisible” meant. We did jumping-jacks and squats. We had Atom Bomb drills where we would file out into the hallways and sit with our backs against the wall and hands over our heads. A Wrinkle in Time was published in 1962, with its ghastly scene of children all bouncing a basketball in uniform rhythm, the same year the song Little Boxes was written.
It was a time that celebrated absolute conformity.
A top-end, flashy Radio Flyer Deluxe wagon just did not play well. It was the stuff of which grade-school pariahs are made.
Not that I didn’t have other troubles fitting in. I’m sure the toys were really the smallest part.
I think all this came to mind in part because the so-called “right-wing conservatives” who are sucking up all the air in the newsrooms these days seem to be trying to resurrect the 1950’s.
There was a strong fascist push in the US in the 1950’s, an attempt to drive people back into a state of “conservative Christian piety” that has never (ever) existed. Books were banned and burned (mostly the same books being banned now, curiously enough). Waves of black lynchings and other racial violence erupted. Joseph McCarthy’s Red Scare ruined careers and lives, eventually including Senator McCarthy’s. Anti-gay propaganda abounded in government, known as the Lavender Scare. Chowderheads took to the airwaves to explain the Trilateral Commission and the Jewish Plot and the Rise of the Antichrist and how it was all wrapped up in Franklin Roosevelt’s secret identity as a 33rd Degree Mason.
And here it is, all over again.
When this sort of thing comes up, it’s always a mistake to dismiss it as, “We’ve seen this before and it came to nothing.” That’s dangerous.
But dear God, it is tiresome.