What I know about the 50’s, I learned from my father. He proclaimed that decade “the best ten years for music, cars, and the USA”. He said Elvis was the best thing that ever happened to music and the Beatles were the worst. He blamed the British invasion for pot, long hair, and the next decade of debauchery. But the truth is, Elvis was holding the door open for the 60’s. He was a feral thing. Men wanted to be him. Women wanted him. America was tired of missionary-position music. They wanted something untamed, and from the crotch, and rock and roll was just that.
Elvis was the perfect story. Poor boy from Tennessee, loves his mother, loves America, is entirely too good looking to have come from the backwoods. He was impossible to envy. There was this idea that he deserved everything because he came from nothing and somehow, this made him sexier to women. Elvis can fix your car, play you a song, shoot a gun. Even my mother, who cares nothing about music, bought Elvis. So of course my father really wanted to be him. But in an unintentional way, he already was Elvis. Poor boy from the Kentucky holler, loves his mama, plays music.
But then everything changed when Vietnam started. My father joins the Marines, exits youth, goes to war, and expects the 50’s to be waiting when he gets back. But it isn’t. He comes home and doesn’t recognize anything. He isn’t a hero, America stopped cutting their hair in 1959, the job that was supposed to be waiting on him is taken, and the radio is playing protest songs. So my father freezes time, refuses to believe it is 1963 and somehow succeeds at it for a while. I’ve seen pictures of my father in cuffed black pants, Italian loafers, and James Dean hair, a cigarette in one hand a glass of scotch in the other — my mother sitting on his lap laughing. They were extending the 50’s way past its expiration date.
Then, in 1967, my sister is born and my father is forced out of a memory. He quits the smokes, hides the scotch, and buys some jeans. His hair is thin because of something he got in Nam and the America he misses is not coming back. I think he knows this and it creates a sort of permanent empty that I can still see today. By the time I’m born, he is listening to John Denver, wearing bell bottoms, and sporting some mean-ass pork chop sideburns and a beard. He has a VW van and a pair of tennis shoes. This is a snapshot of farewell. I think my father remembers his 50’s, not the 50’s.
Because he was young, Vietnam was a mistake that hadn’t been made yet, and he was in love with possibility.
I think that is what made that decade so good. It wasn’t the music on the radio, but the sound of innocence and the last episode of Gunsmoke before Elvis shot the television.