Monday, April 22, 2024
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The Long Way Home

A good title for this week’s column might be bookends.

I spend too much time in this space writing about my aging process—mental lapses, fading eyesight, and subpar hearing. At least the Bohunk still laughs about it, and my ego gets fed.

Why bookends?

I happened upon a book included in my 90-day trial of Kindle Unlimited: “The Fifties” by David Halberstam, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, published in 1993. The blurb said, “The fifties were a defining decade for America, complete with sweeping cultural change and political upheaval.”

I came into this world in the 1950s. Seven decades have passed since I made that appearance, so it seems appropriate to comment on Halberstam’s description of the turbulent time of change in the decade of my birth and the unstable time of change today. The similarities are striking, and if you believe in progress, the similarities are some-times depressing.

Despite profound, positive changes, we don’t seem to have learned much from the past.

The book starts with the rough and tumble politics of postwar America. Contrary to prevailing myths, Americans were not unanimous in their patriotic zeal to save Europe from the insanity of Adolf Hitler and his goons. Many thought Europe should be left to its own destiny, and after the war, they expected the USA to pull in its horns in foreign affairs.

The driving “foreign affair” fear of people, many with seats in Congress, was Communism as practiced by the USSR, once and still Russia. Republicans in both houses of Congress, who had ineffectively used anti-socialist rhetoric for 20 years, now jumped to anti-communist rhetoric to smear Democrats and government bureaucrats, along with scientists, artists, and educators who didn’t fit their image of what an American is.

In the early 1950s, Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy began a ruthless campaign against alleged communists in government and other institutions. “McCarthyism” describes the practice of accusing people of having affiliations with communism, often on the flimsiest of evidence.  People were “blacklisted” and often lost jobs and careers. After four years of terror, McCarthy, a functioning alcoholic, fell under a pile of disgrace.

Members of Congress strutted arrogantly back then, labeling political opponents as traitors, sexual deviants, or just plain communists. It seems members of Congress seven decades later haven’t progressed much.

The book then moves on to the changes in culture, business, and science that rival those we’ve seen in the last twenty years.

In science alone, the 1950s brought about the hydrogen bomb, rocketry, computers, and vaccines for polio, chicken pox, measles, and mumps. Those vaccines meant my children and grandchildren would never face those illnesses—a miracle of sorts brought to us by science.

The television industry came of age in the 1950s. The 1952 Presidential election brought us the “I like Ike” commercials, news coverage of political conventions, and the making of presidents into celebrities. More recently, it has made celebrities into presidents.

For 30 years, women had the right to vote. But in the 1950s, they were limited to lower-wage jobs and denied credit in their name. Birth control pills weren’t invented until late in the 1950s and weren’t widely available for years. And abortions, which were more common than our sheltered grandmothers would acknowledge, took place in the back rooms of dentist offices and barbershops leaving a trail of tears, humiliation, and sometimes fatal infections.

Today, some want to return America to the 1950s. I prefer the bookend of the 2020s. Despite our malicious politics, stuck in the 1950s, the rest of us have come a long way, baby.

Despite the problems du jour, I’m nostalgic for those days of the 50s. But today, we’re all in a far better place.

Steve Fernlund
Steve Fernlund
Typically these “about me” pages include a list of academic achievements (I have none) and positions held (I have had many, but who really cares about those?) So, in the words of the late Admiral James Stockwell, “Who am I? Why am I here?” I’m well into my seventh decade on this blue planet we call home. I’m a pretty successful husband, father, and grandfather, at least in my humble opinion. My progeny may disagree. We have four children and five grandchildren. I spent most of my professional life in the freight business. At the tender age of 40, early retirement beckoned and we moved to Grand Marais. A year after we got here, we bought and operated the Cook County News Herald, a weekly newspaper in Grand Marais. A sharp learning curve for a dumb freight broker to become a newspaper editor and publisher. By 1999 the News Herald was an acquisition target for a rapidly consolidating media market. We sold our businesses and “retired” again, buying a winter retreat in Nevada. In the fall of 2016, we returned to Grand Marais and bought a house from old friends of ours on the ridge overlooking Lake Superior. They were able to move closer to family and their Mexico winter home. And we came home to what we say is our last house. I’m a strong believer in the value of local newspapers--both online and those you can wrap a fish in. I write a weekly column and a couple of feature stories for the Northshore Journal. I’m most interested in writing about the everyday lives of local people and reporting on issues of importance to them.
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