September 15, 2019

A Simpler Time and Place

I can remember when my grandfather retired. For years, he had worked beyond the time permitted by his employer but the courthouse in his home town had burnt down and with it all the records were lost. His employer, Budd Wheel, had to accept his verbal authorization as to his age. He worked until almost age 80.

When he did officially retire, life was simple and relaxing for him. He sat on his porch in a rocker that he had from his days back on the farm. There was no State tax at that time and no City tax and my dad did his Federal tax return which consisted of two pages. He did not own a car or a TV and used the local streetcar to get around. The cost was a dime including a one-time transfer. When I think about it, life was really simple back then. I think the year was 1947.

In thinking about my early childhood, life really was simpler. No Internet, no cable, limited television if you had one, no iPads, just radio. Cars were more abundant after the War with AM radios, manual transmissions, no power steering or power brakes or power windows – at least for a car buying public that had a limited budget. I remember the ads for the new Airfoil Desoto.

You could get a new house for about $4,000 dollars and a new car cost about $850 dollars. A movie ticket was 30 cents and gasoline was 12 cents a gallon. Postage stamps were 3 cents. But in the mid-60s, things began to change. State and local taxes started along with the advent of technology. And the dreaded inflation began. I can remember brochures for houses that stated “consider buying now as prices are slated to go up soon.” And they did go up. My first home in 1969 cost $30,500 with a 2 car attached garage. The same home 10 years later was up to over $73,000 dollars.

I think the first biggest change that occurred was the fragmenting of our society. Television drew people inside; houses were on larger lots and people seemed to become more mobile, staying home less and less. In 1950, it took nearly 8 hours of driving to go from the City of Detroit to Ruth, Michigan where my Mother was born. Today, that drive is less than 2 hours via the expressway.

Everything seemed so much simpler back then. And it was. The selection of food was less than today but it also contained fewer preservatives and people were on less medication. People attended church on a regular basis and it seemed as if a great majority of my neighborhood kids, at that time, attended the local Catholic school.

I think the second biggest change was a breakdown in morality that occurred slowly over time. I can never remember theft being as much of a problem 70 years ago as it is today. People didn’t lock their doors and cars as they do today. Now we have car-jackings, home invasions, shop-lifting, even crash-and-grab or deliberate collisions into stores. Drugs have changed our society permanently. With drugs comes violence, much of it senseless as things like drive-by shootings. Also, sex was not as prevalent back then. Now sex sells cars, clothes, movies, and we have the “new morality” that says there should be no limit to sexual activity.

As people live longer, many older folks question their quality of life. These days, many are jammed into nursing homes called “assisted living residences.” There, over-medicated people walk around taking a dozen or more pills a day. Even our advertising says, “if you have a pain, a soreness, a difficulty with any activity or illness, we have a pill that will cure it.”

I sadly realize that those simpler times will never return. Somehow, though, we have to make an attempt to slow down the collision course we are on. People work 12 hour days on a regular basis; carry their cell phones and claim to be in “constant communication” with the rest of the world; never seem to eat together as families; and don’t even know the ages of their children.

I still think of my grandfather who worked more than 60 years but knew how to relax and enjoy his rocker. At the time of his death, he had been married to my grandmother for over 68 years and was laid to rest in a church that he visited every Sunday. He was no stranger to the God that he would spend an eternity with in a more simple time.

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Written by
Donald Wittmer

DONALD WITTMER is a retired business executive who held key roles in the automotive and banking sectors. For a time, he also served as a Fiscal Agency Manager for the Detroit branch of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago. He received his undergraduate degree from Cincinnati's Xavier University, an M.A. in business management from Central Michigan University, and earned certification in bank operations from the School of Banking at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. A husband, father, and grandfather, he teaches part-time at the Kent Place School for Girls in Summit, New Jersey.

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2 comments
  • Mr. Wittmer I wanted to add one more thing. You mention TV as something that reduced community by drawing everyone inside. You are correct (one of many degradations brought about by TV).

    I note from your bio you are from the midwest. I’m from the deep south (New Orleans). There is another modern convenience that drew people inside in this area of the country: air conditioning, believe it or not.

    As you drive around New Orleans, you can see just how many homes built before the fifties had large front porches or at least a stoop for skinnier “shotgun” houses. This was more than just an architectural trend. Spending some time on the porch or outside when there was a nice evening breeze was a common way to gain some relief from the summer heat which lasts long down here.

    In the evening folks would be out on the porch, smoking a cig, drinking a cold drink, and shooting the breeze. Others in the neighborhood would be out doing the same. Once a/c became available, porches went away, and with them the strong sense of community that an evening on the porch fostered.

    Not complaining about air conditioning, mind you. Just pointing out as you did with TV that there is a price to be paid for our technological innovations.

    Thanks for the great article.

  • My mother, God keep her soul, was WWII generation, born in 1929. She used to tell me that it all started to palpably tank in the 50’s. She lived it. I wasn’t born until the 60’s.

    I enjoy watching old movies. They are an interesting sociological record of the culture that produced them. Movies for mass consumption started in the 20’s with silents up to the present day, of course. As you watch movies from the 20’s, 30’s, 40’s… the dialogue, stories, dress, demeanor and roles of the characters, and on and on provide some insight into that period of American history.

    Using movies as an indicator I would say that my mother was right. In the movies of the 50’s you can see subject matter and themes creeping in that were not present in the movies of the 40’s and earlier. As you get later into the decade, it gets worse. The movies of the early 60’s were saturated with sexuality, even before the tidal wave of the “sexual revolution.”

    Moving on in time nihilism and death began to show up more and more unto the present day.

    The decay of American culture is real. Those responsible call it “progress.” No time in history was perfect by any stretch. We are broken creatures in a fallen world, after all. But some eras were definitely better than others.

Written by Donald Wittmer
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