first of all, i had a school assignment that required me to interview someone who remembers the 1950s and 1960s. i chose to interview my aunt jeannette, my dad's sister. her interview was interesting, and i chose to write up the assignment with some narrative, which teased my writer's mind until at least an hour ago, when i sat up from bed and started writing it from my notes.
here's a sample:
The room was small; a red couch to the left, a majestic brick fireplace in the center, and two taupe chairs to the questioner’s right. In one chair sat Jeannette, sixty years old, born in 1951. She resembles many women her age: short, greying hair, kind eyes, and a somewhat troubled smile. She is still pretty. She pauses to listen to the question and thinks before she speaks.
Q: Where were you in the 1950s?
Mrs. Lester nods her head and turns to memory. “I was living in Boone County, West Virginia, wasn’t I?” she half murmurs. She goes on the describe Boone County: a rural, coal mining community. People who live elsewhere call the residents “hicks,” “rednecks,” and “ignorant.” “I lived in Boone County till I was about seven,” she says, “and then we moved to Logan County.” Both counties are isolated areas, without major attractions, and the sky is almost permanently grey. The most important buildings are the post office and the school.
Q: What do you remember about Sputnik and the space race?She smiles gently, as if pleased by the word. “I remember seeing these lights in the sky,” she says, and she says it with magic. “We would see the lights just beyond, and people would look at each other and wonder if it was Sputnik, or something like it. People were so amazed at just the idea that something was up there, above us.”
Q: Do you think the 1950s was a time of conformity or rebellion?
She frowns. “I would have to say conformity, I guess.” Jeannette also says, “The fifties were different, though.” She speaks in that “good ole days” tone: “The most valuable thing a man could have was his word. There was honor in the way a man took care of his family.” In general, Jeannette sees the fifties as the time of calm before the storm of the sixties. “Did you know? Children’s church didn’t exist back then. Children went to adult church, where they were taught to sit up straight and learn some self-control.” She mutters, “Parents seem to have forgotten that.”
She mentions when questioned, “We didn’t really see the Klan much either, although it was the rural South.”
Q: Where were you in the 1960s?
At that point, Jeannette explains, she was living in Logan County. In the late fifties, she, her parents, older brother Charlie, and younger sister Karen Sue, moved to Florida. “The doctors said it would be good for Daddy’s health,” she elaborates. Hes had lung problems.
“Instead, we almost got killed!” she chuckles at the irony. Once the family moved to Florida, a tornado destroyed their house, and they lost everything they owned. Only a few weeks after did they find out that Mrs. Maxine was pregnant—with Timothy. Tim tells the story routinely with folklore admiration, the story of his father holding up the door to the house with his shoulder against the elements.
“We moved back after that,” she adds.
Q: What do you remember about the assassination of President Kennedy?
Jeannette remembers little else besides the President’s death. “Momma and Daddy liked him,” she says, “and that’s probably why I liked him. But I do remember he was charismatic, young, and handsome. After the Cuban Missile Crisis, it was easy to trust in his leadership.”
She pauses. “I was in the seventh grade when it happened, 1963.” Jeannette described herself as, “a simple, serious student;” that year, she had won a “voice of democracy” essay contest, and was elected her class president.
She laughs, “Some kid came into our classroom, crying that the president was killed, and when we asked about it, he said he was talking about me.” The whole room chuckled uneasily. “Well, kids have always been mean,” she adds absentmindedly.
Q: What do you remember of the Cuban Missile Crisis?
She shifts in her seat as if to illustrate her words. “It was an uneasy time,” she says, “people were talking, speculating, tense, asking what was gonna happen, who was gonna die.” She doesn’t recall bomb drills, but mentions that conversation about bomb shelters was common. “I remember someone saying, ‘One of them Russians’ gonna come across that pine and bomb us!’” She laughs, though. “I wouldn’t say I was afraid, probably too young and isolated, but I remember my parents being concerned, definitely. Russia was just a huge splotch of unease on the map.”
Q: What do you remember about the Civil Rights Movement?
“I remember Dr. King,” she nods. “The civil rights movement, to me, was just another source of unease. The rioting, the chaos.” She cocks her head to one side. “It didn’t happen as much in the country, though.”
“Remember Callaway and Bessie May?” Tim asks from the red couch.
Jeannette nods and smiles. “Yes, Callaway and Bessie May,” she agrees. They were older “black folk” who lived in the area—Tim swears that Callaway was a hundred years old when he was ten—Mrs. Lester says of Callaway, “He was so dark that you wouldn’t see him standing there till he talked!” Callaway and Bessie May “didn’t cause any problems, so people tolerated them. But if some new black kid came to Chapmanville High School, he wouldn’t get out of a beating.”
She suddenly frowns and looks up. “It was an oddity to see black folk. We were so out there that we didn’t see ‘em much, which was probably the reason there was distrust. Yes, an oddity to see blacks.”
Q: What can you tell about the Vietnam War?
Jeannette hesitates. Then she says, “Vietnam. Vietnam was just…a dark time, for us all.” She sighs. “It was young men from my high school leaving, going to Vietnam. I had a boyfriend there too.”
The room sucks in a breath; many have never heard this before.
Angela asks, “A serious boyfriend?” at the same time Tim asks, “What happened to him?”
“Yes, he was serious,” Mrs. Lester says, “and he was killed. Killed in crossfire, as they were trying to get him back.” Although her explanation was unclear, she would say no more on it. A few moments later, she goes on. “One student, I remember, returned alive. But he had stepped on a landmine while he was there and it blew half of his face off.” The room paused, crouched, waited.
Jeannette elaborates on the general feeling among the young people in her day; they were afraid, “deathly afraid, they were all afraid, wondering who among them would go next.” She mentions that President Johnson was not memorable, and she did not hear hate talk about him at the time. “It was the fear that did it,” she says, “it wasn’t necessarily the war that the people hated, or the Vietnamese, or whatever…it was just fear. All we knew was that young men were going off into some foreign land and dying, and we didn’t know how to stop it.” On the Huntley-Brinkley Report, she and her siblings would see numbers of people killed in Vietnam—disheartening, but even more now, with the knowledge that there were more than the public was allowed to know at the time.
Tim mentions that he remembers the headlines—at about ten or eleven years old—of the Kent State shooting. “I tend to think it was the students who instigated that violence,” she relates. “No, I don’t think it was all of them, not at all, but from what I know, it was probably some kids getting rowdy and it went too far. It’s hard to have a peaceful demonstration.”
Q: What do you remember of the culture of the 1960s?
“Oh, that was the age of long hair on guys,” she says with a small smile. “Long hair, living on communes, bellbottom pants, those flowery Volkswagon buses, and promiscuity.” She admits she did not know any of the “hippies” personally.
She does comment that parenting changed drastically. Also, “People lost respect, in general, at that time. Respect for God, for authority, for parents. It was fashionable to be against ‘the man,’ the ‘establishment’—you, know, those buzz words. The moral code changed, dropped. People aren’t the same now, and it started in the sixties.”
It was this tempestuous atmosphere that she attributes to one of her own personal challenges—she was unable to attend college in the sixties.
“The nearest college was sixty miles away,” she explains, “and in those days, you had to be twenty-one to be ‘of age.’ I was seventeen when I graduated, and Daddy wasn’t about to send me off to some school where there were these riots, and the Kent State shootings, and the civil rights stuff happening in the cities.”
interesting? no? i definitely thought so. the isolated, rural point of view was new to me.