Being a little slow as usual, I didn't start following AMC's Mad Men
until recently, catching some of the Season 3 episodes before the Season 4 premiere. I knew it would be fascinating, but we now have 2,000 channels and I hadn't looked up where AMC resides (pathetic, but true), so it took a while. Well, I'm hooked now.
The decades pile on top of one another, you're distracted as the times change, and what was the latest style soon looks quaint and dated, like the early Sixties did after the rapid changes of the mid-decade. When Mad Men nails that 1960 - 64 look and feel dead on, however, the contradictions of that brief but clearly definable era just blow up in front of you if you were old enough to be paying some attention at the time. Like the British Empire in the early 20th century, it seemed so sure of itself, knew exactly what its values were, and did not allow questions or alternatives. These are the qualities a system or era always displays just before implosion.
I remember when my father wore hats to work and a briefcase was always part of the uniform. The suburban curbsides and driveways were home to American-made cars; the occasional scamp had a German one (people who had been to Europe, or anywhere other than relatives' homes). My Three Sons and Ozzie and Harriet and Ed Sullivan were on television's three channels (and Ch. 8 was far away and fuzzy). There was high-quality drama and comedy (Sid Caesar and Ernie Kovacs) that was above most of our heads -- actually, though, a buffet of good choices.
But there were off-notes beneath the era's theme music, I felt, but could of course not articulate why. Some of the vaudeville-type acts on Sullivan, like Topo Gigio, made no sense. Despite the catchy hooks and beat, the manufactured popular music seemed after a little reflection to be cheap and terminally silly. But there was a jazz scene that today's mess can only echo. Oscar Peterson, Coltrane, the bossa nova, and Brubeck. The contradictions made me wonder.
Maple Street where the Beav lived was the ideal; as I looked around, there were hardly any places like that (we didn't even know it was just a faked-up set back then; we were taught that everything was real, smoking was what everybody did, all criminals were caught by the Jack Webbs and Elliott Nesses, things were exactly what they said they were, and that if you were under your desk at school when the nuclear missiles hit you'd be O.K.).
We felt pretty good in our Middle Earth, between the danger and overstimulation of the big city jungle and the backwardness and deadly dullness of the rural vacuum. Willow Lawn "shopping center" was a new thing, even though the movie theater was useless since The Sound of Music had it locked up for over two years. There were no branch banks (you had to go downtown and do business between 9 and 2, weekdays) and no branch libraries outside the city limits. Parham Road between Three Chopt and Patterson was called Ridge Road and was a two-lane with no center dividing line, gravel and tar over packed earth. The sound of the white pebbles being crunched and kicked up by my friend's older brother's 55 Chevy sounded as fine as rain on an old metal roof. You could ride a bike along it, there was so little traffic. It was good to be a kid and easy to be an adult if you toed the line and conformed.
My father was a big-city guy, so he sort of fit the Mad Men type, especially when he and co-workers spent time at the tiny Executive Lounge near the (gone) office building facing Willow Lawn. It was a small-city Rat Pack wannabe type of place, with good wage earners rubbing elbows with night-life types who didn't fit into the daytime world so they hid out there. The company had a jet (we went on it to New York once and stayed in the company apartment on the Upper East Side), a threatening-looking fleet of black company cars (free to execs), and some high rollers at the top who made it an exciting ride if you were in their circle. Then as now, it's good to be king. Otherwise you'd better keep quiet and be content with that tiny house and used car. And that arrangement worked, but pressure built and it could not last.
Then -- as now -- we had no idea that it could all be turned upside down so quickly. It was like we had been sitting on the still carousel horses, secure, each in his own defined place, when the whole thing came to noisy life and started whirling around raising up those who had been down, and blurring our vision so we couldn't tell what was what.
The Danish Modern furniture went to the Goodwill, the skinny ties to the back of the closet, the beehive hairdos went natural, and I abandoned the crewcut look. The Mad Men put their hats on the shelf.
They might remember the days when you could buy an Oldsmobile downtown.