Well, technically there were ten intervening years between 1959 and 1970 with a “6” as the penultimate digit, but as an era there was only a short, dark and fuzzy (maybe more hairy than fuzzy) interlude between the 50’s and 70’s. Our Gregorian number scheme does have value for temporal navigation, but is vastly inaccurate for defining the cultural or emotional landscape. It’s like describing Death Valley as “36o 40’N, 117o 34’W”—accuracy without ambiance. “Reconstruction” or “The Dead Ball Era,” for example, make up for lack of precision with a descriptive notion of significance.
Nonetheless, decade labels are convenient shorthand, especially when enhanced with adjectival modifier as with the “Gay 90’s” (whose meaning is endangered) or the “Roaring 20’s.” And even then, these decade borders have an amorphous quality that rivals the demarcation between India & Pakistan.
If by the “Thirties” we mean “The Great Depression,” they probably started in 1929 with the stock market collapse, maybe earlier if you believe cause precedes effect. But certainly the Roar of the Twenties turned into a scream in October 1929. The Forties started in 1939 with the invasion of Poland, or perhaps earlier in Munich or later in December 1941. The War Years is more descriptive, but “The Forties” conjure images of GI Joe and Rosie the Riveter, artillery barrages, amphibious landings and dogfights, War Bonds and Ration Coupons even though those icons occupied only half the decade.
One could argue that the Forties ended and the Fifties started cleanly on VJ Day, but even that is September 2 in the U.S. and Aug 14 in the UK. More subjectively the turnover could be a few weeks earlier with the obliteration of Hiroshima or earlier still with the glow of 1000 suns in the Mohave Desert. Perhaps it wasn’t until March 1946 and Winston Churchill’s “Iron Curtin” speech that the arc of the Fifties was launched.
Anyway, it lasted a long time. The GI’s came home, reaped the benefits of the GI Bill and emigrated to the suburbs. We gathered in our living rooms not for conversation but passive entertainment by the light of our new vacuum tube hearths and flooded the highways with our Otto-cycle powered carriages. The economic boom was played in counterpoint to a boom of another kind that we never wanted to hear but could not ignore. Yet hope and progress trumped trepidation and fear; we were Kings of the World even though Sputnik reminded us that we were not omnipotent. The first cracks in the Jim Crow south were forming and we were slowly becoming aware that our reality lagged the ideals of founders’ rhetoric. We sailed through the tens digit rollover with greater promise than ever and the first 20th century president. We were going to the moon—and not far behind, the stars. We had a dream. The Fifties could have lasted at least a quarter century and culminated with a triumphant “small step for man.” Instead they ended with the abruptness of a melon hitting the sidewalk on November 22, 1963.
It is the 50th anniversary of the sudden termination of the Fifties—which we can pinpoint to the minute and square foot—that of course has sparked this reverie. What happened next was a coma, not a blank Missing Time experience, but a foggy paralysis with a vague awareness of deception (the Tonkin Gulf hoax), promise (the Civil Rights Act) and transition (the 50’s “Roll Over Beethoven” Beatles evolving into the 70’s “Sgt. Pepper” Beatles) until awakened by the flash-bang grenades of 1968.
The Seventies must have begun sometime during the coma IMO—in Dallas, Tonkin, Haight-Ashbury, a Memphis motel or the Ambassador Hotel in LA; it almost doesn’t matter—and played out in two acts. Act I included much street theater, the show-stopping moon landing, the 69 Mets (those guys look sooo 70’s) and ended with a tragic-comic 50’s character giving a farcical, quasi-Nazi salute and ambidextrous peace sign as he departed on Marine One. [ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u3U4MhKDxcw ]
The curtain rises on Act II with the Oil Embargo and we bewilderedly leave the theater with a blindfolded troupe of embassy hostages in Teheran. One could argue, I suppose, that Act I was “The Sixties,” but I think if we insist on at least a quantum of existence, the 60’s flashed during the coma—perhaps bracketed by “Roll Over Beethoven” and “Stg. Pepper.”
I cannot distinguish the Eighties from the Nineties; I call them the Einties. I cannot distinguish the music (though my kids can) or the personalities. OK, there was Reagan & Clinton who sandwiched Bush I who was left bewildered at the curb with his bags, after presiding over the evaporation of the Soviet Union, a compact & efficient little war in Kuwait and was coming out of a relatively mild recession. And there’s Dukakis and Dole,,, see what I mean? It is tempting to divide the 80’s and 90’s at the fall of the Berlin Wall and have the 86 Mets on one side and the 94 Rangers on the other, but that seems more like an inflection point than a discontinuity. The Einties ended of course at 8:46 AM (EDT), September 11, 2001. The “9/11” era continues without end in sight.
So, if Mel Brooks is contemplating a “History of the World, Part III,” there’s your storyboard.