Mad Men and me-- 05/28/11

Some thoughts inspired by Mad Men...

As I believe I have mentioned, Nancy and I became hooked on Mad Men (watching it via DVD from Netflix) and we are looking forward to their season 5, which won't appear until spring of 2012. Besides the good acting and good writing, etc., I also feel a personal connection to the show because of its setting in the sixties. This is a historical setting that I know well, having lived through it. (Nancy, who was in elementary school while I was in college, does not feel that same connection that temporal connection.)

The first episode in season 1 opens in March of 1960 -- toward the end of my junior year in high school. Episode 12 brings us to Election Day and an all-night gathering at the advertising agency to watch the Nixon-Kennedy election returns on television. Looking at the show from a 21st century perspective, the constant chain-smoking (and drinking) and the men always in suits (and the women corseted and wearing uncomfortable-looking dresses) seems so alien but my memories tell me that was, indeed, what the world looked like in 1960. At my college it was mandatory for men to wear jacket and ties to evening meals and women had to wear skirts or dresses not just to dinner, but anywhere on campus other than in the dormitory area during class hours.

Episode 15 (the 2nd episode of season 2) takes place in 1962, beginning with the March 1st crash of an American Airlines flight shortly after take off from Idlewild Airport (which you now know as JFK). The father of one of the main characters (Pete) is killed in the crash. I was startled at this event in the show because, as I told Nancy, that was a real crash -- it had killed the president of my college, Admiral (retired) Richard Lansing Conolly. During World War II in the Pacific he got the nickname "Close-In Conolly" for his insistence that ships providing firepower in support of amphibious landings must fire from as close to shore as possible in order to score direct hits on shore fortifications rather than firing from safer positions far from shore. I can recall discussions in my dormitory about fate and chance (I'd call them sophomoric discussions but we were only freshmen) given Admiral Conolly's service in two world wars (he had earned the Navy Cross in action in the first world war) only to become a college president in civilian life and be killed in the crash of a passenger plane.

I went out on the Internet just now to double-check the date of the crash and discovered a second name on that flight that means something to me (although I did not know about him at the time). W. Alton Jones had been born to a poor family in rural Missouri and went on to become the highest paid CEOs (at the time) as president of Cities Service (now CITCO). He owned an extensive piece of land as a hunting and fishing retreat in a rural part of Rhode Island and he bequeathed it to the University of Rhode Island. Now known as the W. Alton Jones Campus, it is used for everything from summer camp for kids to a site for seminars and academic retreats. When Jeremy was around 12, he spent some happy weeks there, including a week of night camp where they slept all day and stayed up all night to study the forest nightlife. He loved it.

Episode 26 (the concluding episode of season 2) took place during the Cuban Missile Crisis. I remember that October well... my friends and I were renting an apartment in Bayville (Long Island) and were commuter students. C.W.Post College had begun as an all-commuter school and although they had added dormitories and had the usual restrictions on residential students, they had no social restrictions on commuter students -- no in loco parentis rules -- once you drove off campus they did not care how late you partied, how much you drank, or who you slept with. I was working part time in a supermarket (as were a couple of my housemates) and I remember being nervous about being at a checkout counter with a huge glass window behind me, but I kept reminding myself that the window faced away from New York City so that when the Russian bombs hit the city, the window would shatter outward rather than blowing inward and shredding me. Those of you two young to remember duck-and-cover and air raid drills in school probably think I am making this up, but the fear was everywhere.

We had filled the trunks of our cars with canned goods and tools, etc. but we were convinced that we would be trapped on Long Island (since even if the bombs that hit New York City did not destroy the bridges to the mainland, the area would be radioactive and the bridges would be clogged with wrecked cars). So we had decided we would have to steal a boat. We were especially intrigued by a former PT boat that had been converted into a pleasure craft and was moored in a marina in Oyster Bay Harbor, near to where we were living. Thus, the fear portrayed by some of the characters on the show appeared to be right in line with the experiences that my friends and I had. We really thought that this was it...

In episode 38 (12th episode of season 3) Roger's daughter is getting married -- President Kennedy is assassinated -- and she fears the news is going to destroy her wedding celebration. In the real world, one of my housemates was having a large engagement party (complete with dinner, open bar, and a dance band) and -- with all of this money having been committed -- had to go through with the party. (A few months later the engagement was broken, he later met and married someone else, and a few months ago they celebrated their 45th wedding anniversary.)

Episode 52 (the final episode of season 4) takes place in October of 1965. There are big changes approaching for many of the characters and my life at that time was also nearing some changes. I was in my last term as an undergraduate -- I had switched colleges between my sophomore and junior years and found that some completed degree requirements at my old school meant nothing to my new school and I needed to take additional required courses, so instead of completing my B.A. in May, I needed an extra quarter. (The switch had also taken me from a school year organized into semesters to one organized into quarters.) Johnson had lied about being a peace candidate, we were at war in Vietnam, there were mandatory tests that had to be taken to maintain a student deferment (and every year of deferment meant another year added onto draft eligibility). I had spent the summer working nights at IBM (mostly soldering connection plugs onto big flat Teflon cables for use in IBM's new system 360 computers... and during the fall term I got a part time second shift job there (doing the most mind-rottingly dull menial tasks) and my two housemates (both of whom had followed me in transferring from our old school) also were able to get similar jobs there. It was tedious but it paid better than working retail.

I do not know what will come on future episodes of Mad Men -- as the times, they are a-changing (as young Bob Dylan was singing) -- and during 1966 both of my roommates would be married -- as would my brother -- and as would I.

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