George Will

But unlike today, when everything edible, from milk to spinach, has its moment as a menace to health, in the '50s everything was good for you. Cigarettes? Healthful. Advertisements, often featuring doctors, said smoking soothed jangled nerves and sharpened minds. ``X-rays,'' Bryson remembers, ``were so benign that shoe stores installed special machines that used them to measure foot sizes.''

In Las Vegas, downwind from some atomic weapons tests, government technicians used Geiger counters to measure fallout: ``People lined up to see how radioactive they were. It was all part of the fun. What a joy it was to be indestructible.'' But, Bryson dryly notes, people knew without a warning label ``that bleach was not a refreshing drink.''

White House security precautions were so lax that on April 3, 1956, a somewhat disoriented Michigan woman detached herself from a White House tour and wandered through the building for four hours, setting small fires. When found, she was taken to the kitchen and given a cup of tea. No charges were filed.

The '50s did have worries. When a contestant on a TV game show said his wife's astrological sign was Cancer, the cigarette company sponsoring the show had the segment refilmed and her sign changed to Aries. You could get 14 years in an Indiana prison for instigating anyone under age 21 to ``commit masturbation.'' And to get a New York fishing license, you had to swear a loyalty oath.

Nothing has changed more for the worse since the '50s than childhood. The lives of children were, Bryson remembers, ``unsupervised, unregulated and robustly'' physical. ``Kids were always outdoors -- I knew kids who were pushed out the door at eight in the morning and not allowed back in until five unless they were on fire or actively bleeding.''

But as the twig is bent, so grows the tree: These children, formed by the '50s, grew up to be Olympic-class shoppers. They are indoors this Sunday, at malls.


George Will

George F. Will is a 1976 Pulitzer Prize winner whose columns are syndicated in more than 400 magazines and newspapers worldwide.
 
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