Today is my 54th birthday. As I was driving home tonight I realized I know almost nothing about my birth year, so I did a bit of research. The results were . . . unfortunate.
In fact, you probably could argue that 1957 was the lamest, most boring year of the entire American 20th century. The two most significant events, so far as I can determine, were the launch of Sputnik by the Soviet Union and the sending of federal troops to Arkansas to enforce a desegregation order — important events, to be sure, but not like the the crucial, game-changing events that occurred routinely during the Depression era, or the War Years, or the tumultuous ’60s and scandal-plagued ’70s.
In 1957 Jack Kerouac’s On The Road was published, and the word “beatnik” was coined, but for the most part America was enjoying the sleepy, optimistic, prosperous, seemingly unchanging 1950s. The country was at peace. Dwight Eisenhower was President, as he had been for years. Elvis was popular, and so were TV quiz shows on the black-and-white RCA and Philco TVs that Americans were buying in increasing abundance. The Academy Award winner for Best Picture was the unremarkable and unmemorable Around the World in 80 Days.
Culturally, perhaps the most interesting thing about 1957 was that it was the height of the Baby Boom, with more children born that year than any other during the post-war years. I’m glad I made my own contribution in that regard, to give some character to a year that otherwise will never be more than a footnote in the history books.
As a further response to UJ’s comment, I think true public works are well worth the investment. Kish and I drove back and forth to Poughkeepsie this past weekend to pick up Russell’s clothes and other accumulated college bric-a-brac. The only reason we could make the trip in a weekend is the interstate highway system. As you drive along the stretch of I-80 that runs through the desolate hill country of northern Pennsylvania, you can’t help but be impressed by the miles of clean, open four-lane road and the many areas where the highway builders had to hack through rocky hills and build long bridges to make the highway a superhighway.
One interesting aspect of true public works projects is that they have unanticipated consequences, good and bad. The highway system permitted the quick, inexpensive delivery of goods by truck — and thereby helped to spark the interstate trucking industry, Federal Express, and Ebay while hurting rail systems. By making it easy to travel by road, the highway system encouraged Americans to own and use cars — which helped the auto industry, the travel industry, and the homebuilding industry as it created new suburbs, farther and farther from the city cores, but also led to suburban sprawl, an increasing reliance on foreign oil, and air pollution. Even more fundamentally, the highway system also helped to define America and the American dream. Cars and road trips are as much a part of American culture as Valley Forge and the frontier. Would Jack Kerouac have written On The Road without the highway system?
I’d like to see America tackle another massive public works project — like the interstate highway system, the Manhattan Project, or the TVA. Americans dream best when they dream biggest. Right now, there is only one public works project that has the ability to inspire, to give rise to new ways of thinking and acting, and to employ thousands of people — a manned space program. The Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs led to countless technological developments, and made Americans proud of what they could accomplish when they truly dedicated themselves to a goal. It was a mistake to end the manned space program. I’d like to see President Obama correct that mistake, jettison most of the stimulus spending, and rededicate the remainder to a true national goal instead of local, congressional pork projects. I’d rather build bases on the Moon and Mars and the moons of Saturn, and develop the new technologies that would be required to do so, than spend one more penny of federal stimulus dollars on John Murtha’s eponymous airport.