The Universal Notebook: Have yourself a cool Christmas
The Christmas gifts of my childhood in the 1950s are lost memories, but I vividly recall the Christmas gifts of my adolescence in the early 1960s because they were invariably the things every teen and pre-teen needed to be cool.
Just how coolness managed to be communicated to the youth of mill-town Westbrook remains a total mystery to me, but the cool kids in school got the message and word spread instantly from downtown to Frenchtown, from Scotch Hill to Deer Hill and from Cumberland Mills to Prides Corner. Since whatever was hot could usually be purchased at the Men’s Shop or Day’s Jewelry Store, I suspect those Main Street merchants had something to do with manufacturing fads.
Sometime around seventh or eighth grade, for example, every boy in town had to have a black onyx ring. I don’t know whether it was a status thing, a style thing or just Day’s trying to get rid of inventory, but that was the must-have gift. Another year it was an I.D. bracelet. Every guy in town had a cheap little chain dangling from his skinny wrist.
Since there were no personal electronics to speak of back then, unless you count transistor radios, most of the trendy gifts were articles of clothing. One year, bleeding Madras shirts would top the list, then CPO jackets (either navy blue or maroon), pea coats, and Pendleton jackets. Since my grandfather was the only person I knew who wore a wool plaid Pendleton jacket, I was never sure how something so traditional could be so cool in school. I don’t think the concept of “retro” had even been conceived yet.
In terms of footwear, we cycled through saddle shoes (cream and brown, then black and white), desert boots and penny loafers – Bass Weejuns with real pennies in them. Never, however, did we ever wear Sebago Mocs, which were made right there in town. These days, I tend to wear moccasins year-round. Must be a nostalgia thing.
Shirts, jackets and shoes came and went, but I can’t recall anyone wearing anything other than white Levis, as blue jeans were strictly verboten by the high school dress code. Girls could not wear slacks at all, let alone jeans, but they could and did wear scandalously short miniskirts.
I have no idea how girls managed minis. It must have been like walking around without pants on and trying to keep yourself covered with your shirttails. I can’t imagine what they (or their mothers) were thinking, but I do know exactly what we boys were thinking. Thank you.
Youth, I seem to recall, was a time of contradictions, simultaneous rebellion and conformity. So there we all were, a pack of mill-town boys dressed more or less alike – Madras shirts, CPO jackets, white Levis, saddle shoes – smelling strongly of English Leather or Jade East (perennial Christmas favorites), and feeling very hip. Of course, no one ever explained to us in the 1960s that we were just late adopters of the fads of the 1950s. The 1960s didn’t reach Maine until the 1970s.
Looking good and smelling better, we all ended up at the same place the day after Christmas – Barry’s Billiards, a subterranean pool hall down by the river beneath the Bridge Street bridge. Every red-blooded male between the ages of 15 and 21 hung out at Barry’s, as well as a few mill workers and hustlers of indeterminate age and intent.
"The Hustler," starring Paul Newman and Jackie Gleason, was the big hit of 1961 and it had a profound and lasting impact on homo westbrookensis. The height of cool in pre-Vietnam Westbrook was to own your own plywood pool table with automatic ball return. Cooler still was to possess your own two-piece pool cue.
The year you got your own pool table was the best Christmas ever. No matter that the green felt top would pock and warp into a putting green within a year or so, you could work on your break, your banks, your English, your touch, then show up at Barry’s and run the table. No kid I grew up with ever aspired to being a rock star. We all wanted to be Fast Eddie Felson. The best Christmas presents are the stuff dreams are made of.
Merry Christmas, 1963.