Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Slightly Higher in the West and South

Okay, this is a bit vague in my head, because we're talking early sixties here— maybe about 1960 or 1961. Anyhow, I remember hearing a certain brand of bicycle advertised— I think it was Schwinn, and I think it was on one of my favorite TV shows at that time, namely Captain Kangaroo— and what I remember is, the price of the bicycle was "slightly higher in the West and South."

And I believe I also remember seeing this in an advertisement in comic books at that time: Schwinn bikes were priced "slightly higher in the West and South."

I also believe I saw or heard commercials for certain other items such as refrigerators, "slightly higher in the West and South." I can't verify it for the refrigerators and such, though for Schwinn I can find corroboration.

Anyhow, I remember this line made an impression on me. And it made perfectly good sense to me.

Because, back around five years of age, I was well aware that the center of gravity in the United States lay east of the Mississippi and north of the Mason-Dixon Line. As witness the fact that, until the Brooklyn Dodgers jumped to Los Angeles, every single major league baseball team was located... north of the Mason-Dixon Line (well, we won't quibble about the Baltimore Orioles or the old Washington Senators) and no further west than the western banks of the Mississippi.

It was in this northeastern quadrant of the country that the lion's share of the nation's industrial might was situated. So naturally, if you lived down South or out West— and note the "northeastocentric" phrasing of that, down South or out West— you might well have to pay a premium to have certain manufactured goods shipped all those hundreds of miles to your locale— yes, to your locale, so distant and remote from the dynamos of industry.

In fact, growing up in south central Wisconsin, in a small town up north of Madison, I was acutely aware that, in some sense, I was living at the beginning of the end of civilization, geographically speaking. Because, as I well knew even at that age, it was the East coast that had been settled first, in colonial days; and then from there settlement spread westward, though even in my day (remember, we're talking 1960 or 1961) population still trailed off as you went West.

Oh, there were plenty of people down South; but that was more agricultural and less industrial, and besides, that was "conquered territory." (Bear in mind, at the time I was born the Civil War was only about as remote from me in time as World War I is from us today.) The center of gravity was in the northeastern quadrant of the country. One vast concentration of population and industry ran down the coast from Boston to Washington; another ran across the country from Pittsburgh to Chicago.

Even at age four or five, I could picture a fairly detailed map of the United States in my head. And I knew that the population started thinning out once you got West of the Mississippi. Oh, there were still a few "real" cities as you traveled across Iowa, through Cedar Rapids and Des Moines to Omaha; or from St. Louis across Missouri to Kansas City; but things were thinning out as you went, and by the time you reached the Great Plains, you were entering upon the Empty Quarter. From there on out, it was small cities (nothing, really, by the standards of back East), small towns, lots of open space, and tumbleweeds. Lots of wilderness, lots of wide open spaces.

Once things thinned out West of the Mississippi, it was (by the standards of those of us who lived back in that northeastern quadrant) mostly wilderness, until you got out to the West Coast. On the West Coast once again, there was population density and real cities, Seattle and San Francisco and Los Angeles and whatnot. I knew some of that dated back, but in my mind a lot of it was Johnny-come-lately boomtown growth starting after World War II: you know, people settling in pink stucco houses in a suburb of LA, so they could head out in their sports car to the drive-in for a hamburger and fries (eating in your car, tray attached to driver's side window), and generally tooling around in the perpetual shirtsleeve weather, listening to pocket-size transistor radios and wearing brightly colored loose-fitting shirts and living a casual life thousands of miles from the centers of civilization, only loosely tethered to the mores of the long-settled, generations-old dour masses back East of the Mississippi.

Oh, besides the West Coast, there were some "real" cities down in Texas, though they weren't much in those days compared to what they later became; and there was the odd phenomenon of the "real" city of Denver, up in the Rockies. But basically once you got West of the Mississippi, civilization was beginning to thin out. And likewise, as you headed north from my hometown of Poynette, Wisconsin, things were beginning— just beginning— to thin out.

Civilization lay almost entirely to the South and East of us. For that great megalopolis which stretched from Pittsburgh to Chicago spent its force by the time it reached Milwaukee, 90 miles to the east of us. And 25 miles to the south of us was the city of Madison. Now if you headed to the West and North of us, the only undeniable big city left in the world was the Twin Cities, in Minnesota; except for that, things were thinning out. Oh, north and east was Green Bay, and north and west was La Crosse; but head north from my hometown of Poynette on Highway 51, and all that remained was... what? The likes of Wausau and Rhinelander? And by that time you were already in the midst of the thickening pine forests, further north now to Upper Michigan, and then the vast waters of Lake Superior; and then more northerly yet, up through the howling wilderness of Ontario, up across Hudson Bay, icebound Ellesmere Island, polar ice cap, clear on up to the North Pole.

Yes, from my hometown in Wisconsin on northward, once you got rolling, you basically had a clear shot up through the wilderness, all the way to the North Pole.

I was acutely aware of this as a young kid: I lived on the marchland edges of civilization. I could not have felt this any more sharply, had I been a youngster back in the days of the Roman Empire, living in Britain just a day's journey south of Hadrian's Wall.

To the West of me, civilization thinning out into the sagebrush and the wide open spaces. To the North of me, civilization thinning out into pines and snow and ice. And if you wanted to order a Schwinn bicycle, and you lived far from the factories and steel forges of the civilized world... just remember, prices are "slightly higher in the West and South."

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