60, 70, 80 years ago, Life magazine was the dominant popular magazine in America. America, Amurrican. There were others right up there too. Collier’s, The Saturday Evening Post, with its frequent covers by Norman Rockwell; Time and Newsweek, of course, and Look, which like Life, was photo driven. But Life was far and away the most prominent to the masses, and had the greatest impact on popular culture. And, on me, the kid.
To be on “the cover of Life” was the biggest thing that could happen to a public figure or actor or entertainer, or any aspirants thereabouts. Its demographic was comparable to that of People today. Although the components of that demographic, like almost everything else, has changed dramatically over the decades.
Looking through the old magazine (shown left), which was familiar to these eyes although this particular issue was published before I came into earthly existence, I was struck by the significant difference in editorial content for a mass culture magazine, compared to People. It educated. The age of the photojournalist was still a-birthing and Life was at the forefront. The artistry of the photographer was emphatically informational.
They reported. It was about the world out there – middle America, rich and poor America, and not far beyond. The world for us then was America. Although there was a strong element of propaganda in certain international, political stories, at least to Americans, it was truly American. All things foreign, even European were out there, over there. The celebrated, and especially the rich, were not as prominent as the can-do, the just-folks, the gusto of American industry, all presented with an homage to courtesy and a homespun-ness that have gone completely out of style and are apparently unknown to many people, especially children.
I was trying to look at this 82-year-old issue through the eyes of that kid who used to get down on his hands and knees on the living room rug, and look over each issue page after page mesmerized and transported. I was being educated and, now that I think of it, in a not unsophisticated way.
There was one issue in 1955 that did a feature on a “David Columbia,” who was a baseball rookie. You can imagine how surprised this kid was to see another person with the same obviously unusual name (I knew no other Columbias outside of my immediate family). David Columbia in Life!! He didn’t look like me, strangely and not-so-strangely, and he lived in far off Pennsylvania (distances were longer in those days). But there he was in pages in Life. And alas, there he remained, turn the page; that was the last I ever saw or heard of David Columbia.
Dreams came from Life, dreams for this kid, for many a kid. Dreams of an American life, the big life, the can-do life. The “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all…” life. Then, right after that, the teacher led the pupils in the Lord’s Prayer. Thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory forever, amen.
That’s what we said and that’s what Life said. We knew what “amen” meant. That was before we were told to add “under God” to the pledge. I was in Fourth Grade. Miss Lesniak. A patriot, “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death, now who said that children?” Miss Lesniak with a demeanor that expected the right answer. Miss Lesniak was a good teacher and American heritage was her big lesson. American heritage was work and learn and work. Pay attention children. Unless you wanted to be a dunce.
I don’t know what Miss Lesniak the adult thought of the change in the Pledge, or if she even thought of it. It certainly never occurred to me. Nobody talked about it in my house. Although, to this kid, who at age ten didn’t know what he knew or didn’t know, it felt different. What it was, quite simply, was a change in the rhythm of the words, the consciousness of things. It was a tiny edit but, it turned out, like so many of those tiny steps that can turn into grand staircases, (or ascending labyrinths) after enough use, it became habit.
I don’t know what they do at the start of the school day anymore. Do they make the Pledge? I assume so. Is there a Miss Lesniak out there teaching them about the can-do, the big life, the work learn work learn? And Give Me Liberty Or Give Me Death? Miss Lesniak’s “liberty,” the one I got from her. With Liberty and Justice For All. And all those dreams and experiences of reality that we found as kids in Life magazine? Are the kids finding them today? Not to mention the adults? I hope so.
However, if not, keep looking; they’re out there. Blueberry pie and the Fourth of July. Happy Fourth!