There was greatness then; America actually manufactured over half of all products used in the world. Millions of men, highly disciplined from being in the service during World War II, proved their character not only on the battlefield but on the home front, as well. Family stability, low divorce and high birthrates, cars, the new interstate highway system and a general sense of knowing right from wrong set the era apart. The whole world envied those “living the American dream.” From the forced frugality of the Depression to the booming economy of post-WWII America, the automobile emerged as the symbol of American pride and ingenuity. “What was good for GM was good for America” was not spoken in jest.
So, clearly, Hot August Nights is a nostalgia not merely for cars, but for a time long past in American history. Our nation had reached a peak, a rare era of national and even international excellence, and Americans were understandably proud.
Exactly how the WWII generation spawned the freak era now known as the ‘60s is a bit of a mystery. How such a selfish and narcissistic generation came from the greatest generation, and for the king of paradoxes, justified their radical departure from the always forward-thinking attitudes of their parents into a “need” to not be like their honorable progenitors, only God can unravel.
But I digress. Truth is, cars of the ‘50s and early ‘60s are really not as well made or as dependable as the computer-automated, nearly fault-free performances we get from today’s machines. So why so much love?
For one thing, most Americans (males that is) of that era grew up tinkering on the family automobile to either keep it running or enhance performance. Pop the hood and finding everything from the fuel pump to the alternator to the exhaust manifold was a piece of cake, and lots of backyard mechanicing created a bond between man and machine.
Today, pop the hood and you are confronted with enough tubes and gizmos and hoses and computer wiring to intimidate the most fearless tinkerer. You need a computer hook-up just to do basic diagnoses, and to even find the standard parts requires quite a bit of “digging” — removing good stuff to get to the bad. Kids simply are no longer involved. When was the last time you heard of a high schooler having a job in the old standby: a gas station attendant?
Nor were cars merely utilitarian or as streamlined for aerodynamics as today. Just trying to look cool sold millions. The “wings” on a ‘57 Chevy still bring oohs and ahhs.
Today, with fuel economy trumping the good old raw power of yesteryear, few brag of horsepower; rather they boast about how great their mileage is. America is now part of the “global economy,” our manufacturing is disappearing before our eyes and General Motors stock, once the largest employer in America, sells for $10. Wal-Mart, that great symbol of the new global “service” economy, is now America’s largest employer. Yes, cars may seem to be the focus but Hot August Nights is a brief window into a nation that no longer exists. A perfect era? Hardly. But it sure as hell beats the ‘60s.
Ira Hansen is a lifelong resident of Sparks, owner of Ira Hansen and Sons Plumbing and his radio talk show can be heard Monday through Friday from 3 to 6 p.m. on 99.1 FM.