It was a Thursday, and I was an A3C (Airman 3rd Class - E2 grade in 1961 ) in the USAF, stationed in New Haven, Connecticut, at Yale University's Institute of Far Eastern Languages (having just arrived there the previous month).
I don't recall if I treated myself at Sid's Diner; where a lot of the Airmen stationed there ate (because it was close and relatively cheap; as we weren't on a base and had no access to mess halls, in addition to our normal pay (pitiful) we were given a per-dium allowance of $2.58/day -- real money in 1961 -- and they were happy to cash our paychecks. Most of us had tabs there.), or more likely, went over to Tony's Pizza for beer and pizza (where I was first introduced to pizza).
If I went to Tony's, it would have been a quiet celebration, just for me. The minimum drinking age in Connecticut at that time was 21, and while I've sometimes been guilty of appalling stupidity (see The Anvil of Life ), I'd like to think my instincts for self-preservation would have kept me from jeopardizing the license of my favorite watering hole by openly celebrating being two years underage.
So, what was 1961 like?
Well, I got my first airplane ride.
A few years prior, our family left San Antonio and moved in with relatives in rural Arkansas to make a new start. My feelings towards Arkansas cannot be expressed here unless I put an "Adult Content" warning on my blog.
Occasionally I would walk about a mile down the road to state highway 22 and flag down a Trailways bus for a twenty-mile trip into Fort Smith, to catch a movie or just to see what sights the town had to offer, returning by bus in the evening.
In mid-January of 1961, on one of those trips, I happened to come by a USAF recruiting office and walked right in and signed up. My parents were not thrilled at the news I delivered when I got home, but I was old enough to enlist on my own, and there was really nothing they could do about it except to give me a ride back to Fort Smith and the recruiting office the next morning. It would be my ticket out of that damned state.
From there, I was put on a bus, with some others, for the trip to the induction center in Little Rock. After almost a solid day of exams (physical and otherwise; I don't recall ever dealing with so much paperwork in my life ), they took our group to the airport and sent us by a commercial flight down to San Antonio.
This was January 1961 and the airline (TTA - Trans Texas Airways, sometimes known as "Tree Top Airways" (they later became Texas International Airways, before eventually being absorbed by Continental - think I've digressed enough now?)) was still using the Douglas DC-3.
Trans Texas DC-3 - Drawing by Bob Engle
(Check out his site; he has some truly amazing work there.)
From Little Rock to San Antonio is a bit under 600 miles as the crow flies, but that's if the crow flies a lot straighter than that flight did. The flight swung down into Louisiana, and I'll swear it made about as many stops along the way as a bus would, probably not making much better time. It seemed like every time it got airborne, it was already making its descent towards another field.
It was already late in the evening when we took off from Little Rock, and about 3 or 4 in the morning when we got off in San Antonio, to be bussed to Lackland AFB (where all USAF Basic training was conducted then (and still is, as far as I know).
In "The Anvil of Life" (linked above) I touched a bit on my time there, so I see no call to repeat it here.
So, for other things about 1961...
The # 1 hit record in America was "Runaway", by Del Shannon (If you ever saw the TV series Crime Story (1986-1988), you heard it as the theme music played over the opening titles -- "As I walk along, I wonder what went wrong...")
Other hit singles...
"Are You Lonesome Tonight?" - Elvis Presley
"Crazy" - Patsy Cline
"Hello Mary Lou" - Ricky Nelson
"I Fall to Pieces" - Patsy Cline
"Mother-In-Law" - Ernie K-Doe
"Spanish Harlem" - Ben E. King
"Stand By Me" - Ben E. King
"The Comancheros" - Claude King
"The Lion Sleeps Tonight" - The Tokens
"The Wanderer" - Dion
"Town Without Pity" - Gene Pitney
Popular LP Albums (remember them) were by...
The Kingston Trio
Bob Newhart (what that guy could do with nothing but a telephone as a prop).
Addendum - It's Wednesday, 08 Jun 2011 and on the TCM channel I'm watching a documentary, produced by Clint Eastwood, entitled "Dave Brubeck: In His Own Sweet Way". It's not yet available on DVD, but I sure hope it will be soon. Dave Brubeck should have been among the names I listed above. His experiments with time signatures (The LP Album "Time Out", featuring "Take Five" & "Blue Rondo à la Turk") were already underway then.
Showing at the movie theaters then, among others...
"Pocketful of Miracles"
"Judgment at Nuremburg"
"The Absent Minded Professor"
"The Comancheros" (John Wayne, Lee Marvin - worth checking out just for Marvin).
"The Guns of Navarone"
How about TV shows?
Tons of Westerns...
"Have Gun, Will Travel",
"Rawhide" (with this newcomer named Clint Eastwood),
In other genres...
"Peter Gunn" (the theme music became a hit and put Henry Mancini on the map,
although he'd already been around for years. The theme from
"Peter Gunn" was almost as iconic as the theme from "Jaws"
would become 14 years later.) ,
"The Twilight Zone",
AND -- for the cherry on top -- "Rocky and Bullwinkle"; the "Simpsons" of its day. If the Soviets truly wanted to attack us, the best time would have been whenever that show was on, as the cream of our defenders would have all been in the rec rooms ready for the latest round of silliness and rotten puns. If they only knew...
Natasha Fatale, Boris Badenov, Bullwinkle J. Moose and Rocket "Rocky" J. Squirrel
Ok. How about cars, then?
Absolutely the sexiest car on the planet in 1961, bar-none...
Jaguar E-Type - Photo cropped from image at www.conceptcarz.com
After half a century, I defy anyone to even try to improve on that.
At that time...
Minimum wage was $1.15/hour.
Average yearly income was $5315.00 (a bit over $100.00/week).
Gasoline was around 27 cents/gallon.
A new Volkswagen Beetle went for somewhere around $1300.00
Some of the less expensive U.S. cars started at under $2000.00
As for that Jaguar above, a Wikipedia entry mentioned "The test car cost £2097",
suggesting a price in the neighborhood of $10000.00 -- very difficult to pin down.
In some parts of the country, you could rent a house for $50.00/month.
In 1961, the U.S. launched the unsuccessful invasion of Cuba, at the Bay of Pigs.
The Berlin Wall went up later that year.
Vietnam was not that big a deal then, although we already had advisors there. Laos was the hot spot that had many of us concerned; a civil war having just erupted then.
On 12 April 1961 Soviet Cosmonaut Major Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space, completing a single orbit and then returning to Earth.
Yuri-Gagarin and Vostok-1 - from www.newshawker.com
A few weeks later, on 05 May 1961, U.S. Navy Commander Alan B. Shepard became the first American to go into space, but not into orbit; the Redstone rocket he rode (essentially an updated version of the German V2 ) simply didn't have the power for that. An American orbital mission (John Glenn's) would have to wait for the not-yet-man-rated Atlas rocket to become available.
Alan Shepard Postage Stamp - from www.spacetoday.com
They issued this three weeks ago, on 04 May 2011 (50th anniversary)
To take some of the sting out of always seeming to follow the Soviet's lead into space, on that 19th birthday of mine, 25 May 1961 (although I didn't hear about it until a couple of days later), President John F. Kennedy made a speech to Congress about what we could and should do about our position in space, vis-a-vis the Soviets.
It included this item which would personally affect me eleven years later, making possible Adventure of a Lifetime, which in turn led to The Adventure - Continued, the events in which would eventually lead to a whole new career and a complete change in my life. ...
"First, I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth."
"No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish."
Democrats were surely a different breed then.