For many people most of what they know about 1959 comes from watching re-runs of the TV show “Happy Days.” They know about Fonzie, poodle skirts and DA haircuts. They probably know that Elvis gyrated on Ed Sullivan, and maybe that Eisenhower was in the White House.
By contrast I clearly remember Derry back then; 1959 was the year I graduated from grammar school, wearing a DA haircut, weighing 115 pounds and knowing all the words to Johnny Horton’s song, “The Battle of New Orleans.” Since then I have lost most of my hair, have doubled in weight but I still remember the words to that song.
Looking back, I guess that life for most of us then was pretty good. We had nearly full employment, no wars and cheap gasoline. There were, however, some rather significant problems and I guess in truth we weren’t all living in a “Leave it to Beaver” world. Nationally there was the Cold War, racial inequality and sexism. The year 1959 also saw Castro take over Cuba and the Russians beating us in the space race. Also in that year the “music died” when Richie Valens, Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper were killed in a plane crash.
One of our biggest local fears back then was that our children were growing into juvenile delinquents. Most of you probably have seen that movie about the 1950s called “Bye Bye Birdie.” Remember Paul Lynde singing “I don’t know what’s wrong with these kids today!” I suppose some would say that it’s an equally good question for today.
My files on the year 1959 seem filled with examples of Derry’s wild and crazy youth. A headline in the Derry News said: “Plaza Theater show jarred by firecracker.” It seems that some unnamed juvenile had thrown an “Atomic Pearl” in the movie house and caused a “minor explosion.” Atomic Pearls, or Snappers, are pea-sized wads of tissue filled with some kind of explosive power and sawdust. When you threw one against the floor they would explode with a loud firecracker-like sound. All firecrackers were, of course, illegal back then in New Hampshire. The Derry police traced the Snappers to a store on Broadway and all of the Pearls were confiscated. The store’s supplier in Manchester was arrested, brought before a judge and given a fine and a stern lecture.
That same month, there were 13 teenage girls arrested for shoplifting in Derry. The word was that they had all acted together and looked out for each other as they stole cosmetics, jewelry and the like from the five-and-dime store. They were apprehended by the store’s manager and turned over to the police. Because of their age, they were soon released to the custody of their parents. Lots of stolen items were found in the girls’ school lockers. Because this was a juvenile case, their fate before District Court Judge Grinnell is unknown. The court was also regularly dealing with many, many cases of underage drinking.
A couple of weeks later, police Chief Howard Campbell received a telephone call at 8 p.m. urging the police to come immediately to Comeau’s Beach on Beaver Lake. The anonymous caller warned that trouble was about to break out. The State Police, N.H. Motor Vehicle Department and Derry police responded with sirens wailing. There they found an agitated crowd of teenagers from Derry and Salem, all of whom seemed eager for a rumble.
After separating the two warring groups, the police began to search the five cars parked nearby. Inside they confiscated “a black jack made from a brass pipe, a two-bladed knife, an ice pick, a dagger and a rasp file.” All the young men were sent home and they were banned from the beach for the season. Chief Campbell in disgust pondered out loud: “Why is it that young people of today can’t go somewhere just to have fun?”
A meeting was called at the Adams Memorial Building to try and figure how to deal with local juvenile delinquency. The most vocal speaker was Judge Grinnell. He blamed the parents for most of the problems. He charged they were being “too lax” and “take no interest in knowing where their children are or what they are doing.” The judge said that one-half of all the cases that come before him in juvenile court deal with underage drinking. He suggested: “Voting liquor out of Derry wouldn’t do any harm.” Both the judge and Chief Campbell recommended having a townwide curfew requiring kids be off the streets by 9 p.m.
The meeting closed with the merchants, parents and police agreeing on the need to be more vigilant in a watch and ward over the town’s youth. Police Chief Campbell had the last word. He said that “delinquency in Derry is not large. Out of 1,500 to 2,000 school children in the town, only a ‘handful’ needed managing but these few should not be neglected.”
That was true in 1959 and it is certainly true 53 years later in 2012.
Rick Holmes is the official town historian of Derry and plans to hold office hours at the municipal center. He is the former chairman of the Derry Heritage Commission. Several of his books on local history are available at Mack’s Apples and Derry’s libraries.