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THOMAS TASCHINGER: Hef was last of Big Three that changed pop culture

Published 6:10 am, Sunday, October 1, 2017

The death of Hugh Hefner last week closed a special chapter in modern American history. He was the final survivor of the trio that changed this country forever after World War II.

Prior to that conflict, this nation had millions of people who lived on farms, rarely traveled far from home and lived basic lives.

After the war, we emerged as a modern, industrialized giant that became the greatest superpower since the Roman Empire.

While all that was happening, Hef and two other men helped change our pop culture from what we were to what we are.

One of them was Ray Kroc, the only one on this list whose name is not instantly recognizable to many. He deserves better, since he changed the way we eat.

In 1954, after he lost his job as a milk shake mixer salesman, he joined a small California hamburger chain called McDonald’s. That company had purchased eight of his mixers for one of its restaurants, and he was impressed by its cleanliness and organization.

He thought the same concept could be expanded, changing roadside dining from spotty quality to something you could rely on. It wouldn’t be great food, but it would be good food. And fast.

Kroc’s vision changed eating, and eating out, in America. McDonald’s was followed by other chain restaurants, and almost overnight it was possible to get cheap, decent chow on the run. It blended well with our fast-paced, postwar outlook, especially because it was also inextricably linked with interstate highways.

They could be credited to the second member of this trio, Dwight David Eisenhower. It was said that he was impressed by the autobahn Adolph Hitler had constructed in Germany prior to starting World War II. Ironically, that of course is the same conflict that Ike ended in Europe.

Congress authorized construction of the system in 1956, also known as the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways. The initial goal was to allow troops and trucks to move about quickly in time of war, just as in Germany. Civilian traffic, however, quickly overwhelmed it.

Getting from Point A to Point B became a lot easier. Going from one city to another no longer required the planning of a railway trip. You just got in your car and went. The postwar economy was booming, and almost everyone could afford the latest creation from Detroit.

And thanks to Ray Kroc and his copycats, you could easily grab a meal on the way.

Hugh Hefner grew up in the midst of these vast societal changes. He was also a World War II veteran, writing briefly for an Army newspaper. He is one of the last prominent members of that conflict to fade away.

In 1953, however, he was angry. Esquire magazine, where he worked as a copy editor, had denied him a $5 weekly raise. He quit in frustration and thought he’d try to publish his own magazine.

Whatever you think of Playboy, it changed Americans’ attitude toward sex. It was no longer reserved for married people, and vaguely distasteful. It was pleasurable, and singles could partake. In turn, people who had a new outlook on something so fundamental were open to other questions about what it means to be human.

Sure, eventually someone else would have caused these tectonic shifts in American life. But someone else didn’t. Kroc, Ike and Hef did. Now they are all gone.

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Thomas Taschinger, TTaschigner@BeaumontEnterprise.com, is the editorial page editor of The Beaumont Enterprise. Follow him on Twitter at @PoliticalTom

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