Big Families, Small Houses, Double Sessions, and the Daylight Savings Time Experiment

I think the term “stair step children” was coined during the Baby Boom. It wasn’t unusual for three, four, or even five members of a family to be attending the same school concurrently. You’d see a kid’s brother or sister in the hallway and if the family genes were strong enough you could tell who was whose little sister or older brother without even asking. There were always a few sets of twins. In my sixth grade alone there were two sets of identical (or maybe they were fraternal) twins. When I arrived in high school, I encountered twin senior trumpet players in marching band. Immediately after they graduated, a pair of freshman twin trumpeters arrived to replace them. You can’t make this stuff up.

Additionally, “Irish twins,” too many sets to count, abounded. Depending on the months in which their birthdays fell, these siblings could end up in the same school grade, and teachers generally tried to place them in separate classrooms. Siblings were bumping up against one another all over the place back then.

These sizable families squeezed themselves into the relatively compact houses that dotted the suburban landscape in the “Levittowns” and Levittown wannabees that had sprung up after World War II. Oftentimes the house of choice was a ranch house. Once you spent enough time in one of these, you had the floor plan memorized and could find your way around any of them blindfolded. I speak as an authority because, having only one sibling myself, I spent a lot of time at other friends’ houses. I think I was yearning for the big family I lacked.

There were raised ranches, split levels, capes, and other models besides ranch houses, but most were designed with three bedrooms. If you do the math on five or six children in a family living in a three-bedroom house, as a rule you’re going to have shared bedrooms. Few 1970s kids understood the concept of having one’s own room. And that was okay. You can’t miss what you never had.

It should be noted that these houses were usually designed with a single bathroom (plus a “powder room” if one was fortunate).

The alternative to sharing a bedroom was rooming in a finished basement or attic. Teenagers gravitated to these spaces. One of my friends was part of a five-kid family with three in high school at the same time. Their basement was like a rabbit warren of tiny spaces for each teen. The younger kids slept upstairs in the main part of the house. I remember thinking it was a little unusual, but not crazy or anything.    

In 1970, the city we’d moved to was in the planning stages of building a third high school to keep up with population growth, but in the meantime they had to find a place for all these high school age kids. The solution: double sessions. Split the school day into two consecutive, complete school sessions. Kids would either attend the morning session, I think from 7:00 am until noon, or the afternoon session from 11:00 am until 4:00 pm. There was an overlap in the middle of the timeframe, either for lunch or extracurriculars, I’m not sure which. I estimate that upwards of 2,500 kids circulated through my sister Donna’s high school on any given day.

A sophomore at the time, Donna went to the earlier session, so her school day was over at noon. I was jealous since I didn’t get home from school until about 3:00 pm. I guess I forgot about the part where she had to be out the door before I even woke up in the morning.

In 1973 came the Arab Oil Embargo. This resulted in what we called the Energy Crisis, which brought about a lot of changes, such as gas shortages and forced lowering of thermostats. The cost of fuel and heating had never been something to worry about, not in my lifetime anyway. Now the crisis was talked about everywhere, and even woven into TV sitcoms like M*A*S*H* (even though that particular show was supposed to be set during the Korean War).

Someone, probably a government bureaucrat, came up with an idea to ease the burden of increased energy costs: an experimental, year-round Daylight Savings Time. This kicked off in January, 1974 and went on more or less continuously until April, 1975. All at once, my friends and I were walking to the school bus stop in predawn darkness. The street lights were still on. Those were weird times.