Homer Alaska - Opinion

Story last updated at 6:51 PM on Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Best is yet to come The good old days weren't so great, but the future is going to rock

Recently an older friend sent me one of those "good ol' days" e-mails. If you're of a certain age — Baby Boomer or Greatest Generation — these things pop up in your e-mail boxes. Yes, Gen Xers, we know how to use e-mail. Our parents do, too.

The e-mail extolled the virtues of growing up in days when families sat down for home-cooked meals, boys made pocket money by delivering newspapers, television went off the air at midnight, people had party phone lines and milk, not pizza, was delivered.

"Growing up isn't what it used to be, is it?" the e-mail writer said.

No, it wasn't — thankfully.

Whenever I get one of those e-mails, I want to fire back something that says, "I remember the good old days, when kids were maimed by polio, girls couldn't deliver newspapers, mothers stayed in the home, men could beat their wives without getting arrested, African-Americans couldn't sit at the Woolworth's lunch counter and only rich people could afford color TVs."

I remember when cars didn't have seat belts, and when my mom stopped suddenly while driving, her right arm shot out to stop me from flying into the unpadded dashboard. Cars didn't have child-locks on the door, which is why my sister once fell out of the back seat (she lived). I remember when you could smoke anywhere, including hospitals, and if a kid with asthma got wheezy, well too bad, punk.

"Nostalgia" has come to mean a longing for the past, especially an idealized version, but Johannes Hofer, the German physician who coined the term in 1688, used it to describe the medical condition of extreme homesickness. The Greek roots mean "returning home ache" — the ache that comes when someone cannot return home. You know, like the past.

I admit it: I write often of my childhood growing up in Florida, often in idealized terms. Most childhoods are idyllic, or should be. If we're well loved, if we have a parent or parents who take care of us, if we're not abused, and if we don't go hungry, well, of course we look back longingly at our past. Compared to adulthood, in which we must work to provide for ourselves, childhood was bliss. Someone fed us. Someone sheltered us. Sure, we hade to go to school, but it was a short day, and we got long vacations.

Although I recall hours of drudgery at school, I also recall times of great joy. I got to hang out with friends. If I finished my work quickly, I could read, and I really, really love reading. By high school and college I had figured out I loved learning, too. After school I could run around like Huck Finn, exploring the world accessible on a bike.

Who couldn't love childhood? And college — college was utopia.

But childhood wasn't perfect, or at least mine. We recall a perfect childhood, one made shiny by the gloss of faded memories. Perhaps it's good we think so well of our childhoods, since it means we've worked through the bad moments. All of us had them. Even in the best of homes with the best of families, bad things happened. The popular high school student down the street died in a car wreck. My friend Carl's older brother John died in Vietnam. My friend Ricky's little sister Linda had a heart defect. Fathers lost jobs, mothers died, and even innocent babies sometimes didn't make it to their first birthday.

I don't think my parents had perfect childhoods, either. My grandfather abandoned my dad, my uncle, and their mom during the Great Depression. My mom's father lost his first wife to tuberculosis. The Greatest Generation went through the worst war in human history, a war fought to stop genocidal nations who perfected mass slaughter.

My generation went through the social turmoil of the 1960s and 1970s. Try learning at a public school where half the kids have been bused there, their old school shut down, and we were expected to sit quietly next to each other and forget the prejudices our parents taught us. That I got through the last two years of high school without a race riot was a miracle.

That e-mail I got had a quiz. I got a point for every one of the following I remembered: Blackjack chewing gum, wax Coke-shaped bottles with colored sugar water, candy cigarettes, soda pop machines that dispensed glass bottles, coffee shops or diners with tableside juke boxes, home milk delivery in glass bottles with cardboard, party lines on the telephone, newsreels before the movie, P.F. Flyers, butch wax, TV test patterns that came on at night after the last show, peashooters, Howdy Doody, 45 rpm records, S & H green stamps, hi-fi's, metal ice trays with lever, mimeograph paper, blue flashbulbs, Packards, roller skate keys, cork popguns, drive-ins, Studebakers, wash tub wringers.

I scored16. According to the quiz, that means I'm older than dirt.

In the grand arc of history, I think we live in a better world than the one I grew up in. Our world has become freer, more just, less violent, cleaner, safer and healthier. And yeah, I know it's not totally free, peaceful, clean, safe and healthy. I think we've done OK. When our children grow up and look back at these days with longing, and think they lived in the best of times, I hope they're wrong.

I hope they're living in an even better time.

Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael.armstrong@homernews.com.