About once a month I get one of those saccharine emails that I’m supposed to forward to everyone I know, delineating all the good things we had when my generation was kids. How sweet the hindsight! How short the memory — or, perhaps, how dim the perception of reality back then.
I remember the Good Old Days.
I remember the kids in every class who came to school with chronic untreated upper-respiratory and skin diseases, malnutrition, and the same unwashed clothes for days and days.
I remember the children who seemed always to have run into the door, or fallen out of a tree, coming to school with broken limbs, bruised cheeks, limps, and the girls who walked funny for a few days now and then.
I remember when parents held their breath and kept their children away from crowds and other gatherings of strangers during the summer months because of polio. And I remember the kids who just weren’t in class the next fall.
I remember “duck and cover” drills, so that we could be vaporized while crouching beneath tables and desks, rather than sitting down. I remember an older generation with thinking so shaped by the idea of “The Bomb” and the “Commie Menace” that they were willing to swallow just about any tripe shoveled their way concerning either subject. We got Korea, Vietnam and a dozen smaller skirmishes — just as useless — out of that brand of thinking. Iraq is another example — a businessman’s war, based on fear and helping no one but those whose coffers it fills.
I remember restrooms and drinking fountains marked “White” and “Colored.” The “nigger quarters” where the laundry woman lived (or the “colored quarters” if your family had liberal leanings). I remember segregated schools. I remember signs on buses: Colored Seat To The Rear. I remember hearing talk about “Teaching that nigger a lesson he’ll never forget.”
I remember when many lower-income males were missing fingers and other parts of their anatomy because of incredibly dangerous working conditions, and could expect no compensation for their loss.
I remember girls who were “sent away to school” and returned a year later, broken, to become the old maids that everyone whispered about. I remember that some of them weren’t allowed to have dates or boyfriends, but managed to get “in the family way” despite that. I remember young people forced to marry due to an unwanted pregnancy, the girls not even permitted to finish their educations. (The boys, of course, were allowed to go to night school.)
I remember switchblade knives, and shotguns or ax handles in the back windows of pickup trucks. I remember when you could use those weapons with near-impunity, as long as your skin was the “right” color and your victim’s wasn’t.
I remember when there was no air conditioning — when “The Long Hot Summer” was more than just a play written by a “queer.” I remember Tennessee being called queer even after his Pulitzer Prize, back in the days when a homosexual male could be out of the closet only if he was so outrageously feminine — and prominent — that he was a caricature. I remember when gays could be beaten and ridiculed by “normal” males while people just looked the other way. I remember when Rita Mae Brown, one of the most gifted and popular writers of my generation, was kicked out of the University of Florida for being a lesbian and not hiding in shame.
I remember when “what would the neighbors think,” and “we keep our family business to ourselves,” were powerful enough to cover alcoholism, child abuse, incest, wife beating, and just about any other unsavory activity that could be carried out behind closed doors.
I remember when wives were still thought of by society in general as chattel, even though supposedly “emancipated” forty-odd years before; when women were either nurses, secretaries, or married — babysitters, dishwashers, housekeepers, shoppers, 18-hour-a-day “homemakers,” baby factories and virtual slaves to their husbands, just as some are today, and no one seemed to think there was anything wrong with that.
I remember when people’s ideas were shaped by the radio commentators and newspaper editors whose offerings were virtually the only source of information about the world for most Americans. I remember when there was no Internet, no World Wide Web, no computer to forward nostalgic spam to whomever one wished.
I remember the good things of childhood as well: the ability to go most anywhere in town — in most towns — alone, without worrying about being a kid alone. The long evenings of play with neighbor kids. The sense of community. The knowledge that people cared about you — that there were a great many people who wished you well, and on whom you could depend.
I remember the excellent educations in basic readin’, ’ritin’ and ’rithmetic, civics, logic, literature, and the other things that allowed students who were privileged to go to school to rise above their station. I remember when a high school education with decent grades was, in most ways, the equivalent of a liberal arts degree from a good college today. I remember when such educational standards were taken for granted. I see today a seeming lack of desire for education, perhaps a lack of attention span fostered by fast food, sound bites, and always expecting the quick fix, and I wonder what the “intellectuals” of the next generation may be like.
But we have to realize that society does advance. It seems to me that many of the problems we have today are functions of leftover prejudices: of overpopulation and lack of effective sex education; of de-urbanization that has left the inner cities stripped of their former vitality; of unscrupulous (or at least unethical) business practices on the part of corporations that have in some cases become virtual governments; of disinterest on the part of those who have “gotten theirs,” and who fail to notice that a notable part of “their” portion was gotten by standing on the shoulders of the less-fortunate, less-educated, less-politically empowered, and (usually) darker-skinned people of the world.
Many of our problems, it seems to me, are traceable to Manifest Destiny, via those Old Fashioned Values and, finally, to a sense of disempowerment that renders too often the remark, “Well, there’s nothing I can do about it!”
We need to remember, one and all, that for every generation, as the song says, “These are the Good Old Days.” We need to count our blessings, and work toward a day when more people can share good memories like ours, rather than the unhappy memories common to the impoverished, disenfranchised and hopeless who these days make up four-fifths of the planet’s 6 billion inhabitants.
We need to thank our lucky stars that the fates landed us here, instead of there, wherever “there” may be. Here, in a place where we CAN begin to make a difference, if we have the will to do so.