Were there really any ‘good old days’ in our American history? Each generation, as they age, seem to refer back to days they felt were better than what we see currently. Grandparents constantly speak of ‘back in the day’ fondly. Maybe our memories are unclear, or perhaps it was because we were young and impressionable, believed what we were taught, and it feels more comfortable than examining the flaws in our history. I am no different; I talk of better days. While living through these crazy times right now, I want millennials to know that it was not always like this, that there were many better days, while imperfect. I realize behind the scenes throughout our history there were really horrific practices and things going on during my life, and that even though I grew up middle class, I was privileged in many ways just being Caucasian.
In our American history, we have had many days of war, of racism, bigotry and the mistreatment of women, children and animals. Some can’t remember a time when we were not at war. Were our school lessons and textbooks teaching us only the best about America leaving out the blights on our union? Did we grow up blindly believing America was the best, that we were infallible? It reminds me of the speech from the television show a couple of years ago, The Newsroom, when actor Jeff Daniels gave a speech about how America is really not the greatest. He points out all of the flaws that seem to have been shielded from us in our youth. Jon Meacham’s recent book, The Soul of America, looks at our history and claims we have been through many bad times, and can come through them again. He asks if we are always in pursuit of our ‘better angels’ which we greatly need today.
First, I want to describe for the millennials, some of the better times in which we baby boomers lived and in which I grew up. Perhaps the 1950’s were better years for our country, at least, as I stated for whites. The big war was over, and jobs were booming. Men had come home from war, and women who filled in their jobs returned to housework (not saying necessarily good). People were having babies like crazy, which is why we are the ‘baby boomer’ generation. Unions were strong and the economy was doing pretty well. Tax rates were high for the rich. Many new technological advances were happening. Television was new (with only a few channels and went off at midnight), as were many appliances and frozen dinners supposedly to help housewives. Rock n’roll was growing in popularity. Families could live on one income and with one car for the most part.
At the same time, I realize during the 1950’s minorities still faced discrimination, were not allowed to live in the same neighborhoods or even to attend some of the same schools we could. Women were still not allowed to do many things without their husband’s approval or signature on documents. The 1960’s brought the Civil Rights war, and the 1970’s fights for women’s rights and I lived through all of them, perhaps influencing my current activism.
As a child, I walked to school many blocks, and in the snow too, often sliding on the packed snowy streets in our rubber boots, and yes, when I was young, I wore the infamous snowsuit. (But we didn’t walk or bike for miles like my parents) Until high school, I didn’t have rides to or from school. We walked in groups and were taught not to talk to strangers. We packed our lunch (much bologna, tuna, or peanut butter) or ate in the lunchroom at school, and I always liked the food pretty well…often fish sticks on Fridays to honor Catholics. The lunchroom ladies were known for their hair nets and white uniforms. My mom worked nights as a waitress and we had a steady flow of ‘change’ in the bowl to use for lunch money. But most of my friends’ moms did not work and were home to greet them after school. During my mom’s fifth pregnancy, she had some health issues, and we had a temporary lady come in to help. I still remember the huge warm peanut butter cookies she baked and greeted us with one day after school. Perhaps that was one of the reasons I took up baking cookies as a teen and still make pretty darn good ones.
We had one station wagon until later in my teen years when my father acquired a truck too. During high school, which was much further away, he would sometimes drive me in the truck or I would ride the city bus to school. The only time I took a school bus was in Michigan for kindergarten when we lived in a rural area. The only drills we had were for fire, or ‘duck and cover’. In Michigan we had an outdoor shelter for tornados, and I didn’t like going in it as it was full of spiders and sometimes mice. We didn’t worry much about our safety in school, save for a few bullies, and certainly no fears of a massive shooting. I probably didn’t pay much attention to the news but certainly don’t remember nightly talks on the news of shootings in neighborhoods; crime seemed less frequent.
We were certainly not rich, and lived a pretty simple middle-class life. Certainly, we knew of poorer people in Denver. One Christmas my mother took us to an elderly black ladies’ home with gifts for her. We were told she was quite poor, yet I was amazed that her home was filled to the brim with furniture leaving a small path. She had baked us a pie from lard which we didn’t eat.
Until we moved to Park Hill, I didn’t know many people of other races. I knew one black family in my ballet class and we visited their home. We were taught at home that everyone was equal, but our skin was just a different color. The first encounter with racism was from a child my mom babysat. One time we were in the car waiting for my mom, and a black man walked by, and she said ‘there goes one of those n-words’. I immediately chided her and said he was just like us, just had darker skin. When I attend Park Hill Elementary school, my class had a few minorities, and by the time I went to middle school it was quite integrated with all races. In fact, our high school class ring has four races inscribed on the side of the ring. Later on, there were a couple other incidences with extended family members saying racist things that blew me away.
After school, my mother was usually home and we almost always played outdoors for a while. In the winter we played Barbies, blocks, and had board games (Monopoly, Sorry, etc.). Television was around as long as I remember since it became popular in the 50’s when I was quite young. As young as kindergarten, I watched many animal shows like Lassie, My Friend Flicka and Fury. We had our share of cartoons too, Disney on Sunday nights, and children shows like Howdy Dowdy, as well as a local show Fred and Faye (where we learned the ‘tum tum’ song to clean up after eating and where one sister was lucky to appear on their show once). We watched family shows together, many musical, like the King Family, Sing along with Mitch, Andy Williams, and others. I learned many words to popular songs and sang along with them.
We rarely went to the movie theater, except for big productions. I remember seeing Mary Poppins, and Cheaper by the Dozen at the Paramount downtown. Usually, we went to the drive in and paid a family carload price. My parents would pop the corn at home first on the stove, and put the popcorn in a brown paper bag, and bring our own drinks in a thermos. We only dreamed of eating the theater popcorn as it just cost too much for a large family. Usually my parents fell asleep by the second movie feature in the front seat. We had the back-station wagon seats flattened with blankets and pillows and the speaker propped on our window. Sometimes we could play on the playground near the screen before the movie began.
Unlike today, we played outdoors much of the time. Since we were a large family with six children, and my parents were creative, other neighbor children were attracted to our yard. We weren’t allowed to cross the street without permission, and usually stayed near home, except when roller skating (the kind that attaches to your shoe). My dad built us a playhouse and our own wooden appliances. We eventually had a really cool tree house where we could even sleep out in at night and left the back door open to go in to the bathroom or if the weather changed (but it even had a roof). We had sandboxes, tire swing, and made our own games like leaf houses, or snow ball fights, played jump rope and jacks at school and home. When inside we played with our Barbie’s and blocks, and had a just a few board games like Chutes and Ladders, Checkers and Chess and card games. We entertained ourselves and got plenty of fresh air. Sometimes we played hide n’ seek or other group games with others. Our parents were creative and encouraged that in our play, so we often made things out of boxes, and scraps. There were no Nintendo’s, video games, iPods, iTunes, the internet, and I only remember a single bicycle we shared.
Most of my friends were in the same socio-economic group as myself, even if they were another race. A few whose parents had better jobs or smaller families were doing a bit better than us. Never have I seen any slums in Denver like in other states, although many people struggled and minorities were relegated to the east side of town. We never felt poor, even though at times my father would lose his job and our church friends would bring us casseroles. Much of our furniture was given to my dad as payment for jobs he did. About the only new things were the television and stereo. Being the eldest, I got hand-me-downs from other people to wear. We were lucky enough to have tennis shoes, often a pair of church shoes and school shoes. We only shopped for shoes about once a year when school rolled began, or when we had outgrown them (unless we got some from someone else). I was excited by junior high to have a couple of pairs of shoes in differing colors. I began babysitting to earn money for my own clothes, records and spending money, and then took on other jobs in high school. I paid for my own year book and pep club outfit, and probably my class ring. With six kids, both parents worked to pay for our home and food. Vacations were mostly in the car on road trips to Michigan or the mountains. Back then you just didn’t hear of families going to Hawaii, Europe or many distant places. I didn’t see either ocean until my late 30’s.
For the most part, my childhood was pretty good. It wasn’t perfect by any means. My parent’s marriage was rocky, leading to divorce the year I graduated high school. Even though we didn’t have a lot of money, we had many good times, we learned values to care for one another and others, we entertained many people (even from other parts of the world) and we learned many creative pursuits. I began my entrepreneurial talents at a young age selling hand made pot holders door to door. And I know many kids had it much tougher than we did and some had it much better.
But when I refer to the good old days, I mean we didn’t live in fear of walking to school, or even being at school. We respected our elders and I would have died to be sent to the Principal’s office. We had clean air, and healthier food choices. We got more exercise walking to school and playing outdoors. Of course, you had to be careful; there were still some creepy people around.
Maybe its easier to be happy when you are not bombarded by the 24/7 news cycle and information coming at you all the time. Also, it was less complex when we didn’t have so many choices in the aisles, on television or on the internet. We got by fine with stores being closed on Sundays, and without cell telephones (many were lucky to have a land line), and my dad finally had a good union job where we had health care. We actually ate meals together and had conversations with one another. You knew your neighbors on the entire block, felt safe trick-or-treating, and looked out for one another. Perhaps these days will be the good old days for our children…can you imagine that?