Simple Times…But Were They Easier?

1960s Shopping Center Storefronts Vintage Postcard B

My how we romanticize the wonder years of mid-20th century America—simpler times, less to be concerned about, homemade pie, riding our bikes, playing kickball, hide and go seek, Mom’s meatloaf, cool period toys, sitting on Grandpa’s knee, listening to old-time stories, walks in the neighborhood and— retreating to the world of sweet imagination where anything was possible.  If you could believe it, it could be done.

The good old days…

However…were they always good?

When we were growing up in the fifties and sixties, we were just goofy kids with not a care in the world.  Worrying was for grownups—not us.  We romanticize the 1950s and ‘60s because we had little to worry about unless we grew up in troubled homes—and there was plenty of that to go around.  Abusive parents or grandparents.  Alcoholism and drug abuse.  Physical and mental abuse.  Battling parents.  Divorce.

Memories that have haunted us all our adult lives.

It has often been said kids are resilient—they will grow past it.  But, have they?  How’s that working for you—especially if you were a victim of some unspeakable form of child abuse.  Only your imagination can limit that one.  I was naïve.  Abuses went on in my neighborhood I’ve only recently learned about from victims who are now in their sixties.

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If you grew up with a mentally abusive parent or grandparent, you undoubtedly struggle with low self-esteem and high anxiety.  If you were raised by supportive parents, you’ve no doubt enjoyed a better adulthood and passed the goodness along to your kids.  Sometimes, childhood is more a mix of good and bad.  One loving parent and one decidedly abusive.  Or—one parent suffering from mental illness.  If you were a popular kid in school, life was good.  If you were like me, a chubby dork with horn rim glasses, you had a target written on your forehead, and every bully within a mile could sniff you out to knock schoolbooks out of your arms.

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Seems those who were popular in my high school haven’t accomplished much as adults.  They never grew beyond high school.  They were big fish in a small pond.  Enormous egos got the best of them and they became complacent.  They’d never been through any real adversity as children and got whatever they wanted—ultimately facing tougher times as adults without Mommy and Daddy to catch them.  They haven’t been able to cope with the pressures of adulthood.  They’ve resorted to drugs and alcohol to feel better about themselves instead of doing what they could to get ahead.  Just my observation based on what I’ve seen since high school.

By the same token, there have been kids who were among the huddled high school masses who’ve been successful adults because growing up was always about struggle.  They had to toughen up or be swallowed up by the bullies, beauty queens, and jocks.  They entered adulthood ready to take on the world.

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The innocence of childhood was what isolated us from what was going on in the world in the 1950s and 1960s.  If you grew up in a nice quiet suburban American neighborhood where friends played together and bonded, life was good—like the TV show “The Wonder Years.”  That show from the 1990s reminds us of why we love our childhood memories.  “The Wonder Years” also captured the struggles of adolescence, and there was plenty of that.  The older brother from hell.  Greatest Generation parents with more conservative values.  History class, which put us to sleep.  Teenage crushes.  Being rejected.  Discovering the arrival of adolescence on a hot day when you learn you stink very much bad and need a shower.

Damn, never noticed that smell before.

Most of us grew up in the cocoon of suburban life while others lived the toughness of urban life in a city walkup with bullies on every corner.  I grew up in an isolated tract house community 26 miles outside of Washington, D.C.  When we moved into our new home just before Christmas of 1965, this Bowie, Maryland community was as quiet as it gets because we were in the middle of the vast no man’s land between Washington, Baltimore and Annapolis.  We were out in the country and self-contained.  Rural Maryland was a magical place to grow up because there was little to worry about—that is, for a kid.  Plenty for adults to be worried about.

For adults, who had huge responsibilities at the time, there was a lot to be concerned about—the Vietnam War, the draft, civil unrest, the Cold War with the Soviet Union and China, a rising cost of living, debt, financial worries, diseases we don’t have to sweat today like Small Pox and Polio, and more.  Great parents made sure we didn’t know about these things.  They wanted us to enjoy childhood.

We’d be grown soon enough.

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We romanticize the 1960s.  Yet—there were three assassinations including a young U.S. president, John F. Kennedy, in 1963 and the utter shock of two more including a greatly admired civil rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King, and the slain president’s brother and esteemed senator, Bobby Kennedy, at a political rally in Los Angeles—both in 1968.  There were riots over the war and civil rights.

The 1960s wasn’t at all what we boomers believe it was.  Great for kids living in quiet suburbia.  Not so good for adults trying to make sense of it all.

The oldest boomers had it tougher because they had the draft to sweat out.  A whole lot of us born between 1946 and the early 1950s had the Vietnam draft and the lotteries to worry about.  I personally knew several who went to Vietnam and never came home.  There were others who came home badly wounded.  The Vietnam War was a faraway place for a boy like me at age 12.  That is, until my stepbrother lost his right leg to a Claymore mine in Vietnam and was brought home to the Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washington.  That’s where I saw men badly torn up from war.

Vietnam was suddenly very real—and bloody.

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The 1950s was a regroup period following the end of World War II.  However, it was no picnic if you were being drafted and shipped off to war in Korea.  There were WWII Veterans who were promptly drafted back into service and sent to South Korea to engage in yet another war.  They never got a break.  Most survived Korea.  A lot did not.  Anyone who has seen real action (death and carnage) understands what I am talking about.  The fog of war is lost across the vast oceans.  Prior to 9/11, post-war America never witnessed wartime on American soil.  What would we know about war?

Boomers like to reflect on the good old days.  We’re doing the same thing our parents did a half-century ago.  The “good old days” seemed better than they actually were.  In the troubled times we’re living in now, it is easy to reflect on what we perceive were better times.  Like troubled times we’ve lived through in the past, these times we’re in now will pass.  Use troubled times to become stronger—to toughen up—because as we get older, there are going to be huge challenges.  You can count on it.

This—too—is gonna pass…

4 thoughts on “Simple Times…But Were They Easier?”

  1. Jim, I am a little older than you. I wrote this about one day in 1963

    That Day
    I remember that day.
    Unfortunately I do remember that day as if it happened yesterday. We all learn from experience and exposure. That is not saying these life learning experiences have been easy, or without and emotional cost. It has taken me fifty years to understand how one sunny November day in Dallas has affected how I think, what I believe, and what values I have. At twelve years old I was protected from hatred, wars, hunger, poverty, and want. I did not yet comprehend the power truth has, and its importance as life’s compass. Fifty years is a long time, a very long time. But still, I remember where I was, and what I witnessed that day. At twelve I did not truly appreciate the ramifications of the assassination of the President of the United States. I had seldom seen any adult cry in my presence. I had never seen any adults in my world ever weep uncontrollably before. That day… they all wept. At twelve I did not understand what loss was, no one I was associated with had ever died. Even as children we understood the magnitude of what had happened. All of the nation’s hopes for the future and stability were lost that day. Along with that loss was the last of our innocence. My entire generation was forced to mature on November 22, 1963 because of one man with three names. Those live Television broadcasts of black and white images that we viewed on a tiny round screen were the most powerful images of grief and respect and that I had ever seen. I did not know what the meaning of the word grace was. Jacqueline Kennedy epitomized what strength and grace looked like. Unfortunately it would not be the last time we all would be witnesses of history. J.F.K. then M.L.K and R.F.K so much promise so much sorrow. We, who have lived through those times and have viewed such images, have been forever changed.

    Like

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