Those Were The Days

 

When I was a kid in the early seventies a song came out called, “Those Were the Days, My Friend”, a nostalgic tune about the passing of youth set to a gypsy arrangement.  My sister Carla and I loved it even though we were too young to have any clue about how it felt to look back and remember the good old days.

I’m old enough now.

I’m also old enough to remember that the 70s were tough for our family.  My Dad got laid off from a manufacturing job in 1975 around Thanksgiving.  Our town went rust belt within a few years, unemployment surged, and the downtown area slowly died as businesses and shops closed.  Folks looked further afield for jobs, and many moved to Texas and Florida.

But I sometimes long to spend one more Friday night at home in 1972, a few years before the economic tsunami hit.  My Dad and Mom would sometimes throw a fish fry, Dad deep-frying perch, bluegills and crappies in pancake batter, Mom making a huge skillet of fried potatoes and onions.  The Hoelschers, my Dad’s sister’s family, might come over for the meal, and it would turn into a celebration.  Dad and Uncle Louie would guzzle beers, Mom and Aunt Mary would gossip about family, and the kids would trade stories about school and play touch football in the front yard.

DSC_0242 (2) Fishing with Jim and Johnny Hoelscher.

Or maybe my family would eat a simple meal of scrambled eggs, potatoes and salad–no visitors.  After washing the dishes, we kids would sit on the living room rug and watch “The Rockford Files” and “The Carol Burnett Show”.  First we’d learn about the evil adults could perpetrate on each other (Con artists and corporations conspired to bilk innocent young women.  A cynical, but warm-hearted detective solved their problems by getting beat up once or twice and driving around town in a muscle car.). And then we’d laugh at silly spoofs (“Jaws” became a skit about plumbers; Carol flushed the Tidy Bowl man when he tried to sing to her from a rowboat floating in a toilet tank).  Mom would make popcorn, and we’d ask for a glass of Coke if the weekly supply, one six-pack, hadn’t already run too low.

Sometimes I spent the evening in my bedroom reading books such as “The Northwest Passage” by Kenneth Roberts.  My sister would play her 45s on her monophonic record player she’d gotten as a discard from our Uncle Bill.  Or she’d snap on her handy transistor radio and listen to Simon and Garfunkel, Bobby Sherman (Julie, Julie), the Beatles, Jim Croce (If I Could Save Time in a Bottle), Jim Stafford (I Don’t like Spiders and Snakes).

If my Dad had some extra cash, we might drive down to Cincinnati to catch a Reds ballgame at Riverfront Stadium.  If we arrived early, we’d park at the stadium and walk downtown to catch a meal at a restaurant.  We’d pass vendors near the ballpark hawking bags of warm peanuts (fresh roasted in metal drums there on the sidewalk) and Reds pennants.  At the game we’d see Johnny Bench in action behind the plate.  Tony Perez played third, Pete Rose right field,  and Lee May first base.  The team wasn’t as good as the mid 70s Big Red Machine (with George Foster, Joe Morgan, David Concepcion bolstering the roster), but the stars of the earlier team could be dominant.  I remember seeing Atlanta’s Hank Aaron smoke a line drive out of the park with the mere flick of a bat.  Juan Marichal, the great Giant’s pitcher, high-kicked, cork-screwed and threw the ball overhand and side arm.  He toyed with the hitters, humiliated them, owned the mound.

If my parents went out on a Friday night, my brother and I wrestled on the living room carpet, played “rug football” in the hall, or played “jump off the throw rug in time or land on your butt”.  We’d also boxed a bit, pulling our punches most of the time.  In other words, we engaged in rough housing that my Mother strictly forbade.  My sister sometimes caught the action in black and white on her Instamatic camera.  I can’t remember if she ever threatened to blackmail us, but she had the goods.

DSC_0241 (2)   Wrasslin’

 

The times were much simpler.  We had one rotary phone, a black and white TV, no dishwasher, no microwave, no air conditioning, no video games, no internet, no movies on demand.  We passed the time by playing cards and board games, watching bad movies on the four channels available to us (Elvis’s Blue Hawaii, Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin westerns),  and telling stories about family history (Aunt Margaret discovered that her husband was a cheat.  He tried to hit on one of her sisters-in-law as she walked to work.  Aunt Mary had a long affair with a married man.  Grampa tipped outhouses on Halloween nights when he was a boy.)  We read magazines, newspapers and books.

I don’t remember being bored, and while we didn’t have the happiest household, we had many days of contentment.  But all nostalgia comes from a sense of loss, and I think that mine stems from a desire to return to a time when I had few responsibilities and worries, when my step was springy and my mind worked with greater clarity and curiosity.  And, of course, to times before I fully understood that loss and grief are our inevitable companions as we grow older.

“Those were the days, my friend.

 We thought they’d never end.

We’d sing and dance forever and a day.

We’d live the life we’d choose, we’d fight and never lose.

Yes we were young and sure to have our way.”  

 

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Class Ring

My Dad did independent contracting jobs in the 1970s to earn extra money.  When I turned thirteen he drafted me as his laborer for glorified donkey work.  I dug ditches for foundations, scraped wood siding on houses before painting them, hauled bundles of shingles up ladders, trundled wet cement in wheel barrows, and cleaned trash and discarded belongings out of abandoned rental units.  He paid fifty cents less than minimum wage, but I knew better than to complain.

Dad landed a cement job the summer before my junior year.  A man who owned a frame house in east Dayton wanted a front porch.  I helped dig a trench for the foundation.  The project was on time and profitable until a neighbor saw that my father hadn’t posted a work permit on the site.  He reported us to the authorities, and they did a surprise inspection after the foundation of concrete blocks had been laid.  They fined Dad and told him that the foundation was a few inches too shallow.  We had to pull out the blocks and dig deeper.  The foundation was reset, and a cement mixer truck rumbled up the street early one morning and poured a load into the wooden forms Dad had built around the foundation.  He and I spread and smoothed the heavy, gray sludge with shovels, rakes and trowels until we had a fairly uniform slab.  The cool, overcast weather kept the cement from hardening quickly.  Dad decided to knock off for lunch figuring that we’d have plenty of time to do the final surfacing work that afternoon.

While we were away the sun came out and the temperature shot up five degrees in an hour.  We discovered when we returned that the cement was nearly rock solid.  He and I worked frantically with our tools but couldn’t properly trowel and edge the slab.  Dad swore at the concrete, at me, at his edger, at the sun.  We all had conspired against him.

The owner refused to pay for the porch.  He knew a shoddy job when he saw one, and so did my Dad.  The next week we took sledge hammers, broke it up and hauled away the debris.  Then we hired a cement mixer to dump another load into rebuilt forms.  This time we stayed on the job until the surfaces were slickly finished on the edges and across the whole expanse of the porch.  At the end of the day the owner finally handed my Dad a wad of cash.

I hadn’t gotten a cent up to that point, but when we got home Dad kept his wallet firmly wedged in his pants pocket.  A few weeks later school started, and the juniors got order forms for class rings.  My sister had gotten one, bought and paid for by my parents a few years earlier.  But Dad’s company was in the process of laying off workers, and our family finances were about to take a severe blow.  I didn’t know how my parents would react when I showed them the photo of the gold and garnet ring I favored.  A few days went by before my Dad spoke to me about the ring.  He grumphed, “I took a loss on that porch job.  That’s why I didn’t pay you.  I’m going to buy you your class ring, and we’ll call it even.”  I nodded in agreement even though I knew that he was shortchanging me.  I figured that something was better than nothing.

Dad got laid off in November right before Thanksgiving.  His former employer mailed him his twenty year pin a few days after giving him a pink slip.  The pin came with a letter thanking him for his loyal service.  Dad decided to turn his back on finding another factory job and attempted to grow his part time work into a full time business.  We scraped along for the next eight months on savings and the cash he brought in from remodeling and light construction projects.

I got the ring and enjoyed wearing it until I lost it midwinter.  It snowed one night in January, and on the following day the weather stayed frigid and dry.  My brother and I fought a snowball battle in the side yard after school, and we had to take off our gloves and use the heat of our bare hands to pack snowballs that held together when thrown.  I bombarded Tony for as long as he was willing and taunted him when he retreated inside.  That evening I noticed that my ring was gone.  I searched my bed covers, the kitchen counter and table, under my bed, on my dresser.  Then I remembered the fight, how cold my fingers had been, how my ring slid up and down easily on my wet finger.  I realized that I must have thrown it off my hand when I whipped a snowball at Tony.

I desperately searched the yard the next morning but couldn’t find it in the melting snow, mud, and needles from a nearby evergreen.  When I went to school I noticed guys twiddling their rings on their fingers, tapping them on tables.  I saw girls wearing their boyfriends’ rings on chains around their necks.

I reported the lost ring to my parents that evening and asked them if it could be replaced.  I wasn’t surprised when the answer was “no”.  They weren’t going to pay for a second ring when I had been stupid enough to lose the first.  I didn’t argue that I had paid for the first with my labor. At that time our grocery supplies came up short by the end of each week, our cars were old and dying, and Mom wore a strained look on her face whenever the topic of finances came up.  A ring could wait.

That spring my Dad gave up on his dream of self-employment.  He couldn’t afford the necessary equipment to make his business profitable enough to support a family.  He took the first of a series of dangerous and unpleasant factory jobs while still doing small projects on the side.  I continued to work for him in the summer.  He bought us lunch and cheap beer for the end of the day, and he paid me fifty cents less than minimum wage.  I took it, saved it.  Something was better than nothing.

I met my first girlfriend while working with Dad building another concrete porch.  Marge brought me lemonade and asked if I wanted a radio to listen to as I shoveled and hauled.  Dad let me off early one afternoon a few weeks later when she invited me to come with her to a swimming pool.  I gave him a look of stunned disbelief as we pulled out of her driveway, and he grinned back.

I spent all the money I earned that summer on dates with Marge and forgot all about buying myself another ring.