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.
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.
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.”