Robert Gallagher, Wake
The Good Old Days
"Well, I wish I could say that my memories are getting clearer," my father mused. "But I'm not sure that's true."
We were sidling up to the issue of senility, a tough topic except that he didn't seem to be suffering from it. It was just that we knew other people affected. It had even seemed amusing to him until friends and family felt the impact and we all realized how serious it could become.
"I remember events from the year 1950 better than things from last month," he went on. "But you know that's nothing new. I've always done that. Anyway, it was a big year."
At the time, I was the one who didn't recall that North Korea had invaded South Korea in 1950. That was when my father tried to join the U.S. Army at the age of sixteen. (He didn't succeed until he was seventeen.)
"I think do-wop started up around then," I ventured. "Or was that later?"
"That came later. Anyway, I never liked that much. Same for rock music." In 1950, the big bands playing swing music had to compete with newcomers in the rhythm and blues genre. Swing still topped the charts more often than any other type music, though, with hits from Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Billie Holliday, Count Basie, the Ames Brothers, and Glenn Miller. In a few years, swing and R&B both would start to lose ground to rock. That's when everything started to go bad, according to my father. "Big band music is the best."
This is something that I didn't think about when my father was alive: maybe his fascination with big band music, radio dramas, Joe Louis, the Baltimore Colts, Jessie Owens, serial dramas at the movies, baseball, and Lexington Market all made a sort of emotional sense. Maybe there was a reason he was more stuck in the past than most. Maybe it was his difficult, sometimes homeless young childhood followed by a much better decade while living with his uncle Jack Light in Baltimore. He moved into a home where he was safe from eviction. While he grew up there, the Great Depression ended. The second World War ended. His family got a radio. He was allowed to buy comic books. No wonder that he got the impression that those were the best of times, the best of music and drama, the best of sports. For him, they were. It was the truth.
Sometimes in the twilight of human lives, people feel a renewed excitement about times long ago. That was not my father. He was always excited about anything from 1941 to 1950. He never stopped feeling that the decade of the 1940s was the best.
He held a quiet grudge against some parts of the 1930s, too, the aspects of that era that he associated with his poverty and evictions. He refused to eat prunes. They were for poor people. He didn't like to see blocks of cheese. He bought it sliced. He allowed me to keep my comic books and books. If I didn't want to, I never had to throw out a single toy. (My mother had to persuade us all to let things go.)
Also, my father hated to see peanut butter jars turned into glasses.
That one is a puzzle because it's how I grew up. My mother kept track of the family budget. As a consequence, she would often do things that were frugal like wash out the peanut butter jars and give them to me to drink from.
My father would protest, “We can afford drinking glasses now, Ann.”
But he didn’t dare to throw out any of the jars. He tried it once and my mother made him go out and buy glasses to replace the jars. He had to do it out of his own pocket money. It made him feel foolish. Almost right away, I slipped and broke one of his new glasses, which made it seem worse. He forbid me or my brother to use the glasses.
"They have to drink out of something, Bob," observed my mother.
"Okay. Jars for them," he agreed. And so the habit of cleaning out the jars and reusing them continued. I loved the jars. But my father never drank from them.