Awash in Nostalgia, or, Oh, For the Good Old Days

Posted on December 11, 2012

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Not too long ago I received an email from an old friend of my youth. We have kept loosely in touch since we both grew up in Peru, the children of American chemists working for W. R. Grace & Co. in the sugar and paper industries of that country. Both his dad and mine were from the same area in the U. S.—the Piedmont of South Carolina—and both were adventurous types, and both married foreigners, my friend Henry’s mom and mine. My mother was Chilean, his Peruvian. We both grew up bilingual.

By census data definition, we are “Hispanics,” and so very much in the news, or in vogue, today, depending upon where you are of course. Henry works in Miami, some say the cultural capital of Latin America where everyone it seems speaks Spanish. I, on the other hand, live in Alabama where Hispanics are not so well received, and am glad I was born in the United States during one of my dad’s postings to the New York headquarters of the company.

So that’s the background. We’ve known each other since we can remember remembering.

My South Carolina relatives never really forgave my parents for allowing me to be born in New Jersey, a little damn Yankee, but they were old school. Which brings me to the subject of this little piece.

Henry and I exchange emails often, and we include a raft of friends, his, mine, and they are for the most part, how do I say this gently, not only old school but old in general. Henry and I turned seventy this past year, although both of us are still working.

We both were in the service, he in the Army and me in the Navy. We both graduated from universities in the U. S., he from Georgetown and me from Duke.

We both look back with nostalgia at the old days, as do many of our email correspondents, now mostly retired, and, for the most part, also veterans. There is a bond there that brings us together, even though we may be different, live in different parts of the country, have different careers, and no doubt differ on a lot of things.

There is a longing for the better days of our youth expressed in emails and links to YouTube videos, of people like Frank Sinatra, Dinah Shore, I Love Lucy shows and so much from the fifties and sixties. We are, like all generations I suspect, nostalgic for the past and see it as better than the world today. But was it really?

Is this the standard generational difference? We, the grandparents, wistfully look to the past and are incredulous at the world around us today.

Do all generations always look back and see things better from their youth? Is this just the glow of remembering things when one wasn’t jaded by age or experience, still flush with young loves and passions?

Or is today’s world truly and significantly different from fifty or one hundred years ago?

There are lots of issues here, from religion to morality and the way people think and behave.

I recently received an email from another old buddy who flew F-4 Phantoms in the Air Force. He was remembering a fellow F-4 driver who, in uniform, was spat and sworn at in an airport by an anti-war “hippie” couple forty or fifty years ago, sometime during the Vietnam War.

The guy missed him with the first spit and got ready to wing another wad of saliva when the pilot drew back a big fist—he was a big pilot—and decked him. Just as he turned to deck the girl too, airport security ushered him away.

Contrast that with the way we greet returning soldiers from service in Afghanistan, Iraq and other corners of the globe. I even get a “thanks for your service” if someone discovers I was in the Navy many years ago. Sailors and airmen on their way through airports get applause and sometimes the best seats in planes. Sure better than spit and venom.

So, maybe in one respect, the good old times were not so good. We have to go all the way back to World War II when Americans felt good about a war and supported those who fought.

And if we take a look at civil rights fifty, sixty, seventy years ago, our country was in the midst of a struggle—often brutal and violent—to make civil rights a reality for African Americans long disenfranchised by segregation. Birmingham was known as Bombingham and “segregation now, segregation forever” was the cry of racists and white supremacists.

I remember going to South Carolina on vacations from Peru in the 1940s when my dad would bring us back to the States every three years for three months and seeing signs like “for coloreds” and wondered about my dad’s world.

My father was not a racist, but he did believe in a fundamental difference in the races and in the institutionalization—segregation in this country, apartheid in South Africa, etc.—of that difference. I don’t think those old times were better.

Now, having trashed the old times, which I remember with the same fondness and nostalgia as my peers since I was not in the front lines of the often bloody and deadly Civil Rights marches, and nobody ever spat on me for my time in the service, let’s examine how things do change from generation to generation.

First of all, our forbearers did not have to deal with tectonic movements of science and technology, or even politics, from one generation to the next. Until the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the world you were born into was pretty much the same world as the one your father and grandmother and all the way back to Adam and Eve were born into. That’s only a slight exaggeration, but from generation to generation it was governed by the agricultural cycles of life.

Born a serf or peasant to serfs and peasants, you would spend the rest of your life as a serf or peasant. Born into nobility, you inherited your titles and perquisites and would usually live and die as a nobleman. Born into a warrior caste, you would become a warrior to defend Sparta or Rome or Beijing, or any other race, nation or people. To be born a monarch, now that was a pretty good deal, unless you were labeled a tyrant and suffered the consequences.

So, looking back, one saw pretty much the same as looking around.

Then things really began to change.

One hundred years ago, for example, only a few adventurous souls were promoting the fantastic experiment kicked off by the Wright brothers—flight!

Today I can board a jet, in total luxury, comfort, and safety, and travel to anyplace in the world in the space of less than a day.

My father was born in 1900, before flight, even before Henry Ford’s Model T.

My world, on the other hand, has been transformed by planes and cars

The days my father was born into were not completely different from my days, but significantly so, so that they are hard to compare. His “good old days” were not “my good old days.”

My father joined the Army in 1918 to “save the world for democracy,” and to the ringing tune of “Over There.” My war was Vietnam, and most of America wished we hadn’t been “over there.” Read on.

In the late eighteenth century, a Scots, James Watt improved the steam engine and the industrial revolution was given a huge boost. The century before, Dr. William Harvey discovered the circulation of blood and added to the new world of medical science.

Things changed slowly though.

In 1799 George Washington was still bled to help cure him (it finished him off), but less than a hundred years later, medicine was being transformed by ether, the germ theory, sulfa drugs, and penicillin, to name just a few catalysts that propelled medicine out of the age of barber surgeons to the sterile, high tech world of electronic microscopes and nano-science, or the world down to the molecular and even atomic level.

And in the world of politics and philosophy, the American and French Revolutions of the late eighteenth century kicked us out of the age of monarchies and nobility into a brave new world of republics and egalitarianism. They turned the world upside down where privilege and inheritance were discarded for equality and the liberty of the individual.

After the Battle of Yorktown, the English band played the tune “The World Turned Upside Down” at the surrender of Lord Cornwallis’s Redcoats who marched between the ranks of the French Army and Washington’s Continentals in the formal rite of surrender. Indeed, although the ballad was first sung in the mid-seventeenth century to complain against a Puritanical Parliament from allowing a festive traditional celebration of Christmas, it fit the times of 1781 well.

Surrender at Yorktown

Inventiveness and scientific progress were the call signs as the nineteenth century blended into the twentieth.

My wife asked me a few days ago why there were so many veterans of recent wars—Iraq and Afghanistan principally—who are so horribly mutilated but have survived, without arms, legs, disfigured and maimed by explosions but living on into their own brave new world.

It’s because modern medicine, modern helicopters, modern MASH units have evolved so rapidly. Unless blasted immediately into oblivion on the battlefield, everyone now stands a chance at survival. Not so in all the wars up to World War II, although by then penicillin was changing survivablity.

The “good old times” of all those millions who fought in World War II may not have been so good after all. They may indeed have been “the greatest generation,” but your chances of living through all the horror of battle are a lot higher today than then.

Which brings me around full circle to today and nostalgia for the good old days. I can lampoom the music, the morals, the work ethic, the general incivility, the arrogance, the failure of today’s young people to be like my generation. In fact, they aren’t my generation.

I didn’t know what a personal computer was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s. Heck, when we first moved up to the States in 1952 from Peru, I didn’t even know what a television was! Wow, movies in the house.

Today we carry the movies around on our iPads which as near as I can tell, have pretty much the same amount of computing power available to the first astronauts who traveled to the moon in 1969.

A phone was tied to the wall by a cord and one dialed the number on a rotary dial. How quaint my son thinks. “You had a cord?!”

Elvis the Pelvis outraged the old folks of my generation, but turned on the teenagers. Now Elvis Presley is an antique bopper from the past, someone that the Boomers listen to nostalgically on radio stations devoted to “oldies but goodies.”

There are transitions, even between generations today where the newest computer chips are obsolete in about eighteen months.

My kids—now grown—and I can still listen to the Bee Gees and relate to a sound we can generally agree upon as classic modern, reminding me of the sounds of disco and the Seventies when I was writing a book in New York and living in Greenwich Village. Two of my children were already born then. Here’s a link to the Bee Gees and Staying Alive if you want to link to it when you read this online. How’s that for modern?

Things were different when my generation came of age. Were they better? Some things were, some weren’t. Are they worth remembering? You better believe it. Is there anything in my son’s earbuds to compare to the Rhythm is Gonna Get You, by Gloria Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine… for those of you too young to remember.