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Today and Yesterday

Copyright © 2002, 2005, 2010 by David E. Ross

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

Charles Dickens

A cousin recently sent me an E-mail message, the body of which is in the left column below. Before I discuss it, two clarifications are appropriate.

Hamrick's Message My Recollections of Yesterday
Here's something to think about!
Today and Yesterday ??
"Hey Dad," one of my kids asked the other day, "what was your favorite fast food when you were growing up?"

"We didn't have fast food when I was growing up," I informed him. "All the food was slow."

I remember fast food when I was in junior high school. No, it wasn't McDonalds; it was McFarlain's. They had 19¢ hamburgers and 21¢ milk shakes.
"C'mon, seriously. Where did you eat?"

"It was a place called 'at home,'" I explained. "Grandma cooked every day and when Grandpa got home from work, we sat down together at the dining room table, and if I didn't like what she put on my plate I was allowed to sit there until I did like it."

On Friday nights, my father's store stayed open. He worked and did not have dinner at home. Often, my parents went out on Saturdays; then, my brother and I ate by ourselves (but before our parents left the house). When my brother was old enough to sit still and feed himself, my parents took us to dinner in a nice restaurant at least once a month.
By this time, the kid was laughing so hard I was afraid he was going to suffer serious internal damage, so I didn't tell him the part about how I had to have permission to leave the table. My own children needed permission to leave the table if we were not through eating. I would hope children today are raised that way. If Hamrick thinks this is important, why do not his own children know this?
But here are some other things I would have told him about my childhood if I figured his system could have handled it:  
My parents never owned their own house, wore Levis, set foot on a golf course, traveled out of the country or had a credit card. My parents bought their first house (three bedrooms) when I was about 3 years old. In elementary school, I wore Levi's. In his 40s, my father (ever the sports enthusiast) played golf. In their 50s, my parents went on a cruise from San Francisco to Hawaii, Japan, Taiwan, and Hong Kong.
In their later years they had something called a revolving charge card. The card was good only at Sears Roebuck. Or maybe it was Sears AND Roebuck. Either way, there is no Roebuck anymore. Maybe he died. Pop had a Diners Club card when it was used only in restaurants (hence the name). In my earliest memories of shopping with my mother, Mom had a "charge-a-plate", a metal card that each department store would notch to indicate its acceptance and for which each store would then send its own monthly bill. When I was in high school, I know my father had credit cards for several different gas station chains (there were many more chains then) because he got me my own card on one of them.

By the time Hamrick and I were born, both Sears and Roebuck were long dead. Not even their families controlled the largest (at that time) retail chain. However, the name today is still Sears, Roebuck & Co. (At least it was when I received the E-mail with Hamrick's recollections. Merging into K-Mart, we don't yet know what the name will be in the future.)

My parents never drove me to soccer practice. This was mostly because we never had heard of soccer. But also because we didn't have a car. If I had been interested enough in any sport to play, my parents would have been thrilled to drive me to practices and games.
We didn't have a television in our house until I was 11, but my grandparents had one before that. It was, of course, black and white, but they bought a piece of colored plastic to cover the screen. The top third was blue, like the sky, and the bottom third was green, like grass. The middle third was red. It was perfect for programs that had scenes of fire trucks riding across someone's lawn on a sunny day. We got our first TV well before I was 10 (possibly when I was 8). Of course it was black and white; no shows were broadcast in color then. My wife's uncle (whom I knew almost 20 years before I met my wife) had the first color TV that I saw; I was not yet 11.
I was 13 before I tasted my first pizza. It was a Luigi's Pizza on the west side of Cleveland and my friend, Ronnie, took me there to try what he said was "pizza pie." When I bit into it, I burned the roof of my mouth and the cheese slid off, swung down, plastered itself against my chin and burned that, too. It's still the best pizza I ever had. I don't remember my first pizza. I do remember Mom was an eclectic, cosmopolitan cook. We ate Japanese, Chinese, Mexican, Russian, Italian, and many Jewish dishes.

Pop had a friend Al (an engineer), who made pizza at home when he entertained. These were large rectangular masses. After Al layered all the sauce (much rosemary), cheese, and fillings, he would do it again. On a medium crust, these were easily more than 2 inches thick. They were the best ever.

We didn't have a car until I was 15. Before that, the only car in our family was my grandfather's Plymouth. He called it a "machine." Before I was even born, my family had at least one car. All the cars that I remember were bought new until Mom (then in her late 70s or early 80s) bought a low-mileage Oldsmobile from a close friend. No, my parents never owned a Cadillac or Lincoln, and they never owned a foreign brand. I remember a Chevrolet, two Plymouths, a Buick, and two Pontiacs.

Cars are important. During the worst of the Great Depression (before I was born), my parents lived in a car for three days because they could not afford rent.

Before then, in the 1920s, my mother's father owned cars. And at that time, my father (then in his teens) had sufficient access to cars to learn to drive.

When I was in high school, my father gave me the use of the family's oldest car rather than trade it in. When my own children were in high school, their grandmother told them about that. But I needed to trade in the older car to buy a new one. My children had to wait until they were young adults to have their own cars.

I never had a telephone in my room. The only phone in the house was in the living room and it was on a party line. Before you could dial, you had to listen and make sure some people you didn't know weren't already using the line. I remember having a party line until I was about 10 or 11. But we knew the party sharing that line; it was our next-door neighbor, with whom we were very friendly.

At my request, not hers, my daughter had a phone in her room with a separate number. It was the only way the rest of us could get access to a phone. No, I would not restrict her use of the phone. I was thrilled (and somewhat jealous) that she had a more active social life as a teen and young adult than I had at that age. (When she moved out of our home, I kept her phone line to use it for my dial-up Internet connection until I converted to a broadband connection.)

Pizzas were not delivered to our home. But milk was. During World War II, gasoline and tires were rationed. Businesses that made deliveries got extra allocations. Not only was milk delivered to homes, but so were bread and produce. But then, milk was still being delivered to my house in the 1960s when my son was an infant.
All newspapers were delivered by boys and all boys delivered newspapers. I delivered the Cleveland "News" six days a week. It cost 7 cents a paper, of which I got to keep 2 cents. On Saturday, I had to collect the 42 cents from my customers. My favorite customers were the ones who gave me 50 cents and told me to keep the change. My least favorite customers were the ones who seemed to never be home on collection day. I never delivered newspapers. When I was in junior high school, newspapers in my neighborhood were delivered from a pickup truck; someone drove slowly while someone else pitched them from the back of the truck. Almost 50 years later, newspapers are still delivered that way.

When I subscribed to the local suburban News Chronicle in the 1970s and 1980s, a teen would come door-to-door to collect the monthly subscription. (Often, it was a girl, not a boy.) However, as long as I can remember, the Los Angeles Times mailed us a bill; and we mail them a check.

Movie stars kissed with their mouths shut. At least, they did in the movies. Touching someone else's tongue with yours was called French kissing and they didn't do that in movies. I don't know what they did in French movies. French movies were dirty and we weren't allowed to see them. French kissing might not have been in the movies, but my classmates in high school knew all about it.
If you grew up in a generation before there was fast food, you may want to share some of these memories with your children or grandchildren. Just don't blame me if they bust a gut laughing. My wife and I have always discussed our family's past with our son and daughter. They know what life was like when we were children and even when my mother (at 92, their only living grandparent) was that age. They find it interesting but not funny. It makes them appreciate their lives today.
(The copyright notice applies to the format of the above column but not its contents. The text in this column was reformatted but otherwise unchanged.)

During the yesterdays that Hamrick remembers so fondly, polio was a serious threat. We feared both Communism and the abuses committed within the U.S. by our own government to combat it. Schools, drinking fountains, and buses were segregated in much of our nation. Not everything was good.

The real issue is not whether life was better in the yesterday of our childhood or today. The first line of Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities applies to every era. The important thing is what we have each done to make today better than yesterday. How many children (not only your own but also children of other parents) did you help educate? How many seedling trees did you plant in a local park to provide shade for a future generation? How many people living in an impoverished neighborhood of minorities did you empower by registering them to vote? How many books did you give to a public library?

Judaism has the concept of tikun olam (heal the world). What did you do since the yesterday of your childhood so that the world will be healed tomorrow?

6 July 2002
(Minor update 8 June 2010)

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