Reminiscence: And I could wish it were 1949 again

The other day, I had a solicitation in the mail from a magazine called Reminiscence. Apparently, a lot of folks like to engage in nostalgia. I confess I occasionally do the same, though I’m aware of how time can soften the contours of the past.

Lit Brothers
Lit Brothers

Still, I like to muse on past events that were really quite wonderful and that I wish I could relive again. After all, why are we given memory if we’re simply meant to forget? If I had to pick a year in which to indulge, it would be 1949. It was a good year for me and for America, too.


Collectively, it was a simpler time, relatively free from the frenetic pace, complexity and stress of today.

To be sure, segregation was still a factor in denying Blacks their portion of the American dream and women were still largely subservient to men. China had just fallen to the Communists. At the Kremlin, Stalin ruled with an iron fist and Russia had just tested the A-bomb. The Cold War was on in earnest and so we resorted to an ongoing airlift to save Berlin.

Nonetheless, we had a decisive president in Harry S. Truman, who never skirted making the hard choices like dropping the A-bomb to shorten a savage war or later dismissing a popular, but unruly general. In short, we felt safe.

Four years after World War II, we were at peace, with no protracted conflicts like Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. We weren’t saddled with mind-boggling national debt, Congressional deadlock, inflationary pressures, the loss of our manufacturing base, or economic recession.

There weren’t any urban riots, decaying cities, or the threat of climate change that imperils our existence. We could never have imagined a 9/11 or the pervasiveness of terrorism.

Here are a few economic facts that put things into perspective about 1949:

Unemployment stood at just 3.8%.

Inflation, a mind-boggling 0.95%.

You could buy a house for an average $7500.

A car for $1400.

Gas, 17 cents for regular.

Let’s put it another way: $100 in 1949 now comes to $967.01 in 2014, with an average 3.5 inflation rate annually since that remarkable year (Bureau of Labor Statistics).

Most items were still made here in America, including TVs and cars. Cars had turned into long finned gargantuans replete with white wall tires and, with pent up demand, we couldn’t make them fast enough.

We were kings in forging steel and cities like Akron, Youngstown, Pittsburgh, Bethlehem and Lehigh lit up the night sky.

In New England, the textile mills of Lawrence, Lowell and North Adams hummed on.

We were good at making shoes and my father toiled in a neighborhood leather factory.

I was then a street urchin, much like Tom Sawyer, exploring the thoroughfares of Philadelphia, curious and, sometimes, mischievous. Occasionally, I played hooky, skipping school to walk downtown and visually rummage the big, many floor stores like Gimbels, Lit Brothers and Wanamaker’s, bustling with goods and replete with escalator stairs.

Yes, American cities once possessed vibrant downtowns that provided cohesion before the onset of suburban box stores and strip malls. Downtown was the place to be–shopping, movies, eateries.

Baseball was truly our national game, with many of the contests played in the afternoons. It was the era of greats like Williams, DiMaggio, and Musial. They hadn’t lowered the mound to boost hitters. No free agency meant modest salaries. Stadiums were named for people, not corporations or banks. Franchises didn’t move. Players didn’t cheat with drugs. Sundays and holidays meant doubleheaders. What a deal!

We didn’t have playgrounds in Kensington, the ethnic blue collar stronghold, dubbed Fishtown, where I lived near the Delaware River, but that didn’t stop us from playing stick ball, smashing cut-in-half tennis balls against factory facades. You determined singles, doubles, triples and home runs by window level.

I liked venturing down to the wharves, where I could see the cargo ships unloading, waive to their crews, and study their flags to learn their origin. It was here I developed my addiction to visit far off lands.

TVs initially with 4 inch screens, were now selling madly, or at the rate of 100,000 weekly, sadly hinting at foreclosure of neighborhood enclaves where we’d gather nightly on the white marble steps of our row housing, chatting our humanity until late evening breezes whispered their coolness and launched our escape from the steamy heat of asphalt streets and we could at last renew ourselves with sleep. We never dreamed of air conditioning, though a good many of us lived in upstair flats.

Despite TV’s inroads, radio still loomed large with shows like The Shadow, Jack Benny, Suspense and the Lone Ranger. Daytime–Arthur Godfrey was all the rage.

As for TV, showslike Mama, Texaco Theater, The Ed Sullivan Show, The Life of Riley were our staples. At most, you’d be lucky to have three channels, and after the 11 pm news, stations would shut down, sometimes to the National Anthem. They gave you a test pattern to help you get your “rabbit-ear” antennas right.

The music revolution hadn’t begun. No Elvis Presley. No Beatles. No Rock n’ Roll. No heavy metal or hip hop. We had Dick Clark and American Bandstand. Not knowing anything else, we were content.

Lyrics still rhymed, making them easy to remember. No CDs. Just vinyl records that could scratch easily, but the risk worth the sound!

Sinatra and Crosby reigned along with new stars like Rosemary Clooney, Frankie Laine, the Ames Brothers, and Dinah Shore. And then there was the handsome Mario Lanza, whose baritone thunder captured women’s hearts.

In 1949, you could escape Philly’s summer heat with a day movie for only a dime or a quarter at night, and even get in on a double header that included the world news and Disney cartoons. Bogart, Gable, Wayne, Cooper, Grant–and, yes,–Bob Hope (number one) were the big draws. On Saturday afternoons, a special treat with serial showings of Superman!

Despite technicolor and Gone with the Wind, color was rare.

Comedy was big and I laughed till my sides hurt at the likes of the three stooges, and Abbott and Costello. And then there were those shoot ’em up Westerns with Roy Rogers and Gene Autry, adept in singing prowess as well as gun savvy. Why we even got to know their horses, Trigger and Champion, unlike the plods of other Westerns apart from the Lone Ranger’s Silver.

Telephones weren’t in abundance, so sometimes we resorted to a neighbor’s phone or a telephone booth to make a call. To call long distance could be expensive, even intimidating, and thus rare. Nice, however to be out of reach. Or on the streets, free of distracted drivers.

Magazines, often pictorial, like Look, Life, and Saturday Evening Post, caught your eye and provided quick reads. And they cost cents, not dollars.

Yes, many doctors still made house calls and health costs were reasonable.

We didn’t have Interstates then. That would come with Eisenhower’s mandate. Main highways were mostly two lanes giving way occasionally to a third lane for passing. Crossing the Ben Franklin for the Jersey shore and fresh fruit took you through spacious countryside with luxuriant tomato farms. Mom and Pop cabins–no motel chains–offered accommodation for $3 a night.

There were only 150 million of us then and even California had ample elbow room. Worldwide, just under 2 billion people, meaning more manageable resources, less poverty, and a cleaner environment.

More of us began to fly–on noisy propeller contraptions that is. Passenger ships still plied the ocean like their ancient predecessors.

What I really liked were the trains and, especially, the sleek new diesel locomotives. Train stations were busy, exciting places, filled with shops, much the way it still is in Europe.

On a sadder note, I miss my once teeming family–my mother and father, brother, oodles of cousins, dear aunts and uncles, and childhood friends, in 1949, luxuriating in life’s bloom. As life stretches out, we mourn our losses as well as count our gains. We learn to appreciate what we cannot keep. I am glad for memory.

I could go on, but you get the picture, or at least my view of 1949–like a fine wine, a year of superbly good vintage. A time of innocence and simplicity, where less proved more, and thus possessed its own indulgent beauty.

But we can’t be Rip Van Winkles either. Time moves on, and we with it.


To Truman: Beloved Friend

photo 1

You came into our lives twelve years ago in late August 2001, a compact Bichon bundle of playful love, in a pre-arranged handoff at an I-64 road stop.  I had ordered you by phone from a breeder in Myrtle Beach.  It was instant mutual love.  We decided to call you Truman, and it fit you just right.

Rarely, but it does happen, a mind-boggling event brands itself into memory and we never forget what we were doing and where we were at.  My father often reminisced that early Sunday morning, December 7, 1941.  For me, it had been November 22, 1963 and July 20, 1969 that stood out.  And now a third:  You were getting your first shots.  Our vet, a dog show judge, was admiring your confirmation, saying it was the best he had come across among Bichons in his practice, when the news broke of horrendous misdeeds.  It was September 11, 2001.

Now that’s one of the compelling reasons I’ve always been drawn to dogs and cats.  Unlike many humans caught-up in calculated self-interest with cruel consequences, they want only to love and be loved.  You loved everyone and they loved you.  But you gave me preference, waiting at the door for Daddy’s entrance, then bounding up with enthusiasm on my legs.  How wonderful to come home daily from a world of stress and non-entity to unconditional, uninhibited affection.

How you loved your backyard and how we loved watching you playing the mighty hunter card, one-cautious step after another, standing still, then more steps, gaining, then only, inevitably, the scurrying squirrel, knowing you were there all the time, hustling up the tree.  You at its trunk, patiently looking up, waiting for it to come down

You liked roaming the perimeter or fence line.  Your joy was complete when you heard neighbor dogs bark and scrambled full speed for canine fellowship.  I had read  somewhere that for all their human contact, given a choice, dogs prefer their own kind.  I can understand that, sometimes myself opting for their company over that of homo sapiens.

I remember how tiny you were at first and that there were several times you squeezed through the board fencing, even though I had spent days in winter cold nailing chicken wire over the gaps.  There was the time you got into the neighbor’s yard behind us where several llamas grazed and I climbed over the fence to rescue you from an advancing llama, only to have it come after me.  I grabbed you and jumped over to safety.  Close call for us both!

You liked walking on your leash with me down the street.  I never really had to train you at it, since from the beginning you took instantly to walking at my heel on my left, seldom pulling to get ahead.

But I did enroll you in an individualized obedience course.  Unfortunately, your trainer relied on treats and I could never find a way to wean you away from your addiction and do something simply because it was worthy for its own sake.  But then our own children aren’t all that different.  Getting you to stay was simply impossible for someone as passionate as you.  The gold standard was to take you to a safe area of a shopping mall and get you to stay.  I didn’t even try.  $300 dollars down the drain.  Ironically, you trained me!  Still, you did retain the habit of sitting on cue right up to the end, until your arthritic limbs compelled my pardoning you.

You liked keeping company with us on the couch, snuggling up to Karen and me.  You also had this funny habit of flipping the pillows off the couch and finding your way to the other arm and propping yourself up for a cozy snooze.

You also had this cute habit of carrying your metal dish over to your living room pad after your evening meal and licking it clean.  You delighted us with this gesture from the time you were a pup up almost to the end.

How excited you got to go outside with me to feed the birds whenever you saw me filling the plastic pitcher with seed!

At night when we turned out the living room lights, always the landmark clicking of your nails on the hallway floor as you made your way to join us in slumber.

When you were seven they found a heart murmur and I felt then the first scary pangs I might lose you.  You liked to run at full speed.

Around age nine, they found calcium crystals in your bladder, and so they put you on meds and a special diet.  I don’t know if the crystals caused you any discomfort.  You always acted the happy part.

At age eleven you had slowed down and seemed to labor in your walk.  We put you on glucosomine for that.

Just after your twelfth birthday, or this past June, I took you in for another checkup for the crystals and arthritis.  The ultrasound was distressing, showing not only more crystals despite your prescribed diet, but a tumor  over the right adrenal gland and a nodule adjacent to the left adrenal.  Ominously, the tumor occluded the vena cava, making any surgery risky.   The follow-up radiology report didn’t clearly indicate metastasis, but it remained a possibility.

You were still your active self through June, but then came the weight loss.  Once a robust 21 pounds, you were down to 18 by September, and 14 by the end.  You found it difficult to shadow Daddy from room to room and pretty much snoozed on the couch most of the day.  Your dark black eyes, tinged with sadness, gave off a pleading gaze–as if to say, “please help me”!

I knew things were getting really bad when you increasingly turned away from your food or ate very little, though I tried tempting you with lots of treats and canned meat in place of your former kibbles.  You were always crazy after peanut butter filled bones,  but now  you no longer could muster the appetite to enjoy the feast.

It hurt you to walk and even to lie down.  You couldn’t hold your water.  That last night, Tuesday, I knew we needed to do the right thing when you let out two yelps, one of them when Karen tried to pet your head.  Obviously you were hurting all over.

I caught myself in my own selfishness.  I had wanted to keep you forever.  I should have been thinking about your interests.  I needed to let go as my ultimate gift of love for you, my friend, our friend, always kind, gentle and loving.

Yesterday at the vet’s, we were with you in your final moments.  You seemed unafraid as I stroked you and laid a last kiss on your darling head. You went quickly and peacefully into that long sleep.  No more suffering.

I know that death is part of the deal we make for life, but it doesn’t lessen our grief or bridge the emptiness.  We miss you terribly.  You were a gift of love and we thank you for the daily joy you brought into our lives.  You will be in our hearts forever.

–rj and kj

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