Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The past through rose colored glasses

By Richard Palmer

Memory is a wise old trickster. It wafts you back to the days of your
youth. All it lets you see there is the fun you had. All the rest -
the sorrow, the hard times and the tears - are mercifully
obliterated like tracks in the snow.

Down at the village diner, one can always find old-timers
reminiscing in the morning over coffee about the "good old days."
The reality is there never were any such times and there never will
be. What the oldsters talk about is merely the gilt and gold with
which memory paints nostalgic visions of a drab past.

My grandfather was no different and regaled us with stories of
growing up in a hamlet during the later years of the 19th century.

His story went something like this:

"We had, of course, no electricity, no gas, no running water in the
house. Our idea of a plumber was the boy who held the plumb-line for
the carpenter. The big, old wood-burning range in the kitchen had to
be crammed full of hard maple for every meal, winter and summer,
alike. If you've ever opened the oven door on a sultry morning in
August to take out the pies, you’ll know what I mean.

"We had no cars, no radios, no telephones, no daily newspapers - just
a weekly that published the latest gossip. There was Victrola in the
hamlet and its owner had just a dozen records which came with the
machine. I don’t recall his ever having bought any more. There were
no street lights; and on moonless nights, we wandered about bearing
big, tin lanterns, fueled with kerosene.

"The only canned goods at the general store shelves were salmon and
corn. Oranges, bananas and lemons were available only 'in season.'

The farmers knew little, and cared less about scientific agriculture.
Rotation of crops was unknown - or, at least, unpracticed. Some years
the yield was better than others."

Grandpa said it was a miracle he survived so long as he did as in
the "good old days" disease ran its sinister course, practically
uncontrolled. Many doctors still adhered to the practice of
‘leeching’ or blood-letting." "Consumption” was supposed to be
incurable and ‘operations’ were 90 percent fatal. If you broke your
neck or your back, you were considered a hopeless invalid.

The dentist pulled your teeth with a ‘turnkey’ and without
anesthetic. At 40 a woman was old. A man was supposed to be just
about finished, as far as manual labor was concerned, at 50. He
carried no insurance, knew nothing of ‘Social Security’ and
maintained no burial fund.

A man’s ‘Sunday suit’ hung for six days a week in the little dark
closet under the stairs and was expected to last forever. His
everyday attire was an old and not so inspiring conglomeration of
odds and ends which he didn’t really wear - they wore him. Just look
at old pictures in the family album.

There was little variety in his food. "It was salt pork and cabbage
most of the time," Grandpa said. When he was young, he said tomatoes
were just emerging from the category of ornamental shrubbery to being
edible. Salad, ice cream and chocolate √ąclairs were just things to be
spitefully mentioned when gossiping about the well-to-do folks on
upper Main Street.

The standard wage for manual laborers other than farmhands was a
dollar a day. The farmers paid 75 cents for ‘day labor’, if you ‘found
yourself’, (meaning you brought your own lunch) or 50 cents plus
dinner.

"The farmer sold his butter for 15 cents a pound, his eggs at 12
cents a dozen and his fall-butchered pork for four cents a pound. The
only place he could market his milk was at the local cheese factory
and he had to accept whatever the cheesemaker offered him. This guy
didn’t get more than six or seven cents for his cheese, either,"
Grandpa recalled.

The hamlet denizen had little in the way of entertainment and
relaxation, either. Semi-occasionally a ‘medicine show’ would wander
into town for a one-night stand. The biggest event of the year was
the traveling circus.

In March came the town meeting, when almost all the male citizens
would have a few beers, listen to a little oratory and vote Republican.
Today, when a man who has done pretty well for himself, gets on the
nostalgia kick he goes and buys a place in the country. There he
builds 15-room “summer house” with a three-car garage, and all the
modern conveniences. He hires a kid to mow his 10-acre lawn, and a
landscaper to grow his flowers.

Then, he sits back on the porch and brags of how great it is to “get
back to nature” and live in the country like his pioneer forefathers
did. What a lot of bunk! He couldn’t live 24 hours under the
primitive conditions they did, and he knows it.

But that's okay. He should, at least, sleep good; he lies easy !

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