The Good Old Days
By Hitch McGrath
- 66 reads
The Good Old Days
As we neared the park on that fresh, Spring day, over 30 years ago now, we turned onto a road without much traffic, where instead of house after house, lawn after lawn, there was space. Open fields… Trees as far as I could see. Large barns behind old farmhouses with wrap around porches, no longer lived in by farmers, but upper middle class families.
I wondered how much longer it would be before more neighborhoods got built out here. How long before they cleared out the trees for another shopping center with a large parking lot? My parents often told stories about growing up in the town back when it was still a bit rural. Before the shopping mall and the multi-storefront plazas; before the big box stores, the 15 car dealerships, 2 banks, and 25 chain restaurants.
They had originally lived in the city. I’ve been told repeatedly about how they were given a few nickels as young children and sent up the street to a corner candy store unsupervised, and everything was simply wonderful, and nothing bad ever happened, at least to them. “The good old days.” Of course, crime still happened, many of the adults were terrible alcoholics, and for a lot of folks, the “good old days,” were anything but, “good.”
While they were still young children, my parents had been uprooted by my grandparents from their city neighborhoods and resettled into new housing developments built on former fields of grain, or acres of once unspoiled wilderness, where there was nothing to walk to anymore. By the time I was a teenager, my friends and I would occasionally ride our bicycles out of the neighborhood and a mile up the shoulder of a main road to a convenience store to buy snacks. If you wanted anything else, or if you had to get someplace further away, the only option was to have a car and drive there. The bus system was nearly non-existent and it would take you hours to get just 20 minutes away.
It was far easier, once upon a time, to operate a small, family owned store right near a residential area. It was still the age of the Mom and Pop store or restaurant. Even through the 1990’s there were a handful of locally owned hardware stores clinging to survival, where the people working there knew what they were talking about and actually cared. There were local electronics stores, local music shops, small independent coffee shops and bookstores, and a bunch of small diners and local restaurants.
As I reached my early 20’s the last of the Mom and Pop shops had closed their doors in our town and the majority of our shopping was done with corporate owned, large big box stores. If they hadn’t taken enough jobs yet as it was, they began to replace cashiers with self check-out lines. Years later, the big box stores were getting heavy competition from online sources that could deliver product to your doorstep the next day. Most of the product was made in China or in other economically disadvantaged countries in Asia, by overworked and underpaid pseduo-slaves and even child labor, but American consumers learned to look the other way pretty quickly.
Suburban sprawl occurred rapidly as my parents were just starting public school, aided by what is called, “white flight.” As more non-whites migrated from the southern states in search of opportunity and better jobs they settled into the more affordable parts of the city. Soon those areas of the city slowly deteriorated and housing values fell. White families fled and suburbia stretched outward swallowing nearly everything its way. The government and banks provided incentives for the white folks and redlining made sure to keep things segregated without an outward and open policy of discrimination.
Developers bulldozed giant squares of land and then slapped up track after track of mostly identical houses with the same mass production mentality of the auto industry. There was little concern for art or interesting architecture. The houses were all cookie cutter square boxes. No thoughts of preserving nature or working around it. Just bottom lines and profit margins.
When I was a kid, you had to drive to the the far edges of the suburbs to see anything that could pass for nature beyond a few acres of trees or a greenbelt of mowed grass. I was glad we had Southern Ponds Park to visit. It might have been a tamed and trail worn version of nature, where even the wild animals were used to regular human presence, but it still beat the neighborhoods and the shopping plazas.
I’m happy to report that the park is still there today, three decades later, and not much about it has changed.
We arrived at the park entrance that day, and drove slowly down the winding narrow road. I saw a group of wild Turkeys walking along the grass. There were signs warning of deer crossings. We came to a parking area near a dark brown, wooden pavilion and a bright yellow metal gate, blocking vehicles from driving further up the path. Dad put the car in park and turned the key to, “off.” We unbuckled the square metal GM seatbelts, swung open the 4 doors of the Oldsmobile, and stepped out of the car.
The ground was damp at the parking area, but not muddy. It had rained most of the time over the past 5 days straight. The gravel was a mix of light and dark grays, but when the sun hit some spots just right, tiny reflections jumped around the surface. Occasional puddles and a few muddy tire tracks were present. A wooden sign said, “Northern Birch trail,” in sun washed lettering with an arrow pointing to the right.
Mom and Dad went off towards the trail first, Mom carrying a 35mm Kodak point and shoot camera, then my older brother, still listening to his headphones. I brought up the rear of our unit with my cap gun, toy whip, binoculars, and an old brown fedora my grandpa gave to me. I was 10 years old, really into Indiana Jones, and ready for an adventure of my own.
“Watch out boys, looks like the trail is a little muddy in spots,” Dad warned.
Scott didn’t hear him and decided to take a leap off of one of the steps heading down the trail. He landed in a puddle, splashing mud all around and getting himself filthy. Muddy water covered his white high-tops, and pants. His windbreaker managed to stay mostly clean. My mother was livid but could do nothing about it.
“Scott, you take those shoes and jeans off the minute we get home so I can wash them,” she ordered, “and don’t you dare sit in the car with all that mud on you! We’ll have to put a blanket over the seat first.”
“Nice going,” Dad said. “Maybe if you took off those damn headphones once in a while and paid attention to the rest of the world around you, you’d hear when I tell you to watch where you’re going.”
“Better him than me,” I thought, carefully descending the steps of the trail.
Scott rolled his eyes, groaned loudly, and pulled his headphones down around his neck.
The trail went on winding between birch and oak trees, up and over hills, until we reached a grassy clearing with a group of low trees and many birds. The trees were still mostly bare, except swarming with small birds. Mom took out a plastic baggie of bird seed and we each held out some in our hands, extending our arms and staying still as statues. After a few moments the chickadees leapt from the nearby branches and into our hands to eat the seed. Their feet scratched and their beaks tickled as they ate up the seed from my palm.
It was magical, and I could have stayed there feeding those birds all day. Even Dad was smiling and seemed to loosen up. It was nice to see Dad smiling and in a good mood. Our grandmother, Dad’s Mom, was what some folks call, a “bird lady.” She had paintings of birds all over her house and used to go out bird watching with some other old folks.
She knew their calls and songs by heart and was always excitedly peaking out windows to peep at birds pecking the garden feeders. She’d passed away a few years before but we all thought of her whenever birds were around or came up in conversations. She’d been with us the first time I ever came to the park and had a chickadee eat seed out of my hand. The memory felt nice.
“Don’t let them poop on you, Indiana Butt-head,” said Scott, laughing.
“Mom!,” I whined.
“Scott, don’t call your brother a butt-head!,” Mom said.
I still looked up to my brother a bit back then, and I’d only wanted his approval, but it usually felt like he wished I had never been born. He could be nice to me once in a while, but it didn’t last long and certainly never when his friends were around.
Soon the seed ran low, and Mom had finished taking photos. We were on our way up the trail a bit further. We passed near some pine trees off the edge of a dirt path sparsely covered with wood chips. A shallow creek ran near the trail that fed into one of the smaller ponds of the park. Ducks and geese floated around the far edges by the tall grass. Mom decided it was another spot for photos.
I walked over towards the water’s edge and looked around for flat rocks to skip. Mom told us to stand near a bench for a picture. The bench was placed in a nice spot to relax and watch the wildlife. A picturesque setting to rest your legs a moment and catch the glimmer of sunlight across the surface of the water.
Someone had carved a heart into the seat with “TJ & MR ’90,” in the middle. I always got this feeling when I saw things like that, that there was a good chance the people, who ever’s initials those were, probably already split up. It was a thing lame teenagers did for the most part, and most teenage relationships didn’t last. Most adults involved in lasting relationships aren’t looking to vandalize public park benches or trees, especially with their own initials.
My father stood next to my brother in his muddy pants and smiled for the camera. I stood on the other side of Dad posing with my cap gun, and mom took the picture.
“Ok honey, how about another one without the hat and pistol?,” asked Mom. “And Scott, could you please smile for this one? Frank, put your arms around the boys. Maybe you guys can pretend you all like each other, at least for the picture?,” she joked.
I set my hat and cap gun down on the bench by the carved initials and posed for another shot. Everyone smiled. Dad put his arms around us. Weeks later after the film was developed, Mom would frame that photo. Dad kept it on his workbench in the garage for decades. We looked happy. Just Dad and his boys.
In the years to come, the photo came to represent my own, “good old days,” with just as much illusion and nostalgia as my baby boomer aged parents had talking about their own wonderful childhoods. I think it was the same for my Dad. You had to look very closely at the picture to see the mud on Scott’s jeans or notice the headphones around his neck. We didn’t look at the photo and recall the coaching involved in the smiles or Dad having his arms around us. It felt better to imagine it was a natural, almost candid shot.
We came to a clearing at the end of the trail and reached a grassy area next to where we had parked when we got there. Mom walked over to the car for a smoke break. Dad and Scott talked about the Mets new season. I scanned the area for anything unusual to investigate. After a few minuets, Mom threw her cigarette butt on the gravel, then opened the trunk, and walked back with a small cooler and a blanket. She laid out the blanket on the grass, and sat down on it with the cooler.
We all sat together on the blanket and ate baloney sandwiches with potato chips. I had a juice box, my brother and parents had soda pops. Mom drank the diet stuff. I didn’t like the taste of pop as a kid. It was too fizzy and bothered my tongue. I didn’t really start to like soda until I was in college and I found that it mixed well with liquor. I liked that taste a lot more than beer, but I got tipsy faster than everyone else so I never really got to be much of a drinker.
As we finished up our lunches, Mom flipped the pages of a woman’s magazine with tips on how to lose weight, tighten skin, and keep your husband happy. Dad laid back with his knees bent up and closed his eyes. There really wasn’t much talk between the four of us, but we didn’t really have much to talk about either. I was used to staying quiet. I preferred it. I listened to everything else around me instead.
The air temperature that day was mild. It couldn’t have been much more than 55 degrees outside, but after months of snow and ice it seemed far warmer. In a few months, high Summer temperatures would climb into the 80’s and 90’s and temperatures in the 50’s or 60’s would feel awfully cold. There was a slight breeze from the side we parked on. I noticed that fresh Spring smell again. Rebirth. Renewal. Mom was excited to start her gardening season.
My parents always had very nice landscaping, and vegetable gardens, regardless of our family finances. They grew tomatoes, peppers, onions, garlic, eggplant, and zucchini. They’d go out and water everything in the dark, after we’d gone to bed, if they had to. Dad always fertilized the lawn and ran a sprinkler so the grass wouldn’t burn in the summers. Scott and I never had to cut the grass in the front yard. We were, in fact, told to leave the front lawn for Dad so he could alternate directions with the push mower and make sure it was done right. The view of our yard and house from the road had to be as nice as our parents could make it at all times.
“Next weekend I want to plant some new flowers in front of the house.,” Mom said, looking at our father. “You should make the boys help you put some fresh mulch down.”
“Not if I want it done right,” Dad said.
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An evocative read of people
An evocative read of people and places that I enjoyed reading about.
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scene setting, mood setting, timbre rattling narrative ripe with luscious imagery and commendable skill. I like the peeking and pecking combo in the memory about the birds. Little things count
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