The signs which jutted from the sidewalk used to say, “’No Spitting; No Littering’” and those that appeared on blank brick walls read, “Post No Bills.” Those were the evils that used to concern society fifty or sixty years ago. Most people, even kids, carried pocket handkerchiefs to avoid breaking the admonition of that first sign, and graffiti had not yet been elevated as a form of self-expression, anger and creativity.
We had a “Walk Into” rather than a “Drive Thru” mentality in those days. If we wanted to make a deposit at our bank or credit union or order food on the run, we had to deal with a person inside a business establishment. Perhaps that constant interaction made us a little more civil than we might have been or have become.
When our mothers called us in from play, we might have stalled to finish our game of hopscotch or jacks, but we generally heeded the second summons, “Come in here now.” We knew that if there were a third call it would contain the words, “Wait until your father comes home.” There was a dad in most of our houses whom we loved, respected and understood was the supreme commander – able and willing to mete out punishment if we broke the rules.
Although few of us eagerly embraced the idea of going to school, almost all of us graduated from high school. And we knew how to find Australia and South America on the map; we could write a coherent sentence; and we had learned to add, subtract, multiply and divide. Almost everyone knew what the three branches of government were and could recite the presidents who had served the country in the order of their terms in office.
You had to do a little planning in those days. If you needed ingredients for a family Sunday dinner, you couldn’t make a dash to the grocer at the last minute because the grocer was closed. Almost all businesses were closed. Sunday was a day that was set aside for God and family. Perhaps all of us did not “Honor the Sabbath” but we certainly recognized it when it came around.
We knew those who had served in our military because they were just about the only ones who sported tattoos. These were normally etched in a dark, drab color and a heart which bore the word “Mom” seemed to be a predominant theme. The only other time we ran into body ink was when Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus came to town and we would gawk at “The Tattooed Lady” and wonder why she had done that to herself. But we understood that it was a job requirement.
Our parents and teachers used to ask us, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” That was in an age when children had every expectation of growing up rather than being the victim of either parental abuse or a drive by shooting. The death of a child was indeed a tragedy that everyone mourned and not just another statistic that we would soon forget.
And when we did grow up we were pretty well equipped by our families and our schools to be productive members of society. Whether we followed a path that led us to being prelates or stock brokers; doctors or bus drivers; proprietors of small stores which made cookies and fudge or sold hammers and chisels, we all did our best to make our lives and our children’s lives a little better than what we had received from our parents and grandparents. And at the end of the day, most of us could be proud of our modest accomplishments.
It was a time in America when “Sir” and “Ma’am” and “Please” and “Thank You” were an integral part of our conversation. And when Aunt Nellie in Iowa remembered our birthday with a card and enclosed a five dollar bill, we would immediately sit down to write a note expressing our appreciation for her thoughtfulness and affix a five cent stamp to send it on its way.
It was a simpler time in America and throughout the world. We were fortunate if, during our lives, we had earned the respect of a few people who became real friends. But the number of those could often be counted on one hand, not in the hundreds of thousands. The only social media we had was ourselves and the way that we dealt with our fellow men and women. Our lives were the medium and our actions were the message.
The America that I described had its problems – no doubt. But there seemed to be an innate camaraderie which we all somehow understood. There were political, religious, racial differences on which we often focused. But underlying it all, most of us recognized that whatever our differences, our strength came from the fact that we were all on the same team. And that gave us the ability to dream dreams and make them come true.
But that was a different, a kinder, gentler America. And that was a long time ago.