Copyright © 2016
by Ralph F. Couey
"Nostalgia is a useless, futile thing because it is a
longing for something that is permanently lost."
It catches me in my most unguarded moments, sweeping me away on a wave of yearning; I become temporarily a prisoner of a snippet of memory made sweet by a selective form of recollection. In a present fraught with stress and overwork hunted by a future whose strongest attribute is uncertainty, my mind is taken over by a scene, a random event from the past that seems so much more peaceful...and safe...than I now feel.
Humans have the capacity for memory storage, a seemingly vast collection of both the important and the trivial; the taste of certain meal or the feel of the perfect summer day. We remember passwords and team rosters, but sometimes struggle over where the car keys went. Still, the brain is a remarkable instrument.
Within my brain reside memories of my life; events and people mainly. But once in a while, it will dredge up a brief random recollection which brings a sad kind of smile and a silent eulogy for what was. The present is a busy one, every hour of every day filled with a demand or sense of duty for seemingly every other minute. I can, thanks to memory, go back instantly to a spring day, my 7th birthday when my parents gave me two boxes to open, both containing the kind of gifts dear to the heart of a boy, a moving van and a fire truck. Sometimes looking at a picture from the distant past, I am at a loss to recall that particular moment. But this one I remembered. The above photo was taken by my Dad as I played with my new toys, momentarily distracted by something on a black-and-white television. Probably The Jetsons or Top Cat. That day I remember as a good day, because I was off from school, I had the whole summer before me, and a couple of snazzy trucks to fill those hours. I remember running them around the carpet, making engine and siren noises, and just plain having fun.
Looking at that picture now, some 53 years later, I can see some of the familiar trappings of what I called home. That chair behind me was Dad's. I could only sit there when he wasn't home. Being in that chair carried its own sense of power and authority. The TV was pretty much state of the art for 1962. There were color sets around, but they were insanely expensive and largely useless, as very few programs were being broadcast in color. To the right was a bookshelf which had been painted over at least three times to match the color scheme in whatever house we were living in. On those shelves was the latest edition of the World Book Encyclopedia, which was the only way to do research at home. One could go to the library, but that required digging through card catalogs and wandering stacks and shelves, hoping that the particular volume you sought hadn't been loaned out. Encyclopedias, of course, by our current standards hopelessly out of date once they were published, but it seemed as though the world moved much slower back then, so even if the information was two years old, it was still useful.
The carpet underneath me was a remnant piece for which my Dad had made a sharp deal with the carpet store. Strangely, I can't remember the exact color. It was the first large piece of carpet we had ever owned. Underneath lay a natural wooden floor which, in those days before polyurethane meant that my Mom on a regular basis had to spend an entire day on her hands and knees, applying oil and rubbing it into the surface. I, of course, was banished to my room or the basement during that particular chore.
We didn't have air conditioning, and I am bemused to recollect exactly how I got through those nasty Missouri summers without it. Strangely, I don't have a memory of being uncomfortably hot inside the house at any time. I do, however remember something I would do on cold winter mornings. I would stay in bed until I heard the furnace kick on. Then I would go over to the window, and sit on top of the furnace vent and look out at the cold world as the warm air swirled around me. I would sit there until Mom told me for the third time to get dressed for school.
In 1966 we got our first color TV, a small 19-inch framed in plastic and sitting on an aluminum cart. I remember that day as well. Dad brought the set home and in no time at all, it was up and running, the rabbit ears fully extended. I was transfixed. The first program I saw in color was the CBS Evening News with the venerable Walter Cronkite. Suddenly I was seeing the world in full color. Being 1966, the lead story just about every evening was Vietnam. But there was political news and as the scenes cut to Washington DC, I remember thinking how cool the US capitol looked in color. Even the pure white of the building looked different.
These are only a few of those random snippets. There are others that make brief appearances before receding again. Making a toy spaceship out of a shampoo bottle; attaching an old coiled phone cord to two wooden blocks, slinging them across my back and slithering about the floor pretending to be frogman Lloyd Bridges of Sea Hunt fame.
Probably most of us have those moments from our childhood, and likely we all share those moments of warm recollection. It was a time when we felt always safe and cared for. But knowing the history of that time period, I know my parents likely had completely different memories. The 1960's was a time of tremendous uncertainty. There was a very real fear the nuclear war between America and the Soviet Union could break out at any moment, as it very nearly did over Cuba and Berlin. Those dangers were never communicated to me, however, so I lived through those years with scarcely a care.
I came home from school on a November day in 1963, dismissed early by our suddenly teary-eyed teachers. Once inside, Mom sat me down and in a voice quavery with grief, told me that the President had been killed in a motorcade. I didn't know what a motorcade was, and had only a nodding acquaintance with death, but in the following days, I began to realize how big a tragedy it was for the country. I remember being confused as to why someone would want to kill a President, someone I had known only as "JFK," the shorthand sobriquet which appeared regularly in the headlines of the Kansas City Star.
But the rest of those memories were good ones, ones that recalled days when having fun was, in fact, my job. I was just a kid with no worries, no cares, no responsibilities. And I was happy.
Perhaps that is why those moments shine so brightly, and so sadly down the tunnel of the years.