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America Wasn't So Bad Back Then

We have something in common, a fellow I talk to now and then. We’re about the same age and perhaps the only ones in the diner who think our past lives are interesting. So when the two of us shoot the bunk over coffee, it’s amazing that two men who sometimes can’t remember much about yesterday remember a lot about the past. But the past sometimes shines a light on the present and the lives we lead today.

It’s no secret there’s a movement on by some to make America “great" again. My friend said when he was young, America, despite its problems, was not so bad. And despite its problems today, it’s still not so bad. Witness all the people who want to come here, he said. Who can blame them?

I told him I never thought about America being great until the recent election. I simply thought America was the only country in which I would want to live, both as a young man looking for work and as someone now retired because of the opportunity I found in America.

There were problems along the way, at least three of them quite memorable, all of my own making. But no need to go into those. I think what my friend Duane had to say is more interesting.

He still gets letters and notes from old high school classmates, class of ‘64. Some of them even use a computer and know how to send emails. He’s been their friend for 67 of his 71 years. Any note, letter or email, he said, makes life in a wheelchair easier.

One of his first high school memories happened during the Korean War--collecting metal and bringing it to school. Mrs. Lydia Rayburn (all names changed to protect the innocent and guilty) would take the metal to Herman Ladd's junkyard and sell it. She’d use the money to buy gifts for wounded soldiers and their families. She herself was a war widow from World War II.

It was a great day, Duane said, when the Korean War ended. And it was a war, he reminded me, not a conflict. I couldn't disagree but my war memories preceded his. I was in grammar school during WWII, too young to be drafted for Korea. I was one of the lucky ones as was my friend also too young for Korea.

Duane remembered everyone in his school getting under their desks during nuclear drills....as if being under a desk would keep them safe from radiation.

And he remembered being in Mr. Claybourn's class when Sputnik was launched and being in Mr. Taylor's class when Alan Shepherd took his flight. Everyone in class cheered when the trip went well.

He recalled vividly a striking young president who stood bareheaded and read a speech that called the nation to greatness. It was a far different time than now and the call to greatness meant something different, Duane said, than what we hear today. The call seemed noble then, he said. We agreed that whatever the call to greatness is today the word noble doesn’t seem to fit.

The civil rights struggle came to Duane's small hometown when his high school was integrated in the fall of 1962. He told me proudly there was not one fight, not one walkout, not one act of civil disobedience ruining that transition. In fact, he and his classmates learned something about dignity and patience from their Black classmates although no one mentioned it at the time.

I was able to relate to that because in 1953 I was a sophomore in Chicago high school called to assembly a day before the semester started. It had been an all-white boys school and the principal told us there would be three Black freshmen joining us the next day. There were no gasps, not even when the principal issued a warning I will never forget.

“Bother them,” he said, “and expulsion is immediate.”

No one bothered those three young men who broke the color barrier in 1953 and the school today is thoroughly integrated and thriving. Most graduates move on to college and do well in life as the alumni newsletters attest.

In high school the Cuban Missile Crisis also bothered Duane. His fellow students were upset, and many folks in his town thought the End of the World was near. There was a sigh of relief when the Russians backed down and removed their missiles from Cuba.

But most of all, Duane was shaken by the death of that young president, John F. Kennedy, who had called the nation to greatness in his inauguration speech.

Another student, Annabelle Jones, was in a car with her boyfriend the day President Kennedy was shot. It was after the lunch break when she told Duane President Kennedy was dead.

Duane and his classmates were broken, for want of a better word, as was the nation. He doesn't remember Americans ever being as optimistic again.

I told him his experience after the assassination was the same as mine in Chicago. I agreed as well that Americans alive at that time and still alive today have never been the same. Their lack of optimism may have trickled down to the generations that followed. Hard to tell.

Duane said that despite the assassination, his graduation day was wonderful. The sad thing is he has never seen some of his classmates again. He cherishes the ones he does hear from, the ones who come to reunions, and the ones who visit him now and then. All the years roll away in spite of the wrinkles and infirmities.

At every reunion they’re kids again talking as fast as they did back in high school. They’re still afraid that if they don't say it, it won't get said.

He and his classmates turned out to be who they are because of who they were in that small school. Their teachers and their parents made certain of that.

For many in his generation and mine, that seems to be true. We both wish we knew a way to pass the formula forward to the students of today. They are the ones who will have the most to say about how great America is in the future, far more, Duane and I agreed, than those doing all the talking about it today.

 
 

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