Columns » Bob Lancaster

The way we were



We left that world many light years back there, parsecs ago, farther back than there are zeroes to number the miles. But we can revisit it, or fragments of it, through a sort of magical ability that is probably unique to humans in this universe. The Beatles called it getting back to where we once belonged.

It can be a quick trip. A scavenger hunt. A rummage sale. What Momma Gump said about the chocolates. You never know. One odd retrieval often leading to another, which the shrinks turned into a basic psychoanalytical tool.

These are some idle yonder pickings brought back for glider mulling at the start of another June.

I remember polio, its last visitation here, the “no cause for panic” warnings, and of course the panic. Looking into the eyes of an inert someone prone in an iron lung, no expectation of ever getting out. Pap remembered the smallpox, his blood kin it took to the little graveyard, boys and girls, a hundred years ago. Their stones now vanished.

I remember when some cars were works of art, the others mere conveyances with no such pretensions. Some were Lincolns and some were Fords, like presidents. Some doozies, others crates. Revealing our class distinctions, make and model made all the difference if you were lower aspiring to middle, or middle aiming up. Or if you were upper and wanted to rub it in. Even muffler types defined sub-classes.

I remember when every little burg like this one had its Disfarmer, and having our pictures taken at the local studio was a solemn responsibility for one and all — peasant, prole, burgher, and gentry. Serious business — one of the few ways we had to put ourselves ineradicably on record. A way to authenticate the community so that the fickle future couldn't disclaim it altogether. I don't know how I can be back there and here too, but I am.

I remember the classroom atomic-bomb drills, which pretended that hunkering under your desk would somehow shield you from the Doomsday smithereens. Mother, even with Alzheimer's, remembered her great-aunt remembering how it was in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, on the trail of the lonesome pine. The bombs there then were smaller but not called Wooly Boogers for nothing.

I remember fried squirrel, crisp from an iron skillet, the tastiness of it deriving perhaps from a pristine forest's robust acorns and hickory nuts.

I remember how hypnotic it was, the first neon sign I ever looked at across a rainy street from the Flying Red Horse, moody invite into the Cozy Nook Café. The cozy nook we're all looking for. The first color TV had a similar effect, but its painted images flickered, and so lacked the enchantment of the steady neon glow. There was pinball, though.

I remember neighbors prized more for their warts than for their all — for individual lapses and tangents that might, by comparison, sometimes lift your own self-esteem a little. But neighbors then never stooped to schadenfreude, as neighbors, so-called, now routinely do. They would “do anything for you,” and did.

I remember when the world was a monarchy, the Deity its sovereign, the democratic ideals of the Enlightenment generally scorned out here in the sticks. The Man had a Plan and you had your place in the scheme and were expected to find, know, and keep it. We had no acquaintance with the “alienation” that city folks and intellectuals wore as a badge. I remember James Thurber's cartoon caption: “So you're disillusioned. We're all disillusioned.”

I remember the boundless fascination that the test pattern held. As Nietzsche said, if you looked long enough at that Indian, he would begin to look back into you.

I remember lemonade in washtubs but not the context. Pie suppers maybe, or what were called “dinners on the ground.” Or “company picnics.” All very fleeting.

I remember river baptizings, and how evil doubts came creeping about the efficacy of the ceremony long term. Something of alchemy seemed to be involved, and in my stunted imagination I made a connection with a popular dry-cleaning process called Sanforizing. And impious questions: If the Lord was sinless, what was it exactly that his baptism washed away? And afterward, on the tailgate of the old pickup riding home, thinking what a squandering it was of the privilege of human intelligence to dispute such foolish questions as sprinkling vs. immersion. Shame on us. Shame on us still.

I remember the drama in being able to compare how much more effective an incandescent bulb was in holding back the night than the kerosene lamp had been. So many fearsome creatures the light bulb banished from the bright circle.

I remember the benign tyranny of chores: how they're almost necessary in the formation of an identity, even if the larger part of that identity derives from your chafing against the harness they dress you in. A pretty light harness in my own case, I have to say. Or in the ecclesiastical metaphor, a pretty easy yoke.

I remember fishing when there was no inkling, not a bit of it, that I should be doing something else.

Etc., etc.  Borne ceaselessly back against the riffles, into the maw.




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