I hate the expression “the good old days” because they really never were that good, just ... well, different. Lately, to the millennial generation, it seems the times we live in are difficult, dangerous and hopeless. They are difficult and dangerous but not hopeless. We’ve been through tough times before, actually much tougher, and we came through stronger and more resilient. I tell my children to be optimistic, strong and tough and we will have good times again soon.
My father told us stories about growing up during the Depression and literally not knowing where your next meal was going to come from. Unemployment was three times today’s rate and there were barely any government programs to help people. It was an extremely difficult time in our country and many millions of people were affected and barely survived.
And barely a decade later, my father was a 19-year-old young man just out of high school carrying a rifle through France. World War II stopped the world in its tracks and forced incredible sacrifices on the American people. Food and fuel were rationed. The freedoms we enjoyed were severely curtailed. For four years, it seemed time stood still as the entire population of America focused on fighting the enemy. In the end, of course, our toughness prevailed and we benefited with a decade of prosperity.
I’m a boomer, and our generation came of age during the late 1950s and the escalation of the Cold War. I remember the absolute terror of hearing the air raid alarms and we were frightened to death as we practiced air raid drills, convinced we would be burnt beyond recognition in a nuclear holocaust with the Russians.
I remember in sixth grade coming home from school and finding my mother sitting at the kitchen table smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee. “We’re going to have a nuclear war with the Russians,” she said. Of course, she was talking about the Cuban missile crisis and we didn’t know until years later just how close we came to an all-out atomic war. I can remember like it was yesterday sitting on the top step with my sister listening to the bomb shelter salesman talking to my parents in the living room. “You know it’s only a matter of time before we have World War III,” he said. “Don’t you want to survive?” he asked.
“To what?” my father replied. My sister and I were shaking with fear.
And, less than a year later we watched in horror as our president was assassinated. It’s hard to express with mere words the shock and sadness that overcame our country during the weeks and months following such a horrific event. But the human condition propels us forward and we persevered through the civil rights riots and the changes to our society that seemed to polarize more than unite us. Our cities were on fire literally and figuratively and again and again we faced the needless and untimely deaths of our heroes. The deaths of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy totally demoralized my generation. Many of us just gave up and lost hope and optimism.
And then ... Vietnam. As unpopular as our war in Afghanistan and Iraq is, the Vietnam War was much more unpopular. First of all, we had a draft and young men were dying for a convoluted reason, being forced into a fight they wanted no part of. And secondly, the death toll was flashed across our television screens nightly, as if the whole thing was some sort of game and we were keeping score. I remember Walter Cronkite broadcasting the body count: ours and theirs. We took to the streets to protest and once again, our cities were ablaze with violence. I was a sophomore at Boston University in 1971 and took photographs of the Boston Tactical Police Force marching through Kenmore Square wielding night sticks and opening the skulls of anyone who got in their way. Suddenly, a man in a suit grabbed my camera, opened the back, and destroyed my film, calling me a “filthy scum hippie.” “FBI,” my friend Ken said nonchalantly.
President Nixon resigned in disgrace and before we knew it, a new era of threats was ushered in — Mideast unrest bubbled up to a hatred of America. Embassies were bombed. Hostages were taken. Marines were brutally blown to pieces while they slept. The economy fell apart, and under President Carter, we experienced double-digit inflation, unemployment and interest rates. Fuel was rationed and we waited in long lines on odd or even days to fill up our cars. We turned down our thermostats and put on sweaters. One Christmas, we couldn’t even put up lights in order to save electricity. They were bleak times, to be sure, but we survived and enjoyed prosperity again under Presidents Regan and Clinton.
So take heart, millennials, the lesson is clear: The good old days never were that good. We go through tough times and good times, it’s the ebb and flow of life. Be strong, resilient and optimistic. You will get through this period in American history and experience great times of freedom and prosperity. Enjoy life, stay grounded in the moment and be students of history. And don’t say “the good old days!”
Richard Joyce lives in Newburyport.