Mary Beth Writes


Over the past few days Len and I have been emailing with two cousins regarding this interesting topic.

Were the Good Old Days All That Good?

The four of us grew up in the late 40’s, 50’s, 60’s. We are from three hometowns. Two of us were and still are science nerds. Two of us grew up in the same family and church.

This is what Len said about his childhood.

This is a more intense version of joking to kids that our smallpox scars are power ports.

  • As a teenager I met two people who were in camps in Europe and had tattoos. I didn’t ask much about them, but I knew they had them.
  • I don’t think I knew anyone who had polio, but I remember seeing young people with aluminum braces. Frequently.
  • As an adult I met, worked with, or went to church with three people who were in camps for Japanese Americans.
  • I test positive for TB; I’m not sure if it’s a reaction to the serum or from exposure to a babysitter (mom of my parents’ friend) who later died from the disease.
  • The father of a friend of mine took my friend and me to a John Birch meeting (I thought it was stupid).
  • My mother had an abortion at a time when it was illegal.
  • When I was at the University of Chicago I had a job in the high energy physics lab (mostly a janitor). My boss was hired in the forties to work on the bomb.
  • My grandfather made torpedoes during the war.
  • The guy who bought my parent’s house in Illinois was on a U-boat.

 It was not all “Father Knows best.”


 The cousin who started this conversation wrote:

I watched the Ken Burns series on the Holocaust this past week. I’m old enough to have known people, who maybe didn’t go off to the death camps, but who escaped the Nazis. One was the wife of my thesis advisor. Another was a Hungarian Jew (later became a Christian) who escaped capture by the Nazis and, later, escaped again when the Soviets invaded Hungary in 1956. Judy (his wife) saw patients at Mt Sinai Hospital who had been in the death camps. They were always wary about letting anyone see their tattoos; they feared being accused of collaborating with the Nazis since they had managed to survive.

It’s getting to be only us old geezers who have actually known such people. Sadly, we now have a bunch of young hotheads who like to deny the Holocaust.

Some of my training at (his career at a science institution) was under the tutelage of a Japanese American who had spent his childhood in a detention center in California during WWII. So many people experienced or witnessed that history that set the stage for us.

A positive thing that I could say was that the public schools were still good. Parents did not feel that they had to send their kiddos to a private school in order to give them a good education. There was class mixing in the public schools, and there was less to set apart the kids of different classes. Nobody came to school in clothes that were way overpriced, just because they had emblems like a little crocodile, a polo player, or a horse’s head.

Here’s my question about the 50s. If they were so fabulous, how come we didn’t know that we were having such a fabulous time? There was a lot to worry about, like a possible nuke confrontation, polio, overpopulation, etc.


Another cousin moved to Europe as an adult:

I don't ever recall hearing anything about WW2 or the Holocaust until I was an adult. The Communist scare was a part of my govt class in 12th grade with Mr. Demlow when we read a book called ‘What We Must Know about Communism’. I don't remember duck and cover drills that some have mentioned during nuclear war fears. I vaguely remember the Cuban missile crisis. As I recall, my exposure to history was the Walter Cronkite show ‘You Are There’. And the National Geographics, that my father got starting in the early 50, had articles about DPs or displaced persons. 

It wasn't until I came to Europe that I learned about the occupation and the Holocaust.

When I was young I had a pretty sheltered life. I never really realized how poor we were, maybe because we always ate well. It's only in looking back I've understood it all better, but I guess that's what we all do. As for the good old days, I had a fun childhood--the run of the farm, playing in the barn, etc. At this stage of my life, I don't look back at the 50s and 60s as the good old days. Given what I know now, I think we have come a long way.......

There were so many positive things, mainly involving my dad, like going to the library with him at about 6-years-old to get my first library card and borrow books. Watching Roy Rogers and Ed Sullivan with my 2 younger sisters. I remember running out of the house with my dad on a cold, clear night to see the northern lights or a sputnik. Or vaguely remembering QE2's coronation as one of the first things I saw on TV. Later in middle school, listening to mission control follow Alan Shepard's short sub-orbital flight during art class. I could go on and on. 

The makeshift tent my dad made on the flatbed of the truck that he drove down to the woods and we camped for the night. Or the night my sister and I talked my dad into letting us sleep in the hayloft. Or the very long rope that he hung from the rafters of the haybarn that we could swing on like Tarzan when the barn was empty. Starting to "drive" the tractor at age 9. 


MB here: I remember the Cuban Missile Crisis. I was in 4th grade and it scared me. My parents turned on the TV news during supper, which they NEVER did. As I cleared the table I started crying and stuck my face into a dishtowel. My mom asked what was wrong, I told her I was scared of nuclear. She hugged me and said God would talk care of us. I was unsure if this was as much reassurance as I needed, but it’s what I got.

I was a round kid and I remember people telling me I was chubby even though I didn’t even wear a ‘chubby size’! In high school my uncle was commenting that “today’s youths” were so out of shape they couldn’t fight or work hard. I was standing right there, in my kitchen when he said that and my brother was, right then, in Vietnam. I thought his comment was a legitimate opinion that my generation was not as brave and fit as our parents’ so I later asked my mom if I was fat. She asked how much I weighed and I said 137 (I was 5’6”). She said I was fine but not to gain any more weight. OMG, when I think of the narrow parameters within which one could be considered an attractive girl or woman.

There was a cute dark-eyed boy in my class Kindergarten through 8th. We played together a lot. He asked me to marry him in 3rd grade but I said I couldn’t because he was Catholic. Anyways, looking back as an adult, I suspect his gender identification was not stereotypical hetero. There would have been no room for him to explore that back then but what he opened up for me was the rare and grand experience of a boy as a friend.


Pundits and politicians who say we need to get back to the “Good Ole Days” are generally people who didn’t live then. They make up a story and tell us to pine for what we didn’t have.

Sure, we could leave the house for hours and often that was interesting and fun. There were very few (any?) rules or laws about what child -oriented spaces could be. Thus, we had wildly fun playgrounds with delicious play equipment … and I have the missing teeth to prove it.

There was a family in our church whose daughter died of heart failure when she was a teenager because a disease had severely damaged it  before there was a vaccine.

To this day I also remember adults we encountered along the way who seemed to truly like and enjoy kids. Those adults were amazing. Not sure if they knew the path they were clearing to help us find our way to self-esteem.

Now you’ve read some of our shared memories. Are you remembering some of yours? Were they “The Good Old Days” What parts were? Which parts were not?


PS: Jacks and Slinkies. Tiny Tears and Lincoln Logs. What else?



I had all those toys you mentioned. I also agree that we seemed to have loads more free space to roam, with the freedom and lack of fear to walk or ride our bikes blocks away to go play with friends. We could explore our imaginations through play without someone directly hovering over us. At the same time - more moms were homemakers, and there was a parental presence everywhere we played. We walked to the beach by ourselves to spend the afternoon swimming, collecting beach glass and "getting tan" (lifeguards patrolled the beaches in chairs and rowboats). But - my cousin died from effects of polio when he was 18, and I was molested by a priest ( my father's cousin) visiting our family when I was 8 or so (he's so good with the kids!). I was taught by the Nuns that Non-Catholics could not go to Heaven. I was confused and early on skeptical that my Jewish friend, whose family was wonderful, would be rejected by a God who drew the line over a religious affiliation. Later in 7 grade, listening to Holocaust survivors tell there stories, the dangers of thinking God was only on "our" side became apparent. Like so much of the past it's a mixture of good and not good, shrouded and colored by nostalgia.

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