Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Was Lucien Right After All?

Interior of the Menominee Drugstore (V.A.L. photo, ca. 1950)

Dear George,
My Uncle Kent’s drugstore was located on Electric Square, directly on my afternoon walk home from grade school.  I’d stop there without fail because Kent let me read the week’s new comic books back in his office.  He and his pharmacist partner, Lucien P., mixed their prescription drugs in a walled-off room at the back of the store.  Lucien was a white-haired man in his late fifties.  He had a sort of dour temperament.  Uncle Kent, a World War II veteran, was even more serious, so there wasn’t a lot of joking around in the prescription room.  When I’d stop by Lucien would usually give me advice about life.  It would be pretty much the same each time.  I must have generally been gloomy because Lucien would tell me that I’d better enjoy my childhood since life only gets worse afterwards.  High school would be harder, he said, and then you had to worry about getting married, making money, raising kids with all their problems, struggling to pay bills and taxes, health issues, losing your loved ones, being lonely, etc.  It wasn’t a reassuring picture. 

I was always taken aback by Lucien’s speech because I didn’t find childhood that enjoyable, and it was hard to imagine that things would only be getting worse.  Even now, I think the stereotype that children are brimming with fun and happiness is nothing but a myth.  You’re always under the control of up-tight adults.  The things you want to do are usually against the rules.  School is dreary.  Big kids pick on you.  Your little brothers and sisters are nuisances. You have to eat stuff you hate and do unpleasant chores.  And you’re bored most of the time.  After each of Lucien’s lectures, I thought about what he’d said and I prayed he was wrong.

Looking back, it’s hard to say.  My high school years were nutty but stressful.  College got more exciting because of the freedom, but we were all striving to be Jack Kerouac-style beatniks and were chronically depressed about the meaninglessness of life.  Grad school was simply a drag, full of pressure and self-doubt.  Adult work life got more stable and meaningful, but now strikes me as kind of bland and monotonous.  And I’m still trying to figure out what retirement is all about.  Could Lucien have been right after all that one’s childhood years are the best? 

To get a firmer grip on the question, I made up a list of various experiences I could recall that were unique to childhood, at least to my childhood in Menominee in the 1940’s.  Here are some of the examples I came up with:

  • Going to the Saturday matinee at the Menominee Opera House with a hundred screaming kids and watching a Bugs Bunny cartoon, a Three Stooges short, and a Hopalong Cassidy main feature.
  • Getting my first two-wheeler bike for my birthday.
  • Singing “Centa, Sweet Centa, refuses her Polenta” in unison with my first grade classmates.
  • Catching fireflies after dark in a Mason jar.
  • Playing “boys chase the girls” on the Washington Grade School playground
  • Climbing into empty freight cars in the Menominee rail yard with my friend Marvin F. and talking to the hobos.
  • Swimming underwater with one’s eyes open, watching out for snapping turtles and searching for lost treasure on the river bottom.
  • Walking home after a heavy rain with my friend Loopy-Lou and being awed by his ability to swallow live worms that he picked up from the sidewalk.
  • Running full speed through the forest with the Irish Setters, leaping over fallen trees.
  • Skipping flat rocks off the water’s surface.   
  • Trick or treating with friends on a pitch dark Stephenson Avenue on Halloween night.
  • Going to the city dump and finding good stuff to tow home in my wagon.
  • Playing detective with Frankie S., trailing suspicious-looking men through Montgomery Ward’s and downtown streets. 
  • Eating cotton candy at the U.P. State Fair at Escanaba.
  • Talking in Pig Latin so the adults couldn’t understand a single word.
  • Getting a double-dip Lemon Flake ice cream cone at the Ideal Dairy.

After I turned eighteen, I rarely did any of these things ever again.  That’s so sad.  Then I thought about what comparable lists would look like for early and later adulthood, and I decided, though they were totally different, they looked pretty good too.  I remember when our son J turned 20, I told him that the 20’s were the best time of life.  When he became 30, I changed my mind and decided that the 30’s were best.  Then, the same for the 40’s.  Though seemingly inconsistent, I was being completely genuine each time.  I think it means that the best time of life is where one is currently at.  Now I think the 70s are pretty good: sheepdogs, line dancing, photography, hikes in the forest, walks with friends, weekly movies, blogging, drinking red wine, the art museum, tons of leisure time, even dealing with the vagaries of getting older.  I do think that Lucien was completely right on one point – that I shouldn’t have been so glum during childhood.  However, it turns out that it’s all pretty good.

G-mail Comments
-Vicki L (2-20): D,  I wanna hear more about your friend (new to me) 'Loopy-Lou'! Eating worms off the sidewalk??
That is truly amazing… If nothing else....our childhoods had some very unique features.  Love, Vicki
-Gayle C-L (2-19): David,  I love the scenario.  Thru out all the years... You've lived a fulfilling healthy life to write that its all good !  And it is..  You need to rewrite this when you're 90 +  :)   Im going to look for it :)  Of course I'll be soooo much younger :)   XXX G
-Jennifer M (2-19): If this were Facebook, I would click "like." :-)
-JML (2-19):  nice one dad. you're funny even when you're not trying to be

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