One of the candidates for president has used as a slogan “Make America Great Again.” Without getting into a philosophical debate over the state of the nation, it did make me think about what makes a time in one’s life “great.”
At any given moment of someone’s life, things might be wonderful or woeful. Sometimes we look back through the haze of nostalgia and see the past through rose-colored glasses, forgetting the stress that we may have been going through at the time.
All that aside, I searched my memory for a glimpse of a “golden age” where things seemed so great. Not that they actually were better than later times, but calling up a moment that appeared to be just a slice of heaven, realistic or not.
That said, what comes to mind is the summer after fifth grade in Garden Grove. It’s 1964 and my world looked pretty darn great. School was out, and, as the song goes, the living was easy. We lived in a home close by the elementary school I’d just left and the intermediate school I was headed for in the fall.
Just a few blocks away was the charming geography of my childhood. The big orange grove on property owned by the Lake family, which gave the city its first mayor. Just beyond that, the tiny library that served as my portal to a much larger world.
Another block north was the northern edge of the old downtown, which held most of the things that a kid like me could want. The old central business district was about three times larger than it is today; much of it was torn down in an ill-advised effort by the city to keep it from becoming an eyesore.
But right then, it was the place to be. Wheeler’s Market, where you could buy baseball cards and Nesbitt’s orange soda. In the other side was Euclid Park (now the expanded Village Green), where you could risk your life merrily on the foot-powered carousel, or cavort on the old WPA-built bandstand. Just a few yards south was the Gem Theater, which had kids’ matinees of slightly-stale movies for 50 cents. “Ben Hur” and “Tarzan” and “Jason and the Argonauts” for four bits.
Travel a bit further south and there was Garden Grove Book Shop, where I began my romance with science fiction novels. Across from there was Zlaket’s Market and Roberts’ Portraits, where the big kids got their high school graduation pictures taken.
I could walk from our house to any of those places in the gentle heat of the summer. We played endless games of “over the line” and “hotbox” at the vacant schoolyards, then sucked down grape soda and Bubble Up while shooting the breeze in those innocent years before we became hormone-addled.
There were no jobs to go to, no homework to do, no romantic crisis’s, no weight to lose or hair to dye. Life and its requirements weighed very lightly on us. We were old enough to be on our own, but young enough to not be responsible for much of anything.
I’m not saying that I wish I were 11 years old again. There are many satisfactions and pleasures that only can be earned through the passage of time. I also know that even back then, some of us were quietly going through trials they never revealed to others.
But when I look back to a time so simple that I literally did not seem to have a worry in the world, that’s it. It was not a time for great things, but it was the last great carefree time of my life, and that’s enough.
Jim Tortolano’s Retorts appears each Wednesday.