Looking Back Through the Prism of Time
Looking Back From the Present
Looking back at life through the prism of your twilight years can provide a comforting perspective on the experiences of your life as well as the experiences of those you have touched during your journey. The prism consisting of the current state of society; local, state, national and international mores; politics; and your experiences can be a confusing labyrinth of disjointed paths which, even in your twilight years, make you wonder how you arrived at your current position in life. And, the end has not yet been determined by man. However, if your journey has been guided by faith in the Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, you know that He is always there and wins in the end.
The consideration of your journey through life, as reflected in the described prism, provides for the multiple facets of a prism which exhibit both a simple view of each facet as well as a complex, consolidated view which changes according to one’s perspective and experiences. I believe that many of those alive today, those born in the 1930s, feel that the world has been turned upside down – things that were wrong during the early years of their life are now right, while those that were right are now wrong. It seems that our nation is being led by sick, mentally deficient politicians and others without a moral compass and without concern for the nation. The truth seems far beyond their capability or desire to embrace.
Looking Back to the Generations of the 1930s
Those of us who were born in the mid-to-late 1930s had much to contend with, but it was without our knowledge. The United States of America (USA) was coming out of the depression years. Many families were hurting, especially in the southern states. The South was also still struggling from the effects of the American Civil War. Many neighborhoods in the South, prior to World War II, gave birth to children who, because of a shared economic reality of surrounding poverty, were cast into an environment of great uncertainty about their future. They were born to families where the majority of parents had strong moral codes and work ethic – they frowned on premarital sex, attended church, were married, stayed together, and worked hard in cotton mills, cotton fields, and wherever else they could eke out a living for their families.
Many poor southern families were struggling to put food on the table and a roof over their heads. Our entertainment consisted of sitting around the radio and listening to the Lone Ranger (Long Ranger to some) and Tonto, The Shadow, The Grand Ole Opry, and other popular radio shows. We also stayed out at night and played with other neighborhood kids, and traded comic books. Family members took any job they could get to contribute to survival of the families. Child labor was practiced in some industries at the time, allowing additional income for families. My own father was employed, at age eleven, to contribute his meager cotton mill earnings to support of the family, along with his mother and father. His education was terminated at 5th or 6th grade. Later in life, after he and my mother were married, they both picked cotton in the fields of others – along with many of their relatives and friends. I also picked, with a “pick” sack made from a flour sack. My father also dug ditches, painted houses, and performed other honest jobs to earn a living for his family. He took pride in earning his own way. Due to hard work and perseverance he became a well-recognized craftsman and was able to retire in his 60s. He passed away in 2004 at the age of 91. My mother, as of August 2015, is 99 years old and in a nursing home.
My 3 sisters – all younger and with one passing away at age 2 in 1943, most of my childhood friends, family members, relatives, and I, were born into this environment. Our outlook was bleak, but we were not aware of that reality. As previously stated, my father’s education was terminated at the 5th or 6th grade for employment, and my mother’s at the 9th grade. However they insisted that my sisters and I stay in school. They always managed to provide for that outcome. They knew, and I later observed, how hard life was for someone without a basic formal education. Our parents were too busy trying to eke out a living to do forward-looking strategic planning for the future. Their stock portfolios were a fantasy if they even knew what “stock” meant – unless you were talking about “livestock.” The welfare support system did not exist, and most adults would have been highly offended at an offer of assistance without work or other effort in return. Many did share what they had with those who had less. They shared because of the need, not because the Government forced them to provide for others.
Looking Back to the Second World War
Those of us that were born during the above referenced period were too young for military service when the Second World War began, but many saw their parents, relatives, and family friends go off to fight in the war. One of our family friends, Luther James Isom, was killed on and went down on the ship Arizona at Pearl Harbor. The below photo is of the 1943 graduating class of West Huntsville High School. Note that the class is all female – no males! It is presumed that all males were in military service. I started school in 1942-43, being born in August of 1937.
During the war-time years we were very aware of the conflict, although we were too young to know what was really going on. At night, we sat around the radio with parents and listened to the news action reports (they probably weren’t very timely), responded to air-raid warnings by turning out all lights and pulling curtains, and dealt with the absence of many items due to rationing.
Many staples such as sugar, lard, gasoline, vehicle tires, rubber goods, etc. were reserved for the war effort. Everyone experienced the rationing of goods and services. Food was grown in home gardens, and scrap metal and cans were collected to meet war-time needs. I would traverse the back alleys and various other locations pulling my little red wagon picking up scrap metal and bottles (soft drinks and milk came in bottles at that time) to sell.
When the atomic bombs were dropped, very scary accounts of the destruction were heard. Fear became very real with the talk of what the enemies might do in return. The day the war ended, I was returning from the grocery store, through a scrap iron yard. Suddenly I heard gun shots and shot pellets falling around and hitting the scrap metal. People were celebrating the good news of the War’s end. I didn’t know what was happening so I ran the two blocks to my home.
First School Experience
I still remember some of my first experiences upon entering the school environment. Some were funny, others not so! One of the first was sauntering into the girl’s restroom. I quickly learned my mistake. When I finally found the correct restroom, I had to decipher the function of the various fixtures. Our home, as did many of my era, didn’t have indoor plumbing, and we were not widely traveled, so the fixture provisions were foreign to me. However, I finally resolved the problem. Another inconvenience occurred when we had a recess period in the morning. I thought it was lunch time so I left and walked several blocks to my home for lunch. I then, again, learned how lacking my education was, and ran the several blocks back to school in time to line up for the bell announcing the time to return to class. It seemed that we lined up for everything back then, pretty much like in the Army in later years. I have been told that I was smaller than most of my classmates due to the timing of the school and my birthday. Apparently one of the “cellmates” took the opportunity to introduce me to “bullying!” One of the other cellmates, “Pappy” Neal, who apparently loved fighting, began to take up for me and put a damper on the bullying activity. I don’t know which he liked most, the fighting or me – he was from a pretty rough neighborhood. I never knew what happened to him after that time, but I will never forget him. Several of my later friends and classmates grew up in the same rough neighborhood. When my father found out about the bullying he handed me a pair of electrician’s pliers and told me to hit the bully the next time he came at me. Apparently the word got out as to why I had the pliers, and the bullying stopped.
Along about the 5th grade I got a morning paper route to begin earning my own spending money. Prior to that time I had been earning it by collecting the scrap metal and bottles. I only had sixteen customers, and got permission to arrive at school late in order to keep the route. I later, along about the 8th grade, graduated to a route of about 250 customers, and delivered that route until graduation from high school. During this time I met some very good friends, including one that was “best man” at my wedding in June of 1960. We have remained good friends, and after my retirement in March of 2007, I began meeting with him, and about 15 other classmates, each Monday morning for breakfast. And, at the age of 77, in 2015, we still meet with a group of other classmates on a weekly basis for breakfast. The number meeting has decreased due to several deaths. Both of us have been blessed with wives (our own) for more than 55 years, and children who have done honor to us in their behavior and pursuit of their own lives. Several others in our groups have experienced the same.
High School and Beyond
The World beyond Childhood
High school was filled with new adventure. More activities were available and offered, and we had new freedoms to explore, but our responsibility for our actions was also made evident. We pursued our studies under the discipline of very strict, but fair, school principal, administration, and teachers. I seemed to thrive in this type environment even though it was a continuation of my home life under strict parents. Involvement in our school activities and associations can be viewed at Gallery1, Gallery2, Gallery3, and Gallery4.
During our high school years we also became directly exposed to some of the results of the Second World War – the influx of German children into our classes. These children were those of the German scientists that were brought to Huntsville at the end of the war. The scientists began work at the military complex, and later at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). The mingling of two cultures in a small southern town, but it went well it seems. One thing that was recognized very quickly was that the “new” children were very smart. The socialization and study with the children, while acknowledging the background of their adult parents during the war, presented a dilemma. The parents, such as Wernher von Braun, who, with his associates, had been involved in the war efforts in Germany, were viewed with suspicion regarding their Nazi associations and conduct. Those feelings of suspicion still exist today by many, and I am included. Nazi war criminals are still being pursued and prosecuted.
Graduation from High School was a big event. Many did not make it to graduation, for many reasons. During the Second World War the male student population was decimated due to military service and other war efforts. A large percentage of the female population also contributed to support of the war effort. Graduation culminated with the Senior Prom, with the girls wearing beautiful flowing gowns and the boys in their Sunday best. The boys also had the thrill of providing and pinning on of corsages. As I remember it, the favorite choice seemed to be Camellias.
After graduation festivities were over, the cold, wide world awaited the bewildered students – many with no idea of what to do next. Some went directly to college, while some had to pursue further education part-time or wait several years for the opportunities (usually working their way through). Some went directly into the workforce wherever they could without further education. Some were able to get on-the-job training adequate for a career. Military service, police departments, and local city employment seemed to be early favorites. Some left their communities for employment elsewhere. I had no money for college, but a technical institute in Chicago, DeVry Technical Institute, guaranteed me employment adequate to pay my way through school. So, approximately 2 weeks after graduation, I was in Chicago, a whole new world when compared with the small town of approximately 15,000 that I had grown up in. I was in Chicago for about 3 years, completed school, returned home, found a job at Southern Associated Engineers, Inc., and got married in June of 1960 to my wife, Sue, in Hartselle, Alabama. Our first child, a daughter, was born in July 1961, and the second, a son, was born in July 1966.
The Cold War
I became a member of the Alabama National Guard, the 279th Signal Battalion, while still in high school, and was in the Illinois guard, a field artillery battalion, while in Chicago. I reverted to the Alabama guard upon return home. I was a member of the Alabama National Guard in 1961 when the Berlin wall was erected. On October 1, 1961, while on the way home from work, I heard on the car radio that we, my National Guard unit, were to report for duty that night. We had just returned home from summer training, in August, at Ft. Gordon, GA. On Oct 11, 1961, 10 days after mobilization, we arrived at Fort Hood, Texas (leaving family – our daughter was just 2 months old at the time, jobs, and friends behind), and started preparations for deployment to Germany by Dec 15. We were assigned as III Corps communications unit for the 1st and 2nd Armored Divisions – my Specialty was cryptography. We were all volunteers with the Guard (state controlled), and the unit had been transferred from state control to regular Army.
At that time, after living through the Second World War (too young to participate) and knowing the History of the Germans and much of their behavior during the war, I could not have cared less about what happened to them, I felt that they deserved just about anything bad that occurred. However, we and some 500,000 more mobilized along with us, were expected to stand up against Russia on behalf of the Germans where, in my opinion, there was a population guilty of many atrocities and war crimes due to their active participation in Hitler’s war machine. We had no choice in the campaign – it was decreed by politicians, in our case, John F. Kennedy and the Russian leader at that time. Years later an article appeared in the local newspaper that the whole event was a ruse to protect the Russian leader from critical events occurring in Russia regarding his leadership. We were pawns in a political game over which we had no control and no obvious personal gain or choice. We were duped, and so was the American public. But we were blindly committed to potential battle under the United States of America Flag by politicians. Many returned home with financial and other problems. We never deployed to Germany or anywhere else, although some advance units were deployed, and we observed practice railcar loading and unloading of tanks and other armor on a daily basis as the anticipated deployment seemed imminent.
The Korean War had concluded in the 1950s, and while in Chicago I had worked with a couple of US Korean War prisoners of war. They didn’t seem bitter, and even had some humorous stories to tell. But now, welcome to the “cold war” which, I believe, had actually begun in the 1950s, but we had now become a committed party to it. We also became exposed to the “fallout bomb shelter” construction alarms with construction plans being offered and published by the Government. Then came the Cuban missile crisis, Vietnam, and various other USA-involved conflicts lasting up to the present time. Essentially the “Cold War” ended with the destruction of The Berlin Wall as demanded by Ronald Regan. During the time between leaving Chicago and my retirement in March 2007, with a break for further education in 1965, I worked for various contractors in the aerospace industry and for the US Department of Defense.
Upon completion of my physics degree in August 1970, during the economic downturn at that time across the USA, I was unable to find a job. Engineers and related disciplines were a “dime a dozen” at that time. I continued to look for permanent work, worked at Sears part-time in the credit department, and completed a degree in business administration in May 1971 – partially because of disillusionment with engineering prospects. In April of 1972 I accepted employment with General Electric (I had worked for the company about 3 months prior to the decision to return to school full-time). In May of 1972 I accepted employment with Martin Marietta, and in August 1972 I accepted employment with the Government at Redstone Arsenal, AL. After being unable to find work for almost 2 years, I was offered and accepted 3 different jobs with 3 different entities within about 4 months. Go figure! I continued my education by going to night classes at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, and received my master’s degree in June of 1984.
My Life Partner and Companion
This account, to this point, has been primarily about me. However, that is only because I have been unable to determine how to integrate and intertwine the life of my life partner and companion during most of the period covered. The partner and companion is my wife of 55 years, as of June 2015, and also the Mother of our son and daughter. My life has been made worthwhile because of them.
My wife’s life has paralleled my own in experience and environment. Her Mother and Father were in their 40s when she was born. She was an “only child.” Her Father died when she was 13, and her Mother never remarried. Following her Father’s death, her Mother worked in a school lunchroom and she started working after school at a business in their small town. We met in 1956, a few months after graduating different high schools, and corresponded while I was in school in Chicago. I left Chicago in January of 1959 and returned to Huntsville, AL. We married in June of 1960. Our daughter was born in July 1961, and son in July 1966.
After high school my wife worked in a bank and prior to our marriage she began work with the US Government at Redstone Arsenal, AL. She worked there for more than 30 years, but resigned in 1988 to care for her Mother at our home. After her Mother’s death at age 96 in 1991, she attended college at the University of Alabama, Huntsville, and then Athens State University where she received a Degree in Business Administration. She then went to work for First Baptist Church, Huntsville, AL, where she worked for 16 years until past her 72nd birthday. During all this time she has been very active in our church through faithful participation in the choir and various other volunteer activities. She also volunteers for various activities at Huntsville Hospital, including weekly duties at the Women’s and Children’s Hospital. In the early years she cared for 2 never-married sisters of her Father until both died and she kept the “home front” going while I was in the military during the Berlin crisis. In later years she kept things going and in order while I attended college and maintained a rigorous travel schedule in my work. She was also the major caregiver for my Mother until she died at age 99 on November 10, 2015. She would have been 100 on February 8, 2016.
Old Friends and Their Memories and Fantasies
Old Friends’ Shared Childhood
During the journey described above, many people of various backgrounds and inclinations were encountered. They were from many states and worked for many different companies. They also came from other countries with different religions and racial and ethnic backgrounds – but they were acquaintances, primarily. They were not lasting friendships beyond accomplishing our missions. Those that are true friendships are those from the old neighborhoods and shared childhood. Old friends’ shared and unshared memories, I have found, take on a special meaning and life of their own as we approach our twilight years. If one is lucky enough to share their old age with friends from their youth they are extremely blessed. This is especially true if those friends shared a deprived youth, as described in the early parts of this article, without realizing how deprived they were. Primary activities of those friends revolved around church, school activities (ball games, band, choir, school clubs, field trips, picnics), neighborhood movies, and after-school (or before school) and weekend work. Many times these part-time employments helped support the families and provided for payment for senior-year trips to Washington, D.C. and New York. Other than those activities, travel outside their small towns was not often or was non-existent.
The Journey to Maturity
Over the years between High School and Retirement many paths were taken by the players. However, most seem to have retained an affinity for their roots. Periodic High School reunions were attended at fairly conservative time periods – 5, 10, 15, 20, 25, 30, etc., years. The attendance for some was somewhat sporadic and the reasons for attendance or non-attendance not readily apparent. It was, and still is, a time for remembering shared experiences and updating on current events. Some attendees appeared somewhat exhibitionist in their demeanor in wanting all to know how well they seemed to be doing, while others were more conservative. The truth may have been somewhat different from appearances. Personality changes, in some cases, were very obvious in contrast to those of childhood. However, as years advanced, additional, softening, attitudes seem to come to the forefront. The realization that some have never attended a reunion and that some have never been heard from since graduation, or cannot be located, causes quiet, thoughtful, reflection. Some have died and, when possible, childhood friends begin to start attending funerals for those who have died relatively young. Some have died in accidents, some by suicide, and some by various illnesses. As ages climb toward the 60s and 70s there seems to be an increased interest in returning to childhood roots. Many of those who have lived in other states or cities begin to move back to their old or nearby neighborhoods. They begin to search out opportunities for socializing with those with whom they have shared childhood experiences and adventures. During this time more sharing of disappointments, failures, and reflections of “what might have been” takes place. You learn of divorces and multiple divorces, problems with children, and career issues. Much of this is expressed by the Statler Brothers’ music “Class of ‘57”, Marty Robbins in “The City”, and the Statler Brothers’ “Maple Street Memories”.
Retirement and Beyond
Before, and as, many of the life players enter their retirement years, many are dealing with taking care of aging parents and their health issues and with health problems of their own. Much of the socializing efforts include making the problems known and discussions about how to manage the issues.
Socializing efforts primarily revolve around “back in the day” experiences of childhood and school as well as day-to-day neighborhood experiences or adventures. Many friendships were developed through shared sports, neighborhood games of various types, and work experiences. Specific games and players and their characteristics are recounted over and over in exacting detail. Work experiences and interactions with co-workers are described in much the same detail. These experience details are expanded to encompass those which have occurred during the years between High School graduation and retirement. It is obvious that all are proud of their accomplishments and the fact that they have navigated the pitfalls of life and have persevered. During these discussions you become aware of many aspects of your old friends’ lives that you were not aware of while on your journeys – they even had brothers and sisters of which you were not aware. They are now also discussing their extended families – their children, grandchildren, and even great grandchildren (you learn that some were even secretly married while in school). Religious activities have become more pronounced in the lives of many.
It is also during this time that another very sad aspect of living longer begins to show itself – fading memories. You wonder, is it Dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, or just the normal decline of memory due to aging. You hear friends recount events of which you are supposedly a party to, but you don’t remember it. Whose memory is faulty? In some cases you are able to compare with aspects which you know to be true, and you realize that it is not your memory that is at fault. Someone asks you a question and you answer it. A couple of minutes later they ask the same question – they don’t remember asking it before. You make allowances and ignore the misinformation or need to repeat yourself. They are lifelong friends! Twilight years are giving way to fantasy. A lifelong journey is nearing the end. No one knows how it will end, but you do know that you could not have been in better company. Who will be there when the last one passes? He will!
Patsy Cline: Life is Like a Mountain Railroad