Valley Pike: The best times ever?

Posted: March 27, 2013

Even as the years creep up on me — in 14 months and a day, I’ll actually turn 60 — I become more and more convinced that you’re never too old to make new friends. This business of newspapering, I’m happy to say, gives me ample opportunity to do so.

Case in point: Back in January, I met the Engles, Roger and Gula of Martinsburg, W.Va., when the former was the featured speaker at the Winchester Rotary. Roger’s topic, if you recall an earlier column: his new book about growing up in Hedgesville, W.Va.

I quickly sized up Roger and Gula as kindred spirits, especially after enjoying a leisurely lunch with them (and their daughter Stephanie) earlier this month after Roger’s book-signing session at the Winchester Book Gallery.

Small talk turned into semi-serious talk that afternoon when Roger posed an intriguing question: Did we Baby Boomers benefit from the best time ever in America in which to grow up?

Naturally, every generation, we surmised, treasures its coming-of-age as the best of times, the proverbial good ol’ days. For instance, I can recall my dad regaling me with tales of the Roaring Twenties and all that era’s attendant glories. Nonetheless, and without a hint of chauvinism, I believe — as do Roger and Gula — a case can be made for our “wonder years.”

How so? Well, for starters, consider the era, and our parents’ hopes for it. Our moms and dads had just weathered the better part of two decades worth of want and war — economic depression and global conflict — and they were ready to start living again. And we, their children who came in bunches, were the beneficiaries of this desire for normality.

For some reason, these post-war years get a bad rap as an era of cloying conformity and numbing consensus and, at the same time, of Cold War paranoia and burgeoning racial tension. But for so many of us fortunate to have grown up in the loving bosom of large families and/or nurturing neighborhoods, these were the “happiest” of days.

How so? Materially, we were blessed with enough “creature comforts” to have it far easier than our parents, yet not enough to become slaves to them. Television could easily have been a narcotic if our moms and dads had not lovingly booted us out the door to make our own recreation.

You see, that was their secret: They allowed, nay expected, us to be kids at a time when it was great to be a kid. Parents exercised what I call an “easy hand.” There was plenty of play in those reins, but we all knew who held them. And it was not someone who fancied him- or herself a “friend.”

Childhood, we realize now, was meant to be enjoyed, cherished. Our boundaries were only those set by our parents, as if by osmosis — and by the limits of our imagination. Gula has written lovingly of growing up on Moler Avenue in Martinsburg, where a special tree was a magical playhouse. For Roger, Kate’s Hollow in Hedgesville was a source of endless fascination. And, for me, “home” was Tamblyn Field, a neighborhood preserve in Rutherford, N.J., where makeshift ball diamonds could be carved from the smallest patches of available greensward.

It’s almost cliche, but we did, on summer days, leave the house early in the morning, return for a quick noontime lunch, and then not surface again until Dad came home and dinner was on the table. And our parents never worried, because a sense of safety prevailed.

Today, from an adult’s perspective, I’m continually amazed at the seamlessness of it all. We lived day to day, not from crisis to crisis. Troubles? There were some, of both greater and lesser magnitude, but we got through them, forever residing in the certitude that, above all else, we were loved.

Were these the best of times? I’d like to think so. And so, too, I suspect, do Roger and Gula.