Most kids remember occasions when their parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts, talked about the good old days. The repeated messages were these were great times, rather unlike today. It was better then, although of course it's okay now. But glazed looks into the distance, with soft smiles, warn the kids that nostalgia is alive and well, and the generations ahead of them have been deeply infected. Ask anyone older what was their best memory. Most will say I remember when …or back in the day.. and it’s back to childhood, or early family life, camping or some athletic event, or meeting someone famous, or other. As we age we lose friends and family, so those memories are locked in and can’t be reproduced or shared. What we sometime forget of course are the sad memories, or the reality of days gone by, which if transferred to today, would trigger a serious spirit of deprivation for things we now have for granted but were then non-existent, not invented yet.
Forget your washing machine. They appeared as a crude version of today’s machines with drying spin cycles introduce into the USA by Bendix and GE in 1947 and to our part of the world a few years after that. Fridges were crude. There was no TV. NZ got black and white TV only in 1961/2, well after Australia in 1956. Colour came many years after that. But in 1960s there were no mobile phones, Skype, microwaves, computer games, even computers, internet, easy air travel. Heart attacks and stroke in the 1960s were an epidemic, often fatal. Simpler treatments for heart disease, like coronary artery stents to prevent a recurrence of heart attacks, or the 10 minute cataract operation were decades in the future. Think on the frequency of joint replacements today, and pins for hip fractures which replaced weeks in hospital on archaic traction. Arthritis now can be expunged, eyesight returned, cancer treated, depression reduced. As a kid I was obsessive about cricket and the only communication was by radio, or for Ashes tests in England, it was only shortwave radio, John Arlott over the static and crackle. Now it’s beamed into the wide sharp colour screen in the bedroom, with slow motion replays for really critical actions. I loved the old days but would I want to go back there, NO!!!
Then there were the geo-political events, such as World War II, and then Korea, and Vietnam and todays tragic stalemates of division and horror of the Middle East. At 81 I have been fortunate to avoid all those, and to enjoy the relative peace and harmony of New Zealand and Australia, and the many other countries I have lived in. Conscription, the requirement by your country to fight and kill, or be killed or maimed for a cause you might not support, as was required for so many fine young men and women in the USA for Vietnam, must have been damning. The haunting simplicity of the Washington Vietnam wall, the monument to the 55,000 young soldiers who died there is a stark marker of no more.
Today the spirit of the Anzacs is honoured at the memories of Gallipoli, a similar fruitless meat grinding episode of a larger war. But we were two countries with few citizens, and yet they went to fight without hesitation for a grey honour, and to support their countryman and families in a spirit of we need to do this. When I was born in 1937 there were around 1,600,000 Kiwis. In small towns across the country there are memorials in churches or town halls of those who gave their lives in these two global battles. In WW II over 140,000 New Zealanders served and 11,928 were killed. On a few days in 1942 and 1943 in North Africa, and then Italy, there were infernos of Hell when, over a few days, hundreds of our countrymen were killed, Pakeha and Maori. There were minimal radio or phone communications, no way for the injured or the mothers to say goodbye. They were alone, dying or dead in a strange land. Today, in such a conflicts, modern medicine, saves many of the injured, but in 1914-1918 and 1939-1945 there were no such luxuries. There were no helicopters to rescue the wounded. The first antibiotic, penicillin, was only available from just before D Day June 1944. Those were the good old days?
Always there are curiosities, paradoxes about the impact of war. We had a next door neighbour as I grew up. He’d come back from the war in 1945 as a decorated Major, a legend of leadership and camaraderie that was initially admired and then forgotten as folk got on with their lives. After some struggles, you may be overqualified sir, he was able to get a meaningless job as a salesman selling furniture in an Auckland shop. It was not the role he had been thinking of during the lull in battles in Italy, though he had no idea what there was to rerun to.
He was a fine man who brewed his own beer in large barrels. He caught his young son peeing into one. He had the conscience decision to discard or bottle. But war generates robust pragmatism, and they were bottled as gifts for a few folk he disliked. My cousin aged 14 and I at 12 were called on to baby sit for these neighbours. He paid a pittance, enough for a box of jaffas, but his secret weapon was a pile of photography magazine, his other hobby. These contained a number of art photos of young women who had lost their clothes, fascinating, as we two boys hinted at interest in a photographic hobby. We always went to sit when called. He became depressed. He had no interest in his job; it did not match the spark and excitement of the war days. He left the family and I’ve never heard of him since. A victim of the global world in which we live, risking his life, like so many others, in the spirit of loyalty to their fellow countrymen and women.
A final quixotic memory was an older cockney woman I met in London in 1968. She was a proud East Ender and had lived there throughout the war and the Blitz as buildings were bombed and destroyed and 32,000 fellow were Londoners killed and 87,000 wounded. That time she remembered was the best time of her life; the camaraderie was so tight, neighbours were perpetually caring and, at times during the horrors, things and people could be so funny, especially about Mr Hitler; with tears and then great laughter and no side, and all supportive. Yes they were her best times. Her good old days.
Enjoy the best of today. It may well be the good old days for you in the future.