I remember when my parents used to convert our small living room into three tables for bridge and their friends would arrive after supper, talking the talk of grownups. From eye level to a card table, I remember the women smoking incessantly, their lipstick painted on cigarette filters balanced on the edge of ashtrays, thesmoke mixing decadently with their long legs, stockings, and high-heel shoes.
The men were all tall and gaunt, not far removed from their days in the war, veterans of a victory they never talked about in the company of small boys.
In the early 1950s, small-town America was nothing like the world we live in today. It was self-contained. Heroes lived next door. Only the rich had television. The Wide World of Sports existed only as fuzzy photographs in the newspaper.
I don’t remember my father being much of a sports fans. If he was, he never made much of it. Truth is, he and his buddies had already seen true heroism and therefore didn’t need sportswriters to try and cheapen it with stories of ballplayers.
I never heard them refer to a game as war. They knew the difference. That was a word they seldom used. In fact, preferring to look ahead rather than behind, victory in those days was marked by the purchase of an air conditioner, a dishwasher, or a not-so-used car.
I’m sure there were those followed the careers of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig more closely than I realized, but it was never the talk of the town. Maybe because we lived in the middle of nowhere, first-edition territory for newspapers in Charleston, Columbia, Savannah, and Augusta, which meant our news was old and incomplete.
When television did arrive, it was a fragile, black-and-white version subject to interference from passing planes and thunderstorms.
If there was something important happening out beyond the soybeans, watermelons and endless pine forests, it was usually discussed in-depth by our fathers as they stood in the churchyard between Sunday School and preaching.
If it was serious, they would grind their cigarette butts harshly into the ground with their shiny shoes before going to pray. If it was frivolous, they would flip them casually into the bushes, laughing in billows of smoke as they joined our mothers to find their usual place in the pews.
From ground level theirs appeared to be a simple life where everybody worked hard and hoped their skinny little kids would never have to endure the bloodshed they saw in Europe, Africa and the Pacific.
Life to them was about having friends, raising children and paying bills. If there had been such a thing as a credit card, they would not have used it. They saved. They tithed. They gave blood.
Aside from years away fighting the war, my father only spent one night away from home the whole time I knew him. He went to Peoria for a meeting and brought my mother a present which she cherished forever.
I know there were problems I couldn’t see from my vantage point, but what I could see was good and solid and straightforward. They did not see sports figures of their day as idols, just lucky boys who were paid to continue their childhood dreams, something most of them lost with their first shot fired in anger.
They had fought beside better men and seen them die young.
To me, these men were my heroes. They were always clean-shaven and smelled of Aqua Velva and Lucky Strikes. They went to work early and came home late to home-cooked meals.
Most of them are gone now, including my father. Those who aren’t must wonder what happened to the world they thought they were creating from the ashes of war.