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The Cracker Barrel: Just plain lucky

While talking with an old friend last week, we came to the shared conclusion that those of us who came of age in the aftermath of World War II have a great deal to be thankful for.

Yes, there were subterranean forces at work that no doubt distorted and damaged our psyches, and kept us from complete flowering. No era is exempt from imperfection. But taken in the main, we decided that the years directly following the war provided a better-than-average backdrop against which to live out one's childhood and to prepare for maturity.

I know there were regional variations that make generalizations suspect, but taking a broad-brush approach I think it's accurate to say that ours was the last generation of American children raised in a relatively drug-free world. Regular adults might fall prey to dependencies on tranquilizers or pain pills, and jazz musicians and the idle rich might inject heroin or snort cocaine, but kids in the main were not tempted to abuse substances other, perhaps, than cookies and ice cream.

There was alcohol, sure; but it was generally understood that alcohol was a substance reserved for the later teen years, and best not imbibed until then.

Tobacco, sad to say, was another matter altogether. During and following the war, just about everybody smoked. Cigarettes, primarily, or anything else ignitable. Cigars, pipes, cigarillos - pick your poison. All were available everywhere, and it was inevitable that youngsters would experiment with their use, and in the process often become addicted.

The great debate about the relative danger of smoking was just getting underway in the early '50s. With it came the sudden popularity of filters. Filtered brands with low nicotine were regarded by many as all but harmless, and said by some to be non-addictive.

I know this wasn't true, because in later years I smoked a few and quickly came to crave them more and more; an unfortunate dependency it took the better part of half a century to outgrow.

One other mark left on us by our childhoods was what might be called a Scarcity Mindset. Those of us born before and during World War II were very much aware that the adults around us had just lived through a Great Depression. We'd have had to be extremely dull not to know this, since adults talked about it all the time.

By the early '50s, such talk had begun to acquire a sort of fashionable gloss, with, I suspect, an attendant temptation for exaggeration. But I do have vivid memories of my dad's mom, shivering in her threadbare housedress, walking out in the snow following coal deliveries to pick up the half-dozen pieces left on the sidewalk, all the while mumbling dire comments regarding the delivery man's wastefulness.

Here, I suppose, it might be appropriate to note the virtues of heating with coal or wood. Aside from the fascination every child finds in a coal furnace, with its squat shape and octopus arms of overhead pipes, heating with coal drives home at an early age the importance of tending to duty.

If you wish to stay warm in the winter, you must occasionally add fuel to the fire, or it will expire and so might you. This is an informational nugget of enormous value. When you grow up helping tend a furnace, you don't question the importance of going to work or keeping your car filled with gas or avoiding shortfalls in your checking account. The act of pitching shovelfuls of anthracite or chunks of wood into the molten maw of the fire sears into your brain a respect for fundamentals.

Later in life - during the college years, maybe - you might temporarily adopt a posture of skepticism about the value of attending to such practicalities; but deep down you know better, and rarely allow yourself to stray too far from the sensible path. As Wordsworth's famous saying goes, "the Child is father of the Man," and the lessons learned in boyhood are not lightly dismissed.

But to return to the topic of scarcity, I think it's undeniable that kids my age inherited a watered-down version of the famous Depression mentality. As the years roll by and we find ourselves ever more surrounded by things electronic, I find myself railing against the wastefulness of discarding computers or cell phones or DVD players after only a few years use.

To the son of Depression-era parents, such profligacy smacks of sinfulness, pure and simple.

It's just not right!