(My granddaughter, Zoey Romania Small - photo taken by her Uncle Josh, May 8 2021)

All his life he’s heard the stories. 

The stories are all he has, to be honest. They are his only link to those long-ago days. He was there, but he doesn’t remember any of it; he was just a babe, after all. The first of a family’s next generation. A generation which, it was supposed, would have the best of everything this nation - this world - might have to offer.

That was the promise. That was the dream. But some dreams never do quite come true; promises are too easily broken. 

-      -      -

Frankie and Annette’s first beach movie may not have premiered until August of that year, but life in the late spring and early summer of 1963 was a beach party all the same.

There was a certain sense that if we just put one foot in front of the other, and think good thoughts, we might accomplish more than we could have ever imagined. A pure heart and a lot of energy could make the world a better place; all we had to do was believe.

Some called it - still insist on calling it, in fact - “Camelot.” It seems so corny now, but maybe there was something to it after all: John Kennedy was president, and the enthusiasm and vision he brought to the office seemed to invigorate the entire nation. 

Young men and women were volunteering for the Peace Corps, America was taking its first tentative steps towards the moon, and life in general seemed better than many Americans could remember it having been in a long, long time.

All in all, it must have seemed like the perfect time to bring a new life into a malt shop, drive-in simple world. 

But dark clouds were on the horizon. By the end of that summer - courtesy of a folk trio named Peter, Paul and Mary and the songwriting talents of a newcomer named Bob Dylan - America would become aware that changes were, indeed, blowin’ in the wind.

For America, it was the last summer of innocence. 

No one knew it at the time, but the title to another popular song would eventually prove most hauntingly prophetic.

That was the summer, after all, that Skeeter Davis released “The End Of The World...”

-      -      -

He’d been upon the planet a mere five months, three weeks, and one day when Walter Cronkite interrupted that day’s broadcast of As The World Turns with the initial report:

“In Dallas, Texas, three shots were fired at President Kennedy’s motorcade. The first reports say that the President was ‘seriously wounded’…”

The party was over. The Generation of Hope had lost its leader. And those youngest of Americans were forever robbed of the future he had envisioned for them.

His earliest memories are not of playing “Cowboys and Indians” with the kid across the street or lemonade stands or Saturdays at the ol’ fishing hole. Oh, those memories are there, too; childhood was a grand and glorious adventure most of the time. But these happy reminiscences share space in his mental scrapbook with memories of a far darker sort. 

They are images from the evening news: of the death of a good black man in Memphis, and of a good white man - the president’s brother - in Los Angeles.  Of violence, both in the jungles of Vietnam but also in the streets of Watts and Chicago. 

We could turn the TV off, but we couldn’t make the dark clouds go away. The Children of the New Frontier grew up often feeling betrayed, confused, lost. We continued to move forward, the difference being that while our ancestors had moved from triumph to triumph we moved from crisis to crisis: Vietnam, Watergate, drugs, the Ayatollah, recession, AIDS…and the list goes ever on.

There was laughter in the land again, but it just wasn’t the same. The joyous laughter of hope had been replaced by the dark laughter of cynicism. The spirit of “Can Do” was replaced by the spectre of “Why Bother?”

And yet, he managed to catch an occasional glimpse of what the world must have been like before. What it might have been like, if only. It didn’t happen often, but it did happen.

Like the time when a community came together to rescue a little girl who had fallen down a well.

Or the time when a nation came together to offer aid and comfort in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing.

Or the time he and his neighbors stepped forward without being asked to help a local furniture store owner save her merchandise from a fire.

“So maybe,” he said to himself as he and a man he didn’t know carried a sofa from the flame-ravaged warehouse, “there is still some good in this creature called Man after all.”

It was there all the time. Sometimes you just have to dig a little deeper to find it these days… 

-      -      -

This past week he observed yet another birthday. At his age he’s decided that “celebrate” just doesn’t feel like the right word anymore; he’s reached that point in his life where his mortality can no longer be ignored. It’s entirely possible, though he may refuse to believe for a while longer, that his most grand and glorious adventures are now well behind him.

On the other hand, he woke up that morning still breathing, still able to pull on his pants and drive to work, still striving to make some kind of a difference in the world even as Father Time and a few less-than-polite members of the younger generation laugh and jeer in his general direction.

If still waking up in the morning isn’t in itself reason to celebrate, for goodness sake, what is? 

And he thinks about the precious hours he got to spend with his young granddaughter the previous weekend, and how he realized as he looked upon her face that is now her turn to look forward to all the grand and glorious adventures that are yet to come. 

And just as he did when it was the faces of his two young sons he was looking upon just a couple of short decades ago - it all goes by so fast! - he anticipates those adventures with an odd combination of dread and envy.

The world still seems, more often than not, to be a dark and dismal place. Tomorrow can all too often seem a more frightening prospect than ever in the minds of some, two decades into what he stills thinks of as “the new millennium.”

But if there is one thing this grandfather has learned in his still-not-quite 60 years, it’s this: Tomorrow may well be frightening, but it is also the greatest adventure of all. 

Perhaps this little girl will have a major role of some sort to play in that adventure. Or, perhaps, she will merely be a spectator as her grandfather has been. 

At the moment, though, none of that really matters much. Neither to the little girl herself, nor to the grandfather who gets down on hands and knees to play with her, to try and recapture yet one more time that simple joy that is childhood.

The granddaughter looks at her grandfather, and she smiles. That smile turns into a playful giggle that seems to say, “Worry about tomorrow when it gets here, Grandpa.”

Such are the ways of life…

(Copyright © 2021 by John A. Small)