I’ve heard people compare growing up around Hiawassee to life in the fictional Mayberry, North Carolina. The time I spent here in my youth would support that appraisal. But the recent passing of Tony Dow reminds me that two generations of Americans might find the Mayfield of Wally and the Beaver to be a closer fit. It also occurs to me, that somewhere between Mayberry and Mayfield, we lost something important.
By 1960, almost 70% of Americans lived in urban areas, but outside the largest cities the nation still had much of the character of the suburbs. Many of us still remembered life on the farm. With all our differences, there was more of a sense of common experience and common goals. The generation which had just pulled together to prevail in WWII now turned its attention to the greatest rise in prosperity the world had ever seen.
In Mayfield and in Mayberry, it was safe for boys and girls to wander the neighborhood on their own recognizance. Be home by dark. Don’t be late for supper. The neighborhood had eyes that were sharper than any surveillance camera, because someone was home to watch in those decades before tapeworm economics sent both parents to work to make ends meet.
There is no doubt in my mind that many of the adventures pursued by my brother and I and our confederates back then would today be considered domestic terrorism. We never harmed, or for one moment thought of harming anyone. In fact, the greatest harm done was administered by our dads and those thin leather belts that were in style at the time; that, and the litany of cuts, bruises, scrapes and singed eyebrows that can accompany experiential education.
My brother and I had an early interest in chemistry. It wasn’t the popular chemistry of today that produces illegal incomes and medical emergencies. We never imagined anything like that. No, we liked chemistry that created rapid expansions in volume induced by vigorous exothermic reactions. We made the fuel for our homemade bottle rockets and fireworks, and when an errant launch ignited the leaves in our next door neighbors’ gutter, they didn’t call the police or the fire department. They put out the fire with a garden hose and then called our parents. I seem to recall that the thin leather belt played a part in our rehabilitation, as well as having to mow the neighbors’ yard a few times. There was zero recidivism.
We were tough kids. We were outside more than indoors. We got hurt and we healed, and we learned not to do that again. Usually. We knew how to do countless things that kids just don’t know how to do anymore, not because they don’t have the ability, but because they don’t have the interest. The cultural norm for previous generations was independence, and it grieves me to say that by design or by default, we are moving inexorably now toward a conditioned co-dependence.
Sadly, I think we are also losing the ability to laugh at ourselves. Most of my playground companions were slapstick comedians. That most fundamental gift of human nature was allowed to develop into some truly memorable humor as we grew up. The practical joke was elevated to an art form. The finely crafted insult was a sought-after goal. Most assuredly we could cross over the line at times. All humans are capable of a mean streak. But there was a trust and a sweetness born of true camaraderie which allowed us to enjoy even the jokes at our own expense.
By the time we got to college, we were all comedians. My roommate and I lived off campus so we were able to practice our routines restricted only by legal boundaries and those of a civil society, which we sometimes managed to stretch. For example, he thought it was hilarious to lie in bed when his alarm went off and wait until my alarm sounded half an hour later, then jump up and occupy the shower until all the hot water was gone. I responded by creeping out to the tank and shutting off the valve just when he was soaping up, which was doubly effective in cold weather.
After a particularly escalated series of practical jokes, my magnus opus occurred when he left work at our campus job in a hurry, late for a date, only to find that his truck was buried under a pile of industrial garbage bags loaded with food waste from the cafeteria. Only the headlights were visible. He retaliated by letting the neighbor’s cat inside on a cold night, the cat which liked to use the old floor furnace as a litter box. When the furnace cut back on, he raised the alarm from the safety of his bedroom and I stumbled out into a cloud of vaporized cat poo. Ultimately, however, we both suffered equally from that stunt.
I could fill several volumes with the escapades and insults we enjoyed growing up, so many of which might be considered dangerous, or worse, offensive today. All humans benefit, and suffer from the same human nature, but there are differences in the generations. Our parents were physically tough and able to sacrifice short term gain to achieve long term goals. We are emotionally tougher, and thicker skinned than our children and grandchildren. We grew up with Archie Bunker and George Jefferson, George Carlin and Richard Pryor. We’re just not that easy to offend.
Our youth are technologically adept and worldly in ways that we never imagined. They are passionate, as youth is passionate, and they are sensitive. They are serious minded, sometimes to the point of being morose. But I’m sorry to say, they’re just not that funny. Their culture doesn’t allow it, and that is a shame.