September 23, 2010
Were the "good ol' days," as we love to call them, really that good?
The "good ol' days" are a nebulous notion -- times past to my father were considerably different than my grandfather's good old days or as both were to my glory years. And not that far down the road, another generation will consider now, our present, as their good old days. "There are no days like the good old days," wrote Eugene Field, "the days when we were youthful!"
Years ago when I questioned my father about his good old days, he said there were fine times but little about that period was consistently good. He reminded me that when he was growing up on a hardscrabble farm, "We didn't have central heating, electricity, or indoor plumbing. And the leading causes of death were pneumonia and influenza, tuberculosis, and diarrhea. There were few sophisticated drugs; penicillin wasn't widely available to the public until after WWII."
For the most part, he went on, "We took care of our own medical problems; same thing with our animals, dogs in particular. Your grandfather had first-class hunting dogs, and he gave them fine care. In fact, people and dogs got medicated about the same way; if anything, our dogs had the edge in quality of treatment. But if they got hurt or sick, as often as not, like many people, they survived on their own strengths. I can tell you this," he added, "your good old days will be a lot better than mine." Given the timeframe of his life, I never doubted the prophecy.
But remembrance of things past can be selective. Whenever we go down the treacherous path of rehashing the good old days, by definition we focus on positive recollections and when necessary buttress them with invention. There's a temptation to look at "the days when we were youthful" through rose-colored glasses: persistently sunny days (except when we wanted them waterfowl stormy) filled with an abundance of birds that flew faster; guns that shouldered truer; gun dogs that were flawless in their quests, points, flushes and retrieves. But when we take off the glasses we see another set of images.
As much as we have a rosy fondness for times past, only a glutton for punishment could love the equipment of those days. Clothing especially; compared to today's outfits we would have been little worse for wear in loincloths and flip-flops. In the heart of a northern winter there was one fact of life: we were going to freeze. Uninsulated rubber waders, hip boots or pacs over thick waffled-cotton underwear guaranteed motion-induced rivers of sweat, then hours of cold. Wool longjohns were warm but itched like a mosquito blitzkrieg.
Speaking of mosquitoes, not too far back repellents were marginally effective; spring dog-training or early fall hunts could be a survival challenge. Or how about inflatable duck decoys that were easy to carry but chronically deflated into weird spreads of limp-necked, flattened-rubber mallards? Then there were delicate glass-lined thermos bottles that you always dropped on frigid mornings when you'd trade your trigger finger for steaming coffee without broken glass in it.
Maybe it's me, but the dogs of our earlier years seem to be at the heart of most recollections of the good old days. Awhile back, friends and I were arguing about how gun dogs of years past were across-the-board better than those of today. They were talking about their first, second, or third dogs, thus it was natural to remember them as more than they were. I argued that our expectations were lower then; if a dog pointed a couple of birds or flushed game in range or more or less retrieved, that was a memorable day. The way I see it, as our dog-training skills increased, so did our fussiness about performance and we were not so easily satisfied. I'm not saying today's dogs are magnitudes better than those of times gone by, but neither are they of lower quality.
Yes, the notion of the good ol' days is tricky and fosters the temptation to see yesteryear's glass as brimming over. But that view does disservice to reality; it's impossible to compete with something as compellingly pleasant as selective memory.
Although our minds may admit that ducks of the past didn't always decoy, upland birds didn't flush harder, shotguns weren't perfect, and all dogs weren't bird geniuses, our hearts tell us that there are, indeed, no other days quite like those when we were youthful.