August 23, 2010

Bootleggers, walnuts, and nostalgia

Spearfish writer Lorraine Collins is a regular contributor to the Black Hills Pioneer newspaper, and we're delighted that she shares her column with us for Black Hills Monitor. She's touched upon a wide range of topics, and this time she writes about "Taking America what?" You may contact Lorraine at

An elderly gent I know told me that when he was a kid Prohibition was still in force, so he and his pals would get on their bikes and ride through their small town in northwestern South Dakota on Sunday morning to gather up half pint whiskey bottles that had been emptied on Saturday night. They would return the bottles to the bootlegger for cash. I guess this is an early example of recycling.

The bootlegger he dealt with ran a lumberyard and stashed his whiskey in a pile of sawdust at the back of the yard. He says, "If the police wanted to know who the bootleggers were, all they had to do was ask a kid."

Stories like this always make me think of how much society has changed over the course of the last 75 years or so. There are many small differences that we may not think of very often but eventually they add up to big changes. For instance, I watched a TV weatherman the other evening who spoke of "half dollar sized hail." That surprised me, because I haven't seen a half dollar coin in years and I wondered if anybody else has. Why did the half dollar disappear from ordinary commerce? Maybe it's because of all those vending machines that have slots that can take quarters or dollar bills, but not half dollars.

In any case, I thought that "half dollar size" hail was rather quaint until I read a report in the "100 years ago" section of the newspaper in which a fellow reported hail stones "the size of walnuts."

We don't hear of walnut-sized hail anymore because we rarely see a whole walnut in the shell, except maybe occasionally at Christmas. Otherwise, we buy plastic sacks of walnut pieces. So now our reporters say that hail was the size of ping pong balls, or golf balls or even baseballs, but not walnuts. The fact that people out here in the west are more familiar with golf balls than walnuts is just one more indication of how our neighborhood has changed over the course of a century.

It's the gradual realization of how much life has changed, and how complicated it seems to be these days, that leads us to long for the good old days. We think that everything was much simpler when the biggest criminal in town was a part time bootlegger and no one had yet heard of crack cocaine or meth. It's easy to become nostalgic for the time that Norman Rockwell depicted so well in Saturday Evening Post covers when neighborhoods and families seemed wholesome, intact, and benign. It's a pleasant, if unrealistic, vision and politicians sometimes exploit our nostalgia. They persuade us that the country has lost some essential values and talk about trying to get the nation to return to some past idyllic time.

Yet when we cling to the idea of the past, we're investing it with a virtue it may not have had. Those good old days included racial segregation, discrimination against women and, often, limiting children's education to no more than the 8th grade so they could go to work and help support the family. A lot of things were going on behind those white picket fences that the public either didn't know about or ignored, including domestic violence, alcoholism, and child abuse. People with physical or mental disabilities were parked in institutions or hidden in back bedrooms. There wasn't a lot of help for the elderly or families in need.

So we shouldn't get carried away with nostalgia, no matter how complex and hazardous life seems to be these days. Politicians who rely on our longing to return to what we think of as a simpler and more comprehensible life aren't really offering us a clear eyed view of the past. When I hear them talk about "taking America back" I just wonder, taking America back to what?

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