When I Was Young


Recently I've noticed that I say "When I was young..." in prefacing little stories that I'm about to tell to those who companion with me. We're eating dinner, or lunch, or just chatting in a parlor. The phrase "When I was young..." falls from my lips almost unconsciously, too often, as a lead to remembering events.

Maybe I've been saying "When I was young..." longer than I've been aware of saying it. I'm sure. Speech habits creep into use unnoticed "ya know," then evolve into boring emphases from which we don't easily escape. Younger people seek out "vogue-words" because it's "in" to say them: things like "that's decent" or "gnarly" or "cowabunga" or "later (dude)" or "totally awesome." Hey! "chillout."

It's when I realized that I was prefacing recollections with "When I was young..." that I began to say that "I'm on the edge of being old." I don't know which is more depressing. Neither of these phrases belong to conversations. "When I was young..." replaced the more reasonable observation "When I was a kid..." You can say that if you're nineteen...or twenty-seven...or thirty-nine...or fifty-nine and get away with it. "When I was a kid..." doesn't have the sinister hint of something lost.

I don't often hear people reflect on the downside of age when it's upon them. When I do, I think it's a bad sign. I don't know the innermost thoughts of the people I meet. Those who think that they do are meddling with an ugly presumption. Most people are reluctant to reveal their thoughts on the finite. They might feel vulnerable...naked.

Recently an uncle gave me two photos from the time when I was young. Excuse me: when I was a kid. I looked deeply into the faces that now were looking into the unimaginable future at examiners and among them there are those who were not yet born when the shutter snapped. The first picture was taken in 1940. My cousin Gene was in the center. He was one year old and unaware of what a camera was. He sat on a Bab-o box and he stared at the ground. I was to his right and I grinned vacantly at the order to grin vacantly at the picture taker. There's an old pal of mine standing on the other side of the Bab-o box and baby Gene. "Who is he?" I looked at the photo and told my aunt and uncle (the parents of once baby Gene) and Barbel, wife of no longer baby Gene, that I couldn't remember who he was. "Who is he?" I repeated their inquiry.

That night I remembered. Ah! It's Tommy Hornsby who disappeared a few years later. He was my pal. When kids were six years old they called each other boy friends but that meant pals. We were old pals and later they moved away and we didn't see them anymore. They disappeared.

I'm looking at Tommy Hornsby now. He's looking at me but these glances, mine to the past and his to the future, are useless. I look at me and my eyes ricochet back from this impossible meeting.

The second picture is not contrived. It's taken at Wildwood by the Sea. I'm on the left sitting cross legged, a skinny little kid on the beach. My sister sits right of center flanked by Gene, now a year older and away from his Bab-o crate, and an unidentified grumpy looking child about his age. No one looks at the photographer who has obviously clicked this one off before we could pose. "Oops!" My grandmother sits on a beach chair at the far right in a dress that suits all occasions for grandmothers and she will not get a suntan.

I'm impressed. I've got all my hair and certainly all my teeth in these old pictures taken when I was young. My sister, a little girl on the beach was a big girl to us who were younger. I look at her and think of the captured figure of a little girl whose little brother is "on the edge of being old" when he looks from where the camera was. Sadly, she's old now and long besieged by unkind events that were unforeseen then. Our grandmother has died half-way in time between then and now and my sister now is older than our grandmother was when the lens winked on the beach.

...I grinned vacantly at the order to grin vacantly at the picture taker.