I used to live across the street from Fred Freeman -- in a metaphysical sense, I mean: Fred's mother, Corinne, still residing in the house where he grew up; the neighborhood itself looking much as it had in the '20s, when the first houses were erected, the streets laid out, the sidewalks paved, the hackberry trees planted.
Thanks to reading Growing Up in the Park Cities: Life in the 1920-1940s, his very touching, thoroughly wonderful memoir of those days, I now find Fred more deeply rooted on "our block" than ever before: the block he left decades ago but, strangely, never left entirely.
The imprint of people who have been in a place...really been there, through up times and down; laughing, playing, gardening, breakfasting, sleeping, drinking: such imprints go deep. You don't readily efface them, nor will McMansions, or the demise of the hackberry trees, hide their traces. There remains...the neighborhood. There remains what happened there all those years ago.
Life happened. What you find out, from Growing Up in the Park Cities is how life was lived back when there were still porches and detached garages and rotating sprinklers flinging water on modest if meticulously tended plots of ground. It was the time from the Roaring '20s to World War II, and fires had to be lighted on cold winter mornings. Beds, placed in corners, were angled toward the center of the room for maximum climatic advantage. "[I]f you had a car, there was only one per family. The deep Depression had removed so much money and jobs from the people, and things were so bad that the only way to look was UP! So up we looked with great anticipation for the new and better cars, faster airplanes, and more take-home profit for dear old dad."
There were bicycles with horizontal bars "good for girls to sit on and ride sidesaddle with an arm around your neck." And a game of Spin-the-Bottle, interrupted by the discovery of two eyes at the windows, belonging to the mother of a participant. And 1931 Bell standing model phones, so heavy to hold they shortened conversations. And paper routes "in the fresh air, rain, snow, and ice, 100 + degrees heat or freezing cold." And the Texas Centennial: "a fantastic land of beautiful art deco buildings marching along on both sides of a 700-foot-long reflecting pool of water," with lighting that made night seem like day." And picnics at White Rock Lake -- chips, games, cold drink, and g-i-r-l-s, "a big full moon rising through the trees or across the lake, and with a warm beautiful girl snuggled by your side."
Then the war: the neighborhood left, for a time, to its own devices and divine providence. A stint with the Army Air Corps. Flight school in California and, at last, at long last, the sublime moment, two weeks after the 21st birthday, flying solo for 25 minutes, soloing on three take-offs and landings. Finally to France, the summer of '44, at the controls of a C-47.
I read on with fascination. Yes, and admiration. The "greatest generation" makes its bow, fights through to the end. But all is of a piece: the life before, the life now; the neighborhood merely extended overseas and into cockpits, taken into the skies over Holland and France.
And it is good: good to remember, good to have affirmation of this character; to know all that my neighbor Fred stood for, and his friends and sweethearts during a time like our own and yet utterly dissimilar to our own in so many urgent ways, not all of them economic. Growing Up in the Park Cities helps us stand between these two times and places, and to see, and to learn.
Learn what? Well, this, among numerous other things that concern those times, those people: We have so much more than they had. And we have so much less.