by Bill Swartz
When I was a little kid growing up in York, Pennsylvania, I spent a lot of time at my grandparents’ house. It was a brick rancher with a walk out basement and it was built in the 1950’s. I always felt happy there. Safe, warm and hopeful. It had a real post-war prosperity vibe. My grandfather grew up in pretty harsh conditions during the Great Depression in South Dakota. He never talked about it, but I always had the feeling that he ate a lot of potatoes when he was my age.
Papa had somehow managed to get an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy and he eventually became an engineer. At one point, he taught classes on aeronautics. The first president George Bush was in his class.
When my mom was just a kid, Papa worked for the York Corporation’s air conditioning division and they transferred him out of York to California for a few years. My mom still reminisces about their little house on Piccolo Street in Pasadena. She loves to tell stories about the Santa Monica pier and my young beautiful Nana swimming in a pool while Marlon Brando looked on.
When Papa was transferred back from California to the York headquarters, he and my grandmother and their two daughters moved into the small ranch house that later became my childhood haven. My grandfather designed that home in his early 30’s (on graph paper I imagine). But he was so practical that he made it single level for when they got old. He was the kind of guy who used a pully system to string up large lawn equipment in his garage above his aging Nova sedan and loved to show you how the pullies cut the apparent weight in half. When Papa got a black lab soon after his retirement, he named it “Sam” because he figured one syllable would be easier to say when he got older.
My grandmother read to me a lot in that house. We colored Easter eggs and later hunted for them outside among the daffodils and dogwood trees as the morning sunshine slowly dried the dew from the grass. At Christmas, we listened to Bing Crosby records, went sledding on nearby Reservoir Hill, warmed ourselves by a Duraflame log in the living room fireplace and marked time with an advent calendar. We watched cardinals on the feeder in the early morning sunlight while we sat at the kitchen table eating poached eggs from little cups. We had family gatherings with my aunt, uncle and cousins on the back terrace with neatly arranged trays of crackers, cheese, celery, tiny corn cobs, chips and onion dip.
My grandfather would sometimes pull out an old wooden ice cream maker at those gatherings. It had a hand crank and looked like something that a California gold rush participant might have fashioned out of parts of a discarded barrel. It made the most delicious vanilla ice cream you ever tasted, especially when we added red raspberries we’d picked that morning from the back yard. After that ice cream, I would climb up into the hammock and stare up at the sky looking for cloud shapes.
Nana gave out Halloween candy to costumed kids on the front steps, their parents standing a few yards back so as to not interfere with the magic of the exchange. Now and then, Nana would put a nylon stocking over her head like a bank robber and scare the living daylights out of those little goblins, pirates and princesses.
My grandfather and I played a lot of pool, shot darts, worked in his garden and mowed the lawn with a 1950’s mower with oddly large wheels. I used to sit at his Formica desk in their finished basement punching the buttons on his scientific calculator, the red digital display glowing as I spelled out words using numbers.
I remember laying on my grandparent’s thickly carpeted living room floor reading Newsweek and Time Magazine as Papa watched the Baltimore Orioles or the absurdly long weather forecast on WGAL News 8. For some reason it made me exceedingly happy that the Storm Team Forecast showed a radar map that included the Chesapeake Bay. (To this day, that particular regional map in any form is somehow heartwarming).
The soothing patter of the baseball game or weather forecast provided the perfect background noise as I methodically paged through those news magazines. I digesting the latest about the nuclear arms race, America’s boycott of the Olympics, President Carter’s peanut farm, the Iranian hostage crisis and hurricanes hitting the Gulf coast.
If I asked a question about one of those news stories (which I often did), my grandfather would get up from his armchair and lead me over to the World Book Encyclopedia set to find the answer. “Cuba,” he’d say as if we were anthropologists about to discover a new civilization. “Pull out the C book and let’s take a look.” I’d study the map and article and, after finding my answer, I’d inevitably move on to an article on the next page. “Oh wow, did you know that cucumbers can grow from seed to full size in less than 10 weeks?”
I wrote my first poem at my grandparents kitchen table and was thrilled when the York Dispatch published it in the kids section of the newspaper (a feature the they really should bring back). The poem was called, “The World’s in a Fix” and I remember my dad helping me a bit on it. It was not a great poem, but I felt it did do a decent job covering the nuclear arms dilemma and the U.S. reaction to the Russian invasion of Afghanistan . I think it ended with this: “The Iranian crisis is making us mad. It has the hostages scared and their relatives sad. If we don’t take care of these problems soon, we’re going to blow up in a big mushroom.”
I blame that encyclopedia set and those news magazines for making me so boring at parties as an adult. But they also instilled in me a lifelong fascination with what we humans could achieve. We always seem to be on the precarious edge of near destruction and spectacular advancement. Spending a lot of time with my post-war grandparents instilled in me a general optimism, an authentic feeling that we’re going to advance and life will get better and better.
I don’t know why, but bowling with my grandmother always made me feel hopeful. I remember the soothing sound of balls hitting pins while I dried my hands using the built-in fan above the automatic ball return. That sound (and the Art Deco styling of the equipment) made me feel confident that the future of America was bright, no matter what new catastrophe was featured in Newsweek.
I think that good feeling had something to do with the California vibe of my grandmother combined with the 1950’s engineer ethos of my grandfather. Everything was “can do”.
It felt like all we needed to solve most any problem was to gather a bunch of people with 1950’s style eyeglasses in a building where they had unlimited resources to run experiments with beakers heated over Bunson burners, process punch cards using a computer that could fit in a single room (!) and develop control panels with buttons and lights.
This was a very familiar feeling to me. My other grandfather ran a little machine shop in the City of York that produced control panels for navy ships. (Back then little companies could get such contracts). There were serious men in that shop wearing 1950’s glasses and working busily on lathes. They could produce anything and do so with tolerances that made inspectors squint.
My father started his own metal foundry in a tiny cinderblock building the size of a muffler shop. His tolerances weren’t nearly as precise. But my dad’s relentless can-do spirit during his first year in business did inspire the man from the local fuel oil company. When he saw the look of determination in my father’s eyes, he decided to give my dad a little more time to pay his bill before shutting off his heat. And that’s a good thing because the unheated metal in the furnace would have expanded and cracked the crucible.
I spoke to that fuel oil company worker decades later because I happened to be dating his daughter. (It’s a small town). He told me that, after seeing my dad emerge from the building covered in foundry dirt after working an 18 hour day, he went back to his boss and said this: “This guy is just starting out. He’s gonna make it. We just gotta give him a little breathing room.” They did. And he made it. He grew that company to eventually become one of the largest giftware manufacturers of its type in the nation. At the height of his success, he still sometimes drove over to the factory after dinner and changed out loads in the finishing churns.
Can do. Anything is possible. All walls are made of paper. All rules were made by people just like you and me and you can break them and innovate and win!
That was the positive hopeful vibe that many of us grew up with if we were lucky enough to spend quality time with our post-war grandparents. The stories are different, but the ethos is the same. It doesn’t matter if your predecessors were foundry workers, doctors, nurses, bus drivers, housewives, NASA engineers, street sweepers, salespeople or civil rights activists. They set their minds to something, poured all their heart and soul into it, got up extra early every morning and got it done. That was the zeitgeist that once powered our nation.
That strength is still in our blood. Deep down, we remember that feeling of tenacity. We know what it feels like to have faith as a knowing rather than faith as a hoping. We just need to excavate that ethos again and feel it in our bones.
We Americans need to stop panicking. We need to alchemize our pain into progress and rise like a phoenix from these ashes. Nana and Papa did it. Why can’t we?