Nostalgia is a sentimental longing for the memory of a happy past - even when that past wasn't really all that happy. Our minds willfully obliterate some memories and exaggerate others. For most of us, that means we romanticize the past. The good times become the "best ever" times, the happiest days of their lives, and the memories evoked may not even be their own but a blend of hearsay and commercials playing on that growing nostalgia. For them, the bad things are shrugged off or hidden.

A few do the reverse - the bad times loom larger in their minds than any good times - sometimes to the point that they believe there were no good times at all, that life was hard and bitter every moment, that everyone was cruel and heartless.

Both lead older people to start tales with "When I was a child..."

There were a lot of things that happened when we were children.  Some good, some bad.  Some improved over the years, some changed, some disappeared, some degraded.

Every age has its own zeitgeist.

My childhood is no different.  Being in inventive child, it was probably a bit more explosive than most people's childhoods.  And since I was a journalistic child (with a vivid imagination), I have to admit that even the documented happenings could be fictionalized. There are incidences I wrote about that may never have happened. Some I can tell right away are imaginative - pirates in the chinaberry trees, for instance - pure fantasy.

But what about the close encounter with the serial killer?  Was that simply a fireside story or did it really happen?  Was that my head resting on the window sill that hot summer night, or the head of a fictional character, when the screen was quietly slit, and the killer scared away for some unknown reason? Were there really deaths from an intruder who entered homes by slicing the screens, or did that come from my mind, from tales we told to scare one another as fireflies flashed past while we waited for the night to cool off enough to go to bed?

I wrote it down as real, but none of the information I wrote as fact seems to have been documented anywhere else. I even contacted some of the people still alive from back then - and no one remembers the window screen killer.

What other things from my childhood are real, and what are not?  Did I really wear a rabbit skin swimsuit to the YMCA pool (maybe...there is some corroboration from friends who were there)?  Did I really walk to school 3 miles in the snow (it was 2 1/2 miles...I measured it last year, although the route now would be longer since neighbors installed impregnable fences)?

Were times better when I was a child?

Not really.

They weren't worse, either.  

Some things I liked as a child have ceased to exist, and some activities I loved as a child I don't do any more.

One thing I missed that I wanted my children to experience was the movie theater experience I had.  We'd walk to town (it wasn't that far, a matter of a couple of miles) in a group, and pay a dime to see the Saturday Matinee showing.  A nickle would buy a pickle or popcorn or a candy bar.  We'd enter the theater,where there were ushers to make sure we remained in our seats.  The screen was back behind a deep stage because the movie theater doubled as a theatrical stage.  Before the movie began, we'd have little live performances from local actors, maybe a sing-along, and when that was over, the audience would be full of children and the pre-movie cartoon would start.  Then we'd get a movie serial (Flash Gordon, The Purple Monster, Cpt. Marvel, Secret Agent x-9, Mandrake the Magician, Zorro, Lassie, Flicka...).Then the movie (no previews back then).  The movie would stop in the middle and those who had to would go to the bathroom.  The rest of us stayed for the talent show and little contests where we could win a free movie ticket for next week or a free soda or popcorn.  Sometimes we won little toys - I won a yo-yo once.  I still have that yo-yo (packratitis started young). My sister won a decoder ring.  She doesn't have the ring anymore.  She never developed packratitis.  Then intermission would be over, and the ushers would make sure we were all seated and quiet, and then the movie would start again and finish. When it was over, the ushers would shoo us out, and sometimes, when times were good, we'd stop at the soda fountain for a hamburger and soda.  If they were bad, we'd just go home and play.

The movie serial experience in the theater ended about 1960.  They stopped producing the serials before then, but in little hick towns, they were still shown for a while before they gave way to TV series.  Some of the movie serials were reborn as TV series. The Lone Ranger, Lassie, Zorro - those all became TV series.

I am a lot nostalgic for that movie experience. My children didn't get that.  The movie theaters were far away, and the Saturday matinee was $1 and they couldn't go alone.  There was no sing-along or live performance before the cartoon, no cartoon, no intermission with a talent show or contests. It was previews, movie, done.

Except for the movie experience, there wasn't much that I did as a child that I wasn't able to re-create for my children, so there's not really that much personal nostalgia.

I will admit that sometimes, I do get sucked into zeitgeist nostalgia - the nostalgia for things that never really happened, but could have, like the serial screen killer.

Which I still don't know is real or made up.


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