Observations: The summer of youth

Published on: April 28, 2011

When I was young I couldn’t imagine how much I would enjoy spending weekend mornings with my wife, just reading a newspaper.  But then nothing has turned out the way I expected it to and I’m pretty happy about that. Mitch Traphagen Photo

When I was young I couldn’t imagine how much I would enjoy spending weekend mornings with my wife, just reading a newspaper. But then nothing has turned out the way I expected it to and I’m pretty happy about that. Mitch Traphagen Photo


I’ve been thinking a lot about memories lately, and it occurred to me that I lived through the 1960s. I mean that literally. Until recently, I would read about things that people had to say about the 60s with a certain detachment, but suddenly now I realize, hey, I was there!

The editor of The Observer News teases me by saying that I’m fixated on getting old, but I think, instead, it is because summer awakens my memories of a childhood filled with summers that were long with cool mornings, hot days, and endless sunshine. And, of course, being in Minnesota, there was an occasional blizzard thrown in.

I was born in 1962, the youngest of four children. I don’t remember anything about that year, but I’m sure some stuff did happen. It was Thanksgiving Day. My mother’s doctor was out duck hunting when she went into labor and he arrived at her hospital room wearing hunting gear. Shortly after, at 10:10 a.m., I took my first breath of air.

I was born into a world teetering into chaos. A counter-culture was already forming across the country; and the bullets were flying in Vietnam, but virtually all of the 60,000 Americans who would soon perish in that country were still alive on the day of my birth.

Nineteen sixty-two is technically at the end of the baby boom. I say “technically” because I really don’t have much in common with what everyone would call a baby boomer. I didn’t go to Vietnam, and I didn’t evade the draft. I was 12 years old, after all. Growing up I had heard of Woodstock, but I got it confused with the little bird in the Charlie Brown cartoon strip. I didn’t attend peace rallies, and I never even smoked pot until the 1980s. I didn’t much care for it, by the way. By that, I mean both pot and the 1980s.

I don’t remember my first birthday, but the rest of the world does. President John Fitzgerald Kennedy was assassinated and Lyndon Baines Johnson became the President of the United States. My only memories of Johnson are from a Mad Magazine comic strip that featured a guy coming home from work answering his wife’s call, “Is that you, honey?” with “No, it’s the guy who comes home every day, LBJ!” For reasons I didn’t understand, the wife shot her husband a panel or two after that.

I spent my childhood in a small town on the Great Plains. Nothing happened there. Supposedly, the Hell’s Angels rode through town one summer day. In reality, however, it might well have been a bunch of harmless guys from Minneapolis out for a ride in the country. I remember rumors of someone being killed, but no one was missing from the town and no one was arrested. All in all, it was probably just something to spice up a brown gravy boring life in the middle of nowhere.

But life really wasn’t all that bad, in fact it was pretty good. We didn’t lock the doors and we knew all of our neighbors—even the mean ones. My parents had a group of friends, and my brother and sisters all became friends with their children. It was kind of like Leave It To Beaver with Hamm’s Beer.

The first girl I fell in love with was named Michelle. I was nine years old and she lived a few streets over from my house. I would endlessly ride my bike slowly past her house hoping to catch her attention. Today that would be called stalking.

My boyhood affections turned from Michelle to Gena during what now seems to be the summer of my youth, simply because I remember it (and because Gena was so cute). In 1976, a small shopping mall with a K-Mart came to town, and we all believed we had arrived. I rode my bike alongside Gena to that K-Mart so she could buy the blue jeans that she wore the next night as we watched the bicentennial fireworks together over the lake in town. It was a very big deal.

My oldest sister wanted to be a hippie. She would spend hours lying next to the giant wood console stereo in the family room listening to music and drawing peace signs on her jeans. My effort towards becoming a hippie involved tying a string of leather around my ankle and sometimes walking around barefoot. I thought it was cool. Today I can appreciate how difficult it must have been for hippies in Worthington, Minnesota. You just didn’t do that there. You could drink yourself into oblivion, cheat on your wife, wear plaid, big collars and outrageously bright polyester, but you couldn’t grow your hair long or be too much of a wimp to go to Vietnam. In 1970s Worthington, people voted for liberals and acted like conservatives.

I didn’t know any of that then, of course, but it is clear now. One of the children of my parents’ friends, Tim O’Brien, went on to become a highly successful author, starting with an incredible book entitled, If I Die in a Combat Zone, about life, Worthington and Vietnam.

When I was in the sixth grade, I was downstairs watching a Star Trek rerun. My dad had come home early and yelled (and I mean yelled), “MITCH! GET UP HERE NOW!”

Uh oh, that was serious and I was scared. I tore up the stairs and flew through the kitchen to see an electric guitar and a small amplifier sitting in the living room. It was the exact combo that I had spent hours admiring in the JC Penney catalog. My dad was the smartest man that I have ever known.

He died a few years after that. By that time, I had traded playing baseball for playing that guitar. My dad was a busy man and, more often than not, it was well into the evening when he came home from work. But maybe, as I was the last child of four, he realized life was about to change. I once came home from school to find that, rather than going to work, he stayed home to build a go-cart for me. And later there was the fort in the backyard that we built together. (Actually, he did the work; he let me think I helped.)

I can’t remember what I did yesterday, but I remember the day he died in vivid detail. I was 15-years-old and far too ignorant to lose my father. Me at 15 is not how I would have chosen to have him remember me.

But now, it is 2011 and although I still feel like his kid, I’ve lived longer than my dad. Other than the fact that here we are living the future without the promised jet packs and flying cars, things have turned out pretty good. I have no idea what became of the nine-year-old Michelle but, thanks to Facebook, I know that Gena lives out west, is married and has children of her own. She is happy.

Nothing turned out the way I expected it to, but I’m happy, too. These days it often feels as though the world is teetering into chaos, but there is nothing new about that. We’ll be OK; we’ll get through this; we’ve done it before. Summer is coming and all around us memories will be made. Age doesn’t matter; I know with certainty that in your mind you are still young and this can be a summer of your youth. Make some memories now for there is magic in the cool mornings, hot days and sunshine. I’m not fixated on getting old, I’m working to remember what it is to be young.

P.S. I’d like to thank everyone who has emailed me about everything from my recent sailing trip to the column about hearing loss. I’ve gained so much from you, the wisdom you shared regarding the article on getting old and crabby, and the stories of struggle and triumph with hearing loss that have provided so much inspiration. Thank you. If you haven’t heard back from me yet, please don’t give up. I will gratefully respond to every message with the same thought and consideration that you put into writing it. In the meantime, I would love to hear about the summers of your youth, possibly to share in this column. I won’t use your name (or even your story if you ask me not to), but I am certain that in your stories are answers to questions for some people, and validation and inspiration for others.

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