· When going to McDonald’s for a cheeseburger, fries and shake was a big deal, practically heaven.
· When your dad pulled up to an A&W Root Beer drive-in speaker and ordered you a Black Cow and onion rings for no reason at all.
· When you’d have grilled cheese with your mom at the S.S. Kresge five-and-dime lunch counter on her downtown shopping trips to look at Simplicity, McCall’s or Butterick sewing patterns.
· When you couldn’t sleep on Christmas Eve because Santa was coming, even when you knew the truth.
· When Halloween was almost as exciting. And candy was better than money.
· When on Thanksgiving you really did feel like giving thanks for all the people sitting around the table who adored you and would laugh at your antics. Especially that uncle who somehow “got” you.
· When on birthdays you felt like the Most Special Person on the Planet.
· The exploding Pinto. The Vega that would rust and fry an engine way before the payments ended. The Gremlin that came with mechanical gremlins. Weird little foreign cars that showed up in your neighborhood — the Renault Dauphine, Toyopet Crown Sedan, Saab 93, BMW 1600, and of course the VW Bug.
· When you were jealous of schoolmates who were taller, better looking, smarter, more athletic, more popular, didn’t need glasses, and enjoyed early onset puberty.
· When your faint acne was too embarrassing for you to leave the house.
· When The Cowsills’ hit, “Indian Lake,” played on the radio almost every hour, and before that, “The Rain, The Park and Other Things.”
· When the phone rang at home, no matter what time, and someone always jumped up to answer. If during dinnertime, your dad grumbled, “Who the hell calls during dinnertime?”
· When neighbors and friends and other kids just popped over whenever.
· When company was coming over, and your parents warmed up the RCA Victor stereo hifi console and stacked Sérgio Mendez and Brazil ’66, Mantovani and his Orchestra, Percy Faith, and Ray Conniff LPs on the record changer. They had cocktails with booze. The next morning your mother complained the drapes smelled like cigarettes.
· When wine came in a box or a bottle in a wicker basket. Riunite on ice was nice. Beer was Bud, Schlitz, and Stroh’s. Booze was Seagram’s.
· When Rice-A-Roni was “The San Francisco Treat!” even though it was just dried pasta and rice, and we knew nothing about San Francisco except the dinging streetcars or why people there thought it was a treat.
· When ravioli came from Chef Boyardee, Chinese food from La Choy, stew from Dinty Moore, and if any of these were for dinner, a babysitter was coming and your parents were going out.
· When Wonder Bread helped build strong bodies 12 ways. Wheaties was the Breakfast of Champions. And Shredded Wheat was a dreadful tasteless sodden mass you had to eat because it had nutrients, even though we had no idea what nutrients were.
· When everyone respected the president of the United States, even if some people didn’t like or agree with him. Or even hated him.
· When Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, and Reagan weren’t crude, belligerent, bellicose, snide, impulsive, and thin-skinned about the tiniest slight, real or perceived. At least, not in public.
· When a president didn’t use the bully pulpit to bully people — certainly not Americans — but saved harsh words for real enemies.
· When presidents didn’t routinely attack or insult people who questioned them, certainly not war heroes or grieving families of those killed in battle. When we were supposed to challenge the president for his behavior. It didn’t make us “haters.”
· When presidents didn’t pick petty public fights on a whim almost every day, or fuel hatred, resentment, and suspicion of the tired, poor, huddled, homeless, or tempest-tossed.
· When presidents didn’t divide, discredit, and demonize, whip up and pander to anger, or call bigots out of the woodwork like roaches at night.
· When presidents didn’t like the media, but they understood and respected its crucial role in democracy — to speak truth to power and “afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.” And even Nixon didn’t threaten to shut it down.
· When presidents respected the office, the honor and privilege to serve, and the sober responsibility to lift, unite, and move the nation forward together.
· When presidents acted with dignity, decency, decorum, and diplomacy. We expected them to.
· When presidents didn’t boast, brag, or preen about their greatness or superior intelligence and knowledge. They knew that for true leaders, humility is greatness.
· When presidents didn’t gratuitously attack former presidents, continue to smear election opponents they barely beat, or incite rally mobs to chant “lock him up!”
· When sitting presidents didn’t need to get a stern schooling from former presidents from the same political party that “our young people need positive role models. Bullying and prejudice in our public life sets a national tone, provides permission for cruelty and bigotry, and compromises the moral education of children. The only way to pass along civic values is to first live up to them.”
I remember those days back when. They definitely weren’t perfect.
But we did want our presidents to promote and represent the best of us, Lincoln’s “better angels of our nature.” I miss those days. Actually, it wasn’t that long ago. Less than 280 days ago.
Honestly, I miss those Kresge lunch counter grilled cheese too.
Jeffrey Denny is a Washington writer.