The Universal Notebook: Remember the good old days?

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Raking the fallen leaves the other day, I started thinking about the good old days when we’d just rake the leaves into the gutter and burn them. The smell of burning leaves was the aroma of autumn, pungent and smoky, a perfectly legal form of local air pollution.

If there had been a dry spell, you might have to get a permit, but burning leaves was the norm. Now we haul tarps full of yellow and brown maple leaves and rust-colored pine needles out into the woods behind the house, using the last few loads to put the backyard garden to bed under a blanket of leaves.

When libertarians complain about the erosion of individual liberties, I never know what they are talking about unless it is things like burning leaves, petty freedoms sacrificed for the common good. The good old days were rife with indulgences that these days seem unthinkable.

Can you imagine, for instance, allowing people to smoke in restaurants and other public places? Teachers used to smoke in school. Doctors smoked in their offices. Heck, Carl Yastrzemski used to smoke in the Red Sox dugout.

There was also a time, boys and girls, when it was relatively common for people to throw trash out of their car as they gas-guzzled down the road. Coffee cups, sodas bottles, gum wrappers, cigarette butts, you name it, you’d find it on the side of the road. Now the only people who litter like this are knuckle-draggers who toss McDonald’s bags out on the roadside and the few remaining smokers who still think it’s OK to flick their butts out the window. Oh well, they’ll all be dead soon.

In the good old days, we were pretty cavalier about disposing of things in inappropriate ways. The town dump was an open, smoking pit of smoldering refuse. Factories and farms just pumped effluent and offal into the rivers. Folks fortunate enough to live on the shore flushed their sewage overboard into the ocean figuring the tide would take care of their fecal matters for them. I have a suspicion there are still a few fat cats on islands and in summer colonies who dispose of their doo-doo in this manner.

Up until the 1970s, it was considered perfectly OK to flush miles of logs down rivers to the mills. Never mind the damage to the flora and fauna and the danger to every living thing, including the log drivers, expediency trumped everything else in the old days.

We also weren’t as hung up on safety as we are today. I don’t think I wore a seat belt until the 1980s. On long trips, my brother and I would ride free and unrestrained in the cargo compartment of the station wagon, and when I was a baby my parents would just lay me up on the rear window shelf and drive around to cool off on hot summer nights. It’s a wonder any of us made it out of the 1950s alive.

Back then, hockey players didn’t wear helmets and goalies didn’t wear face masks. Bicycle helmets hadn’t even been invented. Dogs ran wild in the streets and roamed the neighborhood in packs. Parents could whack their kids around all they wanted. Spare the rod, spoil the child. And the dentist might give you a vial of liquid mercury to play with if you were a good little boy or girl.

There were also, of course, a few prohibitions back then would be hard for young people to comprehend today. Girls couldn’t wear slacks, let alone jeans, to school. And the rare unmarried couple that lived together was considered to be “shacking up.”

Oh yes, and Uncle Sam had the authority to force young men into the military against their will. They’d then be sent off to fight and die in a far away war that accomplished nothing.

Some things never change.

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Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Yarmouth. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.