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Dime Box, the past and the search for Utopias

East Bernard Express of East Bernard, Texas

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In these trying times we live in, there seems to be a search for something wonderful that we used to have, but somehow lost. No doubt that's why articles and stories about "the good old days" of the 1930s and the 1940s, when life was simpler, more rural, more religious, are so popular. It might even explain why so many folks tell me they like my column the best when I write about growing up in Dime Box in the 1940s.

It even leads me to thinking about the question of why I like to think and write about my childhood days in Dime Box. My theory is that it's one of the ways we search for Utopia, the ideal society or the ideal civilization. From a Christian's point of view it has to do with our first, parents' having been kicked out of the Garden of Eden because of sin. The Garden of Eden, like Heaven, was the perfect place, and we yearn to return to the Garden we were kicked out of.

Throughout history, thinkers have searched their minds for this ideal place. Plato was probably the first great thinker who sought Utopia by writing The Republic, a description of an ideal society. Today's reader doesn't find Plato's Republic all that Utopian.

The word "Utopia" was actually invented by Sir Thomas More, when, in 1516, he wrote a book entitled Utopia, describing an imaginary island society in the Atlantic Ocean. Other cultures, other writers, other thinkers have created versions of Utopia, many of which were very popular and much loved.

James Hilton created "Shangri-La" in Lost Horizon. From the Chinese Classic of Rites came the Utopian place, "Datong." Tao Yuanming described a beautiful, secluded community which had not been affected by the rest of the world in The Peach Blossom Spring.

One of the most popular Utopias was "Brigadoon," first written as a musical which opened for a very successful run on Broadway in 1947. The play's enormous success was no doubt the reason a movie version was made in 1954. Brigadoon is the story of two American tourists who stumbled upon a mysterious Scottish village which appears only once every one hundred years.

In the 20th Century there were some reverse Utopias written, such as Orwell'sl984 and Huxley's Brave New World, perhaps reflecting the cynicism of more recent eras. Each was projecting a reverse Utopian society for the future. Here we are way past 1984, and some things are even worse than predicted. More and more, we begin to think that our only hope is in the hereafter, God's promise of the Heavenly kingdom at the End of Times.

No doubt that's why many of us like to think about what it was like back when, before the world lost its innocence. Of course, in reality it wasn't really that Utopian, as those who suffered through the Great Depression will attest to. And, even in the 1940s, the era I remember so well and like to write about. We were immersed in World War II, which, in many ways, was a nightmare. Listening to World War II veterans a few years ago before they passed away and some now who are still living, I remain shocked at the carnage and the bloodshed and grief they told about.

I have some first-hand memories of the War, too. My mother's cousin was bayoneted to death on the front lines. One of my uncles experienced things in the Pacific so horrible he couldn't talk about them for years afterwards. My friends' fathers and uncles came home in flag-draped caskets. In that sense, there was nothing Utopian about the 1940's.

Yet, for all that, I still think about and write about those years in the '40s, with Utopian joy, because in many ways, those were good old days. Families were united and lived close to one another. We had neither television nor electronic games, but we built camp fires and log cabins in the woods, staying up all night looking up at the stars, not going blind from the intense light of computer screens and electronic games. We said prayers in public school and we had school Christmas plays wherein we played Mary and Joseph and the shepherds and angels, and no one considered that politically incorrect. Our teachers quoted the Bible as often as they quoted Shakespeare, and we said the Pledge of Allegiance with exuberant patriotism. We drank fresh milk from the cows we milked and ate butter we churned on homemade bread baked regularly by our mothers.

No, it wasn't Utopia, but yes, yes, yes, for me, and for many others, we were closer to it then than we are today.

Ray Spitzenberger serves as pastor of St. Paul Lutheran Church in Wallis, after retiring from Wharton County Junior College, where he taught English and speech and served as chairman of Communications and Fine Arts for many years.

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Original Publication Date: May 12, 2016

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