Cavalcade of Lesser Horrors

Cavalcade book coverWhat an offbeat title, I thought.

Peter Smith’s reminiscences of his baby boomer Chicago childhood and later adventures in Viet-Nam and Minnesota live up to its portent. While his style is as smooth as silk, the vignettes explore the road bumps of everyday life, a “stream of episode” centering around family, church, school, friends, and the city.

The cavalcade, Smith explains in the preface, is “…not so big as to scare you to death or so brutal as to cripple you for life. Just that steady drip, drip, drip of small stuff that jars you on some level, then disappears to return years later like the people, events, and small stuff recorded here.”

The author grew up in a Catholic family with eight siblings, which is a story in itself. I cut my teeth and came-of-age in the same city at the same time. He captures the streets, the smells, and zeitgeist of those urban years.

The memories are conjured up with zest and detail. This is both light and heavy reading. Don’t expect glossed-over, Pollyanna nostalgia. He doesn’t hesitate to delve beneath the surface to deliver an unvarnished view, but always with wry humor and compassion. The author is critical, and forgiving.

You’ll meet a cavalcade of characters: an old time, pear shaped family doctor with a cigarette dangling from his mouth, “the lord of the soda fountain,” a no-nonsense Sister Clotilda, a mysterious Fabian/James Dean heart-throb who shocks and vanishes from a beach almost as soon as he arrives, among others. Perhaps most important, the author’s crime reporter father – who (like all fathers to their sons) appears as larger-than-life but flawed - is woven throughout the tales.

We travel the twisting road of the author’s adult life from his army induction – chapter title: “Screwed” – to his difficult re-adjustment as a civilian, through ambivalence with his advertising career and the challenge of raising a family. All carry the same struggles, disappointments and eventual, if less than perfect, resolutions.

soda fountainWriting is therapy. By objectifying traumas and dramas, one is liberated, even vindicated.

Unfortunately, not everyone can write so skillfully. But we can all read. By taking us through his personal journey, he encourages a collective catharsis. The honesty is refreshing. You get to know Peter well, and Peter is us.

The book is divided into 33 short chapters that proceed in general chronological order, but it’s not necessary to read them that way. You can start anywhere, connect to the ethos, and fill in the gaps as you go along. I also found re-reading my favorite stories illuminating; there’s often a sub-reality better appreciated the second time around.

It helps to be a baby boomer to navigate Cavalcades, but hardly necessary. We experienced unique events and cultural changes but so does every generation. What we all share is that life is an unsolicited gift with many more questions and doubts than answers and certainties. To venture through it and survive with your wits intact is heroic. Too often, we don’t recognize our own achievement. The author taps into the heroism in all of us.

Terry Hamburg writes the Baby Boomer Daily about the exciting and revolutionary baby boomer years.


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