Chris Brockman, a 1966 West Bloomfield High School graduate, is coming home to the place that he refers to as the Water Winter Wonderland — Oakland County. Now an English instructor at Vance-Granville Community College in North Carolina, Brockman’s memoir, “Growing Up in Boom Times,” was just published by Author House. It explores his childhood in the lakes area and provides a record of that period for his own children.
This past June your book, “Growing Up in Boom Times” was published chronicling your childhood in Oakland County. Please tell us what prompted you to write this book.
CB: I thought that the Baby Boomer generation had a lot of things that were characteristic of it, a lot of things we have to share with one another and some good things that we could share with the world. That motivated me to write this and to do that sharing, and also to share my childhood with my own children.
What do you hope people will come away with after reading your book?
CB: I think they’ll come away with, in my experience so far, is that people do come away with feeling that things used to be pretty good. I don’t necessarily want to compare the age that I grew up in with the things now, but I think people get a feeling of the good old days were pretty good.
What was the most enjoyable part of writing Growing Up Boom Times? Do you have any plans to write another book in the future?
CB: Getting in touch with people I hadn’t gotten in touch with for years, including several generations of my own family, to verify some of my memories, to fill in spots that I didn’t remember exactly, and making contact with old friends. Really, the best thing was going back to the old days, going back to my youth, thinking about things that happened in the light of my greater knowledge now. It was a lot of fun.
I have several manuscripts in the hand that need to get sent out and I would like to get published. I intend to write until they put me in the ground.
In your book, you paint a picture of a simpler time full of creativity and responsibility. What do you think is the biggest difference between the experiences of children today and when you were a child? Any advice for the children and their parents of today?
CB: I think children don’t actually have as many experiences first-hand as they used to. Many things are much more vicarious. They experience things on the screen, you might say, under computers or games instead of doing things first-hand. That largely is because of parents’ fear that some harm is going to come to the children. That’s one of the biggest changes. When we were kids, our mothers and fathers sent us out in the morning and we were out in the neighborhood, in the woods, at the beach or whatever, for most of the day, coming home only when you were starving and had to eat.
Today, parents are really afraid that there’s a predator lurking behind every bush and afraid the sun might compromise their child’s skin. I really think kids have lost the capacity to experience things and actually have fun first-hand.
Listen up. That would be my advice. Studies have shown a lot of things that people fear are actually not as fearsome or hurtful as they seem to be. The sun, for instance, it’s been shown that perhaps more lasting damage can be had by not getting enough sun than there is getting too much sun — people not getting their Vitamin D, for instance. I think for children’s mental and physical health, they need to experience nature more, and the real world first-hand.
You mention in your book that Michigan is often called the Water Winter Wonderland. Which of the Michigan seasons did you enjoy the most and why?
CB: It’s hard to say. Everything was great in Michigan growing up because there is always something to do. As I indicated in the book, every season was full of activities, and we took full advantage of those seasons. By the end of the season, we (ready) for the next season to come along because we did so much that, I guess, it got a little old after awhile and we couldn’t wait for the end of winter, for instance, for spring to come on. When spring came, we couldn’t wait until it was hot enough to go swimming. When fall came, we couldn’t wait for the colors to change. When the fall had gotten full, you might say, we couldn’t wait for that first snow fall so we could go sledding and make snow forts, and so on. So every season in Michigan is wonderful.
Your delight in and respect for nature also come across strongly in your book. Do you feel there is a lack of appreciation of nature among today’s youth? How do you feel is the best way for children today to gain an appreciation for the outdoors?
CB: I think there is an appreciate. Again, it’s kind of second-hand from reading about it and stuff. I really don’t think kids appreciate nature first-hand as much. When I was a kid, we would go out and we would play in the woods. We’d climb trees. We’d hunt mushrooms in the spring. We’d pick wild blackberries and strawberries and black raspberries and gather hickory nuts. We’d go out and look at butterflies and dragon flies. We’d go to the swamps, and I’m sure there are not as many as there used to be, and we’d look for frogs and turtles. Nature was our school — for science, for art, for everything.
Participate in it. Go out into it. I know that’s not as easy as it used to be. I know that the area where I grew up in used to be mostly vacant lots and woods, and it’s is now completely full of houses. The dirt roads are paved. A lot of the swamps are gone. It’s not as easy as it used to be, but it’s still there. Kids need to get outside, get into nature, and just look around. That Michigan slogan — something about there’s a beautiful peninsula around you; just look around. That’s it.
You’ve been living in North Carolina for the past 13 years where you are an English instructor at Vance-Granville Community College. What do you miss the most about Oakland County? What do you think has been the biggest changes made in the area since your childhood?
CB: Really, the beauty of the countryside, as we called it. The environment. I don’t want to put down North Carolina, but it’s not Michigan. I miss the changing of the seasons. I miss the green of the trees. The trees down here are sort of different — there’s many more pine trees, for instance. And I miss a lot of my old friends, frankly. That’s about it. What I don’t miss is getting stuck in the winter in snow, sliding off the road, and things like that.
Well, there is certainly a lot more people. Just like my old neighborhood has changed so much — it’s filled in… It’s filling in quite a bit, although there’s still a lot of wild space, which is really quite remarkable with the increase in the number of people. And I think people’s attitudes change. I really do. The negative things of just living are much more out in the open now, in the news and on the television all the time. People are intimidated. People are afraid for their children and afraid for themselves. I don’t think statistically that crime has gone up any since I was a child. I really don’t think the accident rate or the death rate for our children especially has gone up. Things have not gotten that much better. The changes — some of them are good, for sure, and some of them aren’t.
You used to teach middle school. What made you decide to pursue teaching as a profession? Did your experiences as a student at Our Lady of Refuge influence the middle school teacher you became? How so? As a child who frequented the West Acres library, what books would you recommend that every child read before they graduate high school?
CB: I felt I had a lot to share with the kids. I think I have a capacity for explaining things well, to kids especially. I think I have a pretty good skill using the English language and writing, and I think both of those things are important, so I thought it would be rewarding and probably fun to work with kids. And it was. I had a good time teaching middle school. There were some bad things about it, of course — it was hard work, for one thing. But I did enjoy it, and I love my middle school students.
I don’t think (my Our Lady of Refuge experiences influenced my teaching). My experience at Our Lady of Refuge was so different than my teaching middle school and the experience that I saw my kids have in middle school. I don’t think I related the two. Something that’s probably interesting is that John Grogan, author of “Marley and Me,” wrote a memoir called “The Longest Trip Home” and he went to Our Lady of Refuge, the same school I did, but 9 years after I did. And his description of the school is so much different than my experience there. Things have changed so much in those 9 years, the 9 years between when he was school-aged and when I was, that it’s hard to compare the two experiences in a lot of ways.
(I would recommend) “To Kill a Mockingbird,” for sure. One of my very favorites from my childhood, that I taught in middle school, all of my children, is “Have Space Suit — Will Travel” by Robert Heinlein. It’s special. It actually is a retrospective, in many ways, looking back, because he was writing in the 1950s, but he was looking forward to a period in the future, somewhat, but he was writing from the perspective of the 1950s. It’s such a cool juxtaposition of those two points of view. So I’d really recommend that book.
You grew up in West Bloomfield next to Middle Straits Lake. Please explain the role growing up so close to a lake has played as part of your life. What was your favorite memory of life on the lake?
CB: It was an essential part of my life. I grew up on the edge of the woods, literally. Our property butted up to the woods and was easy walking distance to the lake. I spent most of my time either in the woods or at the lake. We’ve got a wonderful beach there that’s still there, Twin Beach. There’s just no way to express what a wonderful time it was down there, fishing off the dock in the canal, swimming, jumping off the raft that we had. It just was a magical time.
I just think all the times we spent on there — especially when I got a little bit older and I could swim on the big raft, as we called it. The other guys, we’d push each other off the raft, sort of like King of the Castle. Those were great times. We were always on the lookout for pretty girls. That was another thing that was special. You know, making a practice of very politely helping them up on the rafts and pulling them up by the hand. It was just a whole experience down there. Interacting with other people was really great.
Every generation has aspects of their childhood that prompts feelings of nostalgia. What do you feel were the unique things that characterized being a Baby Boomer?
CB: I think the sense of freedom that we had. I think the sense of expectation that we had. Those two things sort of go together. The odd thing that went with those things was the constant threat of nuclear war during the Cold War. We dealt with it quite well, but it was always there, this constant threat. I remember in grade school we all were taught to put our heads between our legs in case of a nuclear attack. It was crazy. Of course, we had fall-out shelters in the basement of our school. Some people had them in their homes. Those were the things we read about. There was a particular novel that we read, “Level 7″ written by the last person alive in the world, describing how he came to be the last person in the world. It was on the beach, a last Babylon. It was part of the mix, but I really think the freedom and the high expectations for the future because there were so many new inventions. There weren’t so many like there are now so that they lose their individual importance. We felt we were truly in the modern age.