Back in my day is a thing an old guy would say. No teenager could pull off a term such as that, or even a twenty something year old. Hell, even somebody in their mid-thirties would be hard pressed to be able to begin a sentence like Back in my day. Nope. Only some old fart with stories from the great war, maybe, could begin anything with Back in my day.
Well, well, well. There were chores to be done, perimeters to be checked, and computer diagnostics to be run. Fifteen year old Danny Bernard had quite a burden to bear. Hackers had successfully stolen about a hundred thousand people’s personal information this Christmas in his neighborhood, and Danny would be damned if he let any low life computer jock get the better of him. Nope. Not on his watch.
“What are you playing?” Dad asked, head poking out from the kitchen.
“Watch Dogs: Legion. A game about Hackers.”
“You know, back in my day we played Donkey Kong on ColecoVision.”
Danny ignored him.
“Son, have you finished your homework?”
Danny grunted and mumbled about not having any. In his mind’s eye he could clearly see a red duo-tang folder with an incomplete report on the effects of climate change in his school backpack. Dad was always on his case about homework. Didn’t he know there were other worldly threats out there that could annihilate their very existence?
The smell of spaghetti sauce simmering in a large pot on the kitchen stove hit his nose. His stomach rumbled. How long had he been playing without eating? He wasn't sure, but the beast inside reminded him he needed to eat. He hoped Dad didn’t put any mushrooms in the sauce like last time. Mushrooms are gross, and some of them are even poisonous.
“Dinner’s almost ready. When Grandpa gets home can you have a look at his smartphone? He said he tried to send me a picture via text, but it didn’t work. You know the picture of us ice skating when you were four.”
“Yeah, whatever. Why did you bother getting him a phone anyway? He can barely use the thing.” Danny dropped his ps4 controller and entered the kitchen. Mushrooms, damn!
“Just be nice and help him get onto Facebook. It’ll be good for him. Maybe he’ll see some of the other veterans he served with.”
“Nobody uses Facebook anymore.”
“Just help him, okay. Here, taste this.” His father wiped a hand on the blue apron he was wearing and held out a teaspoon of sauce to his son.
Danny hesitated. Dad pushed the spoon towards his mouth. Thoughts of psilocybin mushrooms passed through his mind as he ate it.
“Yes. Uh-huh. Yum, yum?” His father waited expectantly.
“I don’t like mushrooms.”
“I’ve been cooking with mushrooms since you were a baby. Honestly, I don’t know why I cook.”
* * *
That evening Danny showed Granddad how to navigate on his new phone. He showed him how to text someone and set him up on Facebook.
“Now you’ve got Dad and me as a contact, and look see here, Granddad, this is where you can request someone to be your friend, or find people you may know.”
“Why would I want to request people to be my friend? If I want a friend I’ll go out and make one.”
“No, it’s just…” This was going to be hard. “Look, you can reconnect with people. Just type the name of someone you know, and see if you can find them.”
“Hey, hey. Look, it's Gerry. I found Gerry. Boy. Gerry was such a practical joker. One time we were on Christmas leave, Gerry removed all the toilet paper from the latrines after a night of whiskey and Asian food. What a guy.”
Dad, drying the dishes, poked his head out of the kitchen with a smile that ran ear to ear.
“You might want to restrict your microphone access to your apps, though,” Danny said.
Dad’s smile faded.
“Why’s that?” Grandad said, looking up at Danny.
“Well, because it listens to you.”
“Son, that’s enough now.” Dad was now standing in the living room with the dishrag still in his hands.
“No, let the boy speak.”
“It’s like what Ed Snowden said.”
“Edward Snowden, a former CIA agent who became a whistleblower. He basically brought to light that the government is spying on their own people. Cell phones all have GPS and can track down anyone anywhere. They can snatch conversations out of thin air. Everyone's data is stored on them. Your banking info, date of birth, what movie you saw last, everything is in that phone. Now the apps know what you want before you do, because the algorithms can determine your likes and dislikes. The wars of the future, Granddad, are information wars.”
Dad had his arms crossed and the vein on his temple was about to burst out of his skull.
Granddad looked at the device in his hands with awe.
“Where’s this Snowden now?”
“He’s living in Moscow because the government wants him for sneaking information out of the pentagon.”
“So, he’s a traitor. That makes sense.”
“What do you mean? He single handedly brought to light that we can’t trust our own government.”
“That isn’t new. What do you think, people had complete faith in the government before all this intranet and world wide web stuff. Yes, it may have been more innocent times back then, but there have always been people that would use you if you let them. It’s up to us to use our God given brains to make good decisions and deal with the consequences.” Granddad took hold of Danny’s arm and gave it a gentle squeeze. “Don’t you have some sweetheart out there waiting for you instead of filling up your head with this paranoia nonsense?”
Dad’s smile had returned.
* * *
“Back in my day we’d go play outside. Kids would ride around on bikes and kick cans. If one had a ball we could throw, we’d have ourselves a baseball team.” Granddad was sitting in his easy chair speaking to no one and everyone, playing with his phone. He’d get on these rants about the good old days as if racism and toxic masculinity didn’t exist back then. Danny flipped on the TV. Global news announced that a bear had attacked a man right in his own backyard during a family barbecue.
“Jesus, you can’t even go into your own backyard now without being attacked,” Danny said.
“Back in my day…”
“What? What would you have done, back in your day? It’s a bloody bear!” Danny turned away and flipped on the PlayStation and grabbed the controller.
“I’d go out and get a life!”
Danny ignored him.
“Hey you two, be nice.” Dad stood there with his car keys in hand. “I’m off to the grocery store to pick up a few things. There’s left over spaghetti, if you want, for lunch.”
“Can I come?” Anything was better than staying with that old fart.
“Sure, get your coat.”
Outside, the snow crunched underfoot. No bear was to be found. The grocery store wasn’t too far and when they arrived Danny noticed a police car out front. He hoped the cops weren't kneeling on anyone's neck today.
“You know, you’ve got to have a little more patience with grandpa,” Dad said.
“He’s always telling me how much better it was when he was a kid.”
“I know, but he means well. He’s lived a life you know.”
About halfway through their grocery run Danny saw a familiar face disappear a couple aisles down. His face felt flush and he hid haphazardly behind his father.
“Wasn’t that Jenny Brown with her mom. Why don’t you go talk with her?”
Great, nothing like a girl to bring the whole world down on him, and Dad was throwing him to the wolves. This was worse than the threat of nuclear war.
“What’s wrong? Are you afraid to talk with her?”
“You guys grew up together and went to the same preschool. Go on. Just be yourself, and be a gentleman.”
How could Danny not go now? Sent out into this dangerous world, Dad would see him as a coward if he didn’t go now. He walked slowly away towards the aisle Jenny was in, alone. Turning the corner Danny summed up all his courage and tried to push his fears away. What’s the worst that could happen? She’d throw up at the sight of him. He’d throw up... on her. I should’ve stayed home and played Watch Dogs, he thought.
“Danny!” Jenny Brown squealed. She bounced over to him and gave him a warm hug and then jumped up and down twice. “How was your Christmas? We had so many relatives come over. It was intense. Did you hear, our English teacher, Mrs. Lowry got into a car accident? Her left leg is in a cast now. Did you see the cops outside? I think they got a shoplifter.”
This barrage of information was almost too much for him. She smelled of peppermint and her hair felt nice on his cheek when she’d hugged him. He didn’t know what to say or do.
“Well? What did you get for Christmas?”
“Oh, uh, I got a video game.” He nodded his head. Relax, man, he thought. Say something. Find something to talk about. He wondered if he was nodding his head too much. Why was his mind so blank? She stood there waiting for him. It was clear it was his turn to speak. It was a miracle the world hadn’t opened up and swallowed him whole.
At that moment, between a void of silence and speaking a meaningless word which would ultimately fail to put a crack in the ice, Danny’s cell phone buzzed. He held up a finger and took his phone out. There in the notifications was a picture of his dear old fart.
“Who’s it from?” Jenny asked.
“It’s my Granddad.”
“Well, open your phone and see what he wants.”
Danny swiped open his code and Granddad’s message popped up. It wasn’t a word of derision or contempt as he thought it might be. It wasn’t a moral teaching, nor an attempt at showing what real men were like way back when. It was just a picture.
In the picture Danny’s father stood on shaky legs with skates strapped to his feet. In front of him, he held onto a four year old Danny all bundled up in winter clothes, sporting skates with four blades. The kind for beginners. His head was tilted back so he could see out from under his tuque. Only Danny’s little red cheeks were visible next to his gigantic grin.
Danny stared silently at the photo. Of course! It was apparent now. There he was with his dad smiling at the camera, which meant the one taking the picture was Granddad. Suddenly he felt a strong urge for a glass of milk. There was no government conspiracy. There were no bears out to get him. Climate change, probably a real thing, wouldn’t kill him. It would get his children’s children, and that was okay because he’d be long gone. The point though, the point was, back then, all the troubles of the world were safely tucked away on the shoulders of the ones who loved him. God, he wished for a glass of milk.
Jenny pushed her face next to his to look at the picture. “What is it?” she said.
Danny straightened up and smiled. “It’s me, back in the day.”