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Thursday, April 15, 2004 03:58 am

Good humor

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Now, When I Was A Kid . . . By Dan McGuire Published by Back When Books, P.O. Box 232, Wood Dale, IL 60191; 2003, 302 pages, $22.95.

There should be a warning sign for anyone venturing down nostalgia way: "Caution! Platitudes ahead." Why must reminiscences punish the present to paint the past as more precious? In his memoir Now, When I Was a Kid ..., Dan McGuire avoids this pitfall. Comparisons between now and the good old days do not abound. Enthusiasm is abundant, however, and it beckons the reader to come along on a pleasant journey back to a childhood fondly remembered.

McGuire's father, the oldest of 10 children, grew up in a five-room house on Pasfield Street in Springfield. A chapter devoted to McGuire's "quintessential grandma" gives a glimpse of our hometown in the 1940s. But the bulk of the book is set in Norridge, Ill., a far-northwestern Chicago suburb where McGuire's father settled after the Great Depression.

The author follows a simple format of short essays that are long on detail thanks to his seemingly photographic memory. And if his memory weren't enough, there are lots of photos, too. Summer takes center stage. You may have forgotten the intricacies of "Mother May I?," hide-and-seek, and hopscotch, but McGuire hasn't. He also remembers lingering with friends past twilight as mothers called them home to suppers where fathers scolded them for staying out after dark. Rainy days on summer porches meant swapping stories -- literally. Any kid worth his Cracker Jack had an enviable stack of comic books. The fun was sweetened by the bell on the Good Humor ice-cream truck and changed with school bells in the fall. Winter was "icicles, igloos and angels in the snow," Lionel trains, Christmas-tree bonfires, and skating anywhere water froze.

As teenagers, Dan and his chums explored Chicago. Readers who are old enough will really enjoy their exploits at Riverview Park, the city's famed amusement park that closed in 1967. Time has a way of blurring memory, of giving it that soft, Vaseline-on-the-lens focus. Now, When I Was a Kid ... brings yesterday into sharper relief. And for some strange reason, it gave me a mean craving for a Dreamsicle.

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