Saturday, January 30, 2010

Surviving childhood

One of the things we aging boomers love to talk about is how much safer the world used to be when we were kids.

It was in some respects. Mostly, though, I wonder how we survived.

As kids in the 1950s and 60s we were allowed to roam our entire neighborhoods from sunup to sundown free and unfettered from fear of death or abduction. Nobody was ever snatched off the street. That possibility never even crossed our minds.

We didn’t have drive-by shootings. Hell, we didn’t have drive-thru hamburger joints. Back then if you wanted to buy a burger or to shoot somebody you had to park the car and get out first.

It was a simpler, more forgiving time. But it was also a daily horror show we never even noticed.

Cars didn’t have seat belts until the mid-sixties and by then they seemed silly to those of us who grew up literally bouncing between the back and front seats everywhere our parents drove us. They didn’t mind in the least as long as we didn’t start fighting.

We had house fans with no protective cover to keep little fingers out of the whirling steel blades. If you had invented the electric fan doesn’t a protective cage over the front just seem like a natural piece of the big picture? How did they not think of that?

(I never heard of a single injury.)

I could go on and on…

The heat in our homes came up from the floor through metal grates that got hot enough to sear a waffle pattern into tender toddler feet and butts.

Everybody smoked cigarettes, cigars and pipes everywhere. I mean everywhere: on buses and trains; in grocery stores, movie theaters, restaurants, churches and in every room of every home in America. That’s where this attachment to “fresh air” started, you know. Think about it. No matter where you live these days, big city or wide-open spaces, the air is no fresher outside than it is inside. But you still say, “I need some fresh air,” and then you step out of a filtered, air conditioned room into downtown San Bernardino.

Dogs ran free when we were kids.

You let the dog out of the house and he was gone, who knows where, until he came back to the porch and demanded re-entry. That might be the next day or the day after that. If he bit somebody while he was out you never knew about it. If he tangled with another dog you’d see him trot back into the house at dinner time, tongue and tail wagging happily, with one bloody ear and a mangled eyeball. You didn’t take him to the vet unless he’d been hit by a car and even then if he could hobble out of the street on two of his four legs Skippy was good to go.

We had killer toys. Literally.

When I was a kid we would choose up sides and have wars using toy guns that were nearly as deadly as real ones. We had air-powered BB-rifles and pistols that allowed us to fire tiny steel balls with enough velocity to embed them under the skin of another kid, a dog or a cat. It stung but we loved it. This is where we first heard the sentence, “You could put an eye out with that!” Nobody ever stopped us from trying but the warning was issued occasionally and apparently it was heeded. Nobody ever lost an eye to a BB-gun assault.

If there weren’t enough BB-guns to go around, we’d just throw rocks.

Seriously, rock fights. And worse…

We had toy bows and arrows. Oh sure, the arrows had rubber cups on the end. You just took those off and whittled the wooden shaft into a pencil-sharp point.

And mind you, this was all going on shortly after World War II ended.

We had firecrackers. We made bottle rockets out of wooden match heads cautiously jammed tightly together into glass aspirin bottles. If you weren’t as careful as a brain surgeon they became instantaneous bombs, igniting in hand and shooting shards of red-hot glass dozens of feet in all directions.

I’m not making this up!

One idiot kid I remember used to lie down on the ground and have the rest of us drop a huge rock — say, the size and weight of a bowling ball — right over his face.

We weren’t very tall, maybe four feet. He’d always roll out of the way before the rock hit the ground. He never failed.

We climbed trees, great cottonwoods, scampering twenty or thirty feet above the ground. Once I fell, skinning my bare back as I slid down the trunk of that great tree, landing hard on its exposed roots. My grandma sprayed Bactine on my injuries and gave me a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on Wonder white bread. I watched Popeye on TV and felt a lot better.

We jumped off the roof of my grandparents’ house with completely ineffective home-made parachutes.

One of my goofy uncles used to bounce on the roof on a pogo stick.

And we wondered why Grandpa drank.

Nobody died. We seldom cried. And now we worry about our own kids and theirs.

They missed so much.

© Copyright 2010, Dave Williams. All rights reserved.

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