Saturday, December 29, 2012

Bactine, Bosco and Red Ball Jets, part one

This is an abbreviated portion of a chapter from a book I'm writing. As slowly as I write I figured I might as well put this much in blog form. Maybe it will encourage me to get on with it.

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.

I guess 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 neighborhood from sunup to sundown free from fear of death or kidnapping.  Nobody was ever snatched off the street. 

We didn’t have drive-by shootings.  Heck, we didn’t have drive-thru hamburger joints.  Back then if you wanted to buy a burger or 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 as our parents sped along two-lane highways.  They didn’t mind in the least as long as we didn’t start fighting.

We had house fans with no protective covers 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.

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 butts and feet.

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. When we stepped outside in the fifties it was like being in the Alps. Nobody complained about smoke. It was just a natural part of life.

Dogs ran free when we were kids.

You’d let the dog out and he was gone to who-knows-where until he eventually came back to the porch and waited happily to be readmitted to the house.  That might be the next day or the day after that.  If he bit somebody while he was out you never heard about it. They didn't sue, they just swore. If he tangled with another dog you’d see him trot back into the house at dinner time, tongue and tail wagging joyously, 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 three of his four legs Skippy was good to go.

We had deadly toys.
 
We would have wars using air-powered BB-rifles 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!”  But nobody I knew 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, threw ‘em away and whittled the wooden shaft into a pencil-sharp point.
We had firecrackers.  We made bottle rockets out of wooden match heads cautiously jammed tightly together into glass aspirin bottles.  When they weren’t made carefully they became instant 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. He’d always roll out of the way before the rock hit the ground.  He never failed.

We climbed trees, great cottonwoods in my grandparents’ front yard, scampering twenty 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.  Grandma sprayed Bactine on my injuries and gave me a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on white Wonder bread.  I watched Popeye on TV and felt a lot better.

We jumped off the roof of my grandparents’ house with totally ineffective home-made parachutes fashioned from a bed sheet with ropes tied to the corners.One of my goofy cousins used to climb onto the sloped roof of their two-story house and bounce up there on his pogo stick.

We made go-carts out of two-by-fours and orange crates with tin coffee can lids for headlights and roller skates for wheels. A steep hill provided propulsion, a rope tied to each side of the front axel made for a delicate steering mechanism that was just as likely to dump you into the middle of oncoming traffic as it was to steer you out of danger. There was no braking system. For that you merely had to wait until the thing slowed of its own diminishing inertia or crashed into a parked car.

When I was a kid we had plenty of playgrounds in our neighborhoods and schoolyards were never enclosed by locked fences and gates. Still, we often just played baseball or football in the street. A parked car was first base or end zone marker. Second base was a smashed tin can; a water spigot was third. We played with broken wooden bats that had been glued, nailed and taped back into service. The baseball had ripped seams and a cover peeling off. Once the tear got so big the ball made a fluttering sound when thrown we’d peel it off completely and wrap the remaining ball of yarn into a solid mass of black electrician’s tape that needed to be repaired or replaced after bouncing along the pavement a few times. Any baseball becomes hard to see after sunset, especially one made of black tape but we played long after daylight had faded to deep purple and the cars rounding the corner into left field had their headlights on. 

As I think back on those days fifty-plus years ago I can’t remember any boys who didn’t have patched jeans and scabs on their knees and elbows. Many of the girls, too. Blood was simply a part of everyday life through no small fault of our own. We all fell off our bikes into asphalt and parked cars because were just clutzy kids. Occasionally one of the real numbskulls in the neighborhood would  intentionally ride his bike off the roof of a house or try to leap a row of thorn-laden rose bushes on a bike with the help of a pathetically engineered plywood ramp. These stunts nearly always ended in bloody failure but they didn’t stop us from trying again.

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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