Do you remember how our parents ranted about the distances they walked just to get to school and reminded us how lucky we were to have shoes on our feet? If I had birthed children of my own, I probably would have been caught saying, “In my day, you got a pair each of school shoes, dressy shoes and those you used exclusively for gym. You think life is tough having to put on a seatbelt to ride in that child’s seat until you are seven years old (or 85lbs., whichever comes first)? When I was your age, I was sliding back and forth in the backseat of a Buick as my dad careened down the interstate at 90 mph, driving with his knees as he ate his lunch with both hands, using the service road of the interstate as his own personal lane because he didn’t believe in stopping for food or pee breaks. That man was in a hurry.”
If that didn’t scare them, I would have also thrown in a good dose of, “Rubberized gyms and playgrounds? That’s so fey. We had industrial chain link swing sets with a flap of some mysterious material to sit on and nothing but cracked, hard cement underneath us to catch us when we fell.”
Nothing says childhood survival better than being hit head-on by a high-speed tetherball.
Indoors, things weren't much better. We shimmied up thick rope in an effort to pass a test and earn the President's Fitness award. I have scar tissue memories of the horrific (and unfortunately, horizontally) striped gym uniform (not Missoni, for sure) I wore to accomplish this feat and rope burns on my hands in the name of John F. Kennedy. And somewhere, buried under jacks that I never would have dreamed of swallowing, I still have that certificate to prove it.
There were no germ-ridden MCDonalds playhouses to explore with colorful, rounded corners to keep us out of trouble or harm’s way. A happy meal implied nothing more than showing up at the dinner table with our hands washed and eating whatever was served to us with gratitude. If we were lucky, pleasure too. No TV, chicken nuggets, toys or bottled anything to make it taste better. Our dishwasher was our mother. We recycled brisket until it became something that would still taste better than some of the items that pass as food today.
Daycare consisted of our moms. We had play dates with mud pies and the hose. We did this with other children in backyards or living rooms with ugly furniture that was protected by plastic slipcovers. We amused each other and ourselves without a parent in sight. And we managed to go home, do our homework, brush our teeth, bathe and get to sleep without being bribed by anything other than the promise of no dessert. We were grounded every night and forced to stay at home. We were stay-at-home children, not miniature executives-to-be.
Our roller skates came in a flimsy box that didn’t require a PhD and a chainsaw to open and get to them. They came with a twisted key and no directions. We attached them to gym shoes that had absolutely no support or cushion whatsoever. There wasn’t an ounce of body armor required by law or our parents to put them on and hit the pavement running. Or falling. When we went down, banged our knees or rolled uncontrollably into a stop sign, nobody got sued. We got up and did it again. And again.
We pedaled down steep hills on our banana bikes (with no hands!) wearing clothes that had no padding for our bottoms. Today, you have to wear a condom, helmet, knee and elbow pads just to walk out the door. And that's only after you have passed a DNA test, been accepted to the proper preschool and jumped through hoops to prove how special you are before finding out that you're just plain average or not at all when going through airport security.
Cute? Maybe. Special? Probably not.
Childhood in my day was brutal, I tell ya. From the beginning, we were abused with cloth diapers. Not one of us sprouted water or blood from being accidentally poked by safety pins. There was no disposable anything when we were small other than the occasional goldfish. Halloween meant trick or treating in a several block radius until well after 9 pm and being able to eat all the candy you could collect without risk of being poisoned or meeting a razorblade.
Grocery stores were closed on Sunday, which meant that if you didn’t have parents who realized this, you had nothing to eat again until Monday. I don’t think we ever missed a meal.
Back in the old days, almost everything was closed on Sunday. As a matter of fact, I'd tell kids today that Sundays didn't even exist until they were born and that the malls, video games, cell phones and Wi-Fi came right after. I may not be wrong for once. Breaking news was delivered every morning via newspaper, for a short time in an afternoon edition and then at 6:30 pm when we gathered around the television to learn what was going on in places like Vietnam and heard my parents muttering about sending my brother to Canada if his number was drawn. News was delivered by men with wrinkles, character and journalistic integrity and nobody gave a damn what diet Walter Cronkite or David Brinkley were on or whose label they were wearing.
We waited until dark to play 50 scatter (hide and go seek to the uninitiated). The only people who ever came searching for us were our friends. My father’s blazing eyes and leather belt were the equivalent of an Amber Alert if I stayed out too late. Mr. Rogers and Captain Kangaroo were diversions, but they were no Jack Kennedy.
There were plenty of times during our dangerous childhood years where we complained, “there’s nothing to do”. But the fact of the matter is that it was true. Unless we entertained ourselves, sometimes we did little more than enjoy a less invasive, more carefree excursion into adulthood and we lived to tell about it.
The last time I had nothing to do was probably 1972.
I miss those days.