Many of the things that Paul talks about in his post “When I Was a Kid Things Were Tough” were pretty much the same when I was a kid but things were a whole lot rosier for me than Paul seems to remember from his childhood. Don’t get me wrong—I’m a huge fan of Paul Johnson. Not only can he string a bunch of words together and make them sound both interesting and entertaining but he has a woolly crop of hair and the original number of chins God gave him. Before you get the wrong impression I’d just like to say that this post is not about Paul’s scalp being almost completely hidden from public view but about how great things were when I was a kid and I wouldn’t hold his deprived second-rate childhood against him for a second. Because I’m older than Paul, I was young before him and in those Good Old Days there probably was a different socio-pulmonary context which made me being a kid seem like a breeze. Maybe Paul’s unfortunate recollections are the result of the times he grew up in or maybe he was one of the kids two blocks over I used to pick on when I was a teenager, I just don’t know.
Paul puts a lot of weight on it being difficult to find people to complain to when he was a kid. Frankly, the closest thing to complaining I remember from those idyllic times was my little sister’s tattling to our parents. As a child in the early ’60s I also remember hearing something about having to eat second-hand driftwood during The Depression, but that was just a bedtime story my parents used to tell me. The Parable of the Driftwood didn’t come across so much as a complaint but more as an invitation to appreciate and enjoy the food that was given me for dinner, even though Chinese buffets or Pizza Pockets had not yet been invented. Actually, the first complaint I can personally remember came from “rockers” during the dreaded Disco Era.
Let’s move on and take an overly long look at the telephone issue Paul brought up. My generation had phones only at home (one in the kitchen and one upstairs in the hall with an extra long cord) and on certain high-traffic street corners, which seemed like plenty at the time. This “scarcity” of phones made things a lot easier on kids than they are now. I have six brothers and sisters and just the sisters used the phone as much as thirty brothers would have if they ever got the chance. And there was no Call Waiting back then so if someone happened to be using the phone — and she always was — then people couldn’t get through. And then Dad gave standing orders that anytime his princesses were not using the phone it must not be used in case someone wants to call in. Luckily, people like the kid down the block’s parents, my teacher, and the police youth squad detectives could never get through and this really made things easier on me than if they had been able to.
Other kids not being able to call me was a blessing because the kids you didn’t like couldn’t trap you into having a conversation with them, much less corning you into accepting an invitation to meet them face-to-face. Not being in constant voice and texting communications never caused a problem in terms of finding people you actually liked—I always knew where to find my friends so a chat with The Dane, for example, was just a couple of minutes’ bike ride away.
And if The Dane and I had already met up and were deeply involved in a complicated act of vandalism that took us into the dinner hour, what were our moms going to do, call us and tell us to “March home right this minute… dinner’s getting cold!”? Nope, practical cellphones were decades away so even if our moms called us we didn’t have phones with which to receive the calls. We’d just go home whenever we felt like it and if anyone noticed that we hadn’t shown up for dinner (every family had at least five kids back then, and mine had seven, so it was easy to fly under the radar) we’d get yelled at and then we’d get dinner just the same because our parents were kids during The Depression and endured wartime rationing so they knew what it was like to go to bed without dinner. [Take breath here.] Besides, they wanted to keep us well-nourished so we’d be able to do our chores the next day, chores that required not only strength but a certain amount of raw body mass… the garbage cans they’d have us drag to the curb were made of either pewter or cast iron and not the fancy-shmancy lightweight plastic that modern kids don’t seem to be obligated to deal with.
I also feel the need to inform you that we had nothing but rotary phones, which were much more practical than the touch-tone phones that ended up replacing them. Here are just a few reasons why rotary phones were better than any push-button or smart phone since:
- Calling took skill and strength: Not only did these phones’ dialing mechanisms prevent their use by young children and the congenitally too stupid to know that making overseas phone calls was about as expensive as airfare is today, but they helped develop hand/eye coordination and upper body strength that came in real handy during the kung fu movie craze of the early ’70s.
- Prevented “Wrong Numbers”: It took considerably longer to dial a number back then so you’d have time to hang up, even after dialling the last number. That said, the Phone Company knew where you were calling from so they didn’t make us dial the area code when you were calling someone within the same area code as yours and not having to dial those three extra digits offset the extra time it took to spin-dial a bit.
- Handy Your-Own-Number Reminder: Phones came with your new phone number printed on a little disk of paper installed in the central hub of the dialer so you’d never choke when asked what it was by someone! Once you learned your own number you could take the paper out, flip it over, and write your friends’ numbers on the flip side. Or you could put in a picture of Twiggy, Jimi Hendrix, The Beatles, a psychedelic image, or a picture of a nude and rude part of someone’s body there for you to look at. I thought it would be fun to have pictures of all my friends and put whomever’s picture in the hub when I called them. I never did it and never told anyone about how a “speed loader hub” could be cheaply made so I never became insanely wealthy at age 9.
- You didn’t need money for payphones: If you had anything even approaching a normal level of dexterity and rhythm you could make free calls from phone booths, all you’d have to do is tap out the number you wanted to reach on the little hang-up buttons the handset would rest on when placed in the cradle. For example, if you wanted to call 9-1-1 you could tap out “Tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap. Tap. Tap.” But dialling 9-1-1 wouldn’t do anything back then—if you wanted emergency services you’d just dial “zero”, which was free to call so you didn’t have to tap it out (unless you were a real fanatic).
- No call display: You could even call the police station and ask them if their refrigerator was running without worrying about the consequences. This also came in handy if you wanted free pizza.
And we didn’t have cyber-bullying back then—we had the good old fashioned face-to-face bullying where you could either diffuse the situation with a bit of humour (e.g. “My dad could beat up your dad!” “Oh, yeah? Just how much would he charge for something like that?”) or by running away real fast. If I ever felt that someone was working up to giving me a playground pummelling, I’d just get the big kid two houses down who liked my sister to have a chat with the guy I was worried about and prayed that my would-be assailant didn’t have a sister cuter than mine. But we didn’t have that skewed idea of “respect” that some people have today where if you accidentally brush against them it is an unforgivable insult and you must be shot to preserve their honour and place in the community. I can only remember one act of bullying, and I was not a participant.
And there were no pedophiles, just kidnappers. As long as you didn’t leave the backyard after dinner or get into anyone’s car or take candy from strangers you’d be alright. And nobody ever fell for the free candy ploy because we had lots of candy anyways. People were always giving us candy, and I mean good people, kind people, homeowners, parents, and off-duty teachers. And these people didn’t expect anything in return, except maybe to ruffle your hair real fast for 5 seconds. I remember one time when I was really hard up I went to the police station and they gave me gum and there was one family who used to give me salt water taffy any time I’d knock on their door, and it didn’t even have to be Hallowe’en! And if you didn’t have candy or and couldn’t think of any other way to get it, you’d just walk around looking down until you found a penny, then you’d take it to a store that sold loose candy where you could get 3 Black Balls for a cent!
And just one more thing—we had real toys. No hidden levels, no power-ups, no on-line competitions, no nothing, just toys you didn’t necessarily survive playing with. Toys like that bike you built yourself from parts you found at the side of the road on garbage day , snorkels with a Ping-Pong ball value that would automatically asphyxiate you to prevent you from drowning, and lawn darts. remember lawn darts? Oooh, they were fun! they were about a metre long with a vey pointy depleted uranium tip that was about half of the dart’s total length. A big kid could throw one over a house so that you had no idea what damage was being done (those babies could puncture a propane tank) and just in case you skewered one of your neighbours, the darts had a coat of durable lead paint. Yeah, life was good back then.
What fond memories of childhood do you have?