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Welcome to our blog, a place to share your memories and stories from A Simpler Time.
Must be Santa, Santa Claus
By Jeff King
In A Simpler Time, the belief in Santa among elementary school children was very widespread and longer lasting perhaps than in themodern digital world. For most of us, learning that the big, beardedfat guy was actually our parents was a traumatic time in a young life.
As number eight of 10 children, I have to admit myolder siblings did a pretty good job keeping the magic in Christmas. When the youngest woke early each Christmas morning and talked excitedly ofhearing Santa’s voice and reindeer hooves on the roofthe previous evening (hot chocolate may have been slightly hallucinogenic), our older, wiser sisters and brothers grinned and just nodded theirheads in agreement.
For me, finding out the“truth” about Santa did not happen in a single, earth shattering event. Instead, over a period of months leading up to Christmas one year I could no longer drown out (or punch)the numerous fellowclassmates claiming the man in the red suit was a fraud. I was probably among the last of my grade to admit the idea of a lone man in a sled delivering gifts to the entire world ina 24 hour period wasjust a tad unbelievable. Never mind the whole magic deer with an electric light for a nose thing.
I do remember how Christmas was never the same once I found out the secret. An event thathad seemed so totally magic suddenly became like a normal birthday party. A great BIG birthday party, mindyou, with everyone celebrating at the same time and bigger than average presents, but not theawe-inspiring event it had once been.
My own son found out the awful truth about Santa in one fell swoop. At a Christmas Eve neighborhood party in which children were present, a slightlyinebriated neighbor dad was unaware (as was I) anychildren were in the room when he loudly announced he had to get home early and do his “Santa duties”.
Later that evening as we weregetting ready for bed, our son came into our bedroom and with a few tears trickling from his eyes and his voice wavering, said softly, “Dad, I know the truth about Santa.I heard Bob talking aboutit”.
Next to the “Birds and the Bees’ conversation, this is a talk most parents dread the most. My wife looked at me with trust in her eyes (she knows better now) and asked me to go intohis room toexplain things. I think she had watched “Father Knows Best” many times as a youngster and might have thought all males instinctively know how to say just the right thing to children oncethey slip awedding band on their middle finger. Like I said, she’s a little wiser now.
As my wife hovered just outside the room to eagerly await parenting pearls of wisdom, my son and I satdown on his bed.
“I’m really sorry you had to find out this way,” I started in a quiet, knowledgeable TV dad sort of voice, “but you must have heard kids at school talking about Santa notbeing real?”
“Yeah”, my son responded, choking back tears, “but I just didn’t listen to them and told them they were wrong.”
“Well the idea of him getting down the chimney andbeing able to deliver all those presents in one night with magic flying reindeer does seem a little hard to believe when you think about it now,right?” I noted. “It doesn’t change the fact that youget really cool presents”
“Yeah, I guess I was kind of figuring it out anyway,” said my son, sitting up straight and gathering himself as if this news wasn’t really the end of the world. Itwas like seeing my little boyturning into a young man before my eyes!
Had the conversation ended there, I would have been recommended for a “Father of the Year” merit award for defusing avolatile situation. But it didn’t.
“Good!” I exclaimed, wrapping my armaround his shoulders and giving him a big hug. “I mean, you’re a smart kid and growing up quick. You would havefigured it out on your own, just like the idea of a big rabbit bringing colored chickeneggs or a flying fairy giving you cash for an old tooth would seem kind of silly!”
“You mean….?” Hislips trembled and water started to pool again in the corners of his eyes. “You mean…the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy aren’t real either??!!” Eventually, after the sobbing haddied down somewhat andI bravely ventured into the hallway to face an incredulous wife, I realized that night had brought a cold splash of reality to two of my family members. Santa and the image ofTV dad went down inflames together.
Red Ryder, Red Ryder
by Jeff King
Living currently deep in the heart of suburbia---with perfect grass lawns, 2.5 kids andone dog per household---I’m struck by how few of my male neighbor friends have ever hunted.
Growing up in a small rural farm town in the Midwest, hunting was to the average boy what waterwas to a fish. I was trudging rows of dry corn stalks with my father and brothers in the fall, searchingfor colorful ring-necked pheasants with our pudgy, out of shape springer spaniel …long before Iwas old enough to carry anything but a crude gun shaped stick.
Back then, boys were given aDaisy Red Ryder BB gun along with simple instructions (“don’t point it at anything you don’t wantto shoot”) soon after having their pacifiers forcibly removed for the last time.
The Red Ryder lever action BB rifle is like many objects in a middle aged man’s memory---significantlygrander in retrospect than it ever was in reality. Small brass BBs were propelled so slowly fromits barrel that it’s possible throwing them would have done more damage to any intended target. In ourborderline illegal “hunting” forays into the countryside, we soon learned that any animal overthe size of a sparrow treated our BBs like pesky mosquitoes.
We did find other fine uses forour new toys though. Ironically, most of them were included in the long list of “don’ts” outlined on the side of the cardboard box our Red Ryder had come in.Including:
Don’t Aim at Others!I’m guessing the rest of this warning (…Eyes!) must have got accidentally cut off the box. We pretty much knew that, even at such a low velocity, those little brass balls could dodamage to our friendspupils. After all, we’d been getting warned about “putting an eye out” while participating in stick “sword” contests and snowball fights for as long as we could remember. Butwhen it was discovered (bytrial and error) that a bb hitting bare skin would only leave a tiny bruise from over 20 feet…well let me tell you that our games of Cowboys and Indians just got a whole lotmore realistic!
NOTE:Before one of you even thinks “OMG! How could their parents let them shoot BB guns at each other” (they didn’t…they had no idea), let me tell you this; My own son went through a phase whereevery boyin the neighborhood had an arsenal of Air Soft guns that shoot plastic pellets and are designed to be shot at each other (with eye protection, of course). And I can tell you that just one ofhisfriends with a high capacity automatic machine gun air soft gun would have had our entire gang of Red Ryder toting wannabe hooligans waving a white flag in five minutes.
Do NOT use Indoors!Again, probably an error on the box. Pretty sure our BB guns were part of a shipment that was supposed to ship to Arkansas, or Florida…or some other state where the temps in wintercould never reachnearly 40 degrees below zero!! Besides, there were few small critters above ground to aim at in a Minnesota winter, and if we really wanted to propel things at each other outside,snowballs gave off amuch more satisfying “thump” and were in plentiful, cheap supply.
We violated this faux warning with the blessings of our parents, who probably feared being subjected to a gang of boredboys stuck indoors on a snow day much more than one of them losing an eye ortwo. So they allowed us to set up a shooting range in our unfinished concrete walled basement, with “forts” made of woodenblocks. Plastic army men were perched on top, and thick blankets stackedbehind to keep ricochets to a minimum.
Mom checked out our safety precautions, made sure we were each wearing Dad’ssafety goggles…and then went upstairs, never to be seen on the gun range again. Which, in hindsight, was probably not thegreatest idea. Eventually over a period of time, a series of events happened (afew blankets went to keep our dog warmer in her insulated dog house, dad needed his safety goggles, etc.), until we werepretty much plinking green plastic soldiers with no eye protection and a solidconcrete background.
While not as safe, the new game was much more fun! We’d fire from behind wooden benches overturned to serve as a rest, and then quickly duck behind after shooting, asricocheting BBs rocketed back offstone walls. It was almost like the bad guys were shooting back at us!
In general, the overall attitude towards guns in our town was fairly laissez faire.Almost every one of the King children took their turn toting Dad’s antique Civil War musket to elementary school andproudly displaying it to awed classmates during “Show and Tell”. Typically theheavy, uncased (and I’m assuming unloaded) long gun was carried by a nine year old one block to school, through the frontdoor, by the Principal’s office and up to the classroom, past admiring teachersand administrators who never failed to pull us over for a closer look. I’m going to go out on a limb and say thewelcoming committee for my own children might not have been as kind if we’d tried thesame thing.
by Jeff King
My last three years of elementary school were spent in a turn of the century, three story brickstructure that had once served as the town high school. While probably the closest thing to a majesticbuilding our little burb had---sporting a copper covered top that we considered a dome, but wasprobably closer to a cupola---the building had been bequeathed to the little people in Grades 4-6 when anew sprawling one story high school was built a few blocks away on the outskirts of town.
Itseems that the old high (now elementary) school wasn’t quite up to modern fire standards, even those in the 1960’s. It had been built before World War I, when the philosophy on fire safety seemedto besomething like “Don’t be stupid enough to start a building on fire, and if you do, run like hell or jump out a window and take your chances.” The new high school, with every classroom allowingeasyexit in case one of the teachers dropped a lit heater in the teacher’s lounge, was a place Ralph Nader could have endorsed.
Our circa early 1900 school, on the other hand, had no fireescapes and boasted all wood stairways and floors. Floors and stairs that had probably dried out enough to make pretty good kindling in theroughly 60 years since the school had been built. In sixthgrade during fire drills we were instructed to hold hands while going down the stairs in single file, with the last boys (seems kind ofsexist now, but they were always boys) given the job of closingwindows so oxygen wouldn’t feed the fire. Only then were they allowed to join the caboose of the orderly child train. Or more accurately(if there had been a real fire) to become the smoking fuse ofthe elementary school children wick.
I’m not sure the under-five foot crowd was as valued, or at least as coddled, in thosedays. Money was tight in our small town, and most of us came fromlarge families, where reinforcements were being brought into the world nearly every year. As fewer people were farming and didn’t needthe extra hands to shuck corn or feed the cows, extra mouths tofeed became…well, extra mouths! So the beautiful fire trap of a building that wasn’t quite large (or safe?) enough for teens was deemedplenty good enough for younger siblings.
There wereother instances that, in retrospect, probably should have given all of us a sense of our place in the world.
In sixth grade,we were let out of class one at a time to go downstairs to thecafeteria for some health vaccination of some kind. By ourselves! While none of us were too fond of shots, our dislike of sitting in aclassroom was far greater, and a boy with any imagination couldturn the three minute walk to the lunch room into at least a 20 minute excursion on even the worst day. No teachers in the hallwaysmeant serious handrail sledding and long side trips to the gymnasiumwhere stray basketballs were often lying around.
Unfortunately, one of my friends and I were nominated by our teacherto accompany a particular female classmate who had been known to faintwhen previously getting shots. The fact that an adult entrusted two 11 year old boys to firmly hold the girl by both arms duringthe shot and keep her from slamming her noggin backwards on thecafeteria floor should probably have been considered an honor. But considering both of us still drew x’s on our hands to ward off girlgerms and had contests to see how far back we could hit theurinal, well, it was really a pretty severe indictment of the rest of our class.
So our fun (well, except for the spike being plunged into our shoulder by the school nurse) ramblingescapade was turned into something that resembled a chore…with pain and actual responsibility mixedin.
We did a pretty good job, all things considered. We got her to the table, cajoled herinto going ahead with the shot through fairly minor pushing, threatening and forceful squeezing of her arms, andheld on tightly for a good 2-3 minutes after the shot was over. Then we slowly walkedher up the three flights of stairs, still each holding an arm, walked her proudly to her desk and helped hersettle in, turned with smiles on our face to receive our rightful acclaim from the proudteacher…then promptly watched her go limp, pitch sideways out of her desk and hit her head on the floor with aloud thump. Oops.
While the girl lived (albeit with a temporary lump on herhead), I’m sure her parents were never told about the adolescent untrained EMT’s who did their jobs pretty darn near close to perfection.There was no lawsuit, and no new regulations about the propermeans of inoculating school kids that I’m aware of.
by Jeff King
Growing up on a small town block miraculously consisting of tenfamilies that had somehow spawned boys in about a 10-1 ratio over girls, I was understandably confused by matters concerning the fairersex when I was young. While that’s not exactly changed over thedecades---despite being married and fathering twin daughters---in my formative tadpole years I was blissfully unaware of any deficiencyin this area.
For my first 8 years of existence, girlswere a little like background elevator music. Oh sure, I was often around my four older sisters, but since I was so much younger, they almost seemed likealiens. Or at least, if aliens could be forcedagainst their will to babysit my brothers and I occasionally. Other girls just wandered through the periphery at home and school, playing with dolls,giggling a lot and…oh, what the hell, I’m not sureexactly what they were doing. It frankly didn’t interest me at the time.
There were a few girls who gravitated into Planet Boy’s orbitoccasionally. Dawn and Mary not only ran with the gangin our daily pre-school games of dodge-ball (we called the game “bombardment”, though the rules were generally the same), but were actually someof the better players. It wasn’t considered a shame toget wiped out by a bullet tossed from those two, since they were bigger and had better arms than most of the boys. And for that reason, I reallydidn’t consider them anything more than long hairedboys.
Ironically, it was during this formative period of my life in which I basically ignored girls, that I seemed most appealing tothem. How do I know? Well, between random games offootball, baseball and dodgeball, I was sometimes pinched, hit or tickled by one or more of the girls in my class, who usually ran while saying “Ihate you” (and grinning) or making up some rhyme withmy name that was supposed to make me angry. An early form of school yard rapping, I guess. Even then we were dimly aware that only girls who“liked” us would give us the time of day. Overall, girlsseemed much more interested in us than we were in them.
So I copied what most other early elementary school boys of our era did. Iacted indifferent and (just to cover all my bases) pennedbig “x’s” in permanent ink all over my hands and arms to prevent dreaded “girl germs”.
Looking back on those days, despite the factI was small, skinny, and buck-toothed---with a genuineMom’s “three bowl” haircut and ears that stuck straight out of my head---I had a few qualities that surprisingly seemed appealing to girls myage. First, I was somewhat decent in sports, not because ofany latent athleticism, but because I had older brothers and about a hundred neighborhood boys around to compete with 10 hours a day.Secondly, I was loud, talked a lot, acted confident, and got intotrouble fairly regularly with teachers because of these traits. Nowadays I probably would have been labeled as having ADD, but backthen I was considered hyper and “squirrely”. Girls seemed to likeboys who made people (other than the teacher) laugh, while the whole “girl likes troublemaker” deal goes way back and doesn’tnecessarily end in elementary school I’m told.
And finally,there was this “ignoring” thing. Unlike some boys in college who purposely ignored the opposite sex as part of some clever planto appear deep, mysterious and even dreamy (I wasn’t so clever), ignoringgirls just came naturally to me. Or at least it did until the 5th grade.
I’m not exactly what happened in thesummer between 4th and 5th grade that changed my opinion of females. I’m sure itwas biological and involved hormones, and I’m guessing like everything else in my life, this change came a little lateto me. Keep in mind my father monitored our TV so tightly; even the Brady Bunchwas turned off it two children of the opposite sex held hands. I might have been the least worldly fourth graderever.
All I know is that one year I was playing Dodge-ball on the playground,blissfully unaware of anything except the big round red ball coming at me…and the next fall I was slouching in class, staringabsentmindedly at beautiful, shiny girl hair, or for the first timenoticing how nice girls smelled in the lunch line.
Unfortunately, in a cruel Darwinian set of circumstances, about thetime I began to notice girls, their team must have huddled up anddiagrammed all new rules of the game! It was no longer enough for a boy to run fast, demand to play quarterback at every pickupfootball game or ignore them 24/7 to catch their attention. No! Now a guyactually had to be “cute”, have a real store bought haircut…and (blasphemy!) wear clothes that were at least a little instyle! I’ve mentioned my poor qualifications for the first two, and as one of 10siblings noted for giving new life to hand me downs from past generations, I was never going to score high on style.Especially when the brother a few years older than you wears Sears “Huskie” jeans (Iweighed 60 pounds) and has shorter legs.
To make things worse, my elementary school only had about 80 kids in the entire grade. With at least half being guys, and better than 80% of thegirls sporting similar attire and haircuts to mine, thenumber of qualifying females available to create desire in even the most hormonally unbalanced young boy was minimal. Cross out all the fairlyattractive ones who were taller, stronger and moreathletic than me, and there were a total of three crush-worthy girls in the 5th grade.
Unfortunately they all had crushes on well-dressed“normal eared” boys with good teeth who got their hair cut at the mall! At fancy “salons” that cut women’s hair too---by “stylists” who knew how tocut hair in different lengths to give a cool featherylook girls seemed to really like. My mom, bless her heart, could also cut hair in different lengths…long on top and buzz cut on the bottom.
Then, one day it happened! While waiting in thecafeteria line for a fine lunch of crunchy pasta with oily orange colored sauce, expertly paired with overcooked, mushy, ten year old peas (did anyonein any school ever eat peas?), I saw her! A tall(well, taller than me, as most of the girls in my class were) blondish new girl with a dreamy, cute face, and, uh…, and…Did I mention she was NEW?!!
Shewas in my grade, but she wasn’t in myclass (in more ways than one). And it’s not like I could sidle up to one of my jock buddies in her class and casually ask for an introduction. NO girl was worththat embarrassment. And even if he didintroduce me, what was I going to say? “Hey, you want to come over tomorrow? We can throw a big red ball at each other as hard as we can, and then maybe you cansit and watch mom trace a bowl around myhairline with a kitchen shears?”
Walking the one block home after class one day, I noticed “the new girl” riding a pink, long handled “stingray”type bike with a white wicker basketdecorated in plastic flowers. She pedaled past me, and turned at the end of the side road onto Third Street, which went right by my house! From then on, I usuallymanaged to blow off the after schoolgame of Dodge-ball (“my ankle hurts”, or “I think I got botulism from the pizza” usually worked) and delay the start of my afternoon paper route late enough everyday so that I could be “casually”hanging out in our front lawn after school.
I’d race home breathless, grab a rake, broom or shovel (sometimes even the tool appropriate for the season)from our detached garage in the backyard and quickly sprint to the front yard. Often the new girl would show right away, slowly pedaling her pink bike with the flowered basket, mere seconds after Ihad started my faux leaf raking or anthill sweeping. I’m not sure if she thought I was sweating from exertion---in fact I’m not confident she ever knew I was alive. I tried to not look up until shewas past--- wouldn’t want her to think Iwas interested after all--- and never once caught her looking back. And boy, I wished she would with all my might.
At school I managed to hang outnear her at lunch recess (try actingcasual being the only boy near a game of hopscotch while your gang is playing baseball 100 yards away), and walk (stalk?) behind her as she bounced up the woodenstairs of our century old school, Iprobably knew her schedule better than she did, and had all of this happened when we were adults, there probably would have been a restraining order in my immediatefuture.
Eventually---I’mnot sure how---I learned she lived on a small hobby farm outside town past the high school. When summer came, I’d sometimes see her at the baseball and softballfields near her new home. I don’t thinkI’ve ever watched more sports involving a bat than I did that summer, in the slim hope of spotting a certain blonde girl on a pink bike.
When fallarrived and school was back in session, Iactually looked forward to going! Me, the boy who had been known to hold Mom’s cigarette lighter near a thermometer in hopes of feigning illness (a temp of140 degrees will not fool mom if you’restanding nearby grinning, by the way) was actually excited to go to the first day of school. I arrived early, and eagerly watched as each student arrived andtook a desk, until there were no more emptychairs. With my typical Jeff luck, I reasoned she wasn’t assigned to my room. Oh well, I’d get to see her at lunch and at recess. This was going to be theyear we met! We’d hold hands, stare at eachother, and I’d give her my best Keith Partridge look while I sang a carefully rehearsed version of “I Think I Love You.” Or not.
I never saw herat lunch that day, or any other day for thatmatter. Eventually, after thinking maybe she was ill or had a late summer vacation, I only half-heartedly scanned the cafeteria at lunch. It became clearthat she and her family had moved. I neverasked anyone where they went, and since I had never known her name, it would have been an awkward conversation anyway.
I assume every boy remembers his first crush, his first kiss (notcounting a “practice” volleyball, of course), his first date. It just seems odd that a 52 year old man, who has been known to forgethe’s already talking on his cell phone while frantically lookingunder car seats for same phone, can so vividly remember a blonde girl slowly pedaling her pink bike through a leaf pile on a warmIndian summer day.
'Birds & Bees' in the 60's
by Jeff King
In the late 60’s, I was probably like most young boys when it came to matters of the opposite sex. With a universe consisting of a small townblock filled with dozens of boys and very fewgirls anywhere near my age, I just assumed my older sisters were longer haired, a little more uptight, versions of the guys I hung with every day.
Inever received the “birds and bees” talkfrom either my mom or dad, although as parents of ten it’s possible they weren’t too sure themselves what was causing the steady parade of little King babies.
Birds and Bees in the 60'sBlog Post in A Simpler Time
Because my four older sisters were considerably older than I, they were never a part of the weeklyl youngest three boys’ communal bath. And let me tell you, theydidn’t know what they were missing!Lots of laughs, splashing, and if we were really, truly lucky, some hilarious gas bubbles rising loudly to the surface. Sure it was often cut short by a suspiciousyellow tinge to the water (which noone ever admitted to---I’m still waiting Nathan), but all in all, for nine months out of the year it was the closest thing to a pool in Minnesota.
So bythe age of 7 or 8, I had no ideagirls did not have all the same body parts we had. I knew they were shaped a little different, wore skirts, smelled better and for the most part disliked sports andbuilding sand piles with Tonkatrucks. And that was it.
One day, an older, wiser neighbor…one who had sisters near his own age, gave me an abbreviated version of the talk my dad bailed on.Without getting into thehorrifying details, most of which I’ve admittedly forgotten over the decades, he basically told me that girls didn’t have one of those. Down there! No wonder I’d never seen anyof their names writtenin snow banks!
As this same neighbor was not above seriously pulling my leg on occasion, I greeted his claims with considerable skepticism. Even after he reassured mea half dozen timesthat he wasn’t kidding, I still glanced back over my shoulder---fully expecting to see him laughing uproariously over the great joke he’d pulled on me---as I stumbled home over thelimestone alleythat separated our yards.
A few years later all the boys in sixth grade were herded into a darkened room of the school, as the only male sixth grade teacher---a nervous sortwho looked asif he’d rather be anywhere else---informed us we were about to see a movie on “the facts of life”. Fifteen minutes later, after a very puzzling black and white film shown on a noisy reelto reelprojector had ended, the same teacher seemed even more uncomfortable as he asked for questions---in a manner that suggested he really didn’t want to.
Initially there was silence.Afterall, we were worldly, tough 11 and 12 year old boys with budding testosterone and an overwhelming need not to look silly in front of our peers. Hey, nothing in that film was new to us!
Fortunately,there was one boy in the class---a popular athlete with a sense of humor that was far greater than his GPA---who spoke up. It went like this: he’d ask a question, we’d alllaugh uproariously like thatwas the stupidest thing anyone ever said, and the petrified teacher would act like he’d just been hit with a brick. Then, as the teacher finally stammered out his veryconsidered response, you couldhave heard a pin drop. Boys who knew everything already, nevertheless seemed pretty interested in his answer.
My own son reached a similar age just before thedawn of the internet---whichI’m pretty sure has eliminated the father-son talk for eternity. In fact, I’m confident the average 12 year old with a cell phone could probably teach his parents a fewthings. But my son was not yetWi-Fi ready, and I dreaded the day I’d have to teach him what my I had learned across the alleyway so long ago.
Then, one day as we were driving somewhere inour suburban Twin Cities town,out of nowhere he said, “Dad? You know the whole thing about girls and boys and stuff?”
“Yes…” I responded cautiously, as nervous as sixth grade teacher aboutto show a sex ed film to 50boys, “what about it?”
“Well, you don’t have to tell me about that. Brett did”
Brett was his best friend who lived a few houses away, a nice enoughkid who looked at least a fewyears younger than his age. To this day I’m not exactly sure exactly what it was that Brett said. But my son never brought up the subject again, he made it through highschool without doing any deviantthings that I’m aware of, and seems to have a healthy interest (and respect for) the opposite sex.
So while I’ve never said it before, I guess this is goodof place as any… “ThanksBrett!”
by Jeff King
I have the luxury of living across the street from anelementary school. By the time I get home sometimearound six during the week, it’s usually long been vacated---which gives our family its own private basketball court, track and large field on whichto throw tennis balls to my round object obsessedSpringer Spaniel.
Until recently, the playground equipment had a fairly thick bed of mulch underneath it. While not absolutely guaranteeingthat a toddler falling from the rubber coated,non-slip surfaces would be uninjured, the odds of broken bones were considerably lessened.
Now the mulch has been replaced by a sky bluerubber/foam six inch deep material that’s nearly asspringy as those enclosed children’s Moonwalk “bouncers” found at all school carnivals. You know the kind---the ones that are so soft and safe sixyear olds can jump three feet in the air, butinevitably crack skulls with another cellmate upon landing.
When I walk my dog after dark, and when I’m absolutely positive no one else islooking, I like to jump up and down on the spongy“moon” surface like the old Apollo Neal Armstrong video. Sometime I even spring (in attempted slow motion) from the first rung of the “lunar lander”jungle gym, boldly announcing “One small step forman, one giant step…” Well you get the idea. I know, it’s pretty hard to believe that a boy who grew up in the 60’s didn’t dream of being in retailall his life. And that I haven’t sought professionalhelp.
It’s hard for me not to recall my own elementary school “playground.” Where instead of space age, spongy blue six-inch thick paintwe had the newest, greatest invention of the day. Onethat was so durable and innovative it was nearly indestructible. I’m talking, of course, about asphalt.
I’m picturing two modern dads,upon seeing their toddler fall backwards four feetwhile falling off the monkey bars, laughing and saying, “So glad we got that spongy stuff installed! Jacob’s head would have been busted into a dozenpieces otherwise!”
The same scene in thelate 60’s would have shown dad applying pressure and a handkerchief to their son’s bleeding head wound while noting, “Wow! That new asphalt isn’tdamaged a bit! And the blood that doesn’t wipe up ishardly noticeable! I bet this stuff will last forever on our roads.”
It’s pretty difficult for modern school children to suffer anyphysical damage at recess. With bullying (hopefully) onthe way out, most of them will have to wait until their first car at 16 to experience physical bruises, and their first date for emotionalscars.
My own elementary school playground had thefollowing “play” tests---now only suitable for Navy Seal training:
Metal Jungle Gym—Made of shiny metal bars, polished (andslippery) after many years of sweat stained, chubby little fingersgrasping for dear life. Although about 100 feet tall, it was fortunately well positioned over a cushy landing mat of…solid, blackasphalt. Every year it claimed a few broken arms and scores of chippedteeth.
Gravel Dodgeball Field—Bordered on two sides by jagged, crumbling eight foot tall limestone walls (which werefun to walk on top of, but that’s another story) and on another by abouta four foot drop off. With a loose gravel base, players attempting to dodge a throw often slipped and fell, leading to untoldabrasions. Of course, those were the lucky ones. Some skidded into a rockwall, leading to a diagnosis now called a “concussion,” which in the modern world means weeks of no play. We called thiscondition “getting our bell rung,” and it mostly resulted in being an easytarget while shaking cobwebs out. The unfortunate few pitched headfirst off the four-foot drop off. Interestingly enough, ourteachers actually encouraged us to play this game!
Wood“See-Saws”—What could be dangerous about a wooden plank balanced on a pivot, with young, evenly weighted children on both sidesgently pushing up and down on a nice spring day? Nothing…if any of us hadthought to use it that way. Instead we would load three children on one side and a smaller tyke on the other, then all jumpoff in unison. Said smaller tyke sometimes even kept their fillings intactwhen hitting the (what else) asphalt.
Metal Spinning “Thingy”—Not sure what the contraption was called, but itconsisted of about an eight foot diameter slippery horizontal metal disk with afew handholds on the outer edge. Mounted about two feet off the ground in the center, it was designed to be gentlypushed in circles. As if! Instead we’d load the contraption down with about a dozenthrill seekers and have 3 or 4 of the strongest boys start pushing in circles as fast as they could. As the discstarted spinning faster and faster, the challenge was to see who could stay on thelongest. He (or she) was the winner. The rest of them---the ones throwing up or heading to the school nurse to treatvarious breaks and asphalt burns---well, they weren’t! No participation trophieswere given.
High School Hero?
by Jeff King
When my 90-year-old father was forced to downsize before moving into an apartment recently, I wasmailed a big, tattered box full of---for the most part---things I had no idea stillexisted; the first record album I ever purchased (Saturday Night Fever by the Bee Gee’s), assorted 8-track tapes, anda St. Louis Cardinals helmet I got when I was 7. Yeah, I was a diehard Vikings fanat the time, but the Cardinals uniforms were on sale in our Minnesota Sears store and mom must have thought red andwhite clashed less with the furniture than purple and gold. Still, I wore thatuniform 24/7 from Christmas morning until spring.
Among this unusual hoard were some tattered library books ofthe kind I used to read from about the 4th grade right on through high school.Books with titles like “One-Man Backfield,” “Tourney Team” and the “Coach Nobody Liked.”
As all the books aremarked “Property of the Stewartville High School Library,” either they werepicked up at some long forgotten “going out of business” high school book sale, or I’m about to be slapped with one of thebiggest library fines in small town Minnesota history. I can only hope mycurrent home state of North Carolina will refuse to extradite me to face punishment.
While the books all havedifferent authors listed on the jackets, the writers seemed to have taken thesame English by mail correspondence class. Here, in essence, are the basic plots:
Young boy (remember, this wasbefore Title IX) is an average athlete, or occasionally a good athlete with abig problem (usually attitude). In the former, the middling jock is usually a bench warmer, whose primary function isoccupying a backup position to a larger, faster, more physically mature “big manon campus” type who attracts the girls (although there was never anything more risqué than drinking malts together).
Thecoach, a big square jawed type who talks in clichés, is blissfullyunaware that the timid, 140-pound boy languishing on the bench can throw the football 60 yards, hit 20 foot jump shots with eitherhand and just happens to have a moral compass more rigid than MotherTheresa’s. Surprisingly enough, while said coach is usually the best in the area, he’s somehow overlooked the budding hall of fameron his bench. As have all the girls in school.
Eventuallysomething happens to the star player (suspension for bad grades, injury, etc...) and the backup is “discovered” when he doessomething heroic and unexpected (throws the ball back to the second stringQB so hard that it knocks him down). The team, which has given up all hope of going to state when their star was lost, is nowled to the finals by the newbie. Cutest girl in school, formerlygirlfriend of star, now discovers newbie, who instead starts dating the only girl who ever paid attention to him. Of course, said girlfinds new clothes and makeup and turns into a teen ElizabethTaylor. Even former star player becomes best friend. Team wins state.
Occasionally, the main character in the book is actuallythe star player, but only because he has a severe flaw. RockyRyan, the hot shooting basketball player for Hillcrest High (don’t you love the alliteration), is suspended by his old fashioned coach for“being a sorehead.” And in the baseball classic, “MostValuable Player,” we’re left to wonder if the team will win state, or “be torn apart by the self-centered actions of the star shortstop?”
Iemptied our local libraries checking out (andpossibly stealing?) books like these in the late 60’s and early 70’s. Judging by the many recognizable fellow teen names on the cards still in the back ofthese classics, I had a lot of company.
Whywere these books so captivating? While I’d like to believe it’s because each book had a upstanding moral---don’t lie, don’t cheat, don’t forget tothank the little people when accepting a really largetrophy---the scarcity of TV options (only 3 channels), computers, video games and cell phones probably had more to do with it.
And I wasthe 140 pound, shy boy in the books. For the mostpart, a bench warmer in three sports, having missed my big moment only because of a few minor physical flaws (size, speed, strength andaggressiveness). None of my coaches ever recognized my superhero type hidden athletic tendencies in practice, what with them being subtly cloaked in strike outs and bad passes. And the pretty girlswho dated our best players didn’t secretly long to be withme...or at least if they did it was pretty well hidden by their tendencies to forget my name.
Six Buck Adventure
by Commander F. C. 'FRITZ' Louderback, US Navy, Retired
It is a long story, after all my nextbirthday, I'll be 70. But, I'll try to keep it brief. I've always liked anything with motion: cars, trains, planes, boats, you name it. Living in NewJersey, at 12 years of age, I learned that I couldobtain Working Papers that would allow to me to work on a farm. I already had a newspaper route where I, daily, delivered the Philadelphia Bulletin,and the Camden Courier to maybe 40 customers via mybicycle.
One of my customers was a small turkey and chicken farm, Flying Feather Farm, owned by a legally blind man, Mr. Johnny Boenitch.Why would a blind man want a newspaper? Hewouldn't, but Mr. Boenitch wanted to assist a young entrepreneur, so he spent 25 cents a week for a product that he had no use for, just to help a muchyounger businessman than him.
I couldhave sold him last weeks paper, but I didn't have that kind of intestinal fortitude. I don't know how, but he knew that I never cheated him. It was agood business relationship, a simple one, butnonetheless, it was a win, win for both of us. So, naturally armed with the knowledge that I could get a real job working on a farm, I approached my friendMr. Boenitch, and he hired me, and set mywork schedule around my paper route's time demands.
It wasn't long that I learned that Flying Feather Farm also grew tomatoes during New Jersey'srather short growing season of about twelveweeks a year. This was a busy time, and the farm needed all the workers it could get. I volunteered, that If I could drive the tractor, I would give thepaper route to my younger brother, and I'd workaround the clock to help harvest the tomatoes. And, this is what I did. Recall now, I was at that time in my life, a full-fledged,12-year-old-tractor-driver.
The tomatoes were sold to theCampbell Soups Company, that is all for the few that I put in my pockets and took home to my mother who served them for dinner,canned them, and froze them for the coming winter months. Nobodybothered me about the money that I was making and saving. My brother combined my paper route with his, and with tips was making over$10.00 per week. My mom was busy happily canning away, and my dadcame home from work every night to a meal that began with a fresh tomato salad. The only problem, my earnings were burning a hole in mypocket.
Flying Feather Farm did not only get its namefrom the birds that it raised. As it turned out it was located next door to the Moorestown Airport, a grass strip with a gas pump,numerous tie downs, and a dive of a restaurant. Everyday that summer,I drove either the red Farmall or green John Deere tractor, listening to rock and roll tunes on Philadelphia's Radio 99, WIBG DJ'sshows.
The music, such as it was, took care of my auditorysenses, but my eyes soon became bored looking at endless rows of tomato plants with yellow bus loads of dark skinned men and woman,young and old, bent over the plants, picking the ripe tomatoes,putting them in baskets, and then stacking the baskets on the flatbed trailers that I was towing at an extremely, slow and most boringspeed. My eyes wandered up to the sky, where [there were] littleairplanes, some made of metal, but most were made of canvas and wood. They were silver, red, yellow, some were blue, and even a few werepainted green. The thing they had in common, was that they alldanced overhead Mr. Boenitch's tomato fields. They moved with the wind, they moved into the wind, they moved across the wind, they movedup, they moved down, occasionally coming in for a landing, andthen taking off again into the wind.
These airplanes were a magnet that drew me, one day, to get on my bicycle, and bike onover to the airport for a closer look. I no sooner put down mybike's kickstand when a familiar voice rang out, 'Is that you Fritz Louderback?' I could see that it was a man talking to me through therestaurant's closed screen door. But, in the shadows I couldnot recognize him. Feeling comfortable, having heard my name said out loud, I approached the door, walked in and saw that the man was an oldneighbor, Mr. Ash.
“Would you like a cold Coke?”Mr. Ash asked. So, there I was, sitting at a table answering questions about Rancocas Woods, an extremely rustic town along the RancocasCreek, where Mr. Ash and I had once both lived, but he and hiswife moved away from first, and me with my family, maybe a year or two later. Looking back, what a coincidence, and what a life changingevent it had been for me.
Mr. Ash owned an Air Coup,a really simple airplane that he kept at this airport. Funny, the whole time we were neighbors, I never heard that he was a pilot. On thecorner where we lived, there was a monument listing the namesof veterans of WW II living in Rancocas Woods. This was a prominent corner, where the school bus picked up us kids and took us toMasonville Elementary School. Waiting for the bus, I often read thenames on the Honor Roll. Until that day, this is how I knew Mr. Ash, only a name on the WW II Honor Roll.
I polished offthe six-ounce bottle of Coke, thanked Mr. Ash, and was ready to walkout the back door, after all I came to see the airplanes. Mr. Ash said something like 'Hey, not so fast! You came here to take aflight, didn't you?' Then I saw that he was pointing with his finger toa sign that simply read 'AIRPLANE FLIGHTS $6.00.'
I didn't curse, when I was 12 years old, but I know, today, that mymind must have shouted to me, 'HELL YES, LET'S GO!'
Thatafternoon was the first time in my life, to borrow a line from a famous poem, that 'My feet slipped away from the perilous earthbeneath them, that bound them so firmly.'
You could say thatI became hooked that day.
At dinner I told my parents about my six buck adventure with Mr. Ash of that afternoon. Mydad said, 'Son, I'm happy that you had the experience. Me, I have alwaysbeen happy to have my feet on the ground. But, listen to me: Ash is a crazy guy, in the war he flew a bomber in Europe, he wasshot down, somehow he was rescued and made it back to England, then thedamn fool got himself back into the air just to go back and do it again. Stay away from Ash!' So I did...
But then, in'69, I won the only lottery that I ever won in my life. A letter fromthe local Draft Board told me to report for induction to the Army. It arrived on a Wednesday, I was to report on the followingMonday and take a physical. My mother's cooking, and God had been good tome, I knew that I would not flunk that physical. I was no longer a 12 year old, and I wanted to fly, but I did not want theArmy. So I flipped the bird at the Draft Board Office in the Camden, NewJersey's Main Post Office building as I walked to the Navy Recruiter's Office. A day later, I was on my way, on a train toChicago, to attend Navy Boot Camp at the Great Lake's Training Center.Immediately after boot camp, I applied for and was selected for the Navy's Naval Aviation Cadet (NAVCAD) program.
About18 months later I carrier-qualed, that is I made my first sixlandings on the USS Lexington, a Naval Aircraft Carrier in the Gulf of Mexico. After that I went on to become a Navy Fighter Pilot flyingF8 Crusaders, then F4 Phantoms in Vietnam. I stayed with theNavy for 24 years. My last flight assignment was flying F14 Tomcats.
Finally, to answer your question, this past August 11th. thelove of my life passed away. It is time now for me to finda new normal, so I am converting our little home into my man cave. I have boxes of model jet fighters, pictures and certificates galore,memorializing a career that I only wish I could do all overagain. But, I felt the need to connect my man cave with that first flight with Mr. Ash.
There is an empty spot on part of myliving room wall, just above a case holding my retirement flagand fourteen medals I picked up along the way. What a perfect place for a wood aircraft propeller. Just something like that first flight Itook with Mr. Ash, from that grass field that has long sincebeen covered over with a housing development.
by Jeff King
As I was dragged along on a tripto buy my high school freshmen twin girls new calculators for upcoming advanced math classes, I had a number of competing thoughts:
- When did calculators become so complicated? There werenow so many buttons and letters I had no idea how the danged thing worked. If someone handed me one with the task of multiplying 17 x 6, I’m pretty sure I’d soon be using fingers and toes.
-When did they become so expensive…again? These contraptions were over $100 each!! I was old enough to remember a time when basic calculators cost a week’s salary…and had witnessed a downward pricemarch until they were given away by grocery stores and banks like pens. Visualizing that declining cost graph in my head, shouldn’t stores by now be paying us to take them off their hands?
-And finally, exactly when did my little girls become smarter than me? I mean, since they’ve been teens they’ve obviously thought they are, but I reassured myself with the fact I have a cool lookingframed certificate from a four year college, while they still take “selfies” on cell phones of themselves acting mentally deranged.
One of these twins is the same girl who in third grade,upon our return from a “back to school” shopping trip, indignantly asked why we hadn’t purchased “number 2 pencils, like her teacher asked??” Puzzled, I responded, “Of course we bought number 2pencils, that’s the only kind they sell at Target.” With tears in her eyes, she held the package of pencils up to me and emphatically declared, “No you didn’t, it says right here on the package, NO2!!!”
And now she was able to operate one of these expensive machines with all the buttons?
I vividly remember the first calculator I ever saw. It was the late 1960’s and mysalesman father had won the newfangled contraption in a sales contest. In those days, calculators were $200 to $300---a week’s salary for many middle class people.
Word quickly spread inour neighborhood about the great new invention Mr. King had brought home, although when I think back, I wonder how it happened so quickly without Facebook, texting, cell phones, etc… Maybe someone hadtied a note to our Springer Spaniel and sent her down the alley.
We breathlessly told our small town neighbors that this book sized plastic machine with numbers on buttons could add,subtract, multiply and divide…instantly and with perfect accuracy! I doubt that Christopher Columbus met with less skepticism when he told his crew the earth wasn’t flat.
Everyone gatheredaround our dining room table with notebooks and pencils (number 2, of course) and prepared to outwit the expensive newcomer in the room. Dad sat down in front of the calculator---because he had usedit before, he was obviously the only one qualified to operate the complicated piece of machinery---and asked for suggestions on what numbers he should enter.
Someone would yell out, “Howabout 24 times 32” or “Divide 225 by 5”, and Dad would solemnly enter the numbers while we all frantically worked the same equation in longhand on our notepads. The calculator’s display would flickerfor a second or two, as if it were thinking, and then an answer would appear in red illuminated numbers on the dark display.
Cries of “Wow, that’s right!!!”, or “How does it do that?” meteach correct answer. After perhaps a half hour of trying to stump the midget math genius living in the plastic box, it slowly became apparent the calculator wasn’t going to make a mistake. Eventually,amazed neighbors filtered out of the dining room and out the back door, shaking their heads. For the next few days, people in our little Midwest town heard rumors of the wondrous tiny computer theKings had and would visit to see it for themselves.
I don’t remember how long this lasted, or when other people first started to get calculators. I just recall we thought using them forhomework would be “cheating.” And when I heard rumors one day that they might not only be used in school someday, but actually in plain sight of the teachers??!! Well, I remember thinking the idea wasblasphemy! I might have even confessed such an impure thought at my monthly closed door meeting with the Parish priest.
Which gets me back to my original story of a shopping trip topurchase two of the world’s most complicated and expensive handheld computers for my daughters’ math classrooms. Exactly when did they start making these in pink?
Now that I’m in my 50’s, elementary school memories have somewhat faded. I can only vaguely recall those dreaded annualparent/teacher meetings where adults----jammed into metal chairs designed for little people not yet three feet tall---droned on about my shortcomings while ignoring the fact I was in the room.
“Mr.and Mrs. King,” the teacher would intone somberly, as if reading from my previous teacher’s script, “your little Jeffrey has a lot of potential, but….” And here’s where she (it was always a she untilfifth grade) would inform them of my numerous shortcomings; talking too much, not paying attention, a messy desk, and assignments not turned in, blah, blah, blah. Of course, true to form, I wasusually not listening, or hearing vague background noises resembling Charlie Brown’s teacher.
As the 8th of 10 children, some of whom (sisters) had been excellent, highly motivated studentswho talked only after raising their hand, turned in everything on time and kept all their crayons neatly displayed in rows, and others (brothers) who had more or less not set the King male educationbar too high, it was tough to do anything my parents hadn’t seen before.
Mom and Dad---or often just Mom, as Dad had to travel quite a bit and probably didn’t like sitting in a hard, tinydesk any more than I did---would nod somberly, glare a couple times in my direction, and promise the teacher that Jeffrey would try much harder. I’d get a half-hearted stern talking to when we gothome, make vague, generic promises to do better, and went off to watch our black and white TV. And so it went through elementary school…lather, rinse, repeat.
I’d like to blame my mixedlifetime school achievements on a somewhat shaky maiden year. It’s one that most of you call “kindergarten.” I prefer to call it “the year I discovered I wasn’t going to get to play all day for therest of my life.”
The only thing good about kindergarten, at least in my selfish “what’s in it for me” undeveloped brain, was that it was a half day. Parents these days seem to preferall-day class for their five year olds, supposedly to better prepare the sponge-like minds for calculus later on, but I think there may be another motive; cheap daycare. Let’s face it, while kids thatage are real cute at least twice a day (naps in the afternoon and sleeping at night) the rest of the time they’re mostly demanding, self-centered little creatures with an annoying penchant for seekingout dangerous situations. Sort of like a puppy, only three-quarters house trained.
Kindergarten combined many of the things that I hated: Sitting still and paying attention (something I hadpreviously only encountered on Sunday mornings), drinking milk (I think I’m officially lactose intolerant) and napping. Especially the napping!
Just like full day kindergarten, “nap time”was not designed for children, but rather the adults. Even the few five year olds still taking naps could probably have made it three hours without some shut-eye. But who among us could blame ateacher for wanting a respite from having to corral the combined energy and inattentiveness of up to 30 five year olds? Unfortunately the teacher’s resting period usually backfired as she spent evenmore time trying to get at least a dozen pre-diagnosed ADD sufferers to lie still and shut up.
On the first day of kindergarten, mom prepared me to walk alone the one block to the localelementary school. Alone, you say? What kind of a mom would send their child to their first day of school unaccompanied??
Well, the sensible, matter of fact kind that was my mom. Afterall, she’d sent the last seven of my siblings off in that manner and they had all arrived, and returned, pretty much intact, and I had played with brothers in the school playground many times. So Ipretty much knew the way without Google maps. Plus, she had two younger children needing her much more than I did by that time.
Keep in mind that our family of 12 was considered middleclass for the day. But middle class meant we always knew where our next meal was coming from, had a car and a decent house and got away for a one week vacation to some place within driving distanceeach year. Middle class did not mean a 4000 sq. foot abode, a two (or three) car garage filled with like number of vehicles, cell phones for everyone and unlimited cell phone plans, computers, videogames, flat screen TV’s…well, you get the idea.
I was lugging the supplies needed for the arduous minute long journey to the great unknown classroom beyond. As my brain cells have beendying off quicker than they’re being replaced for almost 30 years now, I don’t recall the entire laundry list, but two items in general have been forever branded into my brain; a nap rug and a box ofcolor crayons.
Big deal, you say. Everyone had a nap rug and crayons. And I bet you did! I bet you had one of those cool, store bought tri-fold, spongy nap rugs. I’m talking about the kindthat had different colors on top and bottom, weighed next to nothing, but actually cushioned a 40-pound body from the hard, stained tile schoolroom floor. And I bet you had a nice, big box ofcrayons---probably with 64 rainbow colored hues and a box with a real, honest to goodness sharpener built into the back! Crayons with colors like midnight blue, burnt sienna, and raw umber.
I,on the other hand, had a box of 8 color crayons…with names like red, blue, and green. In fact, there were probably only 6 true colors, because the crayon company powers that be had decided even themost basic boxes had to contain black and white. Black came in handy for tracing things, but white?? All the books we colored on were white! When you find out what white crayons were used for, pleaseemail.
And my nap rug? Well, that’s what it really was. A rug! In fact, the pink, now threadbare, once shaggy cotton oval mat with a worn out rubber bottom had a long history in our family.It had originally lain beneath a small porcelain sink in our downstairs bathroom, protecting our valuable geometric design linoleum tiles from the ravages of toothpaste spit and soap spills. Aftermany years, it was demoted from that noble cause and tossed just outside the kitchen for our somewhat rotund Springer Spaniel, Mitzy, to rest on between scavenging hunts to the nearby dinner table.
I’mnot sure how the decision was made, but I can only surmise one parent must have seen Mitzy passed out on her side on the rug one day and had a brilliant idea, “Wow, if we just vacuum off the dog hairsand throw this ratty, pink rug into the laundry (at least I hope they washed it), we’d have a perfectly good kindergarten nap rug for ol’ whathisname number 8!” Lest you think I’m complaining, it wasprobably the first time in my life that I ever outranked Mitzy.
Needless to say, the rug---which was like laying a piece of cardboard on a cement floor---did nothing to improve my naptaking that year. If I ever closed my eyes, it was only under the direct orders, and glaring observation, of my teacher.
Later that day, mom met me as I trudged home on the limestone alleythat ran down the middle of our block. Like moms everywhere, even ones who don’t shepherd their 5 year old to and from the front door of their classroom, she was curious as to how the day went.
“Iguess it was OK,” she later recalled me saying. “I liked playing outside and the cookies were good. But if it’s all the same to you, it’s really not for me. I don’t think I’ll be going anymore.”
by Jeff King
Looking back, the consistent element in 'play' in ASimpler Time was competition. Whether it was attempting to win a football game or purposely running into competitors in our nightly summer games of '500' where dad hit fly balls to all the neighborkids, we all wanted to win.
Even activities that seemingly were not made for competition were transformed. Simply playing catch with a Frisbee wasn't enough entertainment, so we devised agame where two contestants stood on opposite sides of the street with the purpose of defending about a 12-foot section of concrete curb. The boy on one side had to skip the Frisbee past the defenderon the other side, or have the 'goalie' drop the Frisbee, to get a point. One major rule was that the disc couldn't go higher than the goalie could reach---which seems like a simple rule unless itinvolves two testosterone laden adolescent boys with still evolving ideas on 'fairness.'
We'd sometimes play this game so long on summer days that we’d develop cuts on the bottoms of ourfingers from gripping the Frisbee so hard. A few Band-Aids later, the game would resume.
Everything we did involved competition. If we fished, we wanted the biggest, the first and the most.With two paper routes, we raced to see who could deliver their newspapers first and race home (I’m sure there are at least a few late 1960’s versions of the Post-Bulletin hanging in the top branchesof bushes, on rooftops, etc…). We even competed to see who could get out of the most household chores (I retired as the undisputed, undefeated champion of that event).
One of our favoriteevents was climbing the large apple tree that was just outside our window. While even the biggest cowards (that would have been me) became proficient at climbing to a height of about 15 feet in aminute or so, the competition ended for good when we invited one of our elementary school friends home one day. The boy, who was born with just one arm and had a prosthetic 'hook' on the other, tookabout ten seconds to climb to the very top of the tree (a feet we thought impossible), swinging his hook over branches and pulling himself up with the other arm so quick it was hard to tell whathappened. Believe it or not, we blamed our defeat on his 'advantage' of having a built in climbing aid! After that, the whole 'tree climbing thingy' never seemed as interesting.
Despitebeing on numerous basketball, football, and baseball teams as a youth, my entire personal trophy collection consisted of one given to the winner of the local Boy Scout 'Pinewood Derby.' That’s theevent where budding Boy Scout race car designers are given a kit consisting of a block of wood, some lead (and I’m pretty sure it was actual lead!), four tires and axles, and told to make a race carthat would be entered into a miniature Soap Box Derby.
The smart kids---or rather the ones with ethically challenged dads with engineering skills---handed the task over to their fathers andshowed up on race day with awesome, slickly painted, sculpted models that looked exactly like Indy car racers, complete with spoilers. Basically I entered a hunk of poorly painted wood that lookedsuspiciously like the block I had been given...only with wheels attached.
While I didn’t win any ribbons for 'best appearance,' my chunky block of wood beat all the better lookingcompetitors in a series of winner take all challenge races. Not long after proudly bringing my little six-inch silver plastic trophy home, I decided to do what all the great ones should do, and Ipromptly 'retired' from the scouts. Yes, I went out on top, but to this day I'm hopeless tying even the simplest knot.
Kids today may be just as competitive---whether it be competing forthe highest grade point average (my gang would have had a good laugh over that one), shooting the most (fill in the blank) on their X-box games or having the most people follow them on their Twitteraccounts, but I’m guessing they don’t hate losing as much as we did. Because in many of today's games, there are no losers.
When I 'coached' my young son in his first few years of baseball,no one could make an out and we weren't supposed to keep score (although every boy did). At the end of the year, our unbeaten, untied, no win teams were awarded individual participation trophies. Evena few years later, when our league actually kept score and league records, every person on every team, got a trophy.
My own girls must have heard me rant on the subject quite a few times,because when we moved to North Carolina and joined a neighborhood swimming team, our novice swimmer 10-year-old twin girls found themselves “racing” in the slower heats. When they got out of the waterfollowing one of their typical 'egg beater' performances in one of the slower races and found themselves solidly occupying 4th and 5th place, an adult met them immediately to give them 'participationribbons.' Almost in unison, they smiled, put their hands up with palms out and chirped, 'No thanks!' I don't think I've ever been more proud of them.
by Jeff King
As huge snowflakes drifted down from the sky outside our North Carolina house, making our neighborhood look like a freshly turned snow globe, I noted with interest the varied responses from ourhousehold. My Minnesota-born children, having spent half of their lives in the snow-starved south, were downright giddy, snapping photos with their phones and tweeting back and forth with theirvarious excited friends. Visions of snowball fights and sledding danced in their heads. The only thing making the snowfall more perfect would have been if the snowfall had been on a school day,instead of a Saturday morning, as around here a flurry in the next county is enough to cause school bus lockdowns.
My wife, a Louisiana native who decided Minnesota winters probably weren’tfor her after enduring a meager 15 of them, had a slightly different reaction. One that included frozen, chapped lips, painfully cracked hands and black boots with permanent white lines etched bycontinued exposure to road salts.
In my “Simpler Time” youth, it seems the verdict on winter was divided by a similar Mason-Dixon Line of age. Older people, forced to commute through thestuff and much too big for sleds, seemed to at best endure snow. But us little people? Well, we worshipped snow!
Of course the prime reason for our snow worship was the unique power thefrozen precip had to single handedly free us from the bonds of boredom and adult servitude that was the local elementary school. Many weekday winter mornings my siblings and I listened intently to thestatic laced broadcast of the local AM radio station announcer methodically reading through a long list of school closings. As he reached the R’s and we knew our school (Stewartville) was coming upsoon, the excitement in the room was incredible.
On those rare occasions when other schools in the area were closed and (horror of horrors!) ours wasn’t, the un-diluted, sleep deprivedvenom of otherwise cherubic Midwestern children was directed at the inadequacies of our School Superintendent (uncaring, sadistic), local snow plow drivers (reckless maniacs) and even the weatherman(obviously a confused alcoholic).
Fortunately, usually if other schools were closed, our district, which included many rural students on bus routes that easily drifted over, was closed forthe day as well. After being informed by TV and radio that the snowfall, blizzard conditions and extreme temperatures made travel (and school) impossible and even unsafe, we did what every other childwould do in similar circumstances. We put on layers of clothes, including ski masks, scarves, mittens and boots…and went out into the “dangerous” storm to play!
As children, we loved snow.It’s like having an endless supply of a moldable, slippery Play-Doh that could do miraculous things. When packed down, it made a great surface for sledding at the local park, as dozens of us waitedour turns to hurtle down the hill and onto the frozen lake, over and over until we eventually tired of making the steep, uphill return trips.
We could also build cool snow forts, either bypacking wet snow, or by tunneling into huge snow banks made along the street by plows. Occasionally, when the snow banks were very high, we could make the tunnels dozens of feet long. Our parentssurprisingly didn’t seem too alarmed by the idea of the hard packed snow collapsing on and entombing their little Jeffries and Jimmies, but then again, families in those days were pretty large, sochildren might have been a tad more expendable.
One of our favorite pastimes was to pop out of our little forts on the side of the road and heave a flurry of snowballs at unsuspecting cars.If my own children pulled the same stunt nowadays, they’d probably be packed up and shipped to a boarding school, but for us it was a favorite pastime of winter. Usually our volley would miss the slowmoving target, as it’s tough to aim when your legs are already running in the opposite direction. But on some thrilling occasions, there were satisfactory “thumps” of packed snow hitting metal (orglass).
Within seconds we were all hightailing it across nearby yards in a frantic attempt to reach the sanctuary of the middle of our block, where cars rarely ventured (even though therewas a narrow alley). Usually our flight was the result of a false alarm, as the middle-aged housewife going uptown for groceries, or the elderly man heading in late for work, didn’t think it was worththeir time to brave the cold just to chase snowball throwing street urchins.
But once in awhile…and boy, those were the times, a particularly athletic and adventurous driver would stoptheir vehicle suddenly, throw open the car door, and give chase! Even though we weren’t particularly good at fleeing, what with six layers of clothes and snow up to our waists, it was the highlight ofour winter. Like a school of minnows fleeing a largemouth bass, we would scatter in different directions, knowing that while all of us wouldn’t escape, the odds were in any particular kid’s favor.
Usuallywhichever unlucky or particularly slow hooligan caught was given a good scolding or sometimes even the grownup tried and true threat of “telling your parents.” There were even a few instances of beingcuffed on the head (remember this was when any adult was within their rights to physically discipline a young boy). And while the guilty party would shake and nod silently in fear, when the now muchcalmer and somewhat satisfied attack victim returned to their car, the “captured” kid instantly became the center of attention.
Like cockroaches returning when the light recedes, we allwould filter back to ask questions of the day’s hero, “What did he do to you?”, “Is he gonna tell your Ma?”, “Did we dent his car?” The questions came fast and furious, while the boy answering themslowly changed from quaking fear to boastful pride at being suddenly notorious.
None of the hoodlums in this snow chucking gang went on to a life of crime, as far as I know. A few may evenhave gone on to a career in education as administrators. I’m guessing when it comes time to make the big decision for snow days, they smile just a little when saying, “We’re going to have to call offschool!”
by Jeff King
My 83-year-old mother died suddenly on Christmas Eve in the hospital, surrounded by all ten of herchildren and many of her grand and great grand children who had gathered in a small Minnesota hometown to celebrate the holiday.
The concept of “A Simpler Time,” with a Norman Rockwellcarefree childhood, could not have been possible without a mom like ours. We confidently set forth each summer morning on our adventures, knowing that lunch would be ready at noon and any wounds wegarnered along the way would be quickly bandaged by the reliable resident nurse we called mom. And if a few of our friends happened to tag along when we slammed the screen door and yelled, “What’s forlunch?” Well, they were welcomed with a smile, open arms and a place at the already crowded table.
To say we took mom for granted would be a fairly large understatement. I was unaware atthe time that not every mother cooked delicious, varied dinners every night for twelve people and expected (and got) no thanks. Slow roasted meats, mashed potatoes, fresh baked bread...we had no ideajust how good the food was, since it’s all we had ever known. Yet inevitably, with ten very finicky children, at least one would not be thrilled by the normal delicious four-course home cooked dinnersplaced in front of their ungrateful faces each evening.
“I hate roast beef (or chicken, or ham, etc.)” at least one would whine. To which my dad would usually growl, “You’ll eat what we putin front of you!” At the time it seemed mean spirited for some reason, but now that I’m a parent myself, serving frozen pizzas and canned soup to my own children many nights, it seems somewhatunderstated. Mom, knowing each of her children’s least favorite foods, usually managed to have a small side dish already made to stifle the latest whiner and prevent a scene.
Motherhood wasa 24 hour a day, seven day a week job when I was growing up, and somewhat different than today. It was rare that Mom drove anywhere when Dad was at work---in fact for quite some time we had only onecar. A visit from a neighbor or the Avon lady, a quick chat from an actual milkman---those were often the highlights of a typical workday. But she never complained. Never felt life was passing her by,because her children were her life.
With ten children in our own house, and a number of other large families on the same 12-house block, the idea of a “play date” had not entered thelexicon. Had another lady in town brought up the idea of getting together for the express purpose of letting their young ones interact, I’m pretty sure Mom would have thought she was on an episode of“Candid Camera,” our generation’s idea of being “punked.”
While Mom was a Blue Ribbon champion example of 50’s, 60’s and 70’s motherhood, some things were definitely done differently in“the day.” I don’t recall her ever asking any of us to wear a seat belt while in the car and we were allowed, even encouraged, to eat cookie dough containing raw eggs numerous times. She let us rideour bikes pretty much anywhere on our side of town, although not allowing us to cross the busy highway that was our Main Street until we were 10 years old or so, and wasn’t even aware there was such athing as a bicycle helmet.
In hindsight, Mom had the perfect balance of being our “rock,” who was there when we needed her, and giving us enough leash to experience, and sometimes fail, atlife. We had a small lake a few block from our home, so rather than forbid us from resisting the magnetic pull of the most exciting part of a young boy’s town, she made sure we all took swimminglessons at a very early age at the municipal pool. Most of us became excellent swimmers and spent many summer days playing at our little pond.
I don’t ever recall Mom saying she “loved” uswhen we were little, but I never doubted for one second that was the case. If you were sick, or hurt, you could be assured of her undivided attention until the crisis was over. If you were hungryafter school or basketball practice, she would drop what she was doing and make you something to eat. Our clothes, while often hand me downs or with sewn patches, were always clean. She saved money bycutting our hair (unfortunately very apparent in my old photos), sewing and buying (and cooking) in bulk.
Mother made our home the “it” place for all of our friends to hang out at. Shedidn’t care if our baseball or football games tore huge hunks out of the lawn...or even her other passion, the garden. She never made any of our friends (or us) take off our shoes when we ran in andout of the swinging screen door. The house was always clean enough to be presentable, but cluttered enough to be comfortable. For as long as I can remember, most of her children, and their children,and even their children’s children, have returned to a quiet, though pleasant, little town in southern Minnesota to celebrate holidays. To be with her.
At her wake and funeral, I wassurprised to see how many people, including “kids”---now in their 40’s and 50’s---who I hadn’t seen in years, showed up to pay their respects. I was touched that they took time out of their lives tosay goodbye. An event that could have been very sad, instead was filled with laughter, memories of her warmth and hospitality, and many stories of growing up in “A Simpler Time” on a block filled withchildren. The wonderful mom, the woman who made every visitor to our large house seem welcome, even in death managed to be the perfect host.
I’ll miss you mom. We all will. But I’m surethere are children already in heaven---ones that didn’t have a mom like you---who need you more than we do.
Must See TV
by Jeff King
I, like all of my nine brothers and sisters, learned to read at an early age and enjoyed a good book. Not that we had much choice in the matter, because during myearly formative years we didn’t own a TV.
One of my earliest memories is of waiting at a back window in our large, three-story early 1900’s house for Dad to return with a big 'surprise,'which turned out to be an average-size black and white TV. Our first! He proudly perched it on a thin wire TV stand in the family room, and we all laid down in front of it on the worn carpet towatch…for hours.
There wasn’t a lot of 'must see TV' for a young boy in those days. Of course there were Saturday morning cartoons, which started somewhere around dawn and lasted aboutthree hours. For some reason, while I could barely struggle out of bed on school mornings, I had little problem rising to my favorite programs of the week on Saturday.
Cartoons back thenstill featured characters that were dead set on killing each other. Tom’s sole purpose in life was to consume Jerry, Wily Coyote was constantly trying to drop an anvil on the Roadrunner’s head andElmer Fudd tried every Saturday to blast that 'wascally wabbit.'
Fortunately, the 'powers that be' have decided all this cartoon mayhem is much too violent for little minds, and moderncartoons (even Tom and Jerry are friends now) are almost violence free. Which I guess would be great, if kids nowadays weren’t too busy blowing up Nazi’s or chopping heads off aliens on their X-box orPlaystation games to watch.
I’m old enough to remember when shows bragged that they were 'in living color' and stations went off the air each night to the Star Spangled Banner. In the erabefore remote control, even though our TV only received three stations (local NBC, ABC & CBS), I would perch a few feet from the set, quickly twisting the dial back and forth whenever the actionlulled or a commercial came on.
Cries of 'you’re going to break the g######m TV!' or 'if you sit that close your eyes will go bad' from my father pretty much went unheeded, and I don’trecall any of our TVs suffering a broken dial or any of my nine siblings going blind.
In our very Catholic family, my father set strict rules on what could (and could NOT) be watched.Anything with someone getting shot, Like 'Rat Patrol,' 'Gunsmoke' or virtually any World War II or Western movie, was 'A-OK.' Any hint of hanky panky between two people of the opposite sex wascompletely off limits. Even shows considered laughingly tame by today’s standards, like the 'Partridge Family' or the 'Brady Bunch' were occasionally turned off if someone’s lips got too close to amember of the opposite sex. I shudder to think what pops would have done if two characters of the same sex had kissed. Although it would be interesting to see what a TV looks like when dropped out ofa third story window.
The only way I can make sense of my Dad’s logic is that---while he trained in a bomber crew towards the tail end of World War II---he had never actually been shot atby the enemy, so the reality of bombs and guns killing someone may have been lost on him. But as the father of ten, he knew darn well how dangerous it could be when two people got to kissing!
Oneof my fondest memories of growing up was the whole family (OK, at least Dad, the boys and a few of the girls who had a crush on Little Joe) watching Bonanza, The Wonderful World of Disney and Mutualof Omaha’s Wild Kingdom back to back to back on Sunday evening.
First up was 'Wild Kingdom,' which featured Marlon Perkins---a smallish, intellectual looking type in khaki---and his muchmore burly compadre’ Jim trying to decide what surly, dangerous animal needed to be wrestled to the ground and captured this week. Usually Marlon would stand at a safe distance and explain what wasgoing on ('Jim will attempt to jump out of the tree on top of the 400-pound long tusked wild boar and tie his legs together with the shoe string clutched in his teeth'), and then---only when thecritter was pretty much subdued---come to his partner’s aid.
Often we were treated to somewhat odd vignettes of animals I was pretty sure didn’t belong together interacting ('the raccoonknew he had to quickly leave before the leopard spotted him' Marlon would drone in his monotone voice). Only years later did I find out many of the scenes were actually shot in a zoo! Knowing myNebraska insurance funded heroes were such frauds could be the reason I am such a loyal State Farm customer as an adult.
Next was probably my favorite---the Wonderful World of Disney. Asmuch as I liked the variety of what old Walt decided to show each week, I really enjoyed the opening scenes showing visitors at his Florida theme park being 'attacked' by a huge hippo or encounteringghosts in the haunted castle. As we lived all the way up in Minnesota and had a dozen mouths to feed, we never actually got to visit the park as a child. But it wasn’t for lack of whining!
Andlast, but not least, was my father’s favorite show---a western about a kind, windowed Dad (who eventually moved on to dog food commercials) and three brothers who didn’t look even remotely related. Myfavorite was 'Hoss,' the heavy, good natured one who would only shoot or beat someone up if pushed really, really far (which seemed to happen often). My sister’s favorite was 'Little Joe' the goodlooking youngest son who was always being rescued from trouble and continually suffered the cruel fate of having any girl he was interested in killed by the end of the show. I think there was anotherbrother, but who really cared about him?
Before the opening scene---when the old western map started to burn from the center and the four riders came towards us while cool theme musicplayed---I knew it was time to start making popcorn for the whole family. Cooked on top the stove with lots of oil and butter in huge quantities, it was the best popcorn in the whole world.
WhenI had popped enough to fill a huge, battered metal tub---the same one my father soaked his feet in almost nightly after a hard day’s work (Hey! It was washed after his soakings and none of us thoughtit was even strange at the time!) we’d sit around munching while the Cartwrights fought bad guys and Little Joe courted his latest ill-fated love. I’ve recently tried making popcorn the sameold-fashioned way in my home, and while everyone tells me it tastes great, it doesn’t seem quite as good as I remember. Maybe it was the foot washing tub?
An Invention of OlympicProportions
by Jeff King
Our internet/TV cable was accidentally cut by someone working on our sprinkler system theother day, and my children got a 24-hour glimpse into just how rough my wife and I had it while growing up.
Without the ability to watch psychotic mom’s battle it out with a controllingmaniac masquerading as a children’s dance coach on TV, or the means to comment on their friend’s latest picture of themselves (usually taken in the bathroom mirror) posted on Instagram, they were leftas helpless as newborn fawns.
'Why don’t you read a book?” I asked meekly, just trying to be helpful.
“Daaaaaaad…...” responded one of my teen daughters, rolling her eyesheavenward and wondering how any adult could be so insensitive to suggest such a thing when school wasn’t even in session.
Eventually they gathered around my I-phone like crack addictssharing a pipe (their own smart phones having been rendered inoperable through multiple falls on concrete) and peered into the screen while they accessed the internet through our home’s lastconnection to the civilized world.
I would have been condescending to them, but realized without my phone I couldn’t do my favorite evening activity of checking emails and reading hometownnewspapers either.
Thinking back to my own internet free---in fact mostly color TV free---childhood, I remembered some of the many games we invented to fill all the spare time a digitalfree world had.
One year, after watching the Olympics on fuzzy black and white TV, and in particular the track and field events, we decided to host our own little version in the back yard.For our main event, croquet mallet sticks with the heads removed were pounded into the ground throughout the lawn and string was tied to them for a makeshift set of hurdles.
With two setsof three hurdles running roughly parallel from our back steps to the limestone gravel alley, we started our first event, called the “Roughly 20 yards (and back) low, medium (and some high) hurdles.”Pairing off by age, our oldest two runners prepared to set a “New World Record” in the inaugural event. One boy with his dad’s “borrowed” Timex sat in a chair and served as the official timer until itwas his turn to run.
The “hurdles” turned out to be very popular with the local gang. The new event provided the boys with a few of their favorite things: competition….and mayhem.
Unlikereal hurdles, which are designed to tip in the direction the runner is moving (who also rarely hits them because of years of practice), our hurdles were set at a height deemed correct by the older,bossier boys, and while they had a little “give,” otherwise served to trip anyone catching even a toe on them.
For the most part, the first few tandems of older budding track stars racedthe twenty odd yards to the rock alley and back unscathed. Then the fun came! With a new (for them unreachable) “World Record Time” on the books, younger boys were nevertheless determined to besttheir elders and give it their all. But hurdles that had barely reached the first racers’ knees were almost waist high on some of the younger brothers.
With fresh legs and keenconcentration, the younger sets of runners generally cleared the first few hurdles, even if at times their efforts more resembled the “Fosbury Flop” of high jump fame. By the time they reached thelast hurdle (posted maniacally just feet in front of the rough limestone alley rocks), fatigue and fear of not posting a good time had taken over.
For pure, unadulterated fun, I’m sure even“modern” boys would prefer to see a real, live high speed face plant into skin cutting rocks over even the best video game action. I know we (or at least the ones who didn’t experience it) suredid!
By the end of our first event, about half the field had bleeding red “raspberries” on their faces, knees, the palms of their hands…and even some on their backsides. With so many oftheir peers watching, no matter how much the battle scars hurt, there was absolutely no crying. No, I’m pretty sure that came later, when concerned (“What in the *!#@ were you THINKING??”) Mom’swashed out their wounds before spraying them with that faithful germ fighter from Hell…Iodine!
We had other Olympic events---the bowling ball/shot put (ended when Dad’s expensive favoriteball cracked on the driveway), the sharpened rake handle javelin throw (after just a few tosses even we realized nothing good was going to come of that), but the hurdles were our favorite. We learnedto handicap the races and make them fairer by lowering the strings to fit the height of the shorter participants.
We proceeded to race all afternoon and into the early evening one summerday, with new participants filtering in from surrounding neighborhoods every now and then and demanding their chance to claim the record for their “country.” As evening fell, and we made the painfuldiscovery that depth perception suffers in low light, the wipeouts became more common and more spectacular. In other words, it became even more fun.
While I remember the event vividly, Idon’t recall ever doing it again. Maybe it was because our parents made us dig out and pick up all the croquet pole “hurdles” and put the heads back on them. It seemed pretty unfair to us at the time,since we never used the mallets for what they were intended anyway (although we did try to chop down Dad’s favorite tree once by pretending they were axes, but that’s a story for another time).
I’mguessing the real reason is that over a dozen boys woke up the next morning sore, and some with bed sheets stuck to stinging, iodine soaked wounds. What had seemed so exciting, so cool, the daybefore…well now it just hurt. Maybe that’s why the real Olympics are every four years.
Hot Summer Days
by Jeff King
Acommon complaint among “our generation” of adults is that children today don’t play outside enough, and when they do, they aren’t able to keep themselves occupied. And I don’t count spray paintinggraffiti on cars or seeing whether the metal pool furniture floats as “keeping themselves occupied.”
Looking back---and comparing my childhood with that of my own children’s’---it’s fairlyapparent why we might have had a tad more imagination. We didn’t have nearly as much cool stuff to do indoors as they do know! Let’s put my childhood and my 17-year-old son’s head to head and let youdecide:
Getting the “gang” together: Before I had a driving license, I had few options when wanting to see what my friends wanted to do. I could call them on the telephone (since our ownversion of texting, the telegraph, had fallen out of favor a few years earlier), or I could walk, bike, or even (gasp) run over to their houses…one at a time…and see what they had planned.
Therewere a few problems with calling. For some of you a little bit older, or who grew up in a more rural area than my town of about 3,000 with one stoplight, the issue could have been calling on a partyline, where one gossipy neighbor could tie up the line for hours at a time. Fortunately, while we didn’t have a party line, we did have our share of gossipy neighbors (particularly our moms), whocould also keep individual phone lines busy for hours. And this was before the era of call waiting or caller ID. So calling eight friends, one at a time, could take all afternoon, which wouldgenerally mean whatever we planned was now bumping up against dinner. Biking around town? It was generally a hot summer day, and while teens have changed in some ways, a teenage boy even then didn’tlike to have to exert himself too much.
My son, when he wants to get a group together for whatever teens do (I don’t want to know), just “tweets” something like “whaz up?” (I don’t pretendto know the correct lingo) to his 1,200 followers. He could post it on Facebook, but most of the teens in my area have cooled on the use of this archaic social network, ever since really old peoplelike parents and companies figured out how to use it as well. Why over a thousand people need to know he’s looking (or “tweeting)) for something to do, when as best I can figure his circle of friendshe occasionally “hangs” with number less than two dozen, is beyond me. But this method does seem to work quickly and very efficiently.
Planning: Even if I were able to contact all of myclosest friends, our options on a hot summer day were fairly limited. In fact, if we were in our teens, a “teensy weensy” hurdle might have prevented the whole gang from meeting. It was a four-letterword called… JOBS! But for comparison sake, let’s just pretend this whole planning thing were happening at a younger age, say 10, when most of us just had paper routes, lawn mowing or even farm choresto get in the way.
The old standby at 10 was to play baseball. All of us liked to play, and could amazingly do so fairly well without a real field or even an adult to organize/watch us. Butby midsummer, the average day in southern Minnesota was around ninety degrees and pretty humid. Not exactly New Orleans weather, but when you had spent six months battling sub freezing temps, a prettygood shock to the “path of least resistance” 10-year-old boy system.
That left the local stagnant pond called the “lake,” which by mid-July looked pretty much like a petri dish at theCenter for Disease Control, or our friend’s finished basement. As air conditioning was scarce in the late 60’s, and most of our basements looked more like dungeons, this basement---with its handsomedark faux wood paneling, linoleum floor and fluorescent lights---was as good as it got.
We had a “veritable plethora” of options in the cool basement. TV would have been a great one, butthey didn’t have one down there, and even if they did the antenna would not have been able to pick up the huge number of channels (three) in the area…all of which would have been showing soap operasanyway.
So that left arguing---about who the best Minnesota Twin was, if you really could get germs from girls---the usual important subjects, or making up some version of an indoor sport.Our two favorites were hand hockey, played on our knees with a ping pong ball as a puck and card tables on either side of the basement as goals, or baseball, which used a masking tape “strike zone” onthe wall and a hand as a bat…and a ping pong ball. (Curiously enough, while our indoor games always seemed to involve a ping pong ball, I can’t recall this family owning a ping pong table.)
Whenmy son’s friends come over (after having been summoned through their smart phones), they tend to hang out in the coldest room in our house, the “bonus room.” When I was growing up, we didn’t have aroom in our much larger old house called a “bonus room.” I guess with ten children there weren’t any extra rooms, but I think if my parents are jealous they could probably refer to me and the lastthree or four other sons as “bonus children.”
I’m guessing the “bonus” room is called that because it’s the room in our house situated right over the garage---the same space where 1960families used to store important things like nail filled lumber and hardened paint from past home projects. But in our house, it’s called that because the dogs are always able to find plenty of extrapizza or chips on the floor (or couch) after kids depart.
The TV in our bonus room is a flat screen wall unit with about 3,000 channels (I’ve never actually counted), and various on-demandmovie channels. But to my son’s friends, it’s basically a big video game screen. Each day his gang can decide whether to take on world power Spain in soccer, kill zombies, lead the armies of ancientRome, hit the beaches in Normandy, take over far away planets or blitz Peyton Manning. My friends, on the other hand, were pretty dang fascinated the first time we saw the bouncing ball of light on ablack screen that was Pong.
Interaction: In the late 60’s, because the games we invented in the basement involved everyone participating, there was usually a lot of healthy, deepdiscussion. Like “There’s NO way that was a goal,” “You’re cheating again!!” and “No, If it hits the lamp it’s a TRIPLE!!” Occasionally one of us could persuade another to see their point of view,particularly if the debate opponent was smaller and weaker.
My son’s gang (near as I can tell in my short forays into their lair) is decidedly more civilized. While a few of them competeon-screen with occasional mild trash talking, the rest stare down at their phones, texting and chuckling about something another friend…one who presumably didn’t care enough about them to actuallyshow up…is texting back. I’m pretty sure National Geographic could do an entire magazine article (excuse me, I mean web blog…how 1970 of me) about the complex social circles that are the modern teen.There are obviously over 1,000 teens out there fascinated enough about the pearls of wisdom my son has gleaned in all of 17 years to subscribe to his “Tweets,” a much smaller number who come to hishouse consistently, and some unknown number between these two extremes who for some mystical reason command his attention when he’s supposed (again, pardon my vintage logic) to be interacting with thepeople in the same room.
For years my biggest regret growing up when I did was being in the pre-Big Wheel era. I’m talking about the red and yellow plastic trikes where kids seemed toscrape their behinds on the ground while doing complete 360-degree spins. Or at least that’s how they were portrayed on TV in the late 70’s on commercials that aired for the express purpose ofreminding me how lame my own wobbly metal trike had been.
Now, having watched over my son’s shoulder through the years as he defeated Grant at Gettysburg or dunked over LaBron James, it’sbecome difficult to keep up the charade. I’ve got a confession to make; as a ten year old I probably would have ditched every ping pong ball…and probably every friend and all my siblings…for anXbox.
Why We Played Outside
by Jeff King
In a somewhat feeble attempt to perhaps recapture a tiny sliver of mycarefree boyhood youth, I’ve started collecting various “vintage” toys (I refuse to call them antique) from when I grew up in the 60’s and 70’s. On a shelf above my office desk are a working set ofRockem’ Sockem” Robots, the first Pong video game, a heavy metal Tonka Truck and a Mattel “Talking Football” game.
Each of them, and others I’ve bought mostly on eBay, brings back vividmemories of a time that has probably grown much more fun now that it’s faded away in the rear view mirror. And at my age, when recollections of Friday night can be pretty fuzzy after just two MillerLites, being able to conjure up sharp details from 40 years ago just by touching the well worn box of a favorite toy can be very rewarding.
While I find most of my “gems” on eBay, I rarelypurchase them through their auction format---preferring to have the instant satisfaction of the “Buy it Now” button. Sure, I probably end up paying more, but after 40 years of separation from theloud, clanging ball bearings shot from a toy automatic weapon enclosed plastic shooting gallery…well, a guy’s gotta do what a guy’s gotta do.
When the latest box arrives on my porch, I’malmost as giddy to open it as I was on that Christmas or birthday so long ago. Unfortunately, instead of flimsy wrapping paper, these boxes arrive having been packaged by home based entrepreneurs withway too much tape and time on their hands. By the time I’ve scissored through the black Gorilla masking tape and pulled out the mildewed shower curtain or carpet padding the amateur seller had socleverly used, I’ve pretty much forgotten what I bought.
Inevitably my initial thoughts on seeing eBay’s latest gem are the same; first, a “How COOL!!!!” Then, a flood of memories…of otherneighbor boys I haven’t seen in years, or long ago arguments with brothers over rules. And finally, though I hate to admit it, there’s always a little disappointment. As in, “boy, there’s really notmuch too this---I can’t believe this kept us occupied for hours at a time.”
Even so, I’m always excited to run my new found vintage gems past my wife, my twin daughters, and especially, mynow teenage son.
One would think that my son’s first exposure to Dad’s adolescent toys, when I bought him a modern copy of an authentic 1960’s electric football game, would have cured me ofthis masochistic habit. My son was about ten at the time, into sports and video games and genuinely excited as we opened the game and started setting it up. We took about 15 minutes putting the littleplastic players on their bases, and lining them up in realistic defensive and offensive positions as I explained to him the intricacies and nuances of the game, how it worked and what would happenwhen we turned it on.
He was grinning like a Jack O’ Lantern and excitedly asked, “Dad, can I turn it on now!” Like the proud Dad I was, I just smiled back and nodded. The football fieldimmediately started to hum and vibrate very loudly, as the tiny footballers bounced up and down and banged against each other like modern teens in a mosh pit, with most of them toppling over and therest quickly bunny hopping to the relative safety of the sideline, where they bumped furiously against the metal rail until I hit the off switch.
“Wow, Dad!” my son exclaimed, “are theysupposed to do that?” I assured him they weren’t, and for the 1000th time realized that game (or power tool) instructions are not just in the box for packing material and probably should at least beglanced at.
After spending another 15 minutes perusing said instructions, realizing there was a speed vibration control, and setting up the red and green figures in a semblance of a Power Ioffense and a 3-4 defense, we were ready again. My son once again hit the switch.
“Dad! My running back is heading the wrong way!” yelled my son, pointing out the obvious. He neglected tomention that his center was also holding hands with my middle linebacker, with both dancing in circles like square dance partners, and the rest of his linemen were either blocking each other orheading for the sidelines for an urgent water break.
“Wow, Dad!” my son repeated, “are they supposed to do that?” And as I paused to respond, memories of my own electric football games ofyouth flooded back. No, they aren’t… but sadly, it seems, they always did.
My son never pulled his embarrassing new “old” game out from under his bed, even to show the neighbor boys, and inone of the two moves we made since it somehow got left behind.
As I’m probably the prototypical glutton for punishment, I’ve looked to my son for approval in every toy I’ve since collectedin the past six years. When my huge, rusting Tonka dump truck with the yellow flaking paint and the real rubber tires---just like the one we used to bury cat droppings in our outdoor sand box allsummer---arrived in a battered Charmin toilet paper box stuffed with smoky smelling newspapers, my teenage boy was fairly impressed with how rugged and large it was.
“What does it do, Dad?”he asked.
“What does it do? What do you mean, what does it do?” I replied in a pretty offended manner. Then I stammered, stuttered, hemmed and hawed a few more seconds as I tried torecollect. What the hell did we do with them for hours at a time?
“It was sooooo cool, “ I replied, realizing too late that even the use of the word “cool” was dating me as much as themetal toy I had in my hands. “Every boy in the neighborhood had at least one of them---some had bulldozers, some had cranes or other construction vehicles---and we’d build lots of roads, and dig pitsin a huge sand box located right where Grandma’s enlarged kitchen is now. Of course every once in awhile we had to remove some “surprises” left by the neighborhood cats, who thought they had found themother of all litter boxes.
“What were the roads for?” my son innocently enough asked.
“What were the roads for? What were the roads for??” I responded incredulously, at onceboth offended at the question and wondering why, exactly, did we spend all day building the roads?
“Because they were fun to build, that’s why!” I sputtered in response. “My brother Kevinmight use his back hoe or excavator to dig through a sand hill, another neighbor boy might use his crane to pick up the excess sand, and the rest of us would pull up our dump trucks to take the sandand then deposit it on the other end of the sand box. Eventually we’d use bulldozers to flatten the surface until we had a pretty good imitation of a real road.”
Satisfied with myself forsuch a well thought out response, I folded my arms and smiled in victory. My son, however, looked even more puzzled (if possible) than he had after our electric football experiment.
“Afteryour road was built,” he asked slowly, as if searching for the answer himself, “what did you do the next day?”
As if I had finally found the “Ah ha” moment, I quickly (and a little smugly)replied, “You know the sand that we moved to the other side of the box? The next day we built a road through that sand mountain.”
“Oh” said my son, with little expression. “Great dad.Pretty “cool” toy.” And he walked slowly away with his head down and cell phone in hand, texting one of the many friends and acquaintances who seem to prefer typing to each other in small, abbreviatedsentences rather than actually talking. Call me paranoid, but I’m fairly certain he wasn’t portraying me, or my new “old” toy, in the most positive light.
Boys Will Be Boys
In 'A Simpler Time,' boredom---especially in the summer---was a dreaded, inevitable foe for a ten-year-old boy. With no 24-hourcartoon network and no video games (and no air-conditioning), we had but one weapon to combat a youngster's worst enemy; Our imagination.
And while usually our imagination was harmless(ping pong hockey on our knees in the relative coolness of a neighbor's basement), occasionally the combined brain power of a pack of adolescent boys would conjure up activities that might not havebeen fully sanctioned by neighborhood adults.
For instance, a smoke bomb smuggled into our fireworks-free state of Minnesota by some 'wild and crazy,' risk-taking Dad might have beenconsidered fun all by itself. Light it, watch the colored smoke rise into the summer air, ooh and ah a little, etc. But a simple re-positioning of the device, say, maybe by the intake of a neighbor'scentral air conditioning unit, and now you had honest to goodness, laugh until you're silly, ten-year-old boy fun!
Not only did we get to see the beautiful blue colored smoke waft into theair, we got to see it slowly appear on the inside of the one story house's window. Plus, we got the additional entertainment of seeing the owner of said house charging through the front door, and (ifwe were really lucky), maybe even a chase!
There were a few other times when our imagination got the best of us (we're really sorry Mrs. Nelson, but to this day we didn't think our bb gunsrange would even reach your purple Martin house, much less knock one of those suckers down). But we weren't bad kids. Let's just say that sometimes our unfettered imaginations didn't allow for themyriad of outcomes that might be possible.
For instance, having made the discovery that a magnifying glass could be used to burn a hole in a dry leaf on a sunny autumn day, we gathered awhole pile of leaves in a secluded area of the neighborhood by a vacant house. If you happened to be driving by on the nearby street that day, what you witnessed was not eight small boys dancingaround a bonfire in some kind of Boy Scout ritual. No, those boys were dancing on the fire in a valiant attempt to end a somewhat out of control magnifying glass science experiment. Sixteen meltedConverse tennis shoe soles and Mr. Ringey's 'borrowed' extremely long garden hose later, the experiment was a qualified success.
As a side note, while very few young boys these days areaware of the many other uses of a magnifying glass, I'm here to tell you that it's not a good idea to be the one to educate them. When my own son was about eight, he was 'helping' me unload acontainer of nautical products we had shipped from India. In the container was a sample of nice, bone handled antique style magnifying glasses, my son was pretty bored, and it was a beautiful sunnyday...Well, if you haven't seen where this is heading by now, I applaud you. Obviously your maturity level is much higher than mine!
In my defense, my extremely honest looking eight yearold double secret promised this would be our little secret. Yet when my phone rang the next day and my wife's first words were, 'Your son is out on the driveway with a bunch of his friends and amagnifying glass...' I was pretty sure where she was going.
As I mentioned before, we weren't bad kids. For instance, in the case of the vacant house mentioned in the burning leavesincident earlier, we would never have thought about breaking into it had someone remembered to lock it! We were not the kind of children to smash a window or kick a door in. But if the back door had apadlock and the padlock wasn't closed? You might as well send us an official gilded invitation through the mail!
The story was that both of the elderly occupants of the large, white househad died suddenly, and within a short time of each other. Because of that, the house and its belongings were pretty much left the way it was when they were alive. We knew that because we'd peeredinside through the many first story windows more than once, hoping to catch a glimpse of something cool, like a ghost or a body or something.
Had any of us discovered the opened lock byourselves, I'm guessing we would have done the right thing and reported it immediately to our parents. But finding the door to a neighborhood Wonderland open when you've got the combined bravery (notto mention stupidity) of almost 80 years of adolescent boy brains working together as one? We were going in!
I (like I'm sure all of us) was basically scared to death to enter. This househad been the center of most of our best ghost stories all summer, and while it was somewhere around noon on a sunny day, I wasn't at all sure spirits didn't work daytime shifts. Of course, to hidethis fact I, like all of us, talked really loud, acted tough and made lots of jokes. (Years later this practice finally paid off, when I was able to hide my insecurity the same way upon meeting myfuture wife for the first time.)
The kitchen was the first room in the house, and it appeared as if any minute someone would be coming downstairs to cook breakfast. Everything, from tableand chairs, to pots and pans, had little dust on it. The only thing even remotely interesting to us was a box of bendable, colored straws. I remember the straws vividly for a couple of reasons. One isthat we took them---which technically made us thieves, but I'm pretty sure the statute of limitations is up and I'm not sure how long they could lock up eight adults for taking a box of straws over 40years ago. And the other was---what the heck were two old people doing with cool bendy, striped, colored straws anyway?
By the time we reached the living room and the huge TV, the kind thatwas semi-camouflaged in a coffin-sized piece of walnut-colored console furniture that was popular at the time; our fears had subsided a little. The house seemed a lot less haunted, and a lot morelike, well, every other boring house in the neighborhood. (Only without the matching, dull grownups.)
We turned on the TV, and nothing happened. Guess it didn't strike us as unusual at thetime, as we understood the whole anal-retentive, fixated deal adults had about electricity---like how it was expensive, money didn't grow on trees, and we shouldn't leave lights on cause they workedall day to pay for..., yada, yada, yada.
Then we traveled upstairs where, just like downstairs, nothing seemed to have been disturbed. Our apprehension level had risen though, because theupstairs did not have as much light, and because for all we knew the people that had lived here died in these very rooms! Even our jokes and brave talk tapered off, until we were pretty much as silentas boys in church. (On second thought, remembering church, scratch that. We were much quieter than in church).
In the middle of the hallway we discovered a rope hanging down from theceiling. While none of us had seen a trap door to an attic before, the rope had a handle, we were curious boys, and before long we were pulling a whole stairway down magically from the ceiling! Oursense of adventure overriding our fear (not to mention our common sense), the leaders of our gang started to ascend slowly up the stairs into the dark scary attic.
And that's when we heardit! A low, moaning noise coming from downstairs!! To say that eight small boys have never run down a stairs faster in the history of mankind is to severely underestimate how we literally flew. If youremember the vintage arcade game called Centipede, you'd probably get a good idea of what we looked like coming down.
I'm not sure who noticed it as the fear train rumbled through theliving room on the way to freedom, but someone did. The TV was now on. That fact did little to slow us down at the time---in fact it even made our Converse shoes fly faster, until the remaining rubbersoles from our magnifying glass experiment were left on the linoleum floor of the kitchen as we passed through.
As we caught our breath (and checked our shorts) in the relative safety of agarage a half block away, we tried to make sense of what had just happened. Ten-year-old minds may spend an inordinate amount of time discussing and fearing ghosts, but the only thing that allows themto sleep at night is knowing they aren't real. If we were ever going to sleep again, we needed to rationalize what happened. And quick!
Eventually we came to a logical conclusion that Icling to even now, when things go bump in the night and my own children look to me for strength. The TV had not been turned on for awhile, at least for a few weeks. And TVs back then took awhile towarm up---especially when cold. The noise we heard was probably the sound of the TV (which we thought didn't work) finally starting to warm up, which would explain why it was on as we blew by.
Ourgang unanimously agreed with the verdict and slunk away to the safety of our respective houses to 'check on lunch' (be real close to mom). A few of us I'm sure even slept that night. And after a fewdays had gone by---in the light of day, and with at least half a dozen boys for support, we crept close enough to the house to see the lock was still open.
One day, on a dare, we even racedinto the kitchen and retrieved the one thing of value in the house; the pack of bendable, plastic, colorful drinking straws. Then someone told his parents about the lock, and the house was soon offlimits to our gang forever. You see, we really weren't bad kids. Just bored.
by David Haulman
The name doesn't sound like much---the platform. But, to my twobrothers and I, growing up in New Orleans in the 50s and early 60s, it still brings to mind our happiest childhood Christmas memories. The platform was a large horizontal plywood surface, about eightfeet square, that Dad would erect about two feet off the floor in the corner of our living room. Upon this surface, we'd lay a covering of white sheets, to simulate snow, then assemble and position alighted 'Plasticville' miniature town that included two train stations, a church, a school, a fire station, a gas station, a motel, several homes, and even a water tower. Surrounding this we laidparallel tracks for two large-scale electric train sets---a freight train on the outside, and a passenger train on the inside. At the center of this display, we'd position a real Christmas tree, aboutfour feet high, adorned with ornaments and big colored Christmas lights---the kind that were popular in the 50s. At the base of this 'giant' tree, we'd place our nativity scene. Finishing touchesincluded a sprinkling of glitter upon the 'snow,' and the tacking of a brick-patterned cardboard border to close the gap between the platform and the floor.
The sight of this sparklingminiature town, with running trains around the perimeter, was a joy to behold. Neighbors would ask to see it. We couldn't wait to get home from school each day to 'run the trains.' Dad was fromAltoona, Pennsylvania, so trains and snow were typical of his Christmas memories, and now, of ours.
Boating in 'A Simpler Time'
by Jeff King
Got a great deal recently whenone of our favorite vendors contacted us to buy a number of cool, hand carved wooden speedboat models for half price. While they aren't cheap (even 50% off they run nearly $250), they are incrediblydetailed, with real leather seats and 'plank on plank' wood construction. And at over 2 feet long, they make a real statement on a fireplace mantel, bookshelf or desk---looking like one-of-a-kindmodels that sell for over $1000.
I grew up in the 60's (and 70's) when a few of these rumbling dinosaurs still prowled the water. But the boats that I, my five brothers and my fatherfavored were---to put it mildly---somewhat more modest. While racing across the Mediterranean with Hollywood starlets in an Italian-made Riva wood speed boat may get anyone's heartbeat going, forsheer excitement (and terror) I would take a flimsy 14-foot aluminum boat---filled with five young boys and a dad who could barely swim---as an approaching storm whips up whitecaps on a frigidnorthern Minnesota lake. The gentle 'putt-putt-putt' of the tiny 3-horsepower outboard, relaxing in any other setting, could barely be heard above Dad's loud yells to quit rocking the boat and makesure our life jackets were tied tightly.
Before the era of hand held cell phones and weather radar updates, my slightly paranoid father had to rely on good old fashioned weather 'instincts'to get our little rental bathtub on and off the water. My brothers and I all loved to fish, and once in a while through serious negotiating (and maybe a dash of whining with a pinch of crying thrownin) could get Dad to take us out of the little lake bay and into...THE BIG LAKE!
'The Big Lake' was the area around the point, where it was rumored huge fish lived, and windswept wavescould swamp even the biggest fishing boats if one were unlucky enough to be caught in a storm. Of course, with those boats boasting huge engines that could get them up to speeds approaching 40 mph,and our rust bucket's outboard motor having less power than Mom's new vacuum cleaner, their margin of error was a lot greater.
At the time, I can remember being exasperated at how cautiousmy father was. If he saw a cloud peaking above the trees in the western horizon---a distance that could be twenty miles or more---our fishing trip could be called off. Now that I'm a parent myself, Iwonder why the hell he even contemplated risking his family on such suicide missions!
One at a time he would tie us tightly into the bright orange, Coast Guard approved life jackets---theones that were guaranteed to keep your little head out of the water if you were unlucky enough to fall in, but made it impossible to look behind you without turning your entire body 90 degrees. Thenhe'd grab each of us off the dock, stacking us neatly along the flat wood bench seats in some degree of order (oldest brother near the anchor, youngest near Dad) until we were packed in like an oldworld Irish immigrant sailing ship. Then he'd tell us to 'sit still, shut up, don't touch anything, and, oh, by the way...have fun!'
It usually got pretty warm as we sat like cordwood inour life jackets, long sleeves and windbreaker in the calm 80-degree northern Minnesota sun ('It's a lot colder on the Big Lake,' he'd inform us). Eventually, after checking the gas tank a half dozentimes, looking off into the distance for a cloud and making sure the wooden oars were on board as a backup, Dad would start...or rather attempt to start...the tiny outboard engine. As if the poor mandidn't have enough to worry about, it often took dozens of pulls, checking gas lines, etc. to get the old rental outboards started. And that was in perfect weather, with no waves...at the dock!Columbus himself may not have ventured into the Atlantic with such a worthless crew and no reliable method of getting home.
We'd eventually (and I use the term 'we' very loosely) get themotor sputtering and push off into the dock into the great beyond. I can remember being extremely sweaty (the cool breeze of the Big Lake not yet having hit us), with a sore rear end from the unpaddedwood benches and almost asphyxiated from clouds of burning oil and gasoline. But I, like each of my brothers, would be grinning from ear to ear as we started what promised to be a great adventure.
Ourmany rows of crooked teeth could have served as traps for the clouds of mosquitoes and horseflies in the calm bay, that is, if our little engine would have propelled us fast enough to catch up tothem. As we rounded the peninsula that led to the open waters of the Big Lake, the welcome cool breeze (if it was a wind, Dad would do a u-turn) would hit us and Dad would look nervously as theformerly mirror-like water started to develop 'ripples' that could have topped, say, six inches or more.
Our fishing excursions usually didn't last more than an hour or so. And I'm sure itwas the longest sixty minutes of Dad's life. We'd surprisingly catch quite a few fish, mostly small, but extremely aggressive northern pike that would attack virtually any colorful, outlandish jigthat we tied on our cheap, beat up little Zebco rods and reels.
The boat would drift above weed beds in 15 feet of water while each of us let our jigs down near the weeds, then moved themup and down rhythmically in hopes of driving the fish into a feeding frenzy. From a distance our boat probably looked like six human oil derricks methodically rising and falling, but with so manylures in the water, it usually wasn't long before one of us had something on their line. Then there would be a frenzy of yells, tangled lines and cries to 'get the net!'
If a cloud wouldsuddenly appear over the horizon, even if it seemed to be skirting way around our lake, Dad would say something like 'you don't want to be caught on a lake during a lightning storm' and broach thesubject of going back to the dock. A vote would be taken, and despite the final tally usually being 5-1 to stay on the water, surprisingly the one vote seemed to have the power of half a dozen.
Morethan once our outboard failed to start, which resulted in a long row with our clunky wood emergency oars, or if we were lucky, a tow from a faster, more powerful boat. Such engine failures only servedto further dampen my dad's enthusiasm for 'Big Lake' fishing trips.
On the days when the boat did start, we'd smile a little less on the way home. Sunburned, smelling like fish, with cutsfrom wayward hooks and chafing on our neck from the stiff orange life jackets, we probably looked more like refugees off the coast of Cuba than the successful fishermen we were. But it's a memory thatwill still make me smile when I'm sitting on my bed in the nursing home, and one that is every bit as sweet as an expensive, fancy wood speedboat.
by Jeff King
One of the necessary evils of growing up, even in 'A Simpler Time,' is the fact that (by law, I think) a boy has to have parents. Parents are to a young boy what a throttle is to an engine, they regulatethe amount of fun you can have, the amount of sweets you can eat and the time you have to go to bed.
As an adult, I'm now aware that I was pretty lucky in this department. I had two fairlynon-psychotic adults who I'm pretty sure loved me and, despite my feelings at the time, probably had my best interests in mind. They were there when I needed them (car rides, food and applyingband-aids) and for the most part stayed out of my way as soon as I left the house each summer morning.
But as a child, I thought that the two adults in my life could be...well, prettyunfair! We boys loved to use the term unfair, as in 'The other boys get to ride their bikes to the quarry and we can't...that's unfair!
So what that the quarry was a deep body of watersurrounded by high, crumbling limestone cliffs and claimed a drowning victim every few years? And who cared that it could only be reached by biking a few miles along a busy highway with no shoulders?Oh, and that it had signs surrounding its perimeter that said 'No Trespassing'? Our parents obviously didn't want us to have fun and were just unfair!
Like all dads (I think they take aclass or something) mine was well prepared for the unfair line. 'Life,' he'd say as if it were a recording 'is not fair.' Once I was spectating during a fight in the living room between two of my fivebrothers. My Dad heard the noise and came on the run to break it up and spread a little of his 'tough love.' Unfortunately for me, the guilty culprits heard him coming and split, while I was caughtand given a few whacks over the rear end, which didn't so much hurt physically as it did mentally, because it was so unfair!
'What did you hit me for?' I squeaked between sobs, 'I was justwatching!'
My father, the anger gone now and realizing he might have been a little rash in his rush to judgment, thought a moment and replied (as only a dad could do), 'Well, you probablygot away with something before, so this just evens it up.' And so he reinforced the idea...that life is not always fair (but it does apparently even out in the long run).
Whereas my dadbelieved in 'spare the rod, spoil the child'---which seems like child abuse to most modern parents even though it was a required course in the parenting manual 40 years ago---my mother worked more onthreats and psychological warfare.
Just as Dad had read the male parenting handbook of the 60's, Mom had obviously absorbed some lessons from the pink covered 'How to Tame Young Boys' (Momversion). Instead of physical punishment---which she had pretty much stopped after breaking a blood vessel whacking one of us---she often used the tried and true, 'Just wait until I tell your Dad whenhe gets home!'
While this statement was rarely good for stopping a full blown argument or fight, it did give us a slight pause at least. If she really did tell Dad hours later, there wouldbe hell to pay! Fortunately, my Mom was not a big fan of conflict, so by the time six o'clock rolled around and Dad was rolling into the garage in his big LTD station wagon, the 2-3 hours of relativepeace and tranquility was far too valuable to lose by ratting out her children to the family enforcer.
My mom's personality was much more conducive to raising a large family. When I tellpeople today that I'm one of ten children, inevitably they say, 'Oh, your poor Mom!' But to anyone who knows my parents, the one who was in over his head was my father. My mom was much calmer, able toexamine a child's potentially broken finger while stirring dinner on the stove and talking to the next door neighbor on the phone about a potential Avon visit.
My father was a worrier, withconstant visions of house fires with trapped family members and horrible car wrecks with multiple fatalities (although ironically, like most people of the era not concerned enough to make us wear seatbelts). The clash in styles made for some interesting disagreements at times about parenting. As the saying goes, 'Opposites attract...and then they spend the rest of their lives pissing each otheroff.'
Like most young boys, we mistook our mom's easy going nature for her being less clever than we were. When we used the 'Mrs. Nelson said it's OK to have her sons stay overnight if it'sOK with you' line (even though we had not broached the subject with Mrs. Nelson yet), we thought no other ten year old had ever been so conniving. As a parent now myself, I'm going to go out on a limband admit that after raising seven older children, it probably wasn't my mom's first ride in this rodeo.
If my father could be a tad unpredictable in his temperament, my mom was 'OldFaithful.' On long summer days she watched us slam the screen door (an act that would have completely set Dad off) each morning without a comment and then cheerfully called out 'come home when thenoon whistle blows.' When the town whistle blew (all small towns seemed to have them in that era), we would show up to a fully prepared meal of 'sloppy Joes' or grilled cheese sandwiches, often with ahalf dozen neighborhood boys in tow. And Mom would feed each and every one of them without a second thought.
Mom had secret weapons in the parental/child wars: Disappointment and Guilt. Ashard as it is to admit, even a creature as seemingly self-centered as a 10-year-old boy, has a natural impulse to want to please his mom. It's not something we would have admitted to anyone, and ourfriends would have ridiculed us if they knew, but the impulse was there just the same.
Here's how it works: Two boys fighting over whose turn it is to do dishes (let's just say forexample's sake, me and my then evil, self-centered younger brother Kevin). As we verbally argue for fifteen minutes over a chore that would have taken ten, Mom quietly starts doing the dishes. Thehypothetical Kevin walks off feeling he won, while I wander over and tell Mom quietly I will do them and take over. An amateur psychologist might say I'm still bitter about this hypothetical episode,but it does point out that a even a callous boy can feel guilt.
In general though, in my ten-year-old eyes my parents seemed to relish limiting our fun. Just because a few boys sufferedconcussions and broken arms playing tackle football running into the concrete basement foundation on our narrow side yard, they banned tackle football in that location!! How unfair! And while otherneighborhood boys had dads who bought cool M-80 firecrackers, powerful enough to blow apart rotting tree stumps (and possibly a hand), ours would only let us play with the lame Black Cat firecrackers!
See what I mean? Parents are really people whose job is to take the fun out of a carefree boy's daily life. 'Fun suckers' we would probably have called them.
When I wasyoung, I dreamed about the day when these adults wouldn't be able to tell me what (or how much) of something to eat and where I could go. Unfortunately, as my wife is only too quick to point out,perhaps I could still use a little of this evil parenting.
My tendency to eat the whole box of sweet cherries, even though I know I'll eventually get sick from them. And even though I couldgo pretty much anywhere and do anything, now that I'm legally (if not actually) mature, I usually choose to stay at home each weekend, doing yard work, watching TV and just hanging out. Oh, and doingone more thing: telling my own children they're too young for whatever plans they've concocted for the weekend.
You see, I, too, have become a parent.
If you were a child growing up in southern Minnesota in the 60s and your parents had vacation time, it was assumed you would go 'UpNorth.'
The boundaries of 'Up North' were never defined, as far as I could tell. Once or twice each summer in regular daily visits to our little local lake---a shallow mud hole of a damnedup river---we'd even find campers with Iowa license plates in the parking lot. To them, even though our town was only about 20 miles above their border, our tiny park and man-made pond might haveconstituted 'Up North.'
But to pre-teen, adventurous Minnesota-born-and-bred boys, 'Up North' meant at least north of the Twin Cities of St. Paul and Minneapolis. And the further north thebetter! Up where the lakes were crystal clear and ringed by tall pines; where the call of loons could be heard over the crackling of a campfire...or at least where you could whine until Dad let youtry to putt a golf ball into a clown's mouth, feed corn to mangy looking tame deer, or put a quarter in an arcade machine to watch trained chickens playing the piano. A boy could only take so muchserene wilderness before he had to have a little fun!
I remember my parents taking various parts of our large family on trips to different lakes and campgrounds each summer in the annualquest to find the 'perfect' summer vacation spot. I'm assuming they were looking for a tranquil place where they could sit by the shore in lawn chairs, sipping a beer and reading books while listeningto the waves and the birds. And my guess is they might have eventually found it, if they hadn't had anywhere from 6 to all 10 of their constantly bickering children in tow.
Our week longvacation was usually taken smack dab in the middle of a Minnesota summer, just when the novelty of being out of school all day had started to run its course. While adults may romanticize the erabefore video games and all day cartoon channels, in actuality it was pretty much impossible to play in the hot, muggy outdoors all day without getting a tad bit bored.
Most years, my fatherrented one of those magical little 'pop-up' camper trailers that served as a u-haul for the 6-hour trip to the lake of his choice, and then cranked open to reveal a mini Holiday Inn once we arrived.The 'Trip Up North Eve,' when he would drive up with this year's rented model, was almost as much fun as the actual trip, as he could be easily convinced by a gang of watching kids to show us all theincredible features. We 'oohed' and 'ahhed' at cool things like working faucets, a refrigerator and a kitchen table that folded down to become another bed.
Once the trailer arrived, it waspretty hard to sleep, as the trip 'Up North' was less than 24 hours away. Dad wisely---despite constant pleadings---wouldn't let us sleep in the opened camper trailer, knowing that starting on a longtrip with sleep deprived children was suicidal at best. But he left the trailer open to 'air out' and for us to play in until bedtime.
One year, just a day before the second biggest day ofthe year in the 11-year-old boy calendar (Christmas being the biggest), there was a little accident that threatened our highly anticipated trip. My younger brother somehow fell on his head whilecoming down from a neighbor's tree fort and was knocked unconscious. And to this day I feel somewhat guilty that as I stared at his motionless body for a few moments, thinking he might be dead, myoverriding thought was, 'Oh great, there goes our vacation!' After some consideration on how I might be able to hide his condition (or perhaps his body) from my parents, some tiny vestige of brotherlyconcern took over, and I raced off to get Mom.
Eventually he must have turned out to be alive and at least semi-OK. Our kind, elderly, right-out-of-Hollywood small town doctor stopped bythe house to take a look at him, shined a light in his eyes, gave him a few aspirin and decided that---even if he may have a mild concussion---a little fresh air and sunshine might do him good. Thefact that the fresh air was mostly going to be coming in 60 mph gusts through my chain smoking Mom's window in a crowded, un-air conditioned station wagon for say...maybe eight hours, didn't seem toconcern him too much.
These days when I take my own family on vacation, the kids have video games and movies to play on computers and cell phones with which to text friends and surf theInternet. My dad's huge station wagon with the wood sides had none of those modern conveniences, but it did have something that must have been thought up by a masochistic car designer with nochildren. I'm talking two seats in the rear that faced each other!! I'm guessing that my parents hope that same car designer has been designated for the hottest part of hell.
Imagine up tosix children, all related and usually boys, who pretty much don't like each other much on a good day. Now put them in two cramped bench seats, facing together, with so little leg room that each boyhad to sit with legs touching in alternating fashion with the body across from them. Now add a little 90-degree plus, humid summer weather and no air conditioning. Toss in a few suitcases that didn'tquite fit in the tent/trailer. And top with a six-hour drive that might become as much as eight hours because of traffic, or Dad's determination to double check the trailer hitch, brake lights andropes holding the rest of our luggage to the roof every 30 miles or so.
Nowadays, I find myself upset when my children's trip entertainment is interrupted by their bickering. But when Igrew up, the bickering was the entertainment. Jostling for leg space by kicking, elbowing the brother sitting next to you, or arguing who was taking up too much room occupied almost the entire trip.Threats to stop the car and commence beating children were so common from the front seat that we had to do our best to stifle yawns between 'Lord of the Flies' physical negotiating sessions for morespace with our seat partners.
The highlight of the trip 'Up North,' and one that was usually used as a bargaining chip by Dad ('If you don't fight on the way up, we may even stop at...')was Paul Bunyan Land! We pretty much knew that, no matter how much trouble we were on the way up, we liked Paul Bunyan Land way too much for our Dad to pass by. Not stopping might have resulted in apint-sized mutiny. And since he was usually looking for another excuse to stop and check the trailer, ropes, etc., stop we did.
I know now that Paul Bunyan Land, which has been replaced bya huge car dealership and a home center on the busiest road taking wealthy Minnesotans to their northern weekend retreats, was what might kindly be called a 'tourist trap.' But no group of excitementstarved small town tourist kids were ever happier to be 'trapped' than our family.
The most impressive thing about this roadside amusement park was a towering statue of Paul himself justinside the entrance, sitting on a giant chair in what can best be described as a cave made of tree trunks. At the time, we thought he was at least 300 feet tall, but looking back on it I'm pretty surewe exaggerated by just a little (maybe tenfold?). Outside the front gate was another, smaller statue of his Blue Ox. I'm guessing he was relegated to the outside because he wasn't housebroken.
Whathappened as we walked through the front ticket gate towards the huge Paul Bunyan altar never ceased to cause a mixture of wonder, amazement and...though I'm a little embarrassed to admit it...yes,fear. Because without fail, when we walked towards Paul, he would look at us with those huge, basketball-sized glass eyes and say in a deep, booming voice, 'Welcome to the King family.' Then he wouldproceed to welcome other families, by names, which were walking in behind us.
The first time I heard him say this, when I was probably just out of kindergarten, I was frightened enough toseek refuge behind my dad's legs. Eventually I acted tough to impress my older brothers, but the thought that a giant plastic sculpture somehow knew who we were made me feel more than a littleuncomfortable...yet thrilled at the same time.
Years later---older and wiser---we peaked through a crack in a small hut at the base of the statue and solved the riddle. A man with amicrophone huddled inside, talking in a deep 'Paul Bunyan' voice one minute and listening to the ticket takers giving him inside information on new arrivals through a speaker the next.
Itwas a real-life imposter unveiling worthy of the scene from the Wizard of OZ! We should have been relieved and excited, but all I can remember is feeling mostly disappointed, like the moment you knewfor sure that the overweight, bearded guy with the jolly laugh really didn't bring the Christmas presents. So we handled our feeling of disappointment the only way we knew how---by showing everylittle boy within earshot what we had found and spoiling the whole spectacle for them as well!
Paul Bunyan Land had the requisite rides that most small amusement parks had, like a rollercoaster, Tilt-A-Whirl and a small train that circled the park at a speed so slow women with baby strollers passed you by. But what I remember most were the super cool, trained animal arcade vendingmachines! Okay, they probably weren't technically vending machines, because while you did have to put a quarter in the machine, you didn't really get a chicken or a rabbit---even though there was onein every metal and glass contraption.
The animals in the glass boxes had been trained to do simple (for us, probably not for them) tricks, whenever a coin was inserted. After completing thetrick---pecking on a piano, knocking a floating ping pong ball into a mini-basket, etc.---the animal (usually a chicken) would get a small reward of food.
On busy days, the animals got somany 'rewards' that they sat lazily in their glass cages and sometimes even refused to perform for a quarter. But on slow days, many would peck on the glass as you walked by, acting like miniaturecarnival barkers trying to lure you and your jingling pocket of quarters.
My brothers and I could never get enough of the animal games---even preferring them to the rides or standard faircontests. Unfortunately, one year (I don't remember when, but it was probably the same year that the yearly batch of 'orphaned' bear cubs no longer were displayed at our favorite Indian-themed giftshop) the machines were no longer there!
I'm guessing this happened during the formative years of the animal rights movement. And while I don't want any animal to suffer (makes me nowwonder how incredibly fortunate the gift shop was to get 'orphaned' cubs without fail each year), it seems to me that if I were a chicken (and I've been called one more than once), I'd probably prefera life of ping pong basketball and watching gap-toothed ten year olds through glass than sitting in a windowless room laying eggs all day.
Eventually we would reach whatever lake Dad andMom had deemed worthy of the King family invasion this year. And with over 10,000 in Minnesota, there wasn't too much difficulty finding a new one, although they pretty much all looked the same fromthe screened in window of my camper bed, as I listened to the buzz of mosquitoes (some inside) and the calls of loons as the sun went down. And at that northern latitude in the beginning of August,the sun barely seemed to set at 10 p.m. before rising way too early the next day.
We loved doing the things kids do at a lake...swimming, looking for frogs, fishing, building camp fires. Iwas a particularly avid fisherman (almost obsessively so my siblings might say), fishing constantly off the dock for whatever pan fish I could catch for hours at time and even refusing to join mysiblings at the weedy patch of 'swimming beach' that usually consisted of a dump truck's worth of playground sand.
Years later, after struggling financially to put most of their kidsthrough college, my parents did well enough with my Dad's new business to buy some land from one of the campground owners and build their own, beautiful cedar cabin with two stone fireplaces. My ownchildren loved to go there for many summers, doing many of the same things I did as a child.
For a few years when they were young, we stopped on the way up at Paul Bunyan Land, before itwas sold and later demolished. My kids were initially semi-impressed and seemed to enjoy the rides, but by the time they were about eight years old the novelty had worn off. I guess when you're raisedon video games that simulate far off galaxies or actual NFL football games, riding a 2 mph miniature choo-choo train around a dying amusement park doesn't quite pass for high entertainment.
by Jeff King
I visited my small, Midwestern home town recently and was struck by a catastrophic event happening right before its citizens' very eyes. And the townfolk seem to go about their lives every day blissfully ignorant of what's going on.
It seems my home town is shrinking. Not quickly, mind you. In fact, I've gone back to the parents' housemany times without noticing it myself, even though I knew something was not quite right.
My first inkling came years ago when I took a short stroll to the local river to check out an oldfavorite hideout and fishing hole. Even the term 'short stroll' should have been a clue. When I was 9, the two block trek to the river was a long journey, requiring a wagon filled with everythingneeded for the latest adventure. Fishing poles, a battered green metal tackle box, soft drinks (or 'pop' as we called it) and even sandwiches were necessary. I don't imagine the pioneers headed westin covered wagons with more supplies than we carried.
Along the way I passed through the playground of my old elementary school. Sometimes when we played baseball on the field tucked in onecorner, the biggest, oldest left handed batters (if they really, really connected), could send a ball soaring up the hill in right field and off the red brick wall of the school, narrowly missing afew windows.
But wait a minute! Someone either moved the school closer or the backstop isn't where it used to be. The school doesn't seem to be even 200 feet from home plate! Even girls canhit that far. Can't they?
On the right was the terraced, gravel topped field where we used to play dodge ball (we called it bombardment and willingly went to school early to play). It wasbordered on two sides by a towering limestone rock wall that only the bravest, most foolhardy boys would jump from to impress the girls. Or at least it used to be. The puny walls surrounding the fieldnow didn't look to be much more than four feet high! Heck, even a coward like me would have risked jumping off a wall like that---at least if my grade school crush, the new girl who rode her pinkbicycle with the flowered basket by my house every day while I 'happened' to be in the front yard---was watching.'
The school itself had shrunk too. Of course, part of that was because thecity had decided to tear down the older part---the part with the cool dome that looked a little like the state capitol if you squinted and imagined enough---because of fire concerns. Even the 'new'part of the school looked like someone had thrown it in the dryer on hot and forgot to take it out soon enough.
But it was when I reached our 'hangout' (way too quickly I might add---Ididn't even recall exerting enough effort to need a sandwich), that I realized something was wrong in 'Hooterville.'
When I was a boy, 'Sucker Valley,' as we called the widest part of theRoot River located about a quarter mile under the lake dam (a distance that had since shrunk to about 150 yards), was our oasis from the hustle and bustle of city life and parents. From the dirt pathwinding through the woods lining the river, we had to gingerly ease our way down a bare slope (which could be treacherous when wet), to a muddy knoll standing above the water.
The fact thatthere was no grass anywhere along the journey attests to how often this area was used by us and occasional interlopers. Dozens of fish bobbers, dangling monofilament line in the breeze, confirmed justone of its uses.
From 'Sucker Valley'---so named because the ugly, inedible sucker and its close relative, the carp, were the predominant catch---we could hear the continual hum of tirescrossing the bridge on the main northern entrance to town. Otherwise, with the canopy of leaves and birds chirping, we could have been in the boundary waters of northern Minnesota. OK, if we ignoredour noses, which was tough to do with the town's sewage treatment plant located just up river.
The river, which ranged from rushing to babbling water under the dam (depending on theseason), moved slowly in Sucker Valley, with only foam bubbles floating gently by in the dark water giving a hint of movement.
I suppose this spot appealed to us for many of the reasonsabove, but maybe because it gave us all a reason to do what we most enjoyed---cast our little Zebco 202 plastic spin cast reels as far as we could! We heaved our night crawler, bobber combos with allour might, trying as hard as we could to get close to the far bank (I wonder if we had been fishing on the other side if we would have been satisfied fishing a few feet into the current?).
Rarely,very rarely, did a lucky cast land in the overhanging tree branches on the far side of the river. Sure, it meant a broken line and a lost hook and bobber, but like a flag planted on Mt. Everest, theswaying bobber bore witness that someone had conquered the unconquerable.
Only the strongest, most athletic boys could hope to attain such a feat. Boys like Leif, who I think won the localpunt, pass and kick competition every year and pretty much aced any athletic competition we could think up.
Imagine my horror to find that Sucker Valley is disappearing! Never mind thePolar ice caps or the Amazon, this was way more serious! Nowadays even I could flip a worm weighted bobber across the river...underhand.
I tried telling a few old friends who still lived intown about the problem, but they just smiled and told me to have another drink. I guess ignorance is bliss---at least until they drive up to their shrunken garage some night after work and find acertain car doesn't fit.
Since that day I have seen more proof of the shrinking of my home town. The long, dangerous bicycle trip to the 'other side of town' (divided by a busy highway), isa leisurely five minute walk. The huge metal grain elevators (some of the biggest in Minnesota, my dad often bragged), seem like, well, slightly bigger than average grain silos. The immense, lushgreen football field with the towering stands (at least on the home team side), now appears to be just 100 yards long, with somewhat underwhelming bleachers and spotty grass.
As my hometownhas more than twice as many people as when I grew up, perhaps the 'newbies' don't realize how big everything in town once was in 'the day.' Back when the boys in our 'hood' roamed these huge, wideopen spaces freely on hot summer afternoons, boldly going when no boy had ever gone before.
A Simpler Christmas
by Jeff King
No thoughts about 'A Simpler Time' could ever be complete without memories of Christmas as a child. Some of my most vivid, fondest memories are of that day, one that was looked forward to formonths and then seemed to pass in the blink of an eye.
With a family of ten children, Christmas was (and still is) a ritual. Each of us expected three gifts---one from Santa, one from ourparents, and one from whichever sibling drew our name from a hat. Presents were wrapped upstairs on Christmas Eve (except Santa's, which were usually the largest, hardest to wrap gifts) and broughtdown to our nine foot Christmas tree---which had been elaborately and painstakingly decorated in antique ornaments and lead tinsel.
When lead tinsel was outlawed, we saved the bannedsubstance by removing it carefully piece by piece for a few years until the pieces fell apart if not handled delicately enough. Eventually we tried the new fangled light, kid-safe stuff, but it wasdeemed worthless and a decision was made by the powers that be (our oldest sister and Mom), that our tree would hence forth be tinsel-free. After much discussion, it was also decided that Christmaswould still go on.
As number eight in the pecking order, my main job was to bring a few presents down to elder sisters, who would painstakingly place the package in the perfectplace---known only to them and obviously an art far too subtle to be trusted to a mere boy. Then I would wait around for awhile, gawking at the brightly colored lights and staring wondrously at mydistorted reflection in the large shiny glass ornaments until told to 'move away from the tree, before you break something.' Despite hearing this admonition about 1497 times while growing up, I'mpretty sure no child (or dog) actually ever broke one of them.
Some time after all the tinsel and ornaments had been placed on the tree, my father was expected to remark that we had 'theprettiest tree in town.' While we were unaware that our small Midwestern town had conducted a contest, no one ever thought to question him and to our wondering eyes, he had to be right.
Ourstockings, all handmade out of felt with our names in glittery script, were arranged by birth order on the fireplace mantel. By the time I arrived, the mantel wasn't long enough for all 10 of us, soMom and Dad's stockings had been moved around the corner. Eventually, my two youngest interloping brothers arrived and bumped a few elder siblings' stockings around the mantel to Mom and Dad'sstocking purgatory.
We always tried to go to bed early on Christmas Eve, because the 'big show' of opening presents was always on Christmas morning, and we couldn't wait for it to happen.But putting young, very excited boys to bed an hour early (we shared a room in our younger years so we wouldn't keep every one else awake) was usually a recipe for disaster.
With no onetired, we would talk until late into the night about what we hoped to get. Every minor noise outside or downstairs would lead to momentary wide-eyed silence or a fast dash to the window to catch aglimpse of a fat, jolly old man, or maybe some reindeer. Occasionally one of the older brothers, perhaps not quite as into the whole St. Nick thing, would tell us to shut up before he killed us, so hecould get some sleep.
In the morning, we were not allowed to go downstairs and look at the presents until everyone was up. Dad would usually tell us what time that would be in a heavynegotiating session the night before. We'd lead with 6 a.m., he'd counter with 8 (a few party pooping older sisters would whine for nine) and eventually a compromise of about 7:30 would be reached toa background of disappointment from all involved.
By about 5 a.m., usually at least one of the brothers was up and whispering, 'Jeff, you up yet?' Within seconds, all except the oldest inthe room was wide awake, wondering what time it was and whether it was OK to wake everyone else up yet. That hour or two wait was to a normal hour what a human year is to dogs. By the time 7:15 a.m.rolled around (parents generally accepted a 15-minute grace period on Christmas morning when surrounded by a bunch of gap-toothed grinning boys at the foot of their bed), we were so excited we werehaving seizures.
With Dad's approval, we were given permission to wake up the older siblings, never an easy job, but one we all accepted with glee. We never could understand why theyweren't as giddy as we were. Then all of us waited at the top of the stairs for everyone to get out of bed, while Dad went downstairs to get his trusty Super-8 movie maker ready for the big event.
Ina decision made before I was born, someone had the bright idea of coming down the stairs Christmas morning in birth order (something you never escape in a large family) while Dad filmed theprocession. In retrospect it was a great move, because when our holiday films are spliced together you can see everyone growing up in a minute or so before your very eyes. Smiling young girls inflannel pajamas with glasses on and hair sticking out in seven directions are seen just one or two years later as fully dressed sullen teenagers, makeup on, hair combed and holding their hands up toward off the camera lens.
When Dad turned on the blinding light of his Super 8, the only other object beside the sun that could cause blindness if stared into, it was our cue to move downthe stairs! The first few boys (although in older movies sometimes an elder sister was carrying an infant or toddler) would come bounding down 2-3 stairs at a time while being admonished to slow down.There was usually a slight break before the teenagers would appear, all holding up their hands to shield the harsh light and begging Dad not to film them.
We would immediately run to thepresents---especially the ones delivered by Santa that were usually too large to do anything more than put a bow on. Then we'd sprint to our stockings to check on the candy and small present (usuallya comic book) inside.
Even the 'official present opening' was run like the German train system in our family. Or at least for the first ten minutes. We all sat around the tree (oldestchildren and Mom and Dad got the chairs, as if we would have sat in them), and waited for one of the Gestapo---I mean, older sisters---to give each of us a present to open.
The idea behindthis fiasco was grand; enjoy Christmas, let everyone see what the other person gets, share the fun and wonderment, and let Dad film the moment. The reality was at least one crying child, or usuallytwo or three as they waited impatiently to open a gift. To keep the youngest happy, they were each given a present quickly and as each child up the ladder grew more impatient, the parceling out ofpresents grew more fast paced until pretty soon the sound of ripping paper and delighted screams filled every corner of two rooms, with Dad's camera light whipping crazily from kid to kid and Momyelling at him to slow down or we'd have poor film like last year.
And Mom was right. Whether it was Dad's thrifty side showing up again (film was very expensive) or his impatient side, ourChristmas films look a little like a cross between the Zapgruder Kennedy assassination video and a Bigfoot film, with flashes of grinning teeth, wrapping paper, flannel pajamas, and confused dogs.
Whenevery present was opened (about half an hour tops), and two large rooms were piled deep in discarded wrapping paper, boxes and ribbons, it was time to make the big decision. Which present would weplay with first? No matter how much I liked my favorite, it always seemed like one of my brothers had a more interesting gift, and I'm sure they felt the same about mine.
For about fiveyears, starting when I was seven or so, I received the 'new improved' version of my favorite gift...electric football. Every year the TV ads showed excited boys setting up the tiny players---neatlypainted in the colors of the previous year's best NFL teams---on a field surrounded by realistic looking fans and press boxes. In the ads, the players blocked and ran much like the real thing.
Inreality, each game (despite its promises), was a lot like the previous year's version. The tiny players, which had looked so cool in their miniature Packer and Viking uniforms on the box, turned outto be plain green or red plastic. Fine print said something about having the option of painting your own. At an age where staying in the lines on a coloring book was a major feat, painting thread thinstripes on a two inch high man was not going to happen.
The fancy stands with realistic looking fans and press boxes? Flimsy pieces of cardboard that fell apart as you leaned over them toset up your team. Even so, my brother Kevin and I would spend fifteen minutes setting up our new teams for the first play with eager anticipation. Sure, last year's version turned into a field ofcrazily dancing, bouncing figures mostly going in circles when the 'on' button was pushed. But this year...well, this year, things would be different! I'd seen the ads many times, and they promisedthe game was so much better.
After finally getting our respective teams set up, with a magnetic 'ball' stuck firmly on the 'quarterback's' base, and after arguing hotly over which team gotto set up the last person, we were ready to turn on the game! With eager anticipation I would hit the switch and...the light plastic players started jumping madly, with half of them heading back inthe direction of their own goal and most of the others hooked into another player, spinning in circles and looking more like a square dance than a football game. If the 'quarterback' did manage tohead in the general direction of the correct goal post, he usually would do an inexplicable 180 degree turn, to screams of 'NO, NO!'
It was about then, a half hour before church with theadmonition of Mom to go upstairs and get dressed, that fatigue and reality set in. Christmas was over. After all the anticipation, the dozens of lists that were tore up, re-done and tore up again whena new TV ad stoked our fancy, there was nothing more to look forward to. As happy as we were with our new toys (unless we got 'yuck,' clothes), the reality of playing with our long awaited gifts neverquite lived up to the hype.
Traces of 'A Simpler Time'
by Jeff King
Sometimes as adults I think we're so busy reminiscing about our own childhood, and focusing on what weconsider negative, modern influences on today's children, that we fail to see some things haven't really changed that much.
Recently I read where Plato (or Socrates or some other Greek guyI probably should have studied more closely) lamented way back then how bad children were becoming. It's a common theme running through society for as long as humans have wrestled with that evilnemesis called puberty.
Our current neighborhood is filled with children-most of them ranging from infants to teens-and as far as I can tell, there's not a budding Jeffrey Dahmer amongthem. In fact, take away the XBox 360's, the I-Pods, and the cell phones, and these strange, short people seem....well, a lot like us when we were little!
Take 'Ben and Henry' for instance.I've never even met 'Ben and Henry,' but I've heard about their entrepreneurial spirit second hand a lot lately. First, there was the 'Ben and Henry' cucumber stand, proudly selling fresh produce tothe Highcroft neighborhood since July. I attempted to glimpse the 5 and 7-year-old brothers, but by the time my wife dragged me down the street to buy some cucumbers, the stand was closed, all theproduct was sold, and 'Ben and Henry' were presumably at the bank turning the proceeds into a high rate CD (or 'disc' as my daughter calls them).
Recently, bright neon flyers have appearedaround the neighborhood advertising 'Ben and Henry's Skateboard lessons.' I'm just guessing, but after their first business venture---one that involved sitting behind a table selling a product that isnot easily or quickly replenished---the brothers were looking for something a little more exciting with no supply chain issues.
Our neighborhood is filled with girls playing 'four-square'on the driveways and boys roaming in small packs up and down the sidewalks doing all the things boys do (catch bugs, sharpen sticks, etc...).
A favorite game of the younger boys is to lookfor 'aliens' in the small woods behind our house. They strap on backpacks, tote anything that looks like a gun (make that 'ray' gun), and carry small bottles to take alien samples. Occasionally theyemerge screaming out of the woods shouting 'Aliens!!' so convincingly I look for a closet to hide inside.
My twin daughters and their friends thought this game was so silly they took itupon themselves to argue with the boys over the very existence of aliens. Getting nowhere, they proceeded to use Dad's computer to fashion a very slanted, one page opinion poll asking people whetherthey believe in aliens, which was then deposited in every mailbox up and down the street (with a deadline and a return address). Results were almost even and did nothing to resolve the issue.
Hereare a few of the other games we've witnessed that reassure me kids really haven't changed that much:
Ant cruises. To the average adult, a small, foot-deep 'baby' pool in the back yard is amosquito breeding ground waiting to happen. To the neighbor boy and his friends, it's the Atlantic Ocean, the piece of scrap lumber is the Love Boat, and a few lucky, hand picked ants get the pleasureof riding it.
Frog Races. Who can forget the stubborn determination of one of our favorite neighbor girls, insisting that her well-trained frog---obviously showing the visible signs ofbeing hugged a little too tightly---was just resting?
Dueling Forts. Not to be outdone by the efforts of the boys who had built a 'fort' in the woods using pieces of lumber and junk they'claim' the local farmer had discarded, the girls decided to build their own fort. With the whole rest of the woods to build their new castle---including areas totally invisible to thecompetition---where do you think they chose for a location? That's right! Within spitting distance. Coincidentally, as the girls ventured forth for building materials and their own fort grew larger,the boy's fort shrunk.
Before A Simpler Time
by Jeff King
'Dad, I'm bored.' I heard those words from one of my ten-year-old twin girls early in the second half of anexciting women's basketball game we were attending between the home team Duke Blue Devils and the Virginia Cavaliers.
Never mind that we were in Cameron Indoor Stadium---a historical venuethat Sports Illustrated named one of the five best in the world---for the first time. Or that the crowd was going crazy, the band was loud, the score was close, and the action on the court was end toend. My daughter was, well...bored.
To her credit, Ellie is an action girl. She loves basketball---when she's playing it---and is not as obsessed with video games as most of her generation(such as her brother). Normally I would have taken this moment to go on one of my famous ten minute 'rants,' filled with phrases such as 'when I was your age...,' 'kids nowadays...,' 'I would havekilled...,' etc. But just days earlier, I had read my 85-year-old father's memoirs of growing up on a small farm during the depression, and quite frankly, I was feeling a little guilty about howinteresting my childhood had been by comparison.
Unlike Ellie's 200 TV channel, YouTube, homework on every night youth, mine was a lot slower. And while we weren't poor, with ten childrenin the family anything beyond food and clothing was considered a luxury we could probably live without.
In comparison with my father's youth, though, I lived a fast-paced, care-freeexistence. His memoirs---written in a factual timeline from his youth in the 20s up through his service during WWII---brought that home to me for the first time.
My parents grew up fairlyclose to each other in a rural part of Minnesota just northeast of St. Paul, Minnesota, on small farms. One of the highlights of my father's youth was the monthly visit from the local pig buyer, sincethe kindly man---besides being one of the few visitors they ever saw --- also brought Dad and his siblings candy. My dad didn't know the gentleman's granddaughter at that time, but he would marry her(my mom) one day.
Dad's father was strict, not prone to the rants I'm famous for, but rather for carrying a big 'stick' and being willing to use it if not obeyed right away. When the whooshof the kerosene lighting the corncobs on the kitchen stove woke them up at 6 a.m., the children were expected to immediately crawl out from under their heavy buffalo fur blanket (they slept in anunheated upstairs room) and get ready to start the day's chores.
The farm had no electricity, no running water, an outdoor outhouse and 50 acres of land made barely tillable by theextensive drought of the 1930s. So between plowing, planting, milking cows and harvesting crops, there was not nearly as much emphasis on 'play' as there is today.
When a pig was butchered,the tough bladder was saved to use as a ball (I'm guessing that's where the word 'pigskin' for football came from). Frozen cow droppings were functional in a game of pond hockey, and the large watertrough the farm animals used was good for hours of good clean (or maybe not so clean) fun.
Children had no supervised, sponsored teams to belong to, and were mostly on their own forentertainment. This might explain Dad's ill conceived lighting of the hay pile in the hog pen on his sixth birthday---a feat which almost resulted in the barn burning down and amazingly didn't resultin a whipping (it was his birthday).
Excitement was rare, visitors were scarce and many people (such as my mom's hog buying, candy giving dad) were born, raised and died in the samehouse.
To his credit, my father has seen a drastic change in how children are raised, and for the most part, has changed too. 'Spare the rod, spoil the child,' and 'children are to be seenand not heard,' are not phrases uttered by many teachers or parents these days.
He's noticed that his children have raised his grandchildren differently than he did, just as he was morelenient than his dad. When the first of his ten children rarely (if ever) struck their children in anger, I'm sure he expected there to be hell to pay in the future. But as all have grown to berespectful, intelligent, college-educated adults, he's grudgingly admitted that perhaps the newfangled 'hug your child' and explain method might be OK (although as he says, with 10 children it wouldhave taken way too long).
This brings me back to my daughter being bored, in a loud, colorful, famous sporting venue on a Sunday afternoon.After reading just days before about one of myfather's most exciting moments of his youth: when they bought fresh peaches and were able to use the soft tissue the fruit came wrapped in to replace torn pages from the Sears catalog in the outhouse.And I thought I lived through...A Simpler Time.
by Jeff King
One aspect of having stores that sell nostalgia in high traffic areas is that we get to hear a lot of comments about how children have changed so much over the years. Usually the person making the comment is not talking about for the better.
I may be a little naive, and the suburban middleclass neighborhoods I've raised my children in may not be an accurate cross section of Americana, but I'd be willing to put the vast majority of youngsters I encounter up against my own youthful gangof 'hooligans' any day.
Say what you want about computer games and 24-hour cartoon channels and the Internet, but hypnotized children who have highly developed 'gamer thumbs' are fairlyimpossible to wrench from their favorite speaker chair, much less have enough time or energy to get in trouble. When they do venture outside, it's either to a scheduled 'play date' (a word that isnever used in our household without visible scorn), where anxious moms form a protective wagon train around their bubble wrapped bodies, or to venture three whole houses to visit a friend (while momwatches from the porch to make sure no one kidnaps them during the 10 second trek).
I'm guessing my own children could get into some of the same mischief my 'gang' got into when I wasyoung. If they ever got bored. At least I hope so.
Most of the time, the trouble we caused was not because we were mean or poorly parented, but because we were 'boys being boys' who ran outthe door each summer in the AM, returning only for meals. On Saturday morning we were glued to the TV set for the 3-4 hours of cartoons that showed various animals wreaking mayhem on each other. Afterthat, all bets were off. I'm not sure what girls our age did back then because we lived on a block that was blissfully free of the annoying little creatures (at least that's what we thought inelementary school-our opinions of them changed drastically a few years later). My own sisters were all older, and other than being Mom's eyes and ears, were not much good for anything else.
Welived in a small world of grand plans that didn't always come to fruition. Tree forts that were drawn up to be three stories tall with secret passages and trap doors became rickety scrap woodplatforms that gave way under the weight of two 60 pound bodies. 'Official' inter-neighborhood football games complete with full football uniforms became backyard argumentative brawls between rivalteams sporting mismatched helmets and rags stuffed strategically to resemble real pads.
Once in awhile, though, the actual events came close to living up to the hype, even if I'm relativelysure our blissfully ignorant parents might not have agreed.
I'm not even sure how one of our favorite games started (I'm relatively certain it wasn't on a play date). The game never had aname that I'm aware of, but for now I'll call it 'bike wars.'
In retrospect, it was something that might have evolved if children from one of Mel Gibson's early apocalyptic movies werecrossed with 'Lord of the Flies,' with just enough Mayberry RFD thrown in to keep it from getting totally out of hand.
We lived in the 'older' part of a town of about 3,000 people, on ablock that had about 20 boys within 4-5 years of each other. Since all we did was play sports (and cause minor trouble) many of the best athletes in town lived on our block. About three blocks awaywas group of about 15 boys who lived in the 'horseshoe,' so called because the local river bent around their houses. In our youthful innocence (or perhaps just youth), we hardly knew the boys from the'horseshoe' even existed. When you're banned from crossing the street, three blocks was the equivalent of from New York to Los Angeles now.
As we reached the middle years of elementaryschool and gained the sweet freedom of our Coast to Coast 'sting-ray' bikes (the only kind you could buy in our town unless you were a dork) with the cool banana seats, a whole new world opened up tous. I imagine Columbus would have felt much like us the first time we laid eyes on the strange boys from the horseshoe. (Okay, we went to school with most of them, but up to that time were unawarethey actually lived somewhere in real houses and everything). Our original bike forays into each other's 'territory' started peacefully enough, with curious stares as we pedaled furiously by eachother in opposite directions. I don't even recall which group fired the first salvo, although as we had the same devious minds that thought to put smoke bombs in the air intake of the one couple onthe block who wouldn't let us cross their yard, I'm guessing we were the guilty party.
Initially, if we saw 'horseshoe boys' on bikes near our block, we would pedal furiously to interceptand head straight for them at full speed. As we came close enough to see the look of fear in their eyes (or at least we liked to think it was fear), we would brake hard with our feet (no sissy handbrakes on those babies) and come screeching to a halt within feet (or inches) of their bikes. After a few back and forth insults, each side pedaled away. No harm, no foul.
One day, whileout 'scouting' for intruders (a game that could get pretty tedious if the horseshoe boys had other plans), myself, one of my older brothers and another older 'gang' member spotted two unsuspectingbikers pedaling on a street that intersected the one we were on. To this day, one of my biggest weaknesses is that I'll do anything to get a laugh, no matter how silly it makes me look. So to impressmy two older partners in crime, I immediately pedaled as fast as I could on a solo 'attack.' Like World War I ace fighter pilots I had read about, I came racing down a steep hill and out of the sun(OK, maybe I made up the part about the sun, but it was a steep hill), straight towards my clueless victims with my older, stronger wingmen struggling to catch up.
Just about five yardsfrom the horseshoe biker boys, I heard my wingmen start to lock brakes as totally startled faces consisting of about 80 percent eyeballs swung my way. I waited until the last possible moment toimpress my compadres, and then.pushed my foot hard against the brake...nothing! Oh Sh..KA BOOM!!! I went flying over my handlebars and ended up upside down on a thick carpet of (thankfully) unmowedgrass. As I tentatively did an inventory to check for broken bones and bruises, I raised my head and noticed my beloved Stingray imbedded in what had been a new bike, but was now a metal pretzel.
ThankfullyI had missed the seemingly uninjured pilot of the t-boned bike, but he looked as stunned as I felt. Meanwhile, my brother and other fellow gang member were laughing hysterically. My mission wasaccomplished!
I never did tell anyone that my brakes had failed (or I had not hit them correctly in the excitement). Word of my suicide mission spread, and the story made me look too goodto let a little truth stand in the way.
In a weird way, my little 'accident' became the Reese's Peanut Butter cup moment of a popular new game. I had combined two things all boys loved todo---ride bikes and smash metal things together. I was the Abner Doubleday, the James Naismith, of the neighborhood. After that, both armies continually were out scouting for the 'enemy' to attack.Bikes were rammed together until one side or the other would flee (usually the outnumbered side). Surprisingly there was very little boy-on-boy violence, as both sides seemed content to avoid injurywhile crashing two-wheelers together. Scouts were always being sent out to find the enemy and reported back with their whereabouts.
Even the younger kids---the ones we deemed too likely toget hurt or, worse yet, blab to Mom---were enlisted as 'mechanics' in our family garage. When a bike was too mangled to ride any more, it was brought to the 'mechanics' in the garage to fix. Theyounger boys were ecstatic that they got to play with Mr. King's metal tools (which were generally off limits...when he was home) and hardly noticed that we 'borrowed' their bikes while ours werebeing worked on. I don't recall how many summers our favorite game lasted and what exactly made it end. It's probably not a stretch to think that even our parents could not remain clueless to themismatched rims, broken spokes and occasional crying five year old.
If my own children played the same game today---which they wouldn't because their new bikes purchased each year so thatthey perfectly fit and have handbrakes and water bottles are far too precious---we'd probably have a quick meeting with a child psychologist. 'Mr. King, your child has been involved in a verydangerous game that is likely to turn him into a violent psychopath if we don't intervene,' I can imagine the doctor saying, before adding that 'at least he was wearing his bike helmet.'
by Jeff King
I used to think my parents (particularly my father) were entirely too uptight about our safety as I was growing up.Now that I have my own children, I wonder why they were so lackadaisical about our well being, and how we ever survived to adulthood!
Perhaps that's why families were larger 'back then.'Just like fish that lay millions of eggs in the hopes that a few will survive countless predators, famine, and disease to repeat the cycle, my parents had ten children. They raised us similarly to howthey were raised, which means we were turned loose on the world every morning during summer vacation and expected to return for meals when the noon whistle blew and at 6 p.m. (when Dad's top blew).
Upto a certain age---basically until we could ride a real bike---we were limited to our city block consisting of twelve houses and an alleyway. But once we had the sweet freedom that a new Coast Kingbanana-seated bike could bring, our world expanded all the way to...the lake.
To call Lake Florence a lake is probably a little like calling my blog literature. It was actually a slightwidening in a lazy river that meandered through the farm fields of southeastern Minnesota. Caused by a sixty-year-old limestone dam that rumor had it once powered a flour mill, the lake had, inprehistoric times, been a popular gathering place for local swimmers and boaters.
Over the years, farmers tilled closer to the river's banks and floods carried the rich, black topsoildownstream, where it was deposited in the still waters of the lake. By the time my gang and I first started our daily visits, the once proud vacation destination filled with northern pike and bass hadbecome a shallow muddy pond that was the home of only rough fish like carp and suckers. But it was our muddy pond.
The dam had a spillway about 200 feet wide and fifteen feet high, overwhich excess water would flow in varying amounts. In the spring, when the snow melted, the river could turn dangerous with water so high it only dipped a few feet into whitewater below the dam. Mostof the year, though, the water topping the spillway and flowing over the moss-covered 45-degree concrete spillway was only inches deep.
To an adult, the gently flowing water over alimestone dam made for a Kodak moment. To a kid, though, it was the ultimate waterslide. I don't recall any adult ever saying we couldn't slide down a slippery, slimy hard concrete dam intoboulder-strewn pools filled with snapping turtles and broken beer bottles. But then again, I don't recall any one ever asking them.
Through trial and error, we became smart enough to notslide down in our shorts or pants. The green algae growing on the dam left matching colored stains that were hard to explain to parents. We learned to slide down in our white underwear instead. Ourundies could be left at the scene of the crime, and we could wear our dry clean shorts home, sneak upstairs and replace them --- leaving Mom none the wiser.
The 'lake' was the center of ouridyllic summers. We fished almost every morning for the easy-to-catch, hard-fighting carp---a rough fish that was mostly responsible for keeping the lake vegetation-free. Although carp were consideredinedible by most adults, we loved to keep our catch on wire stringers and drag them home to show mom.
Mom acted excited and pleased every time, commenting on how large they were and howthey would make such good fertilizer for her garden. Looking back on her acting ability, some of what she said (and we believed) might have been good fertilizer as well.
My hometown foryears discussed dredging the once-proud lake and the local newspaper ran many stories of feasible ways to do so. Benefits, bake sales, and other fundraisers were held annually for the 'Lake Florenceproject' until, one day after many years, the newspaper proudly announced that our town had enough money to purchase a used dredge costing many thousands of dollars!
That spring, the town'spopulace waited anxiously for the lake to thaw and the inevitable spring flooding that would occur. Dredging could start after the lake level returned to normal. Soon our lake would once again be adeep, clear body of water befitting its status of one of the 10,000 lakes bragged about on our state's license plates.
Then, in the middle of the night, with ice flows pushed up against theaging dam, the unthinkable happened. The dam burst. Fortunately no one was injured down stream, but the end result was a small town with a hole in an aging dam too expensive to fix and a big, usedlake dredging machine for sale.
My hometown did a good job of turning the missing lake into a park, featuring a (clean) rushing stream flowing through a grassy park---with a nice safefishing pond that boasts a wood fishing dock. Except during the annual 4th of July celebration, it doesn't seem like either the river or the pond gets a lot of kid traffic these days. Theriver---while not deep---has fast flowing water, and the pond---although it has a handicapped accessible dock---is of unknown depth.
Modern parents, what with their much smaller families of2.5 children, can ill afford to lose even their most obnoxious child to the pond, the river, or the occasional car on the sleepy side streets surrounding the park. A new pool is being built in town,complete with large, state of the art slides made of plastic, with rounded edges to prevent cuts and teenage lifeguards to prevent drowning.
As a father myself, I'm sure what most youngboys would choose between the giant plastic waterslides and the moss covered dam of my youth. And I'm sure they would learn the underwear trick almost as quickly.
by Jeff King
Growing up in a small Minnesota farm town, sports played a huge part in my daily life. Before the age of Xbox and Nintendo (I got a Pong video game in high school for Christmas, but the novelty of watching a ball of light go back and forth on a TV screen waned by that evening), a boy had to entertain himself.
Fortunately, I had five brothers and lived on a block thathad a huge surplus of boys near my age. Somewhere around first grade, my younger brother Kevin and I made the acquaintance of three brothers newly arrived to the 'hood' who shared our somewhatfanatical love for sports. A limestone gravel alleyway ran behind our house, and while idly flipping rocks at whichever of God's small creatures hopped or flew by, we noticed three strange boys aboutour size walking towards us down the alley.
We proceeded to do what any self respecting boy would do in a similar situation---we changed our direction of fire and started lobbing rocks atthe new boys. Minutes, and a few minor cuts and bruises later, we had learned a few things: The new boys (the Nelsons) had really good arms. All other things being equal, three arms would eventuallybeat two. And finally, we might have found our new 'bestest' friends.
Along with a few of my brothers, we formed the core of a loosely knit 'gang' of about 15-20 boys who played whateversport was in season, in whoever's yard had any grass left on it. In summer, it sometimes took an hour to round up enough boys for a decent game of baseball.
Just getting a game togethertook negotiating skills worthy of Henry Kissinger. One mom, whose son owned the only decent uncracked baseball bat in the neighborhood, had to be convinced that her son was not going to be an NC thistime. NC stood for 'no count,' meaning the boy was either too young or too poor of a player to actually saddle either team with. They got to bat and run, but their out (and run) didn't count. Wethought the letters were an early PC way of letting these boys play without hurting their feelings, but eventually everyone knew what the letters stood for, and even four year olds refused to belabeled with them.
We'd have to promise another set of parents that their kids would come home this time when the noon factory whistle blew (even though we'd probably ridicule them if ithappened in the middle of a game) and our own parents that we'd hit away from the house this time to prevent any window breakage. Sometimes we were so hard up for players that we'd even stoop so lowas to ask my big sister Nan to play, which hurt in a couple of ways. She was a girl, and quite frankly, she had a better arm and could put most of us to shame in the field.
Usually thegames were a lot of fun, with plenty of timeouts to argue out calls and the score. Sometimes, though, the actual game lasted about half as long as the organizing did. Someone would get his feelingshurt when we picked teams (you have to remember in this pre-PC world teams were picked by tiny dictators based purely on talent) and threaten to take his bat (or ball) home. Or a hard hit ground ballwould take a bad hop when it hit the one island of grass left on the infield and bloody a boy's nose (leading to pleas to 'don't go home until the bleeding stops, or they'll never let us playagain!'). I don't remember any set number of innings we played, and I don't recall anyone ever actually winning a game. Games either were severely shortened by the aforementioned problems, or seemedto last to infinity, with calls to come home to dinner only serving to pause, not end, them.
We loved baseball and could imitate all our favorite players. We batted in the crouched, weightback stance of Minnesota Twins batting champion Rod Carew, waving our tiny little bat while waiting for the pitch and chewing a big wad of gum (Carew used tobacco). The pitcher would turn away fromthe plate (like Louis Tiant) and look skyward during his motion before turning to hurl a pitch towards the plate (or more often, the batter).
We longed for a real field-one made of grasswith perfectly manicured dirt infields and real chalk lines. Once in awhile we'd take Dad's lawn mower and a bag of Mom's flour to our back yard, mowing the base paths as short as possible anddropping small handfuls of flour in what would pass for a straight base line if viewed from say, the Moon.
For about six weeks each summer, we got to play in a real, honest-to-goodnessbaseball league! We got Super Value hats and colored t-shirts with feared team names, like Ace Hardware and Berg Snyder Drug. We were bad. From the moment we got our first schedule we had itmemorized, and boy, were their some anxious moments if the sky started to cloud over on those precious nights when team 2 played team 4.
My Dad, for his part, liked baseball. He could bebegged to hit fly balls every night after supper in huge games of '500,' where 15 boys yelled 'I got it' even before the ball hit his bat. He sort of knew what teams we were on---and I'm pretty sureif you would have asked him where his boys had disappeared to on a Tuesday evening, he would have guessed it had something to do with baseball. But he had ten children, and besides, the ball fieldscould easily be bicycled to by any of them without his help. To this day, I wonder what his response would have been if I had asked to be driven to practice.
Things are a little differentwith my children. Though blessed with no more athletic talent than their middle-aged father (Secretariat's father wasn't a plow horse), they have the best that middle class America can offer.Immaculate ball fields with scoreboards and lights (which are for some reason locked during non-practice times in case a child dares play without an adult). Soccer fields with grass like puttinggreens, and volunteer coaches trained to say things like 'Good kick, Megan,' even though Megan is afraid of the ball and it hit her by accident when she was dodging it. And well-lit indoor basketballcourts with real leather balls that don't have to be re-inflated every time they play.
They love to play sports too....with an adult supervising, in an organized league-one that costs lotsof money, and has fancy uniforms that they manage to outgrow in six months. But organize a game in the neighborhood, by themselves, between scheduled practices or games? Not so much.
I'mcontinually amazed, as my ten-year-old twin girls carpool back from soccer practice with other neighborhood girls, why they don't organize their own games at home. They can't wait for practice, loveto play, have a school yard just across the street and plenty of kids in the neighborhood. I've even (in their words) 'ranted' on the subject at length a few times. But the field at the park liesvacant 24/7 even while kids complain of boredom.
I'll be going out to our driveway basketball hoop---the one that sees little use---in a few minutes to 'shoot some hoops' and prepare forour twice weekly old man games at a local park. And within minutes of the sound of my basketball bouncing off the pavement, you can be sure I'll have children filtering over from across theneighborhood. First to watch, then to say, 'Can I play too?'
by Jeff King
The other day I actually read (I usually delete them) a chain email about the difference between the way 'we' (people over 40) grew up and how we're raising our own children. In particular, how we survived chain smoking, beer drinking pregnant moms; stood on car seats with no seat belts,and rode bikes with no helmets. And I'm guessing that if you're reading this---you survived a similar childhood.
I couldn't have been 10 years old when I 'inherited' my first newspaperroute from a brother who had graduated into the world of real jobs. And back then, part of running a newspaper route was having to collect payment each Saturday morning.
So there I was at 9a.m. on a Saturday, casually holding my blue bank bag---a bag that could swell to over $100 by the time lunch rolled around---and strolling along the edge of a busy highway that bisected my smallMinnesota town. My barely 70 pound body was shook by the rush of air as large semi-trucks carrying goods to and from the huge Twin Cities metropolis over an hour away hurtled close by.
Noone, not my parents (who I've been told loved me) or even the crabby adult who supervised the paper carriers (who I'm sure didn't), ever mentioned that carrying a bank bag bulging in cash along a busyhighway might not be a good idea. And I sure never gave it a second thought.
Any one of the hundreds of cars or trucks that passed me each morning could have screeched to a halt, pulled meinside, taken my money and sold me to a child brothel in Thailand. And they would have been long gone before my parents or any of my nine brothers and sisters would have figured out who belonged tothe extra plate that went unclaimed at dinner.
Yet it hindsight it wasn't in tramping along the highway that I faced mortal danger. No, it was when I was invited into the more than 70homes, apartments and businesses along the way. Most of my route consisted of harmless looking enough people---like Mr. Larson, who used to carry huge cans of milk on a rural milk route and wasunafraid of dogs, which he told me after I was chased into his yard by a yapping dachshund. Now at an age approaching 90, he wasn't even able to get out of his porch chair to get the newspaper.
Mycollection route also included a series of four apartments located above stores in aging brick buildings on Main Street. The people who lived there were a transient lot, often moving without notifyingme or anyone else, and I'd keep on delivering papers until I noticed a huge pile of them in front of the door, or until I knocked on the door one Saturday morning to find a new tenant.
I'dclutch my bank bag and payment ticket book, open the sagging door leading from the alleyway, and stomp my way up wooden stairs lit by a single bare light bulb two stories up. Often, my hard knocks oneach of the four doors would yield no response. I noticed that people who lived in dilapidated apartments slept in later than most home owners. Occasionally I'd hit the jackpot and a fat, middle-agedman in a tank top t-shirt and three days of facial hair, smoking a cigarette and smelling of alcohol, would slowly open a door and ask me what I wanted.
Whereas most of my route customersknew me by name, and I knew them by where they wanted their papers delivered, the people who came and went in this building and a few like it on my route didn't seem to remember me from week to week.Most didn't remember that they even got a newspaper, and as I look back on those days, I wonder why they got them myself. But it was before cable TV and the Internet.
I never experiencedanything I considered threatening, although in retrospect more than once I was called 'a cute kid,' which to anyone who knew me as a buzz cut, big eared, buck toothed youth is proof enough that someof these people may have been still under the influence. In fact, the man in the t-shirt was one of my biggest (only) tippers.
I have three children now who are either at, or approaching,the age in which I got my first paper route. My wife and I are a little apprehensive about letting our children walk by themselves a few blocks to a friend's house. And we live in an upper-middleclass neighborhood with little outside traffic.
But I'm not convinced that the world I grew up in was that much safer. We grew up in a world before cable, 24 hour news channels and theInternet. Nowadays, we all know the names of Polly Klass and Joan Benet Ramsey, even though most of us lived nowhere near them. I'm afraid if the t-shirted man had turned out to be the stereotypicalpedophile he resembled---instead of a nice, harmless, big tipper with an alcohol problem---the people in the next town 12 miles away would have been none the wiser.