Things were different then, the world (our world) was a much safer place than it is today.
Spring break, or Easter holiday as it was known in the dark ages when I was a boy, and a recent news item set me to thinking about the almost planetary differences between being a child/youth today and when I was young.
Coinciding with spring weather meant a week (not the two they get today) in the outdoors. No TV (although we had it) or video games for us, it was out in the fresh air and lots of healthy exercise as we pursued various interests. (Anything but homework!)
It was time for softball games in the vacant lot on our street and hikes as far as Mount Douglas. Or to the Gorge and back, another day-long ramble, collecting pop and beer bottles from the ditches as we went to cash in for a bottle of pop or a chocolate bar on the way home. (Based on the number of discarded beer cans I see in my travels I gather that today’s youth aren’t interested in collecting the deposits.)
Mostly we played around the edges of Swan Lake with its farmers’ fields and willow groves or in Mr. Black’s barn, still solid but long unused, or we hiked along the CNR tracks to Lost (Blenkinsop) Lake. Both lakes offered fishing for sunfish and catfish that responded to nothing more than a worm on a string and hook. The catfish were ugly and unwanted, the sunfish attractive, sometimes transplanted to home garden pools — and quite edible.
Cooked over an open flame until their white flesh was done they were quite delicious. As was a slice of bread toasted in the flames or over a candle flame in our forts until singed black.
Note that I said “open flame”. Yes, Moms, we played with matches. Some of our most enjoyable evenings were spent around a fire, roasting potatoes in the ashes until they were black on the outside but mmmmnn on the inside, hot dogs on a stick and marshmallows. Ergo, no self-respecting boy traveled without matches or without a six-inch-long sheath knife in his belt or a hatchet. The luckier (richer) ones had a Red Ryder BB gun but most of us settled for a sling shot.
In short, we were well armed. And, you know what? I can recall just a single instance where one of us accidentally cut himself in the hand.
No one hurt himself with a BB gun or a sling shot, so far as I know, but I do have to admit that few boys could resist testing their marksmanship on songbirds, myself included. Fortunately, I realize now, I always missed, so my conscience is clear. But the intent was there, just the aim was off; today, I wouldn’t even think of harming so much as a feather on a bird or any other form of wildlife for that matter.
As we grew older some of the neighbourhood boys “borrowed” their fathers’ .22 rifles to sneak them down to the lake but that wasn’t common practice. It was when Jimmy Croft and some of the kids started firing .22 cartridges by placing them on a rock and hitting them with a hammer that parents — and police — took an interest. It was a while before that one died down, the miscreants being confined to quarters for the duration.
By now you must be asking yourselves, where were our parents through all this? Most of our dads worked, of course, but most of our moms were homemakers so we were supervised so long as we hung about the house. This had an obvious downside, like having to split and haul firewood and that sort of thing, so it was in our self-interest to vanish the moment we could go outside.
Did they worry about us? Were they concerned for our safety? I have to believe they were. But I point out that things were different then, the world (our world) was a much safer place than it is today. Other than cautioning us not to talk to strangers we were allowed to go our ways. The fact that we mostly did this in gangs and in broad daylight also increased our sense of being safe and, I’m sure, comforted our parents. The same people who, from time to time, squealed on us for some mischief they’d seen us get up to would also have reported any difficult situations we may have encountered, I’m sure.
As for playgrounds, well, we had them, too: swings, seesaws (teeter-totters), slides and a sandbox. Again, I can recall a single accident when someone sat down on one end of the seesaw just as Jimmy Botten stood up to get off. Suddenly weighted at the far end, the seesaw arched upward, catching Jimmy beween the legs. There’s no doubt but that smarted!
Slides could sometimes produce slivers as they became worn but cuts, scrapes and bruises were another fact of life for us kids. A wipe with a damp cloth, a dab of iodine that hurt worse than the cut and a bandaid usually did the trick if we bothered to seek first aid. An exception for me was the time I fell off my bike and scraped my left palm in the gravel. As per usual, I simply rinsed it under the tap and applied pressure until the bleeding stopped.
This time, however, it became infected, my hand ballooned and blood poisoning was halfway up my arm by the time my father saw it. Happily, medical aid was as near as our neighbour across the street. Mr. Hubbard was retired then but he knew first aid and applied a poultice of dampened corn flakes in a cloth bag. By next morning, I was as good as new!
Speaking of bikes. These, you would think, could pose other threats to life and limb. Other than falling off when we were learning to ride, usually resulting in a scraped knee, I don’t recall any injuries or accidents with vehicular traffic. And we’d ride for miles, usually on Sundays, now able to travel farther than we had on foot. With a light lunch and a bottle of pop in a war surplus gas mask bag (precursor to today’s ubiquitous backpack) we were equipped for a day of good cardiovascular exercise.
All this outdoor activity, particularly in good weather, did have its potential for harm that neither we kids—nor our parents— realized. I’m referring to sunburns. This was in the age before sun screen. Yes, you could buy suntan lotion, for whatever that was worth, but that was for Moms not he-boys.
Being of fair complexion I burn easily and generally didn’t invite burns by excessive exposure. But I also enjoyed working about the dairy farms in the neighbourhood and baling hay is not just hard work it’s hot work. So it wasn’t long before off came the shirt and t-shirt. By day’s end I was as red as Rudolph’s nose from the waist up.
Then I would pay. First the tingling then the burning then the peeling over a period of days. Just another childhood adventure, right? But now we know about skin cancer and I have to wonder how many people who’ve contracted melanoma in their later years owe its origin to their innocent exposure to the sun’s rays in their childhood.
Which brings me to the news article I mentioned. Some parents in Victoria are concerned that the pollen from native foliage adjacent to playgrounds might be hazardous to their children’s health. I’m not dimissing those who suffer from hay fever and asthma but, good grief, what do they suggest? Keeping their kids indoors? Issuing them oxygen masks?
From the beginning of humankind children have played outdoors; originally it was essential to their learning to survive, and it’s still essential to children growing up to be healthy and mentally active adults. In an age of obesity and heart disease we should be encouraging, not discouraging, outdoor activity even if it means the occasional scrape or cut.
To my knowledge, all of my neighbourhood and school chums survived childhood. I rest my case.