04 February 2009

Things Change

So I saw one of those "When I was a kid" laments on Facebook today and I began to really think about how life has changed since I was a kid, for better or worse.

When I was a kid, we were a family of 6 and had one car. Dad took it to work. If you wanted to go somewhere, you had to wait until Dad got home. Usually you never asked to go anywhere. You didnt' need to go anywhere. You were a kid. Maybe you went to the grocery on Saturday. We all went to church on Sunday. As a family. All six of us.

Cars. My god how cars have changed. There were no car seats, no seat belts, and no padded dashboards. Dashboards were made of metal. When seat belts became popular, there were only lap belts and they had clunky metal connectors. The only thing remotely similar are the belts on airplanes. There were wing windows that you could open with a lever lock and push open. I miss those still. The bright lights button was on the floor and you engaged it with your left foot. I still think putting that on the column was a mistake. Oh, and you shifted gears on the column, not using a "stick shift" in the middle. Cars were only three speed. Door handles, inside and out, were made of metal. Outside, they were a push button and quite difficult to open. Inside was a chrome lever that had to be pulled up or out. Nothing was "electric". You had to roll down the windows using a handle, push down the door locks. There was no way to pop the trunk from the interior. You had to get out of the car and use a key to unlock it. We had a station wagon and you had to get out of the car and go to the back and use a metal handle to roll down the back window. There were no delay wipers. Wipers had two speeds: regular and wicked fast. Wipers were also chrome and single blade. You changed the blade, not the whole assembly. You didn't have electric or heated side-view mirrors. You had to roll down the window and adjust the mirror. The electric clocks never worked. There was no digital readout on the dash. There was only AM radio. No tape decks, no CD players, no MP3 players. Air conditioning was rare. You didn't have auto-dimming rear view mirrors. I don't think there was such a thing as rear window defoggers. Bumpers did not retract. You hit something with your bumper, you either broke it or broke your car. The bumpers were chrome and they rusted from the inside. There was no such thing as all wheel drive. You had to get out of the car and engage lock the hubs to get into 4-wheel drive. Your car weighed a ton because there was no plastic. The trunk was HUGE. And kids could sleep on the back deck. Man, cars have changed.

Speaking of cars, my Dad was big on going for "a drive", wherein we would all pile in the car and drive around with no particular destination in mind. Ahh, the days of cheap gas. I distinctly remember gas costing $0.26/gal. And gas stations used to give away free crap to get you to buy from their station. Like S&H Green stamps, or glassware. I went to a recycling joint in Chicago and saw shelf after shelf of what I called "green, bumpy, gas-station glassware". It was such a blast from the past.

There was no such thing as self-service gas stations. You pulled up to the pump, ran over a sensor that range a bell so the attendant knew you were there. He jogged out, usually dressed in a uniform of a crisp white shirt, sometimes he wore a bow tie, and blue or grey pants, washed your windshield, checked your oil and water and other fluids, filled your tank with gas, put air in your tires, took your money and made change. You never stepped foot out of your car. He also sold cigarettes. And you paid by cash or check or you put it on your tab. No one used credit cards. Mechanics were different than attendants and they wore blue pants and blue shirts with their names embroidered on the pocket.

Lots of places kept "tabs". The grocery store. Sometimes a family-owned clothing store. The feed store. The hardware store. Credit was extended and it was free.

All the appliances in our new house were avocado green. The green refrigerator replaced the white Frigidaire, which had a lever handle. You had to push against the door to close it. It didn't swing closed by itself. It also was impossible to open with one hand. This is why they used to take the doors off abandoned refrigerators. If you got inside one, you'd never get out by yourself. Even Houdini couldn't get out by himself.

I remember making hot dogs by actually boiling them in water and steaming the buns in a colander on top. I don't think I have boiled hot dogs since 1978 when we got a very large, Amana microwave oven. Up until that time, you had to plan dinner. Defrosting meat took hours and sometimes days and usually involved a lot of hot water.

We recycled things because we were poor, not because we were concerned about the environment. Jelly jars came with cartoon characters printed on them so they could be reused as juice glasses for kids. In fact, lots and lots of stuff came in glass jars with metal lids. And we reused them for food storage. Peanut butter for one.

Foods and medicines did not come with safety lids. Aspirin bottles were glass and had a screw-on tin lid. Cans were metal, not alumnium. Soda pop cans had a sharp pull tab that covered the ground around soda machines. In summer, there was a real danger of cutting your feet on them at the beach. There was no interior product liners. A friend of mine used to go into grocery stores and use his finger to draw smiley faces in the peanut butter, put the lid back on and return it to the shelf. Virtually all of the safety packaging you see today was a result of the Tylenol cyanide poisoning scare of 1982.

Plastic was rare. Things came in glass or cardboard. Milk came in two waxed paper cartons connected by a cardboard finger carrier. There were no plastic butter tubs, plastic grocery bags, or molded plastic packaging. Burgers came in either paper wrappers or styrofoam packaging. We did have plastic wrap and plastic baggies. The bags didn't have zip locks, they had a flap at the top that had to be tucked in. It actually worked fairly well.

We liked "space" stuff. There were Space Food Sticks, and Tang, and Carnation Instant Breakfast, and even Quisp cereal that had a space man on the box. We had dishes with nuclear symbols in them. We wanted to grow up to be astronauts. If it was about space, it was cool.

When I was a little, little kid, I went to a birthday party and we all wore party hats. The girls wore "teacher" and "nurse" hats and the boys wore "fireman" and "policeman" hats. No one (except me) seemed to think this was sexist. That said, I loved my family, because when I told them I wanted to be a veterinarian or a truck driver, no one said I couldn't do that because I was a girl.

Girls didn't play organized sports. We didn't play Little League baseball, Pee Wee football or anything else. We were expected to play with dolls and that was that. There weren't even softball leagues back then. The only sport I could get involved with was swimming and I signed up as soon as I heard about it. I was in the fourth grade.

You didn't own books. You borrowed them from the library. You received the paper on your doorstep every evening. There was home delivery of milk by a milkman, who left it in a metal cooler you kept on your front porch. The boxes always carried the name of the dairy.

Moms didn't work. No one went to day care. When you got in a fight with a friend, you had to work it out yourself. If you went home crying to mom, you lost street cred. If you did something wrong, your parents marched you down the street so you could apologize to the party you offended. Parents did not defend your bad behavior. I got my ass whipped. I got grounded. "Wait til your father gets home" was a threat we took very seriously.

We didn't have a lot of toys. We had green army men and sometimes those wind up cheap wood and rubber band airplanes, and occassionally a paddle board with an elastic string and rubber ball on it to play with. Otherwise, we had the best toy imaginable. We had an imagination.

We had bikes. If they had kick stands we didn't know it or just chose not to use them. You hopped off the bike and let it go. Sometimes, it would travel a while before it fell over in the grass.

What I remember most about my childhood was the tremendous freedom I had. I had no agenda on most summer days. I got up and did just about whatever I wanted from daylight to dusk. No one directed my days or filled them up with dance lessons or music lessons or sports activities. We ran. We climbed. We built forts. We rode bikes. And we didn't have to worry about pedophiles or kidnappings or cranky neighbors. I would hate to be a kid today.


  1. Even tho I'm at least a decade ahead of you, these are so familiar. Thanks for the stroll. By the way, were you one of those who etched smiley faces in new peanut butter?