Some while ago I introduced younger readers to the pay phone booth and its features. Today, I am remembering the ever present home phone from my childhood in the 1950’s. It came in black. It weighed a ton and survived much abuse. Once a sibling even threw it into the wall. The wall got a hole, but the phone was intact.
The phone had two features. It rang and you could dial it. Today’s phones have so many options that many of the negotiating skills needed in my childhood are no longer needed. One common need was to stay off the phone because a parent was waiting to hear back from the doctor. Doctors didn’t appreciate a busy signal, the noise heard if someone was already on the phone. We all complied with that request. One that rarely was followed was a sibling waiting to hear from a boy friend or girl friend. I guess we figured a persistent friend would keep redialing.
Although we had a party line (shared with another family) when I was little, by the time I was seven, we had our own phone number. But we still might be chastised for staying on the phone too long, especially if a parent was trying to call home and kept getting a busy signal. There were no answering machines, so whoever answered the phone was expected to WRITE DOWN a message. Needless to say, we often forgot and heard about it later. “How come you didn’t tell me ….called?”
There was no such thing as caller i.d. either. So it was not possible to avoid phone calls except by not answering the phone. However, that was not really an option and was sure to be met with “how come nobody answered the phone?”
The phone lasted forever. You always knew where it was. It was repaired by the phone company for free. Sometimes the old ways, though simpler, were better.
I was laughing reading about a young girl who was sent home because her shoulders were showing in a blouse she wore to school. The blouse looked quite modest to me, but it didn’t conform to the dress codes at her high school. That had me remembering the dress codes at Lincoln High School in the early 1960’s.
Girls always wore skirts with blouses or sweaters or dresses. Pants were worn in p.e. only, and those were specific shorts sold to be worn in the gym. We wore nylons and shoes. The nylons were usually held up by a panty girdle with garter clips. Shoes were flats. When sandals became popular, they were allowed as long as we wore stockings with them. Mary S. was sent home for wearing sandals without socks or nylons. Our protests to the principal went unheeded.
Boys wore khakis or cords with button down shirts over white t-shirts or polo shirts. Shirts had to be tucked in. Steve M. had the shirt tails cut off his shirt one day in the hall by the vice-principal because he had not tucked them in. No one was surprised and no parent rushed to the school to protest.
Women teachers wore dresses or suits. Male teachers wore shirts, ties, and suit jackets and slacks or suits.
Despite the fact that the 1960’s were supposedly the beginnings of revolt against the norm, there were few indications of that among my friends. We never had to be given a dress code. It was assumed and we followed it.
Today is Memorial Day in the United States. While it seems to have been taken over by barbecues and retail sales, it is actually a time to pause and remember. My generation of boys had no choice about being sent to Viet Nam. They were drafted and sent. If they were still in college, they were drafted after they graduated.
I had gone to college with a gentle and loving boy Tom. We served together bringing academic enrichment to young people in the town. He was drafted right after graduation and went to Viet Nam.
Tom survived the battles and came back home. He couldn’t survive the horrors that stayed with him. He took his life in 1972. With a gun. Knowing him, it probably seemed to be evening things out somewhat for the atrocities he was forced into. Not all the losses are inscribed on the wall at the Viet Nam Memorial in Washington, D.C. Tom was killed as surely as those who died overseas.
Peace to all veterans still scarred from the wars they were forced into. Peace to all veterans who “chose” to enlist when faced with economic hardship and limited employment opportunities. Peace to all veterans who went willingly to defend our country and found themselves in the middle of other peoples’ wars.
The expectations for “deportment” were explicit throughout my school years. Children were to be quiet, respectful, attentive, and facing forward. Unless your pencil broke during an exercise, there should have been no need to sharpen it during class. You should have thought of that before class. You should time your bathroom needs to correspond to the recess times. Teachers had absolute authority, and there was no chance that your parent would come into school and take your side in any disagreement with the teacher.
Combined, these attributes were a challenge for all children. For me, the biggest hardship was being quiet. There was a subcategory of deportment called “avoids unnecessary talking.” A check mark meant improvement was needed. I got a check mark throughout my school years. Clearly teachers and I disagreed on what talking was “unnecessary.” We never discussed this, of course. I would always intend to correct this character failing, even though I really had no idea what it meant. I always thought that what I had to say was necessary. Why else would I be talking?
Among the other disappearing virtues from my childhood is decent penmanship. We were drilled on handwriting throughout elementary school. First we were taught to print in a block style on wide ruled paper. Then, just when we had been given a chance to master that, they sprung cursive on us. Cursive was not intuitive and the large chart at the front of the classroom demonstrated the correct way to form each letter. Interestingly, the capital Q shown above was required when I was in school but seems to have disappeared.
I have dreadful handwriting. I like to think it is genetic. My father was a commissioner and had to sign hundreds of bond certificates. He actually had to testify that, despite how it looked, that really was his signature. My maternal grandfather had nearly illegible handwriting. I never made the transition from block print to cursive, and my writing is some kind of quirky, but unreadable, blend of the two. Fortunately, I was able to read all the handwriting of my students, no matter how dreadful, since I had practiced by having to read my own!
Unfortunately we were graded on penmanship. My failing grades were consistent throughout school. I failed both penmanship and deportment. Deportment. There’s another term I am happy to forget!
I am now a respectable height of 5 feet 4 inches, but I didn’t reach that until my junior year of high school. Up until then, I had always been the shortest person in my class. That had some advantages. Because I was so short, I was always put in the front of the classroom and it took me a long time to discover I needed glasses. When we lined up by height, I always got to go first.
However, my height(or lack thereof) was a definite disadvantage in some playground activities. I always lost, for instance, at tether ball as the taller girls hit the ball around and around the pole over my head. On the school girls volleyball team, which had all the girls on it, I was so short that when I rotated to the front line the coach always pulled me out. I could serve the ball, but my spike capability was nonexistent. He did give me a letter, however, for my tenacity if not my skill.
At our yearly Field Day, my long jumps were always short jumps. My high jumps were low jumps. But in activities that didn’t depend on stature, I did fine. I could carry an egg in a spoon across the field with the best of them. And once I partnered with a very tall girl in the three legged race. She virtually picked me up as she raced across the field, winning us a red ribbon!
As I reflect back on my summers as a kid and talk with other friends my age, I am struck by a common theme. We all spent a lot of time outside without any parental supervision with a lot of other kids. I was thinking about my fourth grade photo above and realized that I don’t think any of my classmates was an only child. Families in my grade ranged from two to seven children, with four being the average. That meant that at least one sibling and usually more were around at all times.
We all walked to school, so we were used to the distances around the neighborhood and how to get to each others’ houses. When we wanted to play, we would get together at the school or at someone’s house. We walked or bicycled there. Our mothers were busy at home and we didn’t expect rides.
That means that at all times mothers were home and kids were roaming the streets. When people say that kids don’t have the same freedom today, I think that is because so many homes are vacant during the day and there are fewer kids in the neighborhood. On my street, however, there is still one vestige of my kind of childhood. We live two blocks from a city pool and during the summer groups of kids walk and bike together, without parents, to go swimming. At the pool itself many children swim happily for hours under the lifeguards’ watchful eyes.
And sometimes, in the dead of winter, a small group of kids materializing from who knows where, arrives at our door offering to shovel our walks.
At my feet is the round lawn sprinkler that would soon be linked to the hose. It looks as if I am demanding that my mother attach it right now so I could play. Now that summer is suggesting that it may just possibly arrive in New England, I am remembering the joys of running through the sprinkler.
In Western Oregon, there was never a lack of water, so we could play in the sprinklers as long as we wanted. One of them went around in a circle, and we could chase it. Another threw out a large arc and you could duck under the water for fun. For some reason, we never had one of those little wading pools, so we contented ourselves with sprinklers. No one I knew had an above ground pool, though one very wealthy neighbor had a full in ground pool with bathhouse. The water was never heated, however. In fact I don’t remember ever encountering a heated swimming pool until I was an adult.
A second badge of honor besides skinned knees as a kid was what we called “summer feet.” My siblings and I had a contest each summer to see who could get the toughest bottoms on our feet. We spent all summer barefoot, and it was important not to wince when stepping on a rock or twig. Eventually we would demonstrate our achievement by walking up our gravel driveway.
When they say kids can make up their own fun, I think of sprinklers and summer feet.
I am in the middle of a series of posts about things that have disappeared from today’s world. I am enjoying remembering these, sharing memories with other readers, and introducing younger readers to earlier times. However, I do not mean to imply that the old days were the “good old days.” I am not nostalgic for the past in the sense that I wish I were living there. Instead, I am highlighting pleasures and activities that were common then.
I think it is too easy to look wistfully back on earlier times while forgetting some of the sober realities present then too. One of the biggest dreads when I was child was polio. I remember once having my legs ache when I was 9 and fearing I had contracted polio. It was a terrifying disease with no cure and devastating consequences for those children who survived it.
I remember very clearly going downtown to the local high school with my brother and sisters and swallowing a sugar cube with vaccine to prevent polio. I believe I was 13 or so. My littlest sister was only 5. My parents could not believe that they no longer had to fear summer gatherings of children, potential sources for the spread of polio. Dr. Salk and Dr. Sabin had made the future brighter for children.
That is to remind us all that that the “good old days” had many perils today’s children are spared.
In my childhood, boys played marbles and girls played jacks. These were a set of 10 little metal objects and one red rubber ball. While it was possible to play jacks alone, the only reason I ever did that was to hone my skill. The real fun was playing with an opponent.
Reading up on the subject, I learned that there were actually a variety of ways this game was played. All I remember was THE way jacks was played in my neighborhood. You would find a flat surface and drop the jacks from your hand onto the ground. Then you would bounce the ball, pick up one jack and then catch the ball as it came back. If you were successful at that you went on to pick up two, then three, and so forth. When you erred, the other girl got a turn.
Of course, the wider you scattered the jacks and the higher you bounced the ball, the more likely it was that you would be unable to achieve the perfect ten pickups. I mostly remember gales of laughter as the ball went flying or jacks went spinning.
A few years ago I tried to find a set to teach my granddaughter. I could only find plastic ones, which felt all wrong in my hands. I see that now they are available in very expensive “retro” packaging. Apparently they are after the “nostalgia” market. I am not particularly nostalgic about jacks. I just think they were a great inexpensive way to spend an afternoon.