July 2, 2012

I just realized that in about a month I'm having another birthday. When I turned 65 last year I was told that I had officially entered the period of my life when you can enter your second childhood with being labeled a "kook". Big deal.

OK, at least on paper I entered my second childhood last year. Turning 65 has been a great excuse for my senior friends and I to have dazzling parties, exotic vacations, and any number of fantasies acted upon, before we become too old to remember what it was we always wanted to do. But one of the best entertainments of the year has been revisiting the almost ancient past, the early 1950s, when we first learned to crawl, walk, and talk back to our parents.

Growing up in small town America, in a neighborhood filled with other kids, I remember endless hours of cowboys and Indians, cops and robbers, Nazis and Allies; basically any game that involved choosing up sides and then trying to capture or kill each other. We also had terrific free-for-all battles using water hoses to blast each other and throwing volleys of crab apples, acorns, and rotten peaches at the enemies of the day.

My sister Maryellen is 4 years older than me, so I got to tag along through parts of her '50s teenage experiences (sometimes Mom insisted Maryellen take me with her, so she could have a few minutes of peace and quiet). We went places like Romeo's drive-in, where waitresses wearing roller skates would bring trays of hamburgers and malts that would attach to our partly rolled up car window, while we listened on the AM radio to the latest hit singles by Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, and The Coasters.

All the teenagers wanted to look cool and act cool, which for the boys meant greasing their hair with Brylcreem and wearing tight t-shirts with their cigarette packs stuck under the sleeve at their biceps, while snapping their fingers and singing four part harmonies. I have my sister's friends to thank for the fact that I'm not a smoker, because when I was about twelve years old they gave me puffs of their cigarettes until I got so sick I never wanted to smoke another cigarette again.

Without air-conditioning we spent much of the summer hanging out on various porches, where everybody in the neighborhood was given a nickname. The boy nicknamed "Sewer" (because of his sewer mouth) made up most of our nicknames. Sewer is now a talk-radio host in California. "Sig" (after Sigmund Freud) went on to undergo years of analysis. "Tsetse" (like the fly that causes malaria) became a doctor specializing in exotic diseases.

I was nicknamed "Tubby". Not because I was overweight - I was a skinny runt back then - but because I played the tuba.

In my house, Grandma Bisset lived in the back room, next to the bathroom, and used to smear Vick's Vapor Rub all over her chest each night, and all over mine, too, if I complained of a sore throat, or started sniffling or sneezing. Grandma used to make wine in five gallon clay jugs, out of elderberries, and then store it in a little room under the basement steps, sampling it from time to time to see if it was ready. The basement was a dark room, filled with shelves of home canned goods, dad's work bench, the furnace and the coal bin. Sometimes I snuck my girlfriends down there.

The technology of the '50s was amazing. We shared a party phone line with the neighbors, so I could often pick up the receiver and listen in to one of their daughters telling the latest gossip about the seniors at her school. Or maybe that was my own sister. No matter, it was still fun to secretly listen in. I think I never outgrew this stage of childhood. The phone we used back then was a black rotary dial model, which my dad continued to rent from the phone company for over 50 years. The amazing thing was, even though the dial was incredibly slow, and the ring was anemic by the end (dad replaced it just before he died a few years ago) it still worked, and had much better sound than most of the phones I use nowadays.

Then there was the fun of going down to the shoe store to watch the bones wiggling inside your feet. Here's a radio commercial from back then:

"Every parent will want to hear this important news! Now, at last, you can be certain that your children's foot health is not being jeopardized by improperly fitting shoes. Miller Shoes is now featuring the new Adrian Fluoroscopic X-Ray Shoe Fitting machine that gives you visual proof in a second that your children's shoes fit. The Adrian Special Shoe Fitting Machine has been awarded the famous Parent's Magazine Seal of Commendation - a symbol of safety and quality to millions of parents all over America."

You'd try some new shoes on and then stick your feet in the bottom of the machine and look through one viewer, while your Mom and the shoe salesman looked through other viewers on the side of the machine. Then the salesman would turn on the X-ray tube for 20 or 30 seconds while everybody looked to see if the bones of your feet were straight, or if the shoes were bending them because they were too tight. If the first pair was no good, you'd get to watch your bones wiggling again inside a different pair.

They didn't know back then that the machine could fry your feet and eventually kill you. It was just a fun machine that helped you get properly fitted shoes by letting you see your own bones.

I also recall playing with mercury, probably from a broken thermometer, and being amazed because even though it was a metal, it behaved like a liquid. We had no seat belts, no air bags, and no bike helmets. But we did have a plan to hide under our desks at school when the Civil Defense sirens went off, indicating we were under nuclear attack by the Communists.

Back in the '50s, we didn't know the meaning of the word fear. Of course, I was too little to know the meaning of most words. Now that I know what these things mean, the '50s scare the dickens out of me. But back then, running around the neighborhood in my underwear and blasting bad guys with my cap pistol, I was having the time of my life.