You Gotta' be Over Sixty to Understand


My mother used to cut chicken, chop eggs and spread mayo on the same cutting board with the same knife and no bleach, but we didn't get food poisoning. In the late 1940s, when we had a “lock box” in town, Mom defrosted hamburger on the counter, and I used to eat a bite raw sometimes, too. Our school sandwiches were wrapped in wax paper, and carried to school in a brown paper bag, not in icepack coolers, but I can’t remember anybody getting e. coli.

September meant school, and after a long hot summer helping out on the farm I always looked forward to the freshness and order of school. First, however, Mom had to make me civilized again. There was the almost ritual trip to town to buy “school clothes,” and I was treated to a barber shop haircut. After months of going barefoot my feet had to get used to shoes again, and it would be several months before I would “grow into” my new jeans and flannel shirts; sometimes about when they were worn out.

Almost all of us would have rather gone swimming in the river or in an irrigation canal instead of the pristine pool in town (talk about boring); there were no bleach closures either.

In high school we all took gym, not PE... and risked permanent injury with a pair of  high-top Ked “tennis shoes” (only worn in gym) instead of having cross-training athletic shoes with air cushion soles and built-in light reflectors. I can’t recall any injuries but they must have happened, because they tell us how much safer we are now. Flunking gym was not an option, even for stupid kids! I guess PE must be much harder than gym.

Having to “stay after school caught all sorts of negative attention, especially from my father if I was late for chores, but it was, perversely, a badge of honor among the boys. We must have had horribly damaged psyches.

Speaking of school, we all said prayers, sang the National Anthem, pledged allegiance to our Flag, and stood for the National Anthem...all of matter the ethnic background or faith, and we were universally patriotic.

What an archaic health system we had then. Remember school nurses? There wasn’t any at the little country schools I attended, but in high school ours wore a hat and everything, and she could even give you an aspirin for a headache or fever without getting written permission from parents. Oh yeah...and where was the Benadryl and sterilization kit when I got that bee sting? I could have died!

I thought that I was supposed to accomplish something before I was allowed to be proud of myself. I just can’t recall how bored we were without 270 digital TV cable channels, computers, Play Station, Nintendo and X-box. The term cell phone would have conjured up a phone in a jail cell, and a pager was the school PA system. Was that archaic or what?

We played king of the hill on piles of gravel left on vacant construction sites, and when we got hurt, Mom pulled out the forty-eight-cent bottle of Mercurochrome (kids liked it better because it didn’t sting like iodine) and then we got our butt spanked! Now it’s a trip to the emergency room, followed by a ten-day dose of a $49 bottle of antibiotics, and then the mother calls an attorney to sue the contractor for leaving a horribly vicious pile of gravel where it was such a threat.

We didn’t act up at the neighbor’s house either, because if we did, we got our butt spanked there, and then we got butt spanked again when we got home. I recall neighbor Stephen Erickson coming over and doing his tricks on a stack of baled hay, just before he fell off sprained his ankle. Little did his folks know that they could have owned our little dairy farm. Instead, his mother swatted him for being such a goof when Dad took him and his bike home in the back of our Model A pickup.

Being “smart-alecky” or “mouthing off” often earned me a backhand from my father, and being late for chores after school might result in a “whuppin,” no excuses accepted. Most of my rural friends could expect the same, yet none of us felt that we were mistreated or “abused.”

To top it off, not a single person I knew had ever been told that they were from a dysfunctional family. How could we possibly have known that we needed to get into group therapy and anger management classes? We were obviously so duped by the many societal ills that we didn’t even notice that the entire country wasn’t taking Prozac! How did we ever survive?

Getting sick when I was a youngster is a lot different than it is nowadays. Perhaps there was a test that I wasn’t prepared for, or there was the time in the sixth grade that I was trying to muster enough courage to challenge the playground bully, or maybe I just thought that I deserved a day off, or...perish the thought...perhaps I was really sick! At any rate, on occasion, I would wake up determined that I was too ill to go to school.

“I have a fever, feel my forehead, I’m not faking it,” I would moan to my mother. Mom was usually sympathetic, but my father would look askance at me with doubt in his eyes and a trace of a grin on his face. I would have to endure my mother’s usual poking and questioning about my symptoms, and possibly a dose of Ex-Lax, but then permission granted and sympathy given, I could relax with the knowledge that I had a day off.

Today, however, mother’s aren’t so easily duped...not because they are necessarily less susceptible to children’s imagined ailments, but because the first thing that comes to mind is to immediately rush their treasured offspring to the family pediatrician. He, of course, can immediately see through the charade. Doctors take all the fun out of being sick.

I got a .22 rifle for my tenth birthday, and a 20 gauge shotgun when I was twelve. They were stored in the corner of my bedroom...without “trigger locks.” Horrors! I also hunted jack rabbits off the back of my pony. I learned gun safety in the Boy Scouts, and the only admonition from my father was, “Don’t shoot the cows.”

A while back one of my grandsons, who was about seven at the time, asked me, "What was there to do for fun when you were little, Grandpa? I had to think for a moment, but then the game of "bottle caps" came to mind. I explained that my friends and I played  a game that was just like marbles, except  that we played it on the concrete sidewalks at school so that the "shooter" bottle cap would slide smoothly over the concrete and scatter the other caps out of the chalked square. He listened attentively as I described the basic rules, and how we shot the shooter cap by thumping it with our middle fingers. I further explained how I got my supply of bottle caps at the little store near my rural home. I became fully aware of the generation gap, however, when he asked, "What are bottle caps Grandpa?

Don Erwin