It seems to me that back in the Fifties we had a lot more freedom than kids do today. We walked a mile to school unescorted, ran errands in the neighborhood by ourselves, went to the movies with friends and rode our bikes far and wide. We played on the streets for hours every day without parental supervision. Granted it was a different time, but certainly not without risks. I just think kids were given credit for having some common sense and the ability to get by on their own. Also, there were watching eyes everywhere including nosy mothers who stayed home to raise their kids, and cops who walked a regular beat and who had no reservations about straightening out any kid who stepped over the line. Just the same, we used our freedom to do some pretty stupid things.
We played ball games in the street every day the weather permitted. Money was scarce, so whenever a ball (a Spaldeen of course) wound up behind a fence or on a roof, we thought nothing of retrieving it. Spinners, a local supermarket, had a loading dock behind the store in the middle of our block. It was enclosed by a tall, wrought iron fence. At either end of the fence were two brick towers to which the fence was anchored. We couldn't climb the iron fence because it had nasty, pointed iron bars, but the towers were scalable. The main obstacle was that the towers were topped with barbed wire and broken glass. Despite these hazards we regularly took turns climbing carefully over that fence to recover our ball and then resumed the game. Big risk for a 15 cent ball but we were young and willing.
We grew up at a time when smoking was considered cool. Many of our parents smoked and we couldn’t wait to try. Having no money to buy cigarettes (store owners thought nothing of selling them to you if you could pay) we came up with a solution. We each bought 25 cent corn cob pipes. Our little band of Huck Finns would walk to Highland Park blocks from prying eyes and light up. For tobacco we would pick up cigarette butts from the street, strip away the paper, and use the remaining tobacco to fill the pipes. We were probably around 10 years old at the time. As I got older I began to snitch Luckies or filtered L&Ms from my father’s pack. I enjoyed smoking but quit when my first child was born. After nearly 50 years I still get an urge once in a while, but considering the price of cigarettes today, I’m glad I kicked the habit.
If we were supremely bored, which was rare, we would wander over to my friend Vinny’s front yard to watch his grandfather and the other old, Italian men in the neighborhood play a card game called Brisk. I think the game may have originated in Italy, but no matter, the old guys played it with gusto. We would sometimes bust their chops and imitate the Italian phrases and exaggerated gestures they used as the game became animated. One day their patience with us ran out, and Vinny’s grandfather innocently asked us if we wanted some cherries. Of course we took them not realizing that the unique taste of the cherries resulted from the homemade Italian liqueur they had been soaked in. As we began to feel the effects of the booze and stagger around, the old men nudged each other and laughed at us. Lesson learned: never mess with old Italian men.
We rode our bikes everywhere, usually staying within a ten block radius of our block, but sometimes we took “road trips”. We would go as far as 5-10 miles from home to places like Ebbets Field, home of the Brooklyn Dodgers, in the hopes of seeing a real live ballplayer. Another popular destination was Howard Beach in Queens where we would go fishing off the Broad Channel bridge. You need to appreciate that to get to these places we had to traverse some of the most heavily trafficked streets in the city. No helmets, no training wheels, and no fear. We carried air pumps and kits to repair the occasional flat tire because we knew that if our mothers ever found out about these little jaunts, we were dead meat.
What’s interesting is that our parents rarely knew of the crazy and sometimes dangerous things we did. They weren’t on top of us every minute we were out playing. There were rules that had to be followed like coming home at dinner time and not getting into any trouble that would embarrass the family, but we were pretty much on our own. We were out of their hair and keeping ourselves amused…that was enough for them. What I didn’t appreciate at the time was how this freedom to grow up without someone telling us what to do every minute of the day would teach us self-reliance and the ability to make our own decisions, clearly not always good decisions, but ours to make and suffer the consequences. I think all of us who grew up this way have a decided advantage over today’s over-supervised, under-adventuresome kids.
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