Smoking was considered cool back in the Fifties. Movie stars, athletes, nearly everyone lit 'em up. There were even cigarette ads with doctors endorsing one brand or other for its healthful, relaxing benefits. It was only natural then that kids would become curious about smoking and want to emulate the adults around them. My Dad smoked Luckies before filtered cigarettes hit the market. I was probably around 10 when I first snuck one out of his pack. We would usually go off to Callahan-Kelly Park for our clandestine puffs, far away from the prying eyes of the "block watchers"...older women who would rat us out to our own parents for any indiscretion. By age 12 we were buying our own. My Dad knew I smoked and would sometimes bum one from me...sadly, they proved to be his undoing, dying of lung cancer at age 72.
For a lot of kids, their first alcoholic drink was a big deal. Usually it was beer since the store owners would sell a kid anything if they had the money. For Italian kids though, drinking alcohol was something we knew from an early age. Teething infants had their gums rubbed with whiskey, and sometimes toothaches in older kids were treated the same way. At family dinners we were given homemade red wine mixed with Coke or cream soda, which encouraged naps so the grownups would have a chance to talk in peace. And most Italian grandfathers had a hidden stash of cherries soaked in moonshine that they fed their grandsons to put hair on their chests. The real step up the ladder came when we were allowed to drink undiluted wine with the men in the family; that was special.
A rite of passage for both boys and girls is that first kiss. Mine came around the seventh grade when we would play games like Spin the Bottle at basement birthday parties with our friends. There was no "date" pressure and no need to worry about the build-up, i.e., will she kiss me back if I dare make a move. It was a simple matter of spinning the bottle and whatever couple the bottle pointed to went off into a darkened corner and commenced smooching. There was no guilt, no phone call the day after, no permanent attachments, just a chance to practice your kissing with no risks. When I think about it, for boys and girls just getting into the game, it was a socially acceptable way of getting to know the opposite sex using training wheels.
Kids today have somewhat different rites that move them along the line to adulthood like their first cellphone, first experiment with drugs and first visit to their psychoanalyst. It's not easy growing up in any age, but the world is a scarier place to do it in than the one I remember.
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