Saturday, June 18, 2011

It's a Miracle Any Of Us Survived the 70's

Looking back, a 70's childhood seems like it should have been a death sentence. The big deal of child safety that we have today just hadn't wheedled its way into the public consciousness yet back then. Every day we - as typically wide-eyed, typically stupid rampaging children - would blunder into situations which would make the bulk of today's parents gasp in horror.

These were the days of unwrapped candy apples for Halloween. About every third driveway was made of sharp, unforgiving gravel, suitable for the goriest of knee-skinnings at the tiniest of stumbles, and kitchen safety latches (or better yet, those plastic fences to keep Junior properly penned in to one particular room) didn't yet exist, ensuring that all manners of household poisons and bladed weaponry were both convenient and accessible. Basement bedrooms were the coolest thing, but the only "emergency exits" they had were windows the size of the drive-through at the bank; to live in the basement meant tacitly acknowledging the risk of suffering a burny death if the dining room went up in flames. That's just the way it was; by today's standards, my neighborhood in the 70's was a veritable suburban abbatoir, where death - or at least painful disfigurement - lurked around every corner.

Case in point: I lived a little over a block from a library in one direction, and a swimming pool in the other. When my adventurous six-year-old-or-so self wanted to go play at either one, or at my neighborhood friends' houses scattered throughout the area, I would just walk down there. Alone. Allllll by myself. I asked my parents if I could go first, of course, but when I got the okay, it was just me, toddling down the suburban streets, not a care in the world about slashers, pedophiles, or slave traders hiding behind every bush, ready to pounce. I crossed streets, avoided the local bloodthirsty dogs, and steered clear of the yawning sewer openings, which were just big enough to swallow a little kid. I'd play with my friends for hours, during which my parents and siblings wouldn't see me at all.

In contrast, let me tell you about our family cars. When I was very little, we had a white 1967 Ford Fairline 500, a mid-size (for the 60's) sedan suitable for a family of six.

Theoretically, the parents and maybe my oldest sister would sit up front, and the other three of us packed in, Amistad-style, in the back. In practice, however, and especially on long trips, I - being the youngest, and therefore smallest and most victimized by other peoples' torment and elbows - would climb up on the ledge behind the back seats and sleep in the window. Car seats, schmar seats, who needs 'em, I'm catching some shut-eye back here. Of course, had whichever parent was driving ever feel the need to hit the brakes with any semblance of earnest or urgency, I would have been flung across the cabin like a bowling ball in a dryer. Fortunately, that never happened.

When that car died, we got a 1974 Ford Pinto Station Wagon, suitable for a family of six on a budget (hello, energy crisis). It was a smaller (read: narrower) car, and - unlike the Fairlane with its benches - had bucket seats, which meant that we could no longer fit three to a row. The solution: Mom and Dad up front, my oldest sister and brother in the back, and my middle sister and me in what we euphemistically called the "way back" - meaning the cargo area. We were shuttled around like groceries for the better part of a decade. There were no seat belts back there - we were lucky to have carpeting - but it did have the back of the back seat separating us from the uncool dorkheads up front, so it felt more like a clubhouse on wheels. It was cooler, to be sure, and more fun to tool around in, but it was only marginally safer.

The other main form of transportation that I remember was the bicycle - specifically, my mother's antique brownish-orange Schwinn cruiser. My parents would go on nice, relaxing, spring-day kind of bike treks, and guess who got to sit in the passenger seat? That's right, me. For those who didn't get to experience this, this was a little metal director's chair bolted to the back of the bicycle, probably with a strap, so when I sat in it I was basically staring at the middle of my mother's back as she bicycled around town. Linus and Lucy's little brother, Rerun, had one for years in the Peanuts strips.

Naturally, I wore no helmet or pads. I suppose the idea just hadn't occurred to people yet. Even into my teens, those of my friends who were inclined to ride bicycles rarely, if ever, wore helmets or pads. They just didn't exist. Besides, they would have been too cumbersome and restricting for my bonehead friends when they did their gonzo speed trials down the hill on Bauer Drive.

We had a fence around the back yard. It was white, wooden, and in a perpetual state of rot; we climbed on it daily, and over time I actually got quite good at being able to launch myself bodily over its top, utterly disregarding the risk of a spontaneous disintegration of the wood or an errant rusty nail embedding itself in to some important part of me. I wasn't much of a tree-climber, but the swimming pool across the street from my house had some skyscraping pines that other neighborhood urchins would climb like beanstalks. Afterward, we'd go over to someone's house, cram E-size rocket engines into a B-size Estes rocket, and launch it into the stratosphere. La-ti-da.

In fairness to my parents, though, I don't think they knew about those.

When it was time to go back home (usually because it was time for Starsky and Hutch or The Rockford Files or other high-quality 70's programming), we'd turn on the TV. Now, forget your modern image of the television set; in the 70's, they were looming, monolithic chunks of metal and plastic that couldn't have dominated the room more if they were Easter Island statues. Their glowing red tubes - visible through the heat vents in the back - emitted waves of ozone as they heated up, so anyone in the same room could actually smell when they were turned on. At first, we had console TV's, mounted within a wooden cabinet and with an external speaker and rivalling the size of your average aircraft carrier. Later, we moved "up" to regular sets, which nonetheless probably weighed more than I did, and we would keep this on - wait for it - a rickety aluminum stand. I'm pretty sure I could have bent these things by hand, and we relied on them to keep the 80-pound TV sets from crushing us like bugs, as we laid on the floor, head on hands, necks craned at 135 degree angles to catch the latest thrilling episode of Match Game '76. Considering how much of my childhood was spent hanging from the aforementioned fence, the backyard trees, the swing set, the refrigerator, the dining room table, the hallway doors, or my parents, it's a miracle I didn't pull that whole contraption down on myself at least once.

Oh, and this was also before surge protectors or power strips.

The TV cord (which wasn't grounded, by the way) was as a matter of course plugged into a splitter along with the cords of about a half dozen other things - radios, record players, lamps, fans, and, once a week, the vaccum cleaner. Once, it burst into flame. No, I'm not kidding. It almost blew up my sister.

It occurs to me as I write this that some may think my parents were horrible, negligent trolls. Nothing could be further from the truth; if nothing else, my mother is a nurse by profession, and was always very careful to keep us safe and healthy, often over our vehement protests. They were just different times - whether the dangers were legitimately less prevalent then, or whether something in today's culture has convinced everyone that the world is scarier than it really is, is anyone's guess. I suspect the truth, as if often does, lies somewhere in the middle.

Just to be safe, though . . . better buckle your seatbelt, kids. It's kind of a rough world.