Random Thoughts

The hazards of my childhood

... how did we survive to adulthood

by Ann Robbins Talbot

“Do you remember chewing tar?”, a friend asked me the other day. When the temperature was scorching for several days in a row, the shiny black tar at the side of the street would melt. Sitting on the curbstone, we could pinch some in our fingers and chew it like gum. She lived in Winchester and I lived in Melrose and it seems we were doing the same terrible thing – chewing tar. We would also put some of the tar over our front teeth and pretend we were toothless. Just one of the hazards of our childhood.

On the night before the Fourth of July, we were treated to sparklers, bought by the dozen in long, thin cardboard boxes. They were lit with large kitchen matches and they emitted wonderful sparkles in the dark night. We were creative – making huge circles with our little arms or making zees with great energy. I don’t remember the sparkles being dangerous, but the stick would get hot and would leave a tiny, round burn if it touched your skin. It was a small price to pay for all that enjoyment. Firecrackers came on a long string which could be cut into singles. I was just too young for those. I guess people received some nasty injuries so they were outlawed. Little shacks appeared over the New Hampshire border where all manner of fireworks could be purchased to be smuggled home to Massachusetts. Even today the whiz-pop of fireworks can be heard on the Fourth.

Another joy of my childhood was playing with mercury. Here again the adults were definitely involved. My dentist would mix up mercury and “silver” with a tiny mortar and pestle. He would pinch the resulting ball between his thumb and forefinger to shake out the excess mercury. Then he would give it to me for amusement while he filled my teeth. Very rarely a thermometer broke, but that was a mercury bonanza. Mercury was very entertaining. It held its own shape in a ball to be captured in the palm of your hand. Or it could be split into many little balls with the ability to return to one ball again. It would shine up a coin to mint condition. I never heard of any child eating mercury. It was too much fun to play with.

Although riding in cars was not a daily activity, we were delighted to be transported on Sunday afternoons when we went “visiting”. We were totally free within the confines of the car, free to stand up, lie down, or stick hands or head out the window. Seat belts were science-fiction. Occasionally we were thrilled to have a ride in a rumble seat with the wind blowing by and the sounds of the outdoors uncensored by walls. Most of these rides ended at an ice cream stand where the homemade flavors were fantastic – frozen pudding, orange pineapple, ginger – filling sugar cones with the last melted bits dripping out the hole in the bottom.

As for real danger, we had access to Coke and cough syrup liberally laced with Codeine. And any variety store would sell us cigarettes if we said they were for our mothers.

We were allowed to walk anywhere unescorted. In first grade in Stoneham, I lived at the end of the school district. I walked a mile each way. I also rode on a public bus to dancing lessons in Malden Square. Later in Melrose we hiked to the Stone Zoo through the Fells on a regular basis. There was no fear. No parents waiting at the school bus stop which is the fate of today’s children. We grew up with a certain amount of independence that I appreciated.

I cringe when I hear that dodge ball may be eliminated from schools as being too dangerous. Dodge ball was the heart and soul of the elementary school physical education curriculum. It taught you to keep your eyes open and get out of the way. It taught you to strategize to stay in the game. I think it helped you to be a good driver when the time came. Eliminate dodge ball? That isn’t a hazard – it’s a learning experience. We developed the mental and physical toughness that life requires.

By today’s standards, it is a wonder that we lived to adulthood.

July 1, 2011


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