WHAT KIDS DID IN 1950

28 October 2021

    Sitting in my chair by the window at 8 a.m., and it’s still almost nighttime, outside. Partly, it’s because it’s an overcast day with light rain, but there’s no question that the days are getting shorter. When daylight savings time ends next month, we’ll shift the morning darkness back a little bit, but it will be temporary. I remember the years before Retirement: from now until March, leaving the house in the dark and coming home in the dark. The “eight hour day” wasn’t just about how long one worked at the office.

   My eye is on the sparrow – actually, on the juncos in the bird feeders – but my mind is 70 years in the past.

***

   Our Oakland, California, neighborhood in the 1940s would probably have been characterized as “middle class,” single-family residential. Almost all the homes were one story, with moderate-sized front and back yards, and lots of trees and green lawns. I don’t know when most of the houses were built, probably in the 1920s and 1930s. We were almost at the eastern edge of the city. There was one more-recently constructed housing area beyond us, but there were still a number of vacant lots between us and them, and beyond them it was pretty much undeveloped open space.

   Our house [actually, we just rented the top floor of a two-story building] sat on the corner of a fairly busy suburban street (but mostly local traffic, not many business vehicles). The street went west all the way to MacArthur Blvd (a half-mile or so from us), the nearest major business route. East of us, it was only one block long, and dead-ended in a large vacant field area. Large black walnut trees lined both sides of our part of the street, and it was a quiet, shady place with lots of squirrels. The trees were eventually cut down, probably in the early 50s, but I can’t remember it happening. Allegedly, the trees were getting old, diseased, and dangerous.

   Our yard used to extend across an entire block. The northern third was sold fairly early in my life, and a house built on it, but the middle third wasn’t sold and built on until  after I’d gone away to college. It was a wonderful yard for kids. We didn’t lack for open space at that time - you only had to go up the long block to the end of our street, and you were almost in “the wilderness - but it was fun to have our own outdoors right outside our door.

   The north end of the property had pepper trees and some fruit trees, and the middle area had a big flat-topped wooden “barn” that served as two garage stalls, Dad’s work shed, and storage for the property owners. I loved to climb up on the shed, and just sit. There was a giant fig tree in front of the shed which was my favorite spot. The branches were massive, and it was easy to climb ten feet or so off the ground, and then sit safely and comfortably on one of the branches where it left the trunk. Also, the figs were excellent eating.

   As kids, we – me, my sister and brothers, and friends from around the neighborhood - lived just as much time as possible outdoors. There were things to do indoors – board games like Monopoly and Sorry; card games (Hearts, Fish); and picture puzzles to build, but those were evening activities. We had a wind-up record player, but music wasn’t really too important to us until later in the ‘50s. Sometimes, we listened to the radio, but there were only a few shows that we made time for, regularly. What we liked were the couple hours of kid dramas in the late afternoon, like “Jack Armstrong, All American Boy” and “Bobby Benson and the B Bar B Riders.” (I don’t remember the show, but always loved the name!) On Saturday and (maybe) Sunday afternoons, there were shows aimed more at adults, but we loved them, too: “True Detective Mysteries,” “The Shadow,” and “The Inner Sanctum.” The latter was an early “Twilight Zone” type show, and each week you were invited to “come behind the creaking door” to see how they would scare you that week.

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   But  outdoors is where life was really at. We rode soapbox racers and “flexxies” [the wheeled version of the Flexible Flyer sled] down Carmel hill. (Once, I tipped over and rammed the axle of one of the vehicles into my ankle, and had to go to the doctor. No real harm done.) We played “war” in the vacant lot at the end of our street, but the best place was in the steep grass on “Cow Hill” (where the Mormon temple now stands). In addition to sliding down its steep slope on cardboard “sleds,” we had two games we played a lot. One was grass bomb wars. The grass (wild oats, mainly) grew very tall, the soil was clayey but loose, and if you pulled on the grass at certain times of year, you could get big wads of grass with attached clay ball. We’d swing those around, then launch them into space (sometimes at one another). Nobody ever got hurt, but the potential was there - at  least, to get something in your eyes. Our other game was potentially a little more dangerous but, again, we were all lucky. It consisted of rolling up little balls of the highly adherent clay, sticking them on the end of flexible willow (or similar) branches, and then whipping the clay projectile into space. A good whip could carry one of the clay projectiles a long, long way.

   (There’s an interesting postscript to this story. One of my best friends in college had grown up in Oakland, not much more than a mile from me, but in a different school district. He and his friends always played on Cow Hill, too, and had grass bomb and clay projectile fights. Many years later, we had to wonder if we’d ever had wars against one another!)

      On summer evenings, we often played Kick the Can in the front street. We went on until long after dark, probably driving the neighbors crazy. We had some complaints, I know. Kick the Can was a hide-and-go-seek game, in which everybody hid while the person who was “it” counted to some number, and then went looking for the hiders. When a person was found, there was a race back to “home.” If the hider got there first, and kicked the can, the seeker had to start the count all over again. We used to count to 100 or 50 or whatever it was by pounding the can on the street. This let the hiders know when we were finished counting and were coming to find them. Of course, it also let all the neighbors know that the game was going on!

     As I think about it, I’m a little amazed at the amount of ground we would cover. My brother and I would hike from the house up to Sequoia Park, and occasionally on over into Redwood Regional Park, several miles from the house. One of our favorite places was Dimond Canyon, which stretched from Dimond Park on Fruitvale (just above the shopping area) all the way to Lake Temescal. It seemed like a real wilderness in those days, and was made doubly interesting by having some long tunnels through which the creek ran. I can’t seem to find any reliable information on why the tunnels are there. I used to think they had something to do with mining, maybe - I remember orange stuff used to seep out of the drains in the walls - but they may have had something to do with stream stabilization . I don’t know their length, but I know they were very dark inside, and you could just barely see “the light at the end of the tunnel.” I don’t think we used flashlights. The water was never very deep when we made our trips through - just enough to get your feet wet a little bit - but it was a quite satisfactory scary adventure for a little kid.

   About our only organized outdoor activity was trick-or-treating on Halloween. Mom or Dad may have gone with us in the early days, but mostly I remember going with a few kids. We limited our foraging pretty much to our own block, plus the houses of a few friends and well-known neighbors on nearby streets. One “foreign” couple would never answer their door, and another couple always gave us pennies instead of candy.

   There were some Halloween scares even in those days (purposely contaminated treats), but they were so rare as to be almost fairy tales to frighten little kids with. Drugs and guns were almost unheard of in our childhoods. Kids got kidnapped, or molested, or killed, but so seldom that such things didn’t even give us bad dreams. (Parents may have worried a little more, but not much.) It was a safe, fun life in the fresh air of the outdoors. I’m glad to have grown up, then.

*** 

  Postscript:  Of course, not everyone was so lucky. As is the case now, there were a lot of inequities, and the bad that we didn’t experience was (and is) daily life for many kids in the U. S. I’m glad to have been a White boy in a middle-class neighborhood. I just wish more kids could have experienced what for us was really the Best of Times.

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