How Did We Ever Survive?!?
I look at the way life is today, and the way children are handled not only in my own house, but it seems most others round here. Then I look back at the way things were when I grew up and you know what, it may be amazing that I survived childhood, but the outcome is totally different in terms of self-confidence, independence and resilience.
The trend today seems to be to treat children more like they are fragile little flowers, with parents swooping in to deliver a hug or wipe a nose or whatever depending on the “disaster” at hand. When I was brought up, things might have been like that for the first three, MAYBE 4 years, but that was it. At 5 we were chucked off to “Play School”, with a bunch of other uncoordinated accidents waiting to happen, and basically given the ammunition to wreak havoc.
Blocks and sand are clearly meant to be thrown, plastic shovels and hammers are clearly designed to be bounced off another child’s cranium, and I assure you, even after the hospital visit, I was still convinced that the “ride on” fire engine was 100% supposed to be ridden down the slide (you will be amazed at the velocity a 5 year old can reach when on a wooden slide at 45 degrees with no friction from the plastic wheels), and into the group of children finger painting. The flaw in the plan, was never making it to the children, due to the faceplant that occurred at the bottom of the slide.
We were of course supervised, but that involved a few harassed mums, dragging screaming kids apart, whilst trying not to drop too much ash on them from the lit cigarettes they had in their mouths. Yes there were tears when we got smacked for the end result of our latest great idea, but 5 minutes later we were over it and off trying to insert Lego up both nostrils.
Things didn’t get much better as we got a bit older. Many happy afternoons were spent playing “war” in the local woods. Plenty of opportunities for falling out of trees, getting stung, or taking a heavy impact from a grenade (aka rock).
Then we would go rummaging about in the local dump and drag out mattresses that a drunken homeless person wouldn’t even think of sleeping on. They were ALWAYS wet, either from the rain or from where the fire department had last been called out to extinguish someone’s latest attempt to reenact Joan of Arc’s last big day out. They would also stink, be full of holes, have pounds of various filings leaking out of then, and of course, to top off the ensemble, plenty of protruding rusty and broken springs.
Of course the only possible use for these was to pile them at the bottom of a tree, climb up, and see who could jump from the highest branch. The winner was obviously the one who made it second highest. The one who really pushed the envelope and went from the actual highest branch would in fact generally, break the envelope, and a leg, or maybe skull.
During a temporary hiatus in the tree jumping activity (we had to let things cool off for a couple of weeks after each time someone took a trip to intensive care), we discovered another use for the mattresses. By this point I was probably 7 or 8, so me and all my friends were getting brave on bikes, we had done the no hands (no brains) bit and were now moving onto jumps.
Now, when I say bikes here I’m not talking todays’ lightweight BMX type things. I’m talking 1970’s bikes, build to last from steel girders and rivets. My brother had a “Grifter”, which was probably best suited to the purpose of jumping. I had a “Dolphin”, which was probably best given to a friend so they could go and ring for the ambulance in advance.
Given the time we’re talking about here, Evel Knievel was kind of a big deal and I guess we were just mimicking a hero so it was clearly all his fault. Maybe we had all missed the bit at the end of the jump where he nearly lands it and then promptly proceeds to break another 37 bones, to the cheers of the crown and the blaring of the ambulance sirens.
Anyways, our jumps were not the scientifically worked out type, more the trial and error type. Again, pushing to find the edge of the cliff, by getting more outlandish till someone fell off. We would drag up a collection of pieces of wood of varying lengths and thicknesses, and a small collection of bricks and breeze blocks. Pile up the bricks, balance a board on them. Line up the next crash test child on a bike 100 yards down the street, and away we go.
After varying minor injuries perfecting the correct length and thickness of wood, so that it didn’t just bend and leave you to crash into the bricks, launching head over heels into the waiting punji stick mattress, we had something that was working. Then it was a case of adding bricks for height.
We next discovered the radical instability of a single pile of bricks when stacked 5 or 6 high and asked to support a child and bike on a ramp. Fortunately every child’s system was always coursing with fresh tetanus jabs in the 1970’s. Eventually we had a construction system that would let us have a 5 or 6 brick ramp that would only have about a 50% chance of collapsing on impact, and we were green lights for the distance competition.
We were not sure how many mattresses we’d be able to clear, if any. So, for safety, we used local children instead. Lying them down side by side and convincing them that if they lay still they had a good chance of seeing their next birthday. If they moved they would be hit in the face by a front tire. Most of them stayed still, especially after they saw what happened to the first one who moved.
We were managing 7 or 8 children quite comfortably. Strangely there was always a degree of reticence to be the last one on the line whenever we added to the number of children we were attempting to clear, but we were in a good place. Then it all went wrong.
One of the younger kids (he was about 5) who had been watching/being jumped over, decided he wanted a go. I guess he’d been inspired by our heroism and hadn’t noticed all the blood.
Off he went and came back with his lime green “Boxer” (we really should have stopped things at this point but I was too busy trying not to pee myself laughing), which is kind of a miniature version of my brother’s Grifter. In the right hands it might have made it. And if it had had maybe an engine or something to power the 12” wheels.
To his credit, he did show enthusiasm on the approach; those little legs were a blur. He looked very intense as he hit the bottom of the ramp, then kind of surprised as he left the take-off end. I’m really not sure he ever actually had the speed to have made the jump anyways, but he certainly lacked the form required to have any chance of survival intact.
Experience had taught us more professional jumpers to keep our weight back a bit so that we landed rear wheel first. This kid didn’t have experience, so after lazily climbing in the air, he leant forward, now looking genuinely panicked (I guess he may have started to figure out things were not going to plan), and aimed his front wheel squarely at the middle child in our “Row of Death”.
It never ceases to amaze me, the speed at which a child can move from a lying position when they are about to be landed on by crying 5 year old on a 200 pound bike, but they all made it. This fortunate turn of events meant that we only needed the one ambulance. Evel Knievel in miniature would have made his idol proud.
He landed at an angle of about 45 degrees, front wheel first. Momentum and his body position helped hurl him over the handlebars (we all conceded that if we’d counted where HE landed and not the bike he’d have made the required 8 child jump distance by miles), where he could then slide down the rutted pavement on his face, just like he was in a Tom and Jerry cartoon (the old good ones not the junky new ones).
There was quite a lot of blood, snot and tears when we finally peeled him off the floor. He’d managed to jam a few of his teeth through his top lip and out the other side. Obviously we were all fascinated but figured that we may now be “In Trouble”, which in the 1970’s meant, about to get hit. We quickly kicked all of the boards and bricks into the woods, and the bravely sent him home to his mum, having sworn him to secrecy.
Should have known it, the git blabbed. Of course I got it with both barrels as I was, “the oldest and should know better”. At then end of the day it was just a couple of stitches and a minor bit of scarring. The kid was ok as well. (Joke alert! It really wasn’t that bad of a beating considering we had nearly killed someone).
Anyway, I tell this story not because it’s extreme, but because I have hundreds of them. There was no nanny state. Boys were boys, and went out and had scrapes and adventures. Some survived into adulthood. I just feel that when I look at the kids of today, I was so much different. Far more independent, far more resilient for sure.
Yes we got knocks and bruises and, yes, some of us actually did get hurt badly, but everyone I know survived. Have we gone too far in being protective of our kids? I dunno. Maybe it also had a lot to do with the fact that in the UK we had free healthcare for all so parents were more worried about you ripping up your clothes than the holes in your legs.
Maybe 500 bucks plus for every visit to A+E might have changed attitudes. I have to admit, I think about it when I can see my boy creating an accident waiting to happen, no matter how much I think I’d like him to learn a lesson, the thought that the lesson is going to cost me as well tends me towards fiscal caution.
I think my parents would have gone bankrupt.
Just added a second post on this subject here! Enjoy!