More ways the 70’s child invented to cheat death
I just recently posted what at the time was a flippant comment on a post about how we basically didn’t do health and safety growing up in the 1970’s. It reminded me of a previous article I had written and also set my memory running onto other stuff that we used to do as kids without giving it a second thought. My son also finds these stories hilarious so time for another one I guess in today’s Genforward free online genealogy website blog:
Now let me start by saying, I’m a believer in kids being kids and getting up to stuff and into scrapes generally. It’s a part of growing up as far as I’m concerned. We certainly did it aplenty in the 70’s and most of us survived to adulthood as relatively rounded human beings.
These days though, there does seem to be a massive dose of over-protection going on where kinds are concerned. To highlight this I thought I’d revisit an earlier article about some of the stuff we got up to as kids that just don’t seem to happen today thereby making kids grow up “soft”. Strangely enough though, by the time I’d finished writing I wasn’t all that certain I’d actually want my kids getting up to some of the stuff that we did. I feel oddly conflicted……
Anyway, let’s begin with swimming
Where I live now, most places have access to some sort of swimming pool for the long hot summers. Many houses have their own, and if you’re not lucky enough to have one, a large number of housing or apartment developments have at least one communal pool for residents. It’s Texas for goodness sake, it’s almost a requirement in order to hold onto your sanity, a bit like air conditioning.
Where I grew up, the summers were not long and hot (apart from the freak one in 1976!), they were short and drab, punctuated by the odd sunny day when the temperature might creep into the 70’s. Swimming pools were far less essential. In all my time growing up in my town of about 20,000 people, I can think of a total of 3 people I knew of who had their own pool, one of which was indoor as that way we could still swim when it was a typical miserable day.
There was also one public 25m pool, and one of then schools had a pool that got used a lot of times for swimming lessons for kids in the local area. Waterparks probably still haven’t made it to that neck of the woods.
There were a few spots fairly close to town where a lot of families would go on the nice day of any particular summer, to have a bit of a picnic, maybe run the dog, get some fresh air and to throw the kids in the river, where they could spend many happy hours getting the life bitten out of them by horseflies the size of bats that infested the riversides there.
Although these spots were several miles outside of town, that was well within the reach of 70’s child range. Armed with nothing more than a plastic carrier bag containing swimming trunks and small towel draped off the handlebars of our trusty (insert 70’s bike here), away we’d go. A-Roads, B-Roads, Busy Town Centre, and off road forest tracks. We didn’t care and nothing would stop us.
However, more often than not we’d save all the aggravation of the long ride and go to the main hang out river wise in town. I’ve included a google map image of the actual spot today to hopefully give you a bit of a feel for some of what I’m about to describe. I will say that from looking at this picture all these years later, it has got considerably more weed ridden around the road bridge on the left bank. There were big patches of the long straggly weeds that dragged you under, but not a solid area like that. It’s important to note this otherwise once I start telling my tale there’s probably no way you’d believe we’d come out alive if things were as they are today. Goodness only knows what’s living in there!
Anyway the main stretch us local kids inhabited was about a 100 yard long piece of river. At each end there was a road bridge spanning the river, and in the middle was a smallish weir. I’m not sure how the selection process worked. Everyone just kind of turned up there one day and it stuck.
There were rarely any parents about (they were usually at the pub just another 50 yards further down river), and given that we had cleverly selected the stretch of river most likely to injure and/or drown their progeny, it’s probably a good idea that they were out of the way getting drunk or our fun would have been over for sure.
As well as the usual swimming about and pestering each other, the main events were centered around the road bridge and the weir. The road bridge was a simple death leap. On the side facing the weir (as in the picture) it was quite feasible to climb over the railings and then jump from the bridge into the water, a drop of maybe 20 feet.
So long as you were pretty much in the middle of the river and so long as there was nothing coming under the bridge like an unsuspecting family in an inflatable boat, all was fine(ish). Obviously there was still the danger of unorthodox entry techniques causing everything from stinging skin to concussion, but in the main most survived.
The really stupi….brave kids would even go as far as standing on the top railing of the bridge before making the leap, thereby adding probably another 5 feet to the drop, but over time we eroded enough of a hole in the river bed so that even this move was relatively unlikely to result in death. The other side of the bridge was however a totally different kettle of fish.
Obviously the sensible method to determine the safety of jumping from the other side would have been to send out an expeditionary party to check water depth prior to any attempt. As we were children, our minds didn’t work like that. The passage from idea to action was usually a short one. In this particular case, separated only by a brief glance over the other side of the bridge and the comment “yeah that looks alright” despite the fact that it was pretty clear to everyone except our crash test dummy that the water on this side was a LOT shallower.
Anyway, before the ambulance arrived our volunteer was able to tell us, between the tears exactly, how shallow it was. We had also already come to our own conclusions about the suitability of water depth based on the fact that he hadn’t actually got wet above the waist, despite the fact he seemed to have plie driven his way into the river bed up to his knees.
Ah well, live and learn.
The weir on the other hand was a totally different animal. In the run up to it the water was quite deep and weed free so good for swimming around. The weir itself was what seemed to be a massive triangle of steel or metal of some kind. You could swim up to it in the deep water then sort of “plop” over the top and slide face or feet or whatever body part you fancied first, down the other side into the rough water.
I’m not quite sure of the set-up as we could never actually see it because of the rough water, but there were some kind of concrete blocks buried in the river bed at the bottom of the weir. They were not too much of an issue unless you went over head first. Mostly the would result in stubbed toes and grazed body parts as we tried to pull ourselves out of the current to run round for another go.
All of this was not really so dangerous, the main danger was an unorthodox descent resulting in a knock on the head but those were rare. The other danger was trying to walk across the top of the weir. As it was basically just the slippery top corner of a triangle there wasn’t much footing. If your tightrope attempt failed and you fell one way it was no problem, you hit deep water. If you went the other way you could certainly crack ribs or a skull.
If you look closely you can see that there are now metal barriers round the weir on the banks. Those were not there in my day, although I am guessing the number of injuries that occurred in our time may be a contributor as to why they went up. We used to run full tilt and jump into the river on both sides of the weir. The deep side was fairly safe IF you got out far enough to avoid most of the random concrete structures that had apparently been needed underwater as part of its construction.
The shallower side was a bit more high risk, as you had to go out not only far enough but also at just the right angle to avoid a potentially bone shattering impact with the underwater concrete. Add in the unknown elements like the drunken addition of traffic cones or shopping trollies to the river bottomscape the previous night, and there was always the potential for disaster.
Enough of swimming let’s move on to other fun stuff to kill yourself on…..playgrounds!
Here is as picture of the first swing in a UK public playground. Put up in the 1930’s, this was still the same stuff we were using in the 70’s. Additionally, we clearly held true to the original usage pattern as demonstrated ably by our “child of the 30’s” models.
Nowadays swings, particularly here in the USA, tend to be the butt hugging rubber seat numbers. These are totally unsuitable for the main correct use of swings which is, of course, as a launching platform. For that, the hard plastic totally frictionless style of seat used in the UK was much better. There really was a fine art to hitting the perfect release point in order to sail beyond the 1970’s safety concrete (also known as concrete) in order to land on the grassy area beyond, therefore reducing the risk of injury from certain fatality to merely quite likely broken bone.
Right from as early as I can remember there were marks in the ground at our local playground showing the ending point of the most legendary leaps, and blood stains on the concrete showing those who had gone for too much vertical trajectory and not enough horizontal. Ah what fun!
Even the swing we had in our back garden got repurposed. It wasn’t fixed to the ground so if you swung too hard the whole thing went over. Once this became an hourly occurrence the swing bits were removed leaving us just the A-Frame. Creative as ever when it came to ways of getting hurt, we invented a daredevil leaping game.
Essentially you stood on something fairly high, like a kitchen stool or suchlike. The stool was placed as far from the swings as you dared. The job was to then leap at full stretch towards the crossbar of the swings to try to heroically grip on. We did learn fairy early on that an accomplice was needed to hold the stool as apparently it refused to disobey the laws on physics. The attempt to get forward trajectory simply resulted in the stool shooting backward in an equal and opposite manner and us dropping like a sack of spuds to the floor somewhere directly under where we started off.
To begin with this was all fairly fun and easy but as we got stupi…braver the distances increased radically. The level of commitment that needed to be put into the leap in order to actually reach the bar, ended up giving us only 2 possible outcomes. First outcome, hero time, make it to the bar, big swing up then drop to vertical and off, second diving face first at full stretch off a kitchen stool and hitting the ground, again face first. We got a lot of scrapes and the wind knocked out of us more times that I can count but we did get pretty good at it.
The whole game got banned in the end when I discovered a third possible outcome which moved things from just stupid and dangerous to downright suicidal. Apparently if you jumped from sufficiently far away, the momentum you were carrying was enough to make you swing to basically horizontal at the other side once you grabbed on.
The resulting force of the small boy pendulum effect was two fold. First of all there was no way I had the strength to hold on with all that centrifugal force at play, so ended up being launched towards the rose bushes on the other side of the path at the end of the lawn. Secondly, and most unfortunately, I did have enough strength to hold on until the point where the inertia of the swing frame had been broken so that it tipped over and came chasing after me.
Stabbed and the bludgeoned into submission by the bushes and swing frame, it didn’t take too much of a thrashing from my parents before I came round to their viewpoint that this was not a game we were going to play any more.
It didn’t really matter; everything in the playground was there to injure us. See-Saws packed with many kids at one end plus one projectile child on the other. Roundabouts that, once spinning at speeds that the fast cycle on our washing machine would envy, were there either to lay face down on and try to pick up and drop markers or stones as we passed with our noses 2 inches from the floor and our hands stretched out waiting to be snapped off, or to attempt to get on or jump off whilst hoping to retain the maximum amount of skin possible after meeting the inevitable warm embrace of the concrete.
I also remember a brief phase when skate boards came into our lives. Again, this was the UK in the late 70’s not California. There were no skate parks and half pipes. There was no safety gear. We didn’t even really know what you were supposed to do with the thing. As ever, we improvised!
After a few spine drops straight onto my backside in the sitting position as the board shot off forwards out from under me, I had become ok at standing and skating along on the board. This however was simply far too mundane for us so the experiments started. We learned an awful lot about the elementary physics of motion in these happy but painful days.
Staying with the tried and tested methods from our past, we first went for building a ramp. We employed the usual ‘stray bricks and bit of wood’ construction techniques that I have previously described in our bike jumping antics in an earlier article. We also increased the interest by building the ramp on top of the raised patio that we had at the time. It was only about three feet high with a few conifers in the border and then front lawn.
The way we had it worked out was that you’d hurl down the patio, hit the ramp, and launch into space, clearing the bushes and landing as best you could on the nice grassy lawn. The theory was fine and with better boarders may well have been correct, but we weren’t better, or even average.
I got plenty of speed up but it started going wrong as I hit the ramp. The dynamics on a bike and a board turned out to be radically different. I managed to stay up but lurched forward. My weight was so far forward that the front two wheels of the board just dropped off the end of the ramp. Ramp met board and came to an instant standstill. I didn’t. But now instead of launching majestically into the air, I was accelerating rapidly in an ark towards the top of the bushes just under the patio.
This was all aided by the fact that the sudden stop on the ramp had been enough to cause it to collapse. Not happy with being dumped onto the top of a small conifer, I was then liberally sprinkled with bricks. Given the amount of face skin that I lost in that attempt, my brother chickened out and we went back to the drawing board.
Take 2 involved a short lump of wood, about 15-20 feet of washing line that we “borrowed” from our back garden, and our trusty 1970’s bikes. Simply enough, tie line to saddle upright, tie stick to other end to provide a handle and we’re waterskiing, on the pavement. Given the speed that we could now get up to when being towed behind a bike, coupled with our general crapness at skateboarding, plus the amount of blood spilled already from kneecaps now protruding where there had until recently been trouser, we soon abandoned doing this standing up.
Lying down face first however brought in a whole bunch of knew dynamics to our game. First off it felt SERIOUSLY fast being that close to the floor. Second, the centrifugal forces generated when the towee is deliberately slung into a sharp corner at twenty plus miles an hour are quite extraordinary. You’d be surprised how far a small boy will roll out into the road and probably the path of oncoming traffic, before coming to a full halt and going back to collect their skin.
Obviously we could have calmed it down a bit and banned certain corners to avoid this issue, however our alternative solution was what ultimately led to another good hiding from parents and another game banned. We just figured it would be easier to control things a bit more by dragging our feet along as kind of ‘brakes’ on the path. Whilst this proved somewhat imperfect as a braking solution in and of itself, it did help with balance and reducing the chances of being catapulted under a car. The fun lasted for about 20 minutes. Then we found that we had managed to basically scrape away the sides of our trainers to the point that our toes were now taking the brunt of the damage.
I think what really pushed our poor mum over the edge was the fact that instead of taking this as a sign to stop playing, we saw it more as a sign to change footwear. The light that burns twice as bright burns half as long. Our backsides burned most of the night as I recall.
I really could go on forever with some of the inventive ways that we tried to maim ourselves, but hey, I’ll just save some for another article!