As young people, the kids of my generation led imperiled lives. It seems that wherever we went, tobacco smoke was in the air. Adults smoked inside, and smoking was allowed everywhere with few exceptions. Many doctors and nurses smoked, and some ads showed doctors stating that cigarettes were a relaxant. The home in which I lived was full of smoke because my uncles, mother, and grandfather smoked. The cigarette smoke was bad enough, but my grandfather puffed on big, fat cigars.
A number of my high school classmates also smoked, so if a person entered one of the favorite after-school hang-outs, like the Acadia or Gilmore’s cafeteria, he/she would be enshrouded in smoke. We also inhaled coal smoke until the early ’50s, and when my neighbors and I burned trash on Thursdays, we inhaled who knows what.
We faced other dangers as well. When we bought shoes, our feet were X-rayed to determine a correct fit. There were no seat belts, no helmets worn when cycling, and no one ever heard of smoke detectors. Sugar was good and so was salt, and fatty meat and potatoes swam in thick gravy. There was lead in paint and asbestos was used for insulation. Sometimes we washed our hands before meals and sometimes we didn’t, and pop bottles and nozzle-less hoses were passed around so everyone could drink. If we scraped a knee or elbow, we never ran home to douse the wound with antiseptic.
There were other dangers, too. Many kids would pet any dog they met, and sometimes the kids were bitten. I knew three boys who had to take the painful series of anti-rabies shots. We had BB guns and shot at a variety of targets, and we tossed firecrackers and M-80s, not only on July 4th but any time we had them.
We played baseball in the streets and dodge ball and bombardment in gym class where the last kid standing after his teammates had been hit by a ball (from head to toe) and eliminated from the game would be plastered by as many as a dozen volleyball-sized balls.
Another game guys liked was played outside with about 10 fielders and one batter. The scoring was 100 points for catching a fly ball, 50 for catching the ball on one hop, and 25 points for catching the ball on two hops. A player had to get 300 points in order to bat. We were crowded together, and we pushed, shoved, and tripped each other so we could make a catch. There were many scrapes and bruises, but we kept playing.
The one thing, though, that truly imperiled us was the threat of polio. Parents and kids lived in constant fear of this crippling, sometimes fatal disease until Dr.Salk discovered a cure in the mid-1950s.
In our lives, adults were in charge, and when a decision was made, it was final. By the way, spankings were a popular method of enforcing rules among younger children. Older children faced more “grown-up” punishment like having privileges revoked.
We were allowed to fail because our parents believed in raising kids who would learn from failures and thus become useful citizens. Our parents cared, but they didn’t become our pals or hassle teachers or put down authorities or take our side when we were wrong.
They were the people who were in charge, and we were the kids.
John Stanger is a lifelong resident of Oak Park, a 1957 graduate of OPRF High School, married with three grown children and five grandchildren, and an English professor at Elmhurst College. Living two miles from where he grew up, he hasn’t gotten far in 71 years.