When I was a small child, we didn’t have cable or satellite TV. We didn’t have cell phones…heck, it was a big deal when cordless phones first came out. My grandmother still used a rotary telephone on a party line. For those of you young whipper-snappers out there who’ve never heard of a party line, you shared your phone line with a neighbor or 2 and got a discount on your phone bill. You had separate phone numbers, so when your neighbor received a call, your phone did not ring, however, if they were on the phone, and you picked up your receiver hoping to make a call, you would literally hear them having their conversation. You would have to wait for them to finish their call and hang up before you could make yours. As a kid, my friends and I used to try and be “sneaky” and lift the receiver as quietly as possible to eavesdrop on the neighbor’s calls. They were elderly folks (like Grandma), so the calls were never very interesting.
Oh, and prank calls were the bomb! “Hello?” “Is your refrigerator running?” “Yes, it is.” “You’d better catch it!” Hahahaha – hang up! (We were silly kids back then; it didn’t take much to amuse us.)
We still had a black and white TV, along with “rabbit ears” to enhance reception. I remember our very first TV that had a remote control. Dad built a shelf in the master bedroom so Mom could watch TV before falling asleep. If she woke up and the TV was still on, she had only to click the remote to turn it off, no getting up! Wow!! One afternoon, while she was napping and happened to have the sound muted, I snuck into her room and started fiddlin’ with the remote, changing channels (to see all 4 stations we had then – ABC, CBS, NBC, and “Channel 19” which was later known as Fox). I accidentally un-muted the sound and it came on LOUD. Scared Mom awake, and I ran while she yelled at me. Ah, good times!
I remember our first microwave and how I thought putting a bowl of water in it to boil an egg would be so much quicker than on the stove top…until the egg exploded all over the inside of it. We never did do much more than warm things in it. We certainly didn’t “cook” with the microwave!
Oh and what we had for a video gaming system!!! Once Christmas I had simply asked for a hand-held, single-person game called “Merlin”
This was a simple game – the device would light up the circles in a certain pattern and you had to remember and match it by pressing the circles in the correct order. It got more complex as you kept getting it right. Well, much to my confusion, Mom and Dad opted to get a video game console for the TV that would be for both my brother and me. You’re probably thinking “Atari!” You’d be wrong! Has anyone heard of “Odyssey?” It get’s better…we got Odyssey II.
It came with one game cartridge that was the late-’70’s answer for a car race:
Exciting, isn’t it?? I think we had some sort of pin-ball game cartridge, and later Mom let me pick out one more (which for some inexplicable reason, I chose billiards. Shooting pool in our basement on a real table was always fun. Playing an electronic version in the late ’70’s…not so much).
Oh, and before you ask, no, Atari game cartridges were NOT compatible with this system.
In such dark times, you probably wonder what we poor kids did for fun. Well, we were outdoors – a LOT. Randy and the neighborhood boys did everything from shooting cap guns and whittling little boats to float down the creek in our back yard, to playing the occasional game of touch football, basketball (the hoops nearly always being hung over the garage door of various houses around the block), or swimming (we and several other folks had pools up and down the street). I was a huge fan of riding my bike and, yes, playing with Barbie dolls. I was somewhat jealous that Randy’s G.I. Joe had way-cooler accessories, but he’d get mad if I played with them. I did, however end up taking possession of the Johnny West horses, which Mom actually bought more of for me over the years. My friends and I played all sorts of sidewalk games, including just getting the board games out to play on the walk in front of our homes. We played on swing sets, and imagined we were characters in our favorite TV shows, usually always trying to save the day somehow. Summers were for swimming and winters were for sledding. When the weather was too bad, we were fortunate to have the pool table, a ping-pong table and a dart board (with real metal darts). We even played regularly with Jarts – the lawn darts.
I was a huge fan of reading even then, walking or riding my bike to the local library to check out the latest Walter Farley “Black Stallion” book, or any other horse or dog story. When times were really tough and there was no one to hang around with, only then did we watch TV (we never really got into that Odyssey system, so rarely played with it). Back then, you could rely on cartoons on “Channel 19” every afternoon after school and on Saturday mornings on all the networks until noon. We also watched shows like “Gilligan’s Island”, “The Six-Million-Dollar Man”, and “Wonder Woman.” There wasn’t anything like today’s “reality” TV. There were just a couple of “talk shows” but more “variety shows” where comedians told jokes, or singers/bands played live music. There were shows for dancing, and lots and lots of game shows. Evening TV had comedies and dramas, and “sit-coms.” Sci-fi made it’s appearance too. I watched everything from “Hee-Haw”, “Laugh-In”, and “The Carol Burnett Show”, to “Star Trek”, “Twilight Zone”, and “The Outer Limits.” I suffered through “The Lawrence Welk Show” with Grandma, and would stay up late to catch some Grade B (or D or F or something farther down the alphabet) horror movie like “The Incredible Two-Headed Transplant.” My favorites were the movies made from Edgar Allen Poe movies staring Vincent Price. I watched “SWAT”, and “M*A*S*H”, and “Columbo”, and “Barretta.” Oh, and “The Rockford Files.” Even as a kid I was a sucker for the “who dunnit” detective shows!
When cable came into our world, we got to watch new poorly-made movies (anyone see “Motel Hell”??) and awesome comedies that were too raunchy for regular TV. Mom watched Richard Prior one night and dropped “F-bombs” for days afterwards. She thought it was hysterical when he pantomimed the difference between a man and a woman peeing in the woods. When he pretended to squat while holding his panties out of the way, Mom nearly died laughing , practically screaming “that’s how it is!!!!” (Guess mom peed in the woods sometime in her life!).
Fast forward to when my kids were born. Cable and/or satellite is the norm for most suburban households. Hundreds of stations are made part of a package that you don’t even really want but get anyway. With more stuff to sort through, more time gets spent in front of the old “boob tube.” The quality of programming could be said to have suffered, though occasionally you would find some gem in the rough. Gone were “Andy Griffith” and “Archie Bunker” and then we had “McGyver” and new versions of “Star Trek”, along with a new kind of “reality” program in “Emergency 9-1-1”, narrated/hosted by William Shatner. Real-life medical emergencies were “re-enacted” and stories of tragedy and heroism were brought into our homes every week. “America’s Most Wanted” showed us some darker reality, as did several other “news-style” programs like “20/20” and “60 Minutes.” Talk shows proliferated and we met “Oprah” and “Jerry Springer”. Reality took a new twist as people apparently tuned into shows that showed humanity at its worst, likely so we could feel a little better about ourselves.
Cartoons took a serious nose-dive in quality, becoming more inappropriate in the humor for the age groups targeted. Parents needed to become more vigilant about what their children were exposed to, but, sadly more and more did not monitor what they sat their kids in front of. More and more households saw both parents working now, instead of the homes of my youth where most moms stayed home. The TV became the new “baby sitter” for when tired parents returned home after busy days at work and had no energy left to give to their “needy” children. We wonder why our kids more and more were having problems focusing their attention on tasks we took for granted as being our responsibilities growing up – doing our own school work, for example. As parents suffered guilt from the lack of “quality time” spent with their kids, they’d make it up to them by relaxing the rules, increasing privileges without requiring the kids to earn them, buying them material things, doing homework assignments just to be sure their child got high marks instead of letting the child learn to do for him/herself. We began coddling our children to the point where we praised every little thing they did, even if it wasn’t good. In our abundance of self-imposed guilt, we changed the way our kids learned to deal with disappointments because we couldn’t fathom hurting their precious feelings by letting them lose or do poorly at something. No longer would our children’s teachers use red ink as it was traumatizing to declare failure so harshly, so boldly for all to see.
And now, we are a society that gives celebrity status to “stars” who have no claim to fame other than being chosen to be on some ridiculous reality show that shows them in very negative light. Would “Snookie” have made anything of herself through hard work when no cameras or network paycheck paved the way? Would the Kardashians have ever been a household name if they weren’t given a camera to follow their less than interesting lives? Would they be the “entrepeneurs” they are now if someone had not known them from these infamous shows? Were they smart enough, savvy enough to be successful all on their own?
I came from a family of hard workers, immigrants who believed that becoming American was the epitome of success. I’d like to think I was successful in passing a solid work ethic on to my children. Right now, it seems they are both inclined to appreciate what it means to earn their paychecks and be able to buy the things they want with it. I avoided giving them material things when they were young. I shoved them outdoors instead of allowing them to sit in front of a TV all day. The only reason they had any type of game system was, first, when my niece got her “Gameboy” upgraded to color and gave Scott her old black and white version. That same year, Sean won a color Gameboy at some function at school. I bought them a few Pokemon games each but that was it. Scott was given the option to upgrade the year the “DS” version came out, and I finally got him a Play Station for a high-school graduation gift. The boys had to figure out other ways of entertaining themselves and, while I couldn’t get either one of them to love reading like I do, they at least broadened their minds by inventing games to occupy their time, or using Legos and other building-style toys to create things of their own design.
What does the future hold for the next generation? I shudder to think. Our nation is taking away so many things that kids used to enjoy, all in the name of “safety.” Long gone are the monkey bars and tall metal slides of my youth. I remember in Kindergarten falling from the monkey bars onto a (gasp!) gravel base, cutting my knee and getting a band-aid from the school nurse. Then I was sent back out to recess to play some more. I remember the public park where all the playground equipment was sturdy metal – and HOT in the summertime. It’s a wonder I didn’t burn several layers of skin off the backs of my legs! We played dodge ball in gym. We played other team games where I was nearly always the last one picked because I was small and no one wanted me on their team. No teachers intervened on my behalf to make sure I was included, to spare my feelings if I couldn’t play on par with other kids. We could play “cowboys” or “cops-and-robbers” without anyone thinking we were actually going to grow up into criminals. Is it any wonder that our kids are pudgy, spoiled little basket cases? They get no real exercise at school anymore because, God forbid they fall down and get a boo-boo! They don’t know what it’s like to lose at a game because everyone gets a trophy for participating. They feel entitled to every little thing because parents think the latest smart phone or tablet is a RIGHT their children deserve, rather than the goal for the kids to work towards and only obtain if they achieve something of importance. Mere existence doesn’t equal entitlement.
I started this story reminiscing about some fun times in my youth – and I couldn’t touch on everything because there is so much to look back on with fondness. Sure, I had some sad times, have been the object of bullying and exclusion. But I had some great friends and tons of activities that I could immerse myself in that were also good for me, physically, mentally, spiritually.
Will my boys be able to look back on their childhoods with fondness? Will they have enough good memories to counter-act the bad? They are children of divorce, so they’ve had some things tougher than I ever had to imagine at their ages at that time. Did their father and I do enough to make up for the hurt without spoiling them? Time will tell. They are both fine young men now. I pray they are able to focus on the good times and let go of the bad. And I pray that, should they become parents some day, they will ensure their kids learn some of the valuable lessons of life in the “good ol’ days.”