On The Rocket Ride

Recently I went into a store that had a roped-off area crammed with a bunch of vintage items from the ’50s and ’60s, like a jukebox, a soda bottle machine and some old toys and games.  Two of the most striking items in this modest museum of memories were the rocket ride and the motorboat ride.

In those days virtually every grocery store and five-and-dime had at least one of these rides outside, right near the front door, ready to entice any youngster who was going shopping with Mom.  It might be a space ship, or a motorboat, or a race car or fire engine out there, colorful and gleaming and impossibly tantalizing to the childhood imagination.  It was savvy marketing, directly aimed at the kid.  You’d see the contraption going in and then spend the entire time in the store pestering and begging your Mom to let you ride, saying “please” and “it’s just one dime” a hundred times and promising to be good if she’d just grant you that one request.  Moms must have groaned every time they saw the rocket ride outside a store.

Most times, your Mom would say no and you’d pile back into the station wagon, but once in while your Mom would break down and fish out a dime.  You’d climb in, pretending to be an astronaut or fireman or one of the Hardy Boys in their boat, and grab the wheel.  When your Mom dropped the coin into the slot, the machine would rumble and shake and tilt and turn, the storefront and the parking lot would drop away somehow, and you’d have your two minutes of living a dream while your Mom checked her watch.

Now the rocket rides and motorboats and the small-scale imagination zones they created are gone, and the sidewalks in front of stores are crammed with Redbox kiosks and potted plants and pallets of windshield fluid.

I’m guessing that Moms everywhere had something to do with that unfortunate development.

Legalizing Lemonade

This week Texas Governor Greg Abbott signed a law making it legal for Texas kids to run a lemonade stand without first getting a license.  In a rarity in these politically acrimonious times, the bill passed both houses of the Texas legislature unanimously.  It prohibits local health codes or neighborhood rules that try to bar or otherwise regulate children who want to sell non-alcoholic drinks, such as lemonade, on private property.

gettyimages-115703269-58ad82445f9b58a3c979537cThe Texas legislation was a reaction to an incident in an east Texas town where police shut down a lemonade stand run by two kids who were trying to raise money to buy a Father’s Day present.  That incident is part of a national trend of neighbors calling the police to report kids who operate lemonade stands, which has led to news stories about lemonade stand shutdowns in Colorado, California, Rhode Island, and other states.  The lemonade stand crackdown reached the point that Country Time lemonade offered legal assistance to the kids running the stands who faced penalties and fines for engaging in unpermitted activity.

Speaking as someone who set up a number of lemonade stands as a kid — and who probably sold some pretty sour, watery, and sickly sweet lemonade to innocent buyers in the process — it’s hard for me to imagine that police, regulators, and busybody neighbors don’t have something better to do than oversee harmless childhood money-making ventures.  Have we really reached the point that you actually have to pass a law to safeguard an activity that has been part of Americana for decades?

But the world has changed.  Apparently we do have to enact laws to make sure that regulators don’t target little kids in their zeal to exercise overprotective nanny-state control over our daily activities.  But because the world has changed, I also wonder if the Texas law is really going to have much of an impact in these days of equally overprotective parents.  How many helicopter Moms and Dads are going to allow their young kids to interact with complete strangers who might pass by and want to wet their whistle with a glass of homemade lemonade?

Analyzing “Cooties”

The other day the Jersey Girl and I were driving to lunch in her car when I noticed a folded paper object on the dashboard.  Made by one of her kids, it was something you might remember from childhood.  You insert your thumbs and index fingers into slots, open and close them based on the colors or numbers or other indicators written on the outside, and then lift up one of the interior folds to deliver a secret message found underneath — at least one of which typically made reference to “cooties.”

cootie-catcher-3d_0“Hey, you’ve got a cootie catcher!” I remarked.  The JG looked puzzled, shrugged, and responded, “I don’t think that’s what they call it.”

What, no concept of “cooties” in American childhood anymore?  No more mindless running around, laughing and trying to dodge and avoid the kid who had “cooties” and, with a simple tag, could pass them on to you?  No discussions among young boys about girls having “cooties”?  No generalized lack of understanding of what “cooties” were supposed to be, or why they had that name, but just a fervent belief that you didn’t want to have them, whatever the heck they were?  Is “cooties” one of those stupid but fun childhood things that has hit the cutting room floor in the modern, ultra-sensitive, PC world?

Then I stumbled across an article that sought to bring some real analysis to bear on the “cooties” issue.  The Smithsonian applied scientific rigor to the concept of “cooties,” and take a careful look at a key question:  if “cooties” were real, what actual disease would they be?  After looking at the key attributes of “cooties” — being instant communicable through physical contact, common, and highly contagious, but with no outward signs of debilitating disease — and eliminating candidates like pinkeye, plague, and leprosy, The Smithsonian concluded that meningitis came closest.

And notably, The Smithsonian also concluded that the concept of “cooties” among children has some value, because it gives kids “a decent, albeit rudimentary, approximation for how disease functions” and allows them “to learn about infectious disease in a semi-sanitary, innocuous manner.”  So, “cooties” is a good thing?  There’s a first time for everything.

My Inner Grandma

Yesterday Kish and I were talking about health, and before I knew it I used the phrase “fit as a fiddle.”  As soon as I said it, I realized that it’s a phrase that no American has probably used for the last 20 years,

That’s what happens when my Inner Grandma surges to the fore.

grandma-21“Inner Grandma” refers to the vast repository of sayings that immediately come to mind about the small realities of everyday life, like weather, and eating, and getting up in the morning, and how you’re feeling today.  All of the sayings were chiseled deeply into the synapses of my cerebral cortex as a result of spending huge chunks of my formative years with my mother and my two grandmothers, all of whom used some of the same core sayings.  I probably heard them hundreds of times as a callow youth, and was proud of myself the first time I used them correctly and participated in a conversation with Mom or Grandma Webner or Grandma Neal.  Now those sayings bubble up, involuntarily, whenever those everyday moments arise, even though the sayings themselves have long since lost their currency — and don’t even particularly make sense, come to think of it.

“Your eyes are bigger than your stomach.”

“It’s raining cats and dogs.”

“I’m in the pink.”

“You’ve got an appetite like a truck driver.”

“Good morning, Merry Sunshine!”

“He’s happy as a clam.”

And that’s just scratching the surface.  I guess it shows how much of our thinking is shaped by our childhoods, and how we remain the product of our upbringing long decades after our childhoods have ended.  Mom and my grandmothers will always be with me.

A Taste Of Old Akron

The Webner family social media wires were burning up yesterday with the news that Swensons, an Akron-area tradition, may be planning on opening up a new hamburger joint in the Columbus area.  According to the article, Swensons has begun franchising and has indicated an interest in the Columbus market — they’re just looking for the right place.

e2fb43610d0ce3cec3e0f3ac6dabdfd1-akron-hit-theThis potential development burst like a bomb among the members of the Webner clan, because Swensons’ hamburgers were one of the foods we associate with our days growing up as kids in Akron.  Some days, we would buy sacks of burgers and milkshakes at Swensons, where to my recollection the meat had a very distinctive, somewhat sweet taste, and then go to the nearby McDonalds to get french fries because Grandpa Neal insisted that McDonalds’ thinner-cut fries were preferable to the Swensons’ variety.  Other times, we would go to Sky-Way, just a few miles down Market Street, which also was an old-line burger place.  At Sky-Way, you would drive up and park and then get served by kids who would skate up to the window of the car, attached a tray to the drivers’ side door, and bring your order directly to you without falling down.  The Sky-Way burgers were good, too, but it was the delivery method that really made an impression.

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Swensons, or Sky-Way?  In Akron, it was the eternal question and the basis for endless debate.  The Webners were enumenical on the issue — we happily consumed both.

I haven’t had a Swensons burger in years, but it and Sky-Way are enshrined in my fast food memory banks, right up there with the cheeseburgers UJ and Grandma and Grandpa Neal and I got at Riviera Lanes and broasted chicken and the old-fashioned pizza Mom got from a place with an Italian name that I don’t remember.

And when I hear that a Swensons might be opening up, I think two things.  First, if I go there, will the burgers taste like what I dimly recall and live up to my expectations?  And second, if Swensons is coming, can Sky-Way be far behind?

Creepy Playgrounds

The London Daily Mail has an interesting article about creepy sculptures that appear to haunt some of the playgrounds built during the Soviet era in Russia.  There’s no doubt that there is a profoundly disturbing, nightmarish quality about some of the figures that could haunt little kids and cause them to avoid the playgrounds altogether.

7055939An evil, grinning chimp with fangs?  A crying woman in a blue dress?  A goateed, wide-eyed doctor in a lab coat ready to plunge some unknown instrument into your skull?  A hollow-eyed, distraught boy kneeling on the ground?  A bizarre fight between an emaciated bull and a reptilian creature?  Who came with this stuff, the psychological warfare section of the KGB?

But maybe we’re being too hard on the Soviets.  Let’s face it, American playgrounds aren’t exactly free from disturbing stuff, either.  Any playground that has a jungle gym, an old-fashioned merry-go-ground, and “monkey bars” is bound to present its share of childhood horror.  And the decorations at some playgrounds are unsettling, too.  We used to live a block away from a park we called “Yogi Bear Park” because it had a teeter-totter where the fulcrum was a covered by a cheap plastic depiction of the head of Yogi Bear.  The adults recognized the figure as Smarter than the Average Bear, but to little kids it was an unknown, apparently grimacing figure wearing a bad hat and a tie.  What the parents saw as Yogi, the kids perceived as a weird, lurking presence.  Not surprisingly, the tykes tended to steer clear of old Yogi.

For that matter, childhood is filled with intentionally scary stuff that suggests that adults get a kick out of frightening youngsters.  “Fairy tales” aren’t happy stories about fairies, but horror shows of child-eating witches, child-eating wolves, and other evil creatures ready to devour any wayward kid.  Hey, kids!  How about a bedtime story?

We apparently delight in terrifying children.  The Russian playgrounds just bring it out into the open.

No Novocaine

When I was a kid, my trips to the dentist were characterized by two realities:  lots of cavities, because my dental hygiene in the face of mass consumption of sugary cereals was intermittent and appalling, and a steadfast opposition to getting the novocaine shot before the inevitable drilling began.

Shots don’t bother me, but my first novocaine injection was a disaster.  The dentist said I would “feel a pinch” — which seems to have been the standard pre-shot statement used by dentists for the last 50 years, even though no pinch feels remotely like a novocaine injection — and the next thing I knew a huge, bulky hypodermic needle was sliding between my gum and lip and then burrowing deep into the nerve clusters down there.  It hurt like hell, so I started to refuse the novocaine shot in favor of a no-numbing, tough-it-out approach to the inevitable cavity excavation.

This was not an easy choice.  The novocaine shot was painful, sure, but sitting in the dentist’s chair, holding the arms of the chair in a death grip and trying to retreat into my inner world while much earlier, much drier versions of dentist’s drills whined and smoked and chipped away the enamel around the cavity, touching the central tooth nerves with distressing and instantly excruciating frequency, wasn’t any walk in the park.  In fact, it always hurt like hell, too.  Our dentist, a kindly fellow, would notice my eyes watering and my lip quivering and ask if I was okay, and I would splutter, from a mouth filled with gauze and cotton, that I was fine — but of course I wasn’t.  Those novocaine-free cavity-filling visits to the dentist seemed to last forever.

Finally, after a particularly painful multi-cavity-filling visit, I decided that the next time I would try novocaine again.  Sure, my initial encounter with it had sucked, but all of my friends and siblings seemed to go for it without much problem.  Maybe I should change my position on this damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t choice?  So the next time I visited the dentist I went for the novocaine.  It wasn’t a pinch by any means, but this time it didn’t hit a nerve directly on the way in and it was . . . slightly better.

It was my first experience with choosing between the lesser of two evils.  Only much later did I realize that maybe I should make a more significant and potentially meaningful choice, to change my habits and improve my lax attitude to brushing and flossing and mouthwash and try to take steps that hopefully would eliminate the need to make such a choice in the first place.  I guess that is called the maturing process.

Back In Ak

I’m in Akron tonight for a memorial service tomorrow for Aunt Bebe.  It’s a sad occasion that brings me and other members of the Webner family here, but it’s also nice to be back in the city of my birth.

When I was young, everyone on both sides of my family, grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins, Webners and Neals alike, lived in Akron.  It was the center of my little-boy universe.  My first memories are of this place.  It’s where UJ and I first walked to school and where the kids in our family played silly childhood games.  It’s where I learned how to bowl, and made my first friends, and acquired my lifelong allegiance to Cleveland sports teams.

Although we moved away more than 40 years ago and the number of family members who live here keeps dropping, I still feel a very strong connection to this city.  Childhood memories are powerful and lasting, and it takes only a drive past a landmark — like the Summit Mall in Fairlawn — to awaken them and bring them surging back.  I’ll be thinking about old times a lot over the next few days.

The Sounds Of A ’60s Summer

There was the ever-present throb of fans, because no one had air conditioning.  Square fan units that fit into the bottom of a window that you could yell into and have your voice emerge, chopped and distorted, on the other side.  Rotating fans that whirred from side to side, with streamers tied to their wire covers blowing in the breeze.  Standing fans in the corner that sent air circling around the room.  They didn’t make the air any cooler, but they helped the “circulation.”

Screen doors creaking open and slamming shut with a bang as kids came and went and exasperated Moms said:  “In or out?”  Baseball cards attached to bicycle frames with a clothes pin that were strummed by the spokes of the rear wheel and made a bike sound like a motorcycle.  The hum of riding lawnmowers, as the neighborhood Dads cut the grass on their acre-sized lots.  The fat from cheeseburgers sizzling on hot charcoal.

And, as the evening arrived and shadows grew long, boxy Zenith and RCA radio units were turned on.  The sounds of ’60s music floated out the open windows through the screens into the humid summer nights as the adults gathered on patios and kids ran around, waving sparklers or catching lightning bugs or playing flashlight tag.  Martha Reeve and the Vandellas and Dancing in the Street.  Frank Sinatra and Strangers in the Night.  The early Beatles, the Beach Boys, and the Four Seasons.  Dionne Warwick and Petula Clark.  And, most of all, Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, whose music perfectly captured the ’60s summer mood.  Happy, bopping music, light and upbeat, infused with optimism, as the adults talked quietly and laughed about last night’s Tonight Show or reenacted one of the bits from the latest great Bill Cosby or Bob Newhart comedy album.

When bedtime came, the beat of fans was still there, accompanied by the chirping of crickets and the buzz insects in the sultry air.

The Smells Of A ’60s Summer

The smells told you it was the high summer, too.

When you ran outside in the morning, the temperature was already above 70 and the humid air had a sharp tang and crackle to it.  Somewhere a Dad had mowed the lawn within the last 24 hours, and the spicy odor of cut grass salted the air.  This always brought a sneeze and made my eyes water, because I was allergic to cut grass — particularly when it came time to mow our own lawn.

In the woods surrounding our neighborhood the smells told of dampness and decay.  Fallen trees were slowly rotting, covered with fungus and mold, and the forest floor was carpeted with a layer for decomposing leaves and branches that sank into the soil when you stepped on them.  At the creek bed there was the clean, sharp scent of water and mud and stones slick with algae and moss.

But the smells I most associate with those long-ago summers were of the Kool-Aids, the frozen lemonades, and other drinks that every savvy neighborhood Mom had ready to pour out to the sweaty boys who might track dust into their kitchens at any moment.  When the manufacturers of those drink mixes said they were flavored, they weren’t kidding!  The smells and tastes were overpowering.  No need for subtlety!  Even a person whose taste buds and olfactory lobes had been disconnected couldn’t fail to detect the “flavors.”

The flavored drink mixes had the most intense scents, with grape and cherry being the most pungent.  If kids in the neighborhood had set up a lemonade stand and had mixed the concoction themselves, you had to brace yourself.  Just smelling a pitcher of grape Funny Face drink made you feel like you’d been immersed in a can of Welch’s, and even a small sip of the sugary liquid would cause severe mouth pucker.  No one could drink it without immediately chasing it with a glass of cool water.

The Feel Of A ’60s Summer

When you woke up to the thrum of the window fan, the day was full of possibility.  There were no plans, or schedules, or adult-supervised activities on the calendar.  There was no calendar.  It was July, and high summer.  It had been weeks since school ended and would be weeks before school began again, and the summer felt like it would last forever.

You pulled on a striped t-shirt and shorts, because that’s what everybody wore, and laced up your Red Ball Jets, because everyone knew they made you run faster and jump higher.  You raced downstairs and ate some Frosted Flakes, happy that it was summer and hot and your Mom wouldn’t make you eat a “hot breakfast” like oatmeal.  Then you and your brother said “Bye, Mom!” and charged out the back door, looking for your friends in the neighborhood.  They weren’t hard to find.  It seemed like every family had three, four, or five kids.

00019750So you’d round up the gang, and then talk about what to do.  The days were immense and wide open, ready to be filled by whatever you could think of.  Maybe you’d play baseball, or “army.”  Maybe you’d work on that fort you all were building in the woods behind the Shantzs’ house.  You could climb a tree, or see who could throw a crab apple the farthest.  Maybe you’d go exploring down by the creek and hunt for crawdads.  You could take your bike to the top of the Leahys’ hill, which had to be as tall as the Rockies, then coast down, feeling the momentum build until you were really flying, and see how far you could go without pedaling.  And if it was especially hot you could always take a dip in one of those plastic above-ground pools people kept on their patios, or drink cool water straight from a garden hose and maybe spray your friends while you were doing so.

You felt the sun on your scalp.  You felt dust on your skin and dried mud from the creek bed on your knees and the cool grass between your toes.  You felt the sticky drippings from a cherry Popsicle on your hands and the residue of bubble gum on your cheek.  When twilight finally came, and the lightning bugs came out, you felt the cooler air and the goosebumps on your arms because it was just so much fun to be outside with your friends in the gathering darkness.

And when bedtime finally came, you fell asleep to the thrum of the window fan, hot and happy and hoping that tomorrow would be another day just like today.

Cappy Dick And The Power Of Trying

You are a kid on a Sunday morning in the 1960s.  It is winter and brutally cold outside, and doing something inside seems like a good idea.  You flip through the brilliantly colored comics section of the Sunday paper, and there you find your perfect companion — Cappy Dick.  Cappy Dick, the chuckling, patient, pipe-smoking sea captain who every week urged kids to “try for these great prizes!” and proposed all manner of odd games and activities for bored rug rats.

Cappy Dick was all about the art of the apparently possible.  It suggested different things that you could try.  They looked like they could be done — hey, it wouldn’t be in the paper if it was fake, would it? — and in any case it looked like it would be fun to try.

Never were egg cartons put to so many different uses!  You could take the carton, paint each egg-holding indention a different color, and toss bottle caps or pennies into them, with each successful throw generating different points depending on color.  You could learn how to make a successful flip book, or convert a shoe box into a crude castle, or make puppets out of clothes pins.  When Cappy Dick spurred your imagination, the blunt-edged scissors, Crayola crayons, and construction paper got a serious workout, and the smell of Elmer’s glue was intoxicating.  And when you were done, your hands crusty with Elmer’s glue residue and the kitchen table littered with scraps of paper and other odds and ends, you realized that trying to make something had been fun, even if the results didn’t quite look like Cappy Dick showed.

I’m sure parents of that era rolled their eyes from time to time as an excited youngster charged up, babbling about needing an empty round Quaker’s Oats container to try to make a gaily colored Polynesian drum.  But surely Moms across the land appreciated anything that would keep the kids occupied in some kind of quiet creative exercise for a few hours on a Sunday afternoon, even if a bit of clean-up would eventually be required.

No doubt video games, elaborate plastic Barbie houses, and other ready-made modern toys spur some kind of creative impulse as kids play.  I wonder, however, whether the creative opportunities are not quite as rich as when kids gathered around the kitchen table and worked hard to make that Indian headdress or Pilgrim bonnet, laughing all the while.  Cappy Dick helped to fill many a dull afternoon, and it may have made kids of that generation just a bit more willing to at least try.  After all, you could win Great Prizes!

Helplessly In Thrall To Pumpkin Pie

As usual, I ate too much on Thanksgiving.  As I sat, groaning and belt loosened, on the sofa, I also realized that– among my many other significant personal issues — I am helpless in the presence of pumpkin pie.

Usually my self-discipline when it comes to food is pretty strong.  I’m not much of a snacker.  Typically, I eat a satisfying meal and I am done until the time for the next meal has come.  There are certain foods, however, that completely overwhelm my feeble resistance, and pumpkin pie is one of them.  If it is in the house, I am going to eat it, no matter how uncomfortably full I am and how embarrassed I am at my cursed weakness.

Why is this?  Is it the firm yet squishy, mildly spicy goodness of the filling?  Is it the crisp, flaky exposed crust, or the moist, chewy crust under the filling?  Is it the delicate dollop of whipped cream framed against the brown skin of the wedge of pie?  Or is it that, deep down, the familiar taste of pumpkin pie brings back warm memories of childhood, of eating pumpkin pie for dessert at gatherings of extended family on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and other occasions — and then sneaking an extra piece late at night, when no one is looking?

Whatever the reason, the piece of pumpkin pie is like the Borg, and I am about to be assimilated.  Resistance is futile!