Getting Rid of the Training Wheels

The lessons we learned when we were children! We gained wisdom that would serve us well as adults. For instance, we learned that the safety and security of training wheels was comfortable, yet it had to be left behind sooner or later for the much more unsure, daring world of riding around on two wheels.

Every kid starts out with training wheels, regardless of the generation. We Boomer youngsters may have had them attached to traditional Schwinn hand-me-downs, or perhaps on brand new Sting-Rays. And the bolt-on wheels would make for a nice smooth ride. But eventually, peer pressure and the desire to spread young wings would make you ask your dad to remove them. Thus, your first step towards growing up.

What would generally happen next was that your father would steady your bike as you climbed aboard, then exhorted you to start pedaling hard as he turned you loose.

Generally, the next step would be picking you up off the ground. You had to pedal harder than that.

But eventually, you would get the hang of it. And before long, you would be screaming down the street on two wheels, forever freed from training wheels.

Every group of kids had one youngster who had a hard time getting the hang of biking without training wheels. Sadly, such a child would frequently be marked for life among the neighborhood gang until he redeemed himself through some act of great courage.

Of course, in those days, if you fell off of your bike, you got banged up. If you misspelled words, you were given bad marks. If you misbehaved, you got the paddle. In other words, you were responsible for yourself.

Nowadays, when it takes a village to raise a child, and we are much more concerned with self-esteem than genuine learning, our grandkids are being taught the abomination of “creative spelling.” And if he or she falls and gets hurt on a bike, it’s because the manufacturer was remiss in protecting the child from the mishap. There is a plethora of lawyers in the Yellow Pages ready to take the lawsuit.

That’s a shame. The earlier you learn to pedal hard or fall over and get hurt, the quicker you’re ready to make your own way in the world. While schools have gotten much easier for children to earn passing marks, the world has only gotten tougher.

Wooden Screen Doors

Well, I Remember JFK has uncovered yet another conspiracy theory. Recall that we revealed that wing vent windows were surreptitiously phased out by auto air conditioning manufacturers. Well, faithful readers, we have blown the cover off of yet another cabal by those who sell equipment designed for artificial environmental cooling: the demise of the screen door.

The above paragraph is written tongue-in-cheekingly. Please, no nutcases need respond 😉

When we were kids, wooden screen doors were everywhere. Moonwink Grocery in Miami, Oklahoma had one. It may have had a Rainbo Bread advertisement, advising all who would enter that it was GOOD bread. Or perhaps it was Bunny bread, a locally-baked rival.

But it was definitely there, providing a reassuring “thunk!” every time a customer walked in or out. It was a sound that I must have heard hundreds of times, and I would dearly love to return in time to hear it again.

But that’s what our imaginations are for. So please, read on as I magically transport you to an era when we passed through screen doors many times a day in our travels.

The utility of screen doors was undeniable. Have one at the north and south ends of a house, and you had yourself a wonderful breeze providing fresh air, cooler temperatures, and a dearth of flies. Metallic screening used in screen doors and windows was patented on April 22, 1884 by John Golding of Chicago, Illinois. Prior to that, people bought lots more flyswatters.

By the time I was in the process of being a kid in the 1960’s, old-style screen doors were already being supplanted one at a time in private homes with aluminum storm doors. My childhood home had one of the newfangled models which, if I recall correctly, was installed by my father as an add-on.

But my grandparents, who lived in the Mason, Texas house that they bought as newlweds early in the 20th century, had screen doors on all sides. They were equipped with holder gadgets that would grab the door when it shut. I was fascinated by the mechanisms, as I had never seen them anywhere else in my youthful experience. In researching this article, however, I see that they are still out there, looking much like the models that my grandparents probably purchased when Babe Ruth was a pitcher for the Red Sox.

Air conditioning was still a luxury for many homes and businesses in the 60’s. Moonwink Grocery, which was probably built prior to WWII, had none. So on a hot summer day, the screen door provided some cooling relief, along with fans placed everywhere. It wasn’t much, but it felt like it was back then.

In dryer environments, evaporative coolers worked hand-in-hand with screen doors to provide fresh cooled air that was exhausted through strategically placed openings in the house that allowed the sweet relief to pass through every section.

But as the 60’s turned into the 70’s, air conditioning became cheaper. Businesses in old unrefrigerated buildings either remodeled or relocated. Moonwink, sadly, was razed and fourplexes were put up on its corner lot. More sadly, the wonderful corner grocery didn’t bother to relocate.

And with homes no longer needing to let the slightly-cooler-than-a-hot-summer-day breeze blow through, screen doors became obsolete.

That leads us to today, Wooden screen doors on the fronts of houses are as scarce as quality reality television. Some exist on the back sides of homes, primarily proving ingress and egress to screened-in porches. But by and large, we now walk into our homes and businesses through glass doors.

So the next time you daydream about being a kid in a much simpler time, don’t forget to shut the screen door tight behind you. We don’t want those flies to get in.

Electric Wall Clocks

Among the subtle sounds that made up the ambiance of the home where I spent my early childhood was a gentle whirring noise. It was coming from the electric clock hanging up in our kitchen.

The electric wall clock was a staple in most homes during the 60’s. Ideally, you wanted it to be hung in the middle of a wall. However, esthetics required that the cord hang straight down. Therefore, the clock resided directly above an electrical outlet.

While that cord stuck out like a sore thumb, it didn’t take long for it to vanish. In fact, if the clock was replaced with a battery-driven model, it just didn’t look right without a cord hanging down.

The clock made a whirring sound because it was driven by a rapidly-rotating motor. Seven-year-old me discovered this one day by taking the clock down and seeing for myself. And as the clock aged and bearing surfaces wore down, the whirring would turn into a more abrasive noise, which would eventually get so bad that it could no longer be ignored. The clock might even seize up.

But electric clocks were still preferable to battery-driven models. Most of the took a huge d-cell that just didn’t last very long. It was a pain to change the battery every six months.

Today, like most of the objects we grew up with, genuine vintage electric clocks sell for big bucks. Atomic models like the one pictured that might have sold for twenty bucks in 1964 go for hundreds of dollars on the auction sites.

If you’re into these motor-driven beauties, check out

Here’s to that gentle whirring sound that helped make our house a home.

Crayola Crayons

A well worn set of 60’s vintage Crayolas

The term “ubiquitous” is defined as “existing or being everywhere, esp. at the same time; omnipresent.” Ubiquitous perfectly describes the humble writing implement known as the Crayola Crayon.

The depicted postage stamp was released in 1998, graced with an illustration of an early-20th-century Crayola box. This shows that kids have been playing with Crayolas for over a century, making the pigmented wax writing implements ubiquitous in the truest sense of the word.

Binney and Smith, a company that specialized in industrial pigments, released the first box of eight Crayola crayons containing red, orange, yellow, green, blue, violet, brown, and black sticks in 1903. It sold for a nickel.

The brains behind Crayolas (the name was dreamed up by Alice Binney, wife of one of the company’s founders) realized that kids would delight in drawing and coloring with them. They would also likely ingest them in the process. Therefore, Crayolas were made of non-toxic materials.

Thus did they arrive in my hands sometime in the early 1960’s. I don’t remember my first box of Crayolas, but, like most kids, coloring was one of my first artistic activities. I was probably three or so, just old enough to be somewhat trusted not to eat the delicious-smelling creations.

Seriously, is there any more intoxicating aroma than opening up a shiny new pack of Crayola Crayons?

But, of course, it wasn’t all joy for Boomer kids when it came to Crayolas.

The first thing that would happen is that the more popular colors would wear down. That would lead to using, say, raw umber to color a tree trunk instead of brown, which was showing wear and tear (as in tearing the paper sleeve back a bit).

The more fortunate among us had the 64-color box that had that sharpener in the back. Thus, a reasonable facsimile of the pristine pointed tip that adorned a brand-new Crayola could be produced. The rest of us had to make do with using a dull crayon’s sharpest edge for fine details.

But sooner or later, time would catch up with every new box of crayons, and they would be reduced to shortened, war-wounded shadows of their former selves.

So many of our boxes of Crayolas looked like the image to the right: Once immaculate and beautiful, but now showing signs of struggles against coloring books that required vast amounts of yellow, dark blue, and black to create landscapes and such that would adorn refrigerators and schoolroom walls for an amount of time suitable for masterpieces of their caliber.

Eventually, popular Crayolas would become too short to go into the box. Then they would be relegated to a cigar box full of their brethren which would have all of their paper peeled off, to be used by laying the entire crayon down on the paper and creating a one-inch wide swath of, say, blueness for a vast sky.

Like us, Crayolas saw their share of having to change with the times for politically correct reasons. In 1958, in response to requests from schoolteachers, “Prussian blue” was renamed “midnight blue.” I’m not exactly sure what that was all about, unless there was a sense of anti-Teutonic prejudice in the air. In 1962, the color “flesh” was renamed “peach.” I guess that’s better than “Caucasian.” And in 1999, “Indian red” became “chestnut.”

The last color change is particularly PC. You see, “Indian red” is a pigment produced in India and used in oil paints. However, since it could give the “wrong impression,” it was renamed.

Thus have Crayolas mirrored the Boomer generation. We are showing wear and tear, some of us more than others. We have had to make changes as society has demanded them. But we have also endured in pretty much the same easily-recognizable form that we have always had.

Could a postage stamp commemoration be far behind?

Home Movies

Our Boomer childhoods were quite well recorded when compared with those of our moms and dads. Growing up in the Depression, when you could either eat or take pictures, but not both, ensured that few photographs of our parents as cute kids would exist. And movies were simply unheard of.

But in the boom years after WWII, our parents could afford nice gadgets like they would never have dreamed of owning in their youth. And they were also very proud of their kids. So many of us were immortalized on 8mm film in our childhoods.

My father didn’t have a movie camera. But I had an uncle who had one, and I’m reasonably sure that he shot movies of me. It would be a thrill to see them, but I probably never will.

My wife’s parents had a movie camera as well, and also have movies of her running around as a toddler. She was a real cutie, BTW. 😉

They also have footage of the 1964 Winter Olympics. Cool stuff.

8mm film can trace its origin to 1932. Eastman Kodak released a movie system that used a 25 foot 16mm film roll. The film was exposed, then turned over and exposed again. When processed, it was split lengthwise to produce a 50 foot 8mm movie.

By 1965, the venerable 8mm format received a major overhaul with the development of Kodak’s Super 8 system. The sprocket holes were shrunk, providing 50% more frame size. Plus, Super 8 cameras had a built-in filter that allowed you to use one type of film for both indoor and outdoor movies. Previously, you had to buy daylight- or tungsten-balanced film to get the right colors.

Another innovation of most Super 8 cameras was a light meter. Amateur moviemakers now had a much better chance to create a perfectly-exposed film.

Oh, and Super 8 was now one continuous 8 mm roll of film. No more turning a cartridge over and shooting the other half of your movie.

The mid 60’s to the early 70’s was home movies’ heyday. Super 8 sold like hotcakes, and Boomer kids all over the country were being filmed in massive numbers.

That meant that many of us also grew up with the rest of the home movie equation: a noisy projector and a screen to present the fruition of our fathers’ cinematic efforts.

One of the first things we learned was how HOT that projector bulb would get! We would generally only touch the metal enclosure only ONCE.

And of course, having company over meant getting everything out and forcing them to watch our movies, which we assumed was as much fun for them as it was for us.

Of course, the invention and eventual affordable price of the videotape recorder caused Super 8’s popularity to decline. This is particularly ironic considering that a Kodachrome movie of the 60’s that has been kept in moderate conditions is likely in pristine condition. However, twenty-year-old videotapes are frequently unwatchable due to tape deterioration. If you have videotapes you want preserved, you’d better get them digitized quickly.

8mm and Super 8 moviemaking has made a nice comeback, with vintage cameras in good condition available for reasonable prices on eBay and would-be cinematographers using the still widely obtainable film to make movies that have a lot of charm that digital recording lacks.

However, we kids of the Boomer generation can remember when home movies were cutting-edge technology, and how vacations were frequently accompanied by the familiar whir of a camera recording our fun times.


Duncan Imperial yo-yo

Many a kid was seen walking down the street playing with a yo-yo when we were kids. They were also played with by our parents, and probably our grandparents, too.

The yo-yo is a toy that has had many waves of popularity since its introduction early in the 20th century. One of those waves coincided with my childhood, another one hit in the early 70’s, when I was in junior high. During the latter craze, yo-yos and clackers were banned at schools all over the country, as kids played with the toys instead of doing their lessons. At Bentonville Middle School, the principal kept a box in his office that was full of confiscated yo-yos, popperknockers, and squirt guns.

The yo-yo can be traced back to Greece about 500 B.C. It is belived to have been used in China long before that date, but actual specimens from Greece have been unearthed. Artwork from the period also shows people playing with them.

The yo-yo spread around the world. Art from places as diverse as India and France from the 18th century depicts them. They also achieved a large degree of popularity in the Philippines.

In 1915, Filipino Pedro Flores immigrated to the United States. He went to law school, but never completed his law degree and began instead making yo-yos while working as a bellboy. In 1928, Flores started his Yo-Yo Manufacturing Company in Santa Barbara, California. Two years later, the Donald Duncan Company bought him out, and, despite the Depression, the yo-yo business did pretty well.

Duncan survived the Depression and sold millions of yo-yos over the next thirty years. They hit a wave of popularity during WWII, then faded again. In the early 60’s, they took off again. Interesting how the yo-yo business went up and down, isn’t it?

But Duncan received a lethal blow in the midst of their toy’s popularity. When they bought Flores’ “invention,” they also trademarked the name “yo-yo.” That meant that competitors sold “come-backs”, “returns”, “returning tops”, “whirl-a-gigs”, and “twirlers.” However, in 1965, the Federal Court of Appeals ruled that Duncan’s trademark for the word “yo-yo” was no good. Yo-yo’s name had become so widespread that it was now a permanent part of the language and it no longer only described the toy, it was the toy. The legal costs incurred sank Duncan.

The company which had been manufacturing Duncan’s plastic yo-yos bought the Duncan name and took off like a rocket. Yo-yo innovations began pouring forth, and another wave of popularity hit the early 70’s.

As the years went by, things like ball bearing shafts, clutch springs, and rim weighting have turned the humble yo-yo into a sophisticated performance piece. But we Boomers have fond memories of cheap wooden models, or Duncan Imperials that were a bit more pricey, as we made our way from childhood to being grown-ups.

Your First Color TV

A magnificent 1964 Magnavox color TV console

For us Baby Boomers, the appearance of HDTV a few years ago brought back memories of the last big jump in TV technology.

When homes first started sprouting TV antennas in the 50’s, black and white sets were the norm. They weren’t cheap, either. A new one was an investment of hundreds of dollars. Most stations outside of big cities didn’t broadcast in color at first when it became possible in 1954. So spending over $1000 for the pictured 1954 CBS-Columbia color TV was simply out of the question.

But color was catching on fast. By 1965, most US TV stations were broadcasting in color, even though many network shows were still black and white. In fact, it was interesting that some TV shows “jumped the shark” when they went color, the Andy Griffith Show being the prime example.

The prices had dropped by then, as well. You could get a living-room sized color TV for around 500 bucks. So many, including my father, took the color TV plunge about that time.

1967 newspaper ad for Mickey Mantle’s Restaurant, Joplin, Missouri

I saw my first color TV at Mickey Mantle’s restaurant in Joplin, Missouri in 1964. They had one set up in the lobby. I remember standing there stunned at the incredible sight of seeing moving images in gorgeous color.

One of the first things a new color TV owner discovered was that the blasted colors wouldn’t stay the same! It would go in and out of tune during a single show. A nice flesh-colored face might end up with a greenish tint before a show ended. And passing airplanes would also wreak havoc with the picture.

Color TV tuning bars

Many homeowners, my father included, decided to spring for a rotor that would turn the antenna around to directly face the transmission tower. In our small northeast Oklahoma town, we had signals originating from places as diverse as Tulsa, Joplin, and Pittsburgh, Kansas. Being able to point the antenna perfectly greatly improved color reception.

Channel 7 in Pittsburgh would begin the broadcast day with color bars that you could use to perfectly adjust the tint and hue. An announcer would describe each color, and you would try to match it. The picture would then be perfect, until it started getting off track again within minutes. Automatic fine tuning appeared in the 70’s and ended this daily ritual.

I waited five years until I took the HDTV plunge. By then, the local networks were broadcasting in it, Dish Network offered a hi-def DVR at a reasonable fee, and the sets themselves had finally gotten reliable and cheaper. And as I installed it, it brought back fond memories of dad proudly hooking up our very first color set, circa 1965.

X-Ray Specs

Genuine X-Ray Specs

There’s not a person in the world who has looked at American comic books from the 50’s through the 80’s and isn’t familiar with a device called X-Ray Specs. There would always be a half-page ad from some novelty company offering items like onion gum, joy buzzers, whoopie cushions, and the mysterious magical spectacles.

They promised the ability to see the bones in your hand, and hinted that you just might be able to see through curvaceous young ladies’ clothing, as well.

Talk about something that grabbed the attention of a young male!

I never knew of a single friend of mine who actually ordered a pair, though. We just never could justify spending candy bar money on something that, while looking very intriguing, also carried with it that curious phrase “a hilarious optical illusion.” That phrase seemed to imply that it didn’t really use x-rays to allow a peek under young ladies’ dresses! Come on, for a dollar, this thing better be the real deal!

However, if you want to go ahead and spring for something you may never have bought as a child, you can order a pair from Inflation being what it is, though, they’re up to three bucks.

Why Does This TV Show Look…Different?

Love of Life, a 60’s soap

When I was a kid, I noticed something about TV very early in the game: my mom’s “stories,” as she called the soap operas she watched on weekday afternoons, had a different look to them than other shows like Leave It to Beaver or Bonanza.

The look is hard to describe. But there are unmistakable differences.

Later in life, I learned that the soaps were filmed on videotape. The other TV shows were captured on cameras that utilized conventional film.

Go back to the early 50’s, and all shows were caught on film. However, most were captured as kinescopes. The cameras capturing the action were piping their feeds straight to broadcast. The only way to record what they were filming was to point a film camera at a monitor screen. Thus, the quality of the captured show was only as good as the sharpness of the monitor and the focus of the camera. In other words, lousy most of the time.

During that decade, AMPEX, makers of sound tape recorders, was experimenting with putting video on tape. By 1957, they had perfected the process enough that a TV episode was shot for the first time entirely by videotape cameras. This was The Edsel Show, a Bing Crosby-hosted special that was considerably better than its namesake. Rumor has it that a door handle fell off of a car shortly after it was featured on the show.

While many TV shows were captured on film, the process didn’t work well for shows that depended on live audiences. Scenes would often be shot out of sequence and pieced together in the spicing room. When you had three cameras filming live action, there wasn’t any way to put their outputs into one package, short of filming the monitor image.

But if your camera could record to tape, and have its images instantly accessible (i.e. not requiring darkroom developing), that would open up all kinds of new possibilities.

“Terrific!” you might say. “So that means old broadcasts were saved for posterity!” Well, sadly, videotape didn’t make much of an early contribution to the preserving of shows. The 2″ reels cost about $300 in 1950’s money. And coincidentally, they could be erased and reused. Thus, the same reel of videotape might have been used to capture many episodes of the same show only long enough to be rebroadcast three hours later for west coast viewers.

1960’s Ampex videotape machine at work in the TV studio

However, many episodes of early videotaped shows have survived. For example, in its second (1960-61) season, six episodes of The Twilight Zone were shot on videotape, in an effort to cut costs. Remember the one where the kid could talk to his deceased grandmother on a toy telephone? Notice how it has a different look and feel from most other offerings.

It was the soaps that embraced the new technology most quickly. They were filmed live on a daily basis, and videotape was perfect for the three-hour rebroadcasts that were essential due to the four time zones that span the US.

In the early 70’s, an interesting trend took place in TV studios. Many sitcoms started to be shot on videotape, giving them a “soap opera” look. Norman Lear was one of the pioneers of the movement, and all of his vast storehouse of comedies utilized videotape.

Lear’s success, driven by ratings giant All in the Family, caused others to switch to the videotape format. Thus, many of our favorite 70’s half-hour comedies, including Barney Miller and WKRP in Cincinnati, have the distinct videotape look.

Nowadays, digital has changed all of the rules. Digitally filmed shows do not have the videotape look, at least to me. Looking at the the current top twenty rated shows, I don’t spot a single one shot on videotape. I’m not sure if the soaps still use them, I haven’t seen one in thirty years. Perhaps a reader can enlighten us.

Videotaped TV episodes have largely been digitized, retaining their original look and feel, but now no longer subject to the deterioration of the tape itself. Many of us have likewise digitized the tapes we shot with our videocams in the 80’s and 90’s for the same reason. And if you haven’t done so yet, you’d better hurry!

So now, when you spot one of the six Twilight Zone episodes that look different from the rest, you, as Paul Harvey would say, now know the rest of the story.

When You Weren’t Sure Exactly What Time It Was

Coordinated Universal Time zones

Got a cell phone in your pocket or purse? How about a GPS in your car? I’m sure you have a computer, otherwise you wouldn’t be reading this right now.

Then you know, within a teeny fraction of a second, exactly what time it is. We take such a situation very much for granted. Some of us even wear watches that communicate with an atomic time server several times a day, making microscopically small adjustments to ensure that the time displayed is exactly right.

But it wasn’t always that way, was it, Boomers? When we were younger, the exact time was largely unknown. The local bank might have had a big clock outside for all to see, and presumably, it was accurate. It had better be, the whole town might have been setting their watches to it.

In my hometown of Miami, Oklahoma, at precisely noon each day, the B.F. Goodrich plant would let loose with a blast on a steam whistle which would alert plant workers (and everyone within a couple miles) that it was lunchtime. Many a wearer of a wristwatch would stop what they were doing and adjust their timepiece to 12:00 noon.

We had other ways to set our timepieces back then, of course. Today’s article will remind you of what they were.

Shortwave radio

If your dad had a short wave radio like mine did, then the exact time was readily available on a station located in Denver. In fact, in researching this piece, I learned that the station, WWV, is still broadcasting away on a number of frequencies.

“At the tone, the time will be eleven hours, forty-three minutes, coordinated universal time.”

Dad would set his Seiko chronometer, brought back from Asia by my older brother, to the precise minute. It would be good for a week or so, such was the accuracy of the fine auto-wind timepiece.

You could also get the exact time by calling a Denver number, if you could abide the expensive long-distance rates back then.

Coordinated universal time dates back to the late nineteenth century, when the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, England was selected as the world’s official timekeeper. Your own local time was described as being plus or minus GMT (Greenwich Mean Time) depending on whether you were located east or west of the British town. For its early history, the clock depended on the movement of the earth. But there’s a problem: the pull of the tides is gradually slowing down the earth’s rotation. Additionally, major physical events like the 2011 Japan earthquake also affect the length of the day just a tad. A more accurate clock was needed.

This breakthrough occurred in 1955, with the invention of the atomic cesium clock. The next year, the atomic clock was used by the U.S. National Bureau of Standards to broadcast the exact time via short wave. A leap second is added every now and then (every eleven years or so) to keep the clock in step with earth’s ever-diminishing day.

Thus, geeky teens could keep their LED watches perfectly on time for counting down school bells and the like.

Another way to tell the exact time was to listen for the chime on CBS. When a CBS show would start at the top of the hour, it would be preceded by a “dong” that the savvy viewer knew was the exact beginning of said hour.

The CBS tone disappeared some time in the early 80’s. By then, digital time had gotten much more accurate for the average Joe than the mechanical version. Nowadays, of course, we might occasionally change our wristwatch time, or change a few clocks twice a year for Daylight Savings Time, but we don’t worry about whether our cell phone, computer, or GPS has the right time. It’s all fully automatic.

However, back in the day, if you wanted the exact time, you had to earn it!