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.

Lucky Tiger Hair Tonic

Today, I’m known as the bald guy. In fact, when I incorporated my website design business, it became known as The Bald Guy Enterprises, Inc.

But go back to circa 1968, and when I got spiffied up, my luxuriant blonde hair was coated in a generous slathering of Lucky Tiger Rose hair tonic.

It was called “tonic,” because the oils and other secret ingredients were advertised to be good for the scalp. In fact (though I don’t think the company ever claimed it), it was rumored to prevent baldness!

Trust me. That was not true.

But still, it was a great feeling, slicking your hair back and enjoying that tantalizing, manly scent.

In one of the most blatantly sexist product monikers ever produced, the name Lucky Tiger implied that the user would never again have to worry about a dearth of female companionship. The ads posted removed any subtlety. The message was clear: wear Lucky Tiger and get lucky, tiger!

I’m pleased to see that the product is still being produced in its original form by its original maker. When the Dry Look (the wethead is dead!) took over in the 60’s and 70’s, sales plummeted. But a fierce following kept the fortunate feline on store shelves, where it remains today.

And today, a head full of “greasy kid stuff” is now considered chic. And what could be better for the purpose than genuine Lucky Tiger?

Wood Paneling

Along with shag carpets, many homes of the 60’s and 70’s featured 1/8″ thick 4’x8′ wide sheets of laminated wood nailed to the wall. This was the paneling that we grew up with.

Paneling can be found today in forms like nice wainscoting, thick solid wood wall covering that can rise twelve feet or more, and 3/4″ thick sheets with two to four inch wide segments of polished hardwoods. But step back to a middle-class home circa 1970, and the walls are covered with the above-mentioned processed product composed of the thinnest shaved slices of grained wood you could imagine. And this was frequently the ONLY wall covering, with nothing but bare wood studs underneath.

But it was found in practically every home in the 60’s that was either (a) new, or (b) recently remodeled.

Wood paneling had a lot going for it. It was cheap, it was forgiving of things like crooked walls, it was simple to install (you could buy nails that matched the wood color, so they would disappear), and it looked a lot better than cracked plaster board, which was often found in older homes whose foundations had settled with time.

Of course, it was also ugly, or so we perceive it today. But we didn’t feel that way circa 1969.

I remember our modest Miami, Oklahoma tract home having its walls covered with paneling that was the color of maple. But it wasn’t the house’s original wall covering. The house was probably built about 1950. I have very distant memories of dad nailing the paneling up over whatever wall surface we had prior to that. We became a paneling-covered-wall family about 1966.

Years later, I became an apprentice electrician upon high school graduation in 1977. The tract homes I helped wire would have DARK 1/4″ paneling installed in the living room, and we installed dark brown switches, receptacles and plates in the electrical boxes that were located in its expanse.

No wonder so many suicides took place in the disco era.

As I mentioned before, wood-lined walls remain intensely popular today. However, our old 1/8″ thick paneling seems to have become a relic. Unlike things like Palisades Park, nickel candy bars, and Shasta sodas, we don’t really miss it.

When Macrame Was Everywhere

Back in the 1200’s, Arabian weavers began tying decorative knots into the threads of excess fringes on hand-loomed fabrics. 500 years later, about the same time that polyester, men’s hair spray, and and fondue pots were all the rage, it caught on big time.

Macrame was one of the fads that defined the 70’s. Interestingly, the decade known for excesses shared the macrame craze with the much more restrained Victorian era. In fact, macrame was probably bigger then than when we were wearing Spiro Agnew watches. Hmm, I wonder what a tightly corseted Victorian lady would have thought of boogieing at Studio 54?

During the 70’s, articles made of myriad tiny knots of rough fabric were seen everywhere: hanging from ceilings, being carried by fashionable ladies, being worn by many more, and even in front of our entrances to our homes.

Long before it became cool to use hemp for fabrics, macrame utilized it. Of course, it also utilized pink and lime green man-made fabrics. But classic macrame creations that I remember used undyed natural hemp and jute fibers.

I can recall macrame plant hangers that would stretch out for six feet or longer. They would hang from the ceiling and hold three or more pots, with possibly a fourth hanging from the bottom.

I also remember macrame purses, dresses, and even shoes being sported by females of the decade.

Macrame also evidenced itself in wall hangings, keychains, coasters, rugs, belts, place mats, pot holders, and furniture.

Furniture?

Yes, I remember chairs that hung from the ceiling made of the ubiquitous knotted strands.

I remember sitting in them. And no, they weren’t the least bit comfortable, but they were pretty cool at the time.

But the most plentiful macrame creation of the 1970’s was, without a doubt, Bubo virginianus. That would be the great horned owl, to you non-ornithologists.

Owls made of macrame hung from walls all over the nation. And handicrafters found them easy to make, so they multiplied like coat hangers. And they were given as gifts, hence my decidedly non-70’s mother ended up with two or three of them hanging in the farmhouse we lived in, right next to the massive Grant Wood print.

Macrame is still around, of course, like many 70’s popularities, just not in the same quantity. In fact, I spotted a macrame doormat this week. But once upon a time that we Boomers remember well, the knotted strands were the ultimate in coolness and fashion.

Trading Stamps

Once upon a time, your mom made the decision about which grocery store to shop at based on a simple factor: what brand of trading stamps did they offer?

Mom was a Top Value fan, hence my using them for the illustration rather than the much more popular S&H Green Stamp. The IGA in my hometown gave away Top Value, hence the reason mom never, ever shopped at the Safeway right across the street. She also did her dry cleaning, bought her gas, and did other shopping with dealers who gave out Top Value stamps.

I grew up licking those stamps and pasting them in books. I loved it. That was big stuff to a six-year-old. And our modest house would periodically be enhanced by the purchase of a lamp, toaster, or the like gained in exchange for those books full of pasted legal tender. We had a Top Value store in town, no waiting for a package in the mail!

The whole idea behind trading stamps was simple and effective: stores would purchase the stamps in quantity. They had a cash value that the trading stamp company would recognize. You could even trade in your books for cash, but you would make out better getting merchandise. Other businesses, such as bowling alleys and service stations, also got in on it.

The store’s or business’s payoff? Customers like my mom, who would never dream of patronizing any grocery store but Farrier’s IGA.

Every town with a population of, say, 7500 or more had a redemption center for at least one brand of stamps. In fact, my memories of the trading stamp program coincide with the peak of the industry. In the mid 1960’s, S&H alone was printing three times as many stamps as the US Postal Service! An estimated 80% of US households were saving at least one brand of stamp.

The Recession of the 70’s is what ended trading stamps. Redemption centers started closing as the economy floundered. By 1981, there was just a fraction of the original S&H stores left. S&H sold out to another company at that time, and they still survive as a get-paid-while-you-surf-and-shop outfit at http://www.greenpoints.com/. In fact, if you have any old books of stamps laying around, you can give them a holler at 1-800-435-5674 and get $1.20 for each of them!

The Back Yard, Circa 1965

Plastic pink flamingos

Kids spend a lot of time in their back yards. I sure spent lots of hours in my Oklahoma back yard in the 1960’s. I became so familiar with its features that I can close my eyes and imagine it in its entirety. I will now recreate that wonderful place, complete with its features unique to that era.

We had a concrete birdbath in the middle of the yard which was accompanied by a miniature flock of three plastic pink flamingos. They weathered well, I remember they lasted at least three years. That birdbath was a monster that mom picked out from one of those businesses that sold all sorts of yard stuff made of concrete. We never had one of those bright blue balls on a pillar, but my next-door neighbor did.

Like every other family on the block, we also had a clothesline that frequently was festooned with our laundry.

Dad brought home a new washer and dryer about 1966. Before that, hanging clothes outside was mom’s only option. If we were in an extended rainy period, she had an indoor version that only held a few items. So the weather determined how much clothes were washed.

That clothesline got a lot of use after the purchase of the dryer, as well, because my Depression-era parents didn’t like to spend money on gas when the sun would dry our clothes for free.

We had big trees with white on the leaves. They were either silver maples or some sort of poplar. But they were plagued by what mom called “borers.” These were huge, garish black and white beetles with long legs and antennae. They were absolutely grotesque to look at. And the solution to keep the trees safe from them was to paint the trunks from the ground up to about six feet with white paint. The only image I could find of a painted tree trunk is the small one to the left. 

I don’t know if the paint kept the trees safe. I know that, at least in Miami, Oklahoma, white tree trunks were a very common sight in the 60’s. I haven’t seen one in a long time, though.

We had an osage orange tree on the edge of our yard. The species is also known as bois d’arc (pronounced bodark) apple. The French name pays homage to its wood being the native Americans’ choice for making bows. It would produce grapefruit-sized green fruit that would litter our yard in the late summer. It was great fun rolling them across the ground at my dog. He wasn’t crazy about it, though.

We had a corner lot with an alley along the back line, so we only had a neighbor to one side. They had a fence that looks similar to the one at the right. That fence was decrepit looking, probably having been installed fifteen or more years earlier. The neighbors were a little strange. They didn’t let their kid leave the yard, and allowed very few visitors. So we played lots of games through that fence. In fact, that looped-wire barrier is one of my strongest memories.

I also had a little swing that was suspended from one of the T-shaped clothes line poles. It’s amazing how much time a kid would spend in this simplest of contrivances, consisting of a short board and two lengths of rope. I swung in that swing until we moved away in 1968.

Today, my back yard is still a favorite place for me to be. Some day, perhaps my own children will write of playing tetherball, swimming in our above-ground pool, having fun with their dogs, and, of course, swinging in their homemade swing.

Summertime Serenades

It is late May as I write today’s column. The late afternoon air is filled with a variety of sounds. These include singing birds, barking dogs, and neighbors, whose conversations are noticed because of the combination of good weather and low background sound.

But around mid-July (in my Northwest Arkansas area), the afternoon air is filled with a sound that actually has the ability to live on 365 days a year in your subconscious.

Shed cicada shell

I present today’s subject as a Baby Boomer memory only because it is one I associate with my childhood, as are the vast majority of other articles I write. But untold numbers of generations have grown up with the sound of (as I put it) “yuree, yuree” echoing throughout whatever summer afternoon memories their minds can assemble.

Cicadas, or locusts, as they were known in Miami, Oklahoma, are some pretty amazing creatures. A male will mate with a female (who was impressed by his incessant “yuree, yuree” sound, complete with a natural fadeout) and die shortly afterward. Man, there must be a bunch of them because they literally sing all summer long.

Then, the female will lay eggs in tree branches, and the hatchlings will find themselves in the ground in short order. And they will spend 15 or more years there before instinctively crawling out of the dirt, climbing up a nearby tree trunk, and stopping to split open its exoskeleton to emerge as a completely dissimilar life form. For instance, its pincer front legs, so prominent in the empty hull, are gone in the adult, replaced with a massive set of wings that are arguably capable of completely blocking ultraviolet light.

Such a critter deserves to be able to plant itself into the summertime afternoon memories of humanity.

Indeed, their call is so pervasive that I often hear it subconsciously as I drift off to sleep with temperatures outside approaching 0 Fahrenheit, my window being cracked open a couple of inches because I like to sleep in the cold.

Shag Carpets

Raking a shag carpet

Ah, the late 60’s and 70’s. A time of experimentation, whether with recreational drugs, or with extreme decorating ideas. Such a bold stab at style (its creators might have tried some of those drugs, too) was the shag carpet.

Shag carpets came in a variety of colors, some of which were as extreme as the two-inch-long polyester monstrosity itself. Bright reds, blues, greens, and jet blacks were not unheard of. But earth tones were also big, to match those avocado green and harvest gold kitchen appliances.

My parents never went for shag carpet. They were in their forties and fifties when it came out, and it was more of a hit with the younger demographic. But I knew plenty of friends whose more youthful parents installed vast yards of the dirt-absorbing carpet.

Shag carpets came in different depths. You could go for a modest half-inch, or go all the way to the three inch thick Austin Powers variety. However, if you bought the deeper shags, you also had to purchase (and regularly use) the device to the left: a carpet rake.

Plastic shag rug rake from the 70’s

Then, there was the embedded dirt. Had shag carpets maintained the 1970’s popularity for a few more years, who knows what new life forms might have been discovered among those nylon depths where no vacuum cleaner could reach? The combination of organic and inorganic material buried at floor level among the polyester tendrils was sufficient that it was its own enclosed environment within your living room walls.

An episode I recall with particular cringing on my part was when my parents and I were invited over to a couple’s home who also had a child my age. They had vast expanses of bright white shag carpet, much like the illustration to the right. They also served a salad for dinner that required VERY red Russian dressing to taste perfect. As I served myself some salad, I reached for the dressing bottle, which required shaking to mix. It also had a very loose cap.

I run into that couple once in a while, and they regularly assure me that they STILL remember the amazing amount of square footage that one bottle of Russian dressing could cover thirty-five years ago.

But let’s face it, if you’re crazy enough to buy a white carpet, you must also resign yourself to the fact that it’s never again going to look as clean as it does that first day, Russian dressing notwithstanding.

Shags have made a bit of a comeback in our day. It’s not unusual to see a new home with a shorter shag carpet installed. The pile is composed of a much more durable material these days than the 1970’s era polyester. Remember how horrible a worn shag carpet looked?

But we who can recall even the vaguest glimmer of JFK can remember when every newer subdivision home had two features: a shag carpet, and a carpet rake.

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.

Growing Up in a Little Tract Home

Our tract home, and my oldest brother in the background

When our fathers got back from WWII, they were in the mood to get out of living in barracks and tents. They wanted new homes! So many of them purchased brand new tract homes, which were being built by the hundreds of thousands all over the US.

My father purchased our tract home in the early 50’s. It was probably built right after the war was over. It sat on a nice-sized corner lot, had a one-car garage, three bedrooms, one bathroom, and was probably about 1100 square feet in size. It was heated by a floor furnace, and cooled with a swamp cooler.

A new home would not be built with those dimensions today. In my area, even the most modest new home has two bathrooms. And the days of the big lot are gone. Lots are postage-stamp-sized in lower-priced subdivisions.

But our fathers felt like they were in tall cotton, buying new homes for perhaps $10,000. After all, they grew up having to visit the “house behind the house” for bathroom duties. The sleek homes they were able to purchase had real INDOOR plumbing!

So, we families grew up in small houses with a single bath. we grew accustomed to waiting for our turn in the “little room,” and nobody thought they were being deprived.

Brochure for a 50’s era floor furnace

Additionally, our heating and cooling systems were far from reliable in many cases. Our floor furnace’s pilot light was constantly blowing out, and morning temperatures of near-freezing were the result.

But the biggest downside of floor furnaces was the fact that natural gas is heavier than air. So a malfunctioning unit might possibly have a mass of extremely flammable gas built up inside it, and you lit a pilot light by sending flame to the bottom with a match!

Fortunately, we suffered no explosions in our home, although it was known to happen in our town.

The evaporative cooler had a mind of its own. It liked to shut its water pump down for no apparent reason on August days where the temperature was around 100 degrees. It didn’t take long for an 1100 square foot house to turn into a kiln under such circumstances.

But, I remember that house with nothing but fondness. I revisited my home town about ten years ago, and was pleased to see my house still standing. It’s has additions built on (another bathroom, I’m sure), but I was still able to recognize many familiar landmarks, at least on the outside.

My current home is also modest, a 1500 square foot 1972 tract home. But it’s been extensively remodeled, and my lot is at least as big as the one I grew up on.

I think I feel the same pride in it that my dad must have felt about that 1940’s tract home in Miami, Oklahoma.