Hanging out with grandkids this summer made me even more aware of things they need to learn to enhance their life experiences. They are ill-served if allowed to just come into the house, crack a fresh cold drink–the beverages my father called belly washes–pop open their Ipod 2s and have their thumbs fly through the zillion apps available to them. I do think the modern machines are marvelous and undoubtedly offer us more information–sometimes totally erroneous and useless–than our poor little brains can successfully process. But they cause grandkids to sit for hours in air conditioned spaces  eating junk food and sipping soft drinks. At least until the can gets warm, then they open a cold one.

When they get old enough, grandkids, just as our own kids were taught, need to be instructed on how to drive a car defensively and safely. In our society that has as many automobiles as people this essential skill has to be learned well and practiced often.

“Yes Pa Pa, I heard you say for the tenth time that I must assume all other drivers on the road are either crazy or drunk. I also heard you tell me that living In New Orleans, I will be about half right in that assumption,” Number One Grandson, Charles, confirmed to his grandfather.

“ I intended to stop at that intersection. I was not going to pull out in front of that car coming down the highway”. Number One Grandson asserted to all of us in the car. Before I shouted for him to stop, his mother, his brother Nathan–Number Two Grandson, and Karen gasped in unison. Nathan said under his breath, “I thought he was going to kill us all”.

But before learning the heavy responsibility of driving, modern kids just need to learn to have fun without the aid of some gadget that requires batteries. They need to learn to retrieve a “Pick-up Stick” without causing the other sticks in the unruly pile to move. This is therapy for the attention deficit-disordered and requires manual dexterity that may later be used to fly an airplane or spaceship.

Young Tom on the Levee

Lincoln logs, rough hewn pieces of brown wood with notches at each end, offered a valuable education on to how to build log cabins, but they were pretty much limited to just that. The more versatile Tinker Toy set,which contained round sticks that fit into round disks with holes through the center and all around the circumference enabled a kid to create many imaginative structures.

But for the more gifted, nerdy kid who aspires to become an engineer or astronaut, his parents would fail their responsibilities if they did not give him or her and Erector Set. Such was the case with my cousin Joe Allen who, after serving a stint as a naval aviator, became a test pilot for the Lear company and the FAA. I can remember Joe Allen sitting admits the gazillion metal parts of his Erector Set telling me what he planned to build next.

I see in the sporting good store one can buy a professional grade horse shoe set. These sets include perfectly balanced cast iron u-shaped objects that never saw the bottom of any horse’s foot, two beautifully powder-coated stakes that would never rust and a book of instructions and rules. In my day, we scrounged up old, rusty, mismatched horse shoes from the barn, a couple of pieces of lead water pipe, then stepped off a course under the shade of big pecan trees. We made up the rules as we went along and enjoyed ourselves for hours at a time.

We did not have to have parents or someone like an anonymous manual writer to instruct us on how to play any game or how to enforce rules we created. We children, peer-to-peer, made up our own rules. We disputed among ourselves perceived infractions of our rules. These peer-to-peer debates, discussions and sometimes confrontations steeled us for conflicts we would later face in life. We had to learn to settle things among ourselves as best we could or leave the game–or worse yet–find a new set of friends.


When children settled their own differences

We did not have the luxury of plastic toys made by slave labor in China, Taiwan, Indonesia, India or Bangladesh. The truth be known that during the Great Depression, very few of us kids had any store-bought toys. Of course some kids from the lucky sperm club–kids with rich daddies– had access to sophisticated toys like the fabulous Lionel Train sets. Those of us fortunate enough to know a kid in the lucky sperm club sought to befriend him so we could get a chance to run his marvelous train.

Most of us had to make do with toys that came in a Cracker Jack box or inexpensive toys form the five and dime store. But more often than not, we made our own toys using instructions passed down orally from generation to generation from whatever material was available. No paper pamphlet or instructions found on Google provided us with the information necessary to construct our make-shift toys. No kits provided the raw material to make the toys. We just made do with whatever was available.

For example, an old worn out pair of skates could be converted into a brand new skate board. One only had to remove the clamps from the two skates then screw them inline to the bottom of a piece of scrap two by four board about three feet long. The project became complete after you attached a T-shaped handle made of more scrap wood to the front of the two by four with the skates attached.

Another useful and entertaining item we boys, and some girls, made ourselves were slingshots.  Sling shots were useful for shooting at birds, lazy cats, offending dogs, and your playmates. Small, smooth pieces of gravel proved to be the most effective ammunition. They could travel a considerable distance and inflict serious damage to a bird if you were lucky enough to hit one. When shooting at your playmates, custom dictated that you use less damaging china-berries. But even the less potent china-berries could inflict a large red whelp on our foe.

Easy to construct, for a slingshot one only had to have access to a forked branch from a tree, some old car tires, a piece of leather cut from the tongue of an old shoe and a bit of strong twine. Branches from a willow tree worked best. With your trusty pocket knife, which should be with you at all times, you would cut the handle down to about six inches long and leave the forked branches that formed a Y about five inches long. You would then cut groves around the tips of the Y branches so a rubber band could be firmly attached. The process then required you to cut–from the best rubber you could find on old car tire–two strips about ten inches long. You would fold each of the strips of rubber over each of the two Y branches and bind them securely onto them with twine. You then made a slip knot in two pieces of twine and slipped them over the other ends of the rubber bands. After cutting a piece of shoe tongue leather into an oval shape about three inches long, you would punch a hole in each end of the leather with a nail and attach the twine.

As anyone can see, the making of a simple slingshot took some skill, thought and considerable time. I find this time better spent than staring at an IPad for hours at a time retrieving baseball, basketball and football scores, but maybe I could be wrong.

Pop guns found their place in our childhood arsenals. Mulberry trees provided us all the ammunition we needed. We found constructing a pop gun less complicated than a slingshot, but it proved just as effective. A piece of straight cane about a foot long and a straight stick the same diameter of the inside of the cane sufficed for construction of this weapon. We hollowed out the cane, attached a round component of a tinker toy set to the end of the stick to make a plunger, then inserted the plunger into the cane. When loaded with proper sized mulberries, one had a weapon that could produce a nasty whelp on an opponent at fifty feet.

Rubber guns could be found in any southern child’s arsenal. Construction only required a piece of scrap wood about a foot and half long and wide enough that it could be cut into the  shape of a pistol, a wooden clothes pen, and and old car tire. We shaped the weapon somewhat like a pistol then put a notch on the front of the barrel to hold the rubber band cut from the cross section of the car tire. We then attached a clothespin to the rear of the handle of the “gun” to hold the rubber band that had been stretched to that location. Firing the “gun” simply required depressing the clothespin. Some kids became quite innovative and built rifle-type rudder guns that could fire multiple rounds.

Cowpoke Tom, his brother and cousin

We kids of the Great Depression and the Second World War had our favorite cowboy heroes. Your cowboy hero could not be a sissy. In other words, he could not sing or court pretty girls. Heroes had to wear white hats and defeat villains–who wore black hats–in either a knockdown-and-drag-out fist fight fight in a bar room or a gun fight with six shooters on a dusty street. A cowboy could also gain hero status by jumping on a team of runaway horses about to pull a stage coach over a cliff.

As an older kid I tried to convince my younger cousin to “play like” he was the bad guy and I was the good guy. My cousin actually liked to “play like” he was the bad guy. Somehow he thought the men in the black hats were smarter and more resourceful than the good guys. He went on to play this role through out most of his life.

If we felt we had some musical talent, we could play the Juice Harps that the good Kellogg’s folks gave us when our parents bought a box of corn flakes. Some obnoxious kids could play these three note instruments for hours until someone rested it from him and bent it in half.

If we felt artistic, we could boil down hackberries in an old coffee can to produce a deep purple, permanent dye. This magic substance of regal color could be used to paint your tree house, the vehicle you had built for the soap box derby, your skate board or some unsightly fence. But if the unwashable substance stained your “Sunday-Go-To-Meeting” clothes your mother would make you select a little keen switch with which she would stripe your legs and behind. Not being brutal mothers, they would always require a “keen” switch as opposed to a thick limb, lest they cause permanent injury. I suppose nowadays even the “keen” switch treatment would be considered child abuse that should be reported to child protective services. Then some young social worker, who never had a child and probably never would, could come to instruct your mother on child rearing.

We had never heard of things like marijuana or crack cocaine, but we would sneak out behind the barn and smoke rabbit grass in our corncob pipes until we became sick as dogs, turned green and threw up. Simple to construct, corncob pipes suited our needs to test the rules. One simply took an old piece of corncob, broke off the fat end and hollowed it out with your trusty pocket knife. You then took a twenty penny nail and bored a hole near the bottom into the hollow inside. A thin piece of cane inserted into the hole provided a fine stem. One then only had to find some dead rabbit grass and light up.

Now, the grandkids who fish use expensive rods and reels acquired from Sports Authority, Bass Pro or Cabela’s. Only the best will do. The lures don’t come cheap either, and are lost frequently. A fishing trip with a professional guide breaks the grandparents’ bank, but does produce many fish.

Fishing with grandsons

Kids I grew up with had little expense in their fishing equipment, but were relegated to catching some scrawny brim or perch from the banks of a river or creek. Their fishing gear consisted of a cane pole that cost nothing, some twine, that cost almost nothing. You topped off your fishing equipment with a hook from a box of number 2 hooks that you bought for a nickel and a piece of rope on which you could string your fish to carry home for a dinner of bony fish.

Those of us outside the “Lucky Sperm Club” did not have the advantage of playing tennis or golf to keep in shape. Monroe, Louisiana did have a beautiful swimming pool built by the WPA (Works Progress Administration) during the Depression. All of us kids in the vicinity learned to swim well at an early age.

To stay in shape on a regular basis, we engaged in contest like Hide-And-Go-Seek (Fate as we called it in New Orleans), Hop Scotch, Jacks, Marbles, Mumblety Peg, Cowboys and Indians,  and Jump Rope. Of course Jump Rope and Hop Scotch were mostly for girls. We boys engaged in these games only if challenged mercilessly by the girls.

During the summer we would play these games with our playmates from “can to can’t”, making up new rules as we went along. Our parents would shoo us out of our un-air-conditioned house just after breakfast and lock the screen door behind us so we could not come back inside and mess up the house our mother had just cleaned. When the day grew hot, we sought the shade of trees. When we got thirsty, we drank out of a garden hose. When lunchtime  came, our mothers would shove some sandwiches outside the screen door for us, then latch it again. We played well into the night by the light of fire flies until we could play no more. Obese playmates were rare.

As we get older, we become nostalgic about the “Good Old Days”. I am the first to admit that not all aspects of “The Good Old Days” were so good, but that is subject matter for another story. However being required to live with nature and with our peers, solving problems and making up rules to govern ourselves as we went along seemed to condition us physically and mentally for the inevitable conflicts and vicissitudes we would face in life.

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