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by Rose Madeline Mula

Whatever happened to the simple play of childhood past?

Today’s kids would find our primitive pastimes not only boring but even pathetically ludicrous — if not incredible.

Did we actually gather outdoors in groups after supper (yes, we had supper — not dinner) every evening to play unsophisticated games like Simon Says, Red Rover, Kick the Can, King of the Hill, and Mother, May I? The last one is especially incongruous. Let’s face it. Formally asking Mother’s permission to do anything these days is rare — and to incorporate this concept into something we did for fun would seem pretty weird to kids today.

And did we actually play these games on the streets in front of our homes? What about the traffic? Well, as I recall, there was none to speak of. Few families could afford cars. I remember one privileged family down the block bought a brand new Ford. It was gray with maroon fenders. It cost $600! Way beyond the means of the rest of the neighborhood. But it didn’t really matter because back then, most people worked at local businesses and our fathers traveled to their jobs by bus (or on foot, so they could save the 10-cent fare), while our mothers stayed home in their house dresses (yes, house dresses!) and cooked and cleaned all day.

It was a blissfully innocent age. No one worried that while we played outside we might be abducted or caught in the crossfire of warring gangs. We stayed out unsupervised until the streetlights came on (our signal to return home) — skipping rope, playing tag, hide & seek, crack the whip, stickball, hopscotch… Running, jumping, climbing; constantly on the move. Childhood obesity was rare in that pre-TV/computer/video game age. A couch potato was a tuber that fell from the bowl on Mom’s lap as she peeled while listening to Stella Dallas, Backstage Wife, Our Gal Sunday, or one of her other favorite radio soap operas featuring a plucky woman trying gamely to make her way in a male-dominated world.

Our play was unstructured. No coaches, no practice, no game schedules, no parents on the sidelines yelling encouragement or berating us for our failures. And no fancy equipment or designer label sportswear and athletic shoes. We had no special sneakers for jogging, walking, biking, hiking. Our all-purpose Keds served all those functions.

I remember learning to ski. No, not on the slopes of a mountain resort, but on my street — a hill that stayed unplowed all winter. (No traffic, remember?) And no state-of-the-art, expensive gear. My skis were wooden slats, tipped up at the toes, with leather straps that slipped over my everyday rubber galoshes that, in turn, I pulled on over my saddle shoes. No high-tech boots. No clamps. (Come to think of it, all that probably was state-of-the-art at the time.)

Not surprisingly, I suppose, I never became very adept at skiing.

I did learn to roller skate (sort of). No, I didn’t have roller blades. Or shoe skates. My wheels were mounted on two adjustable metal plates that could be shortened or lengthened to fit under my good old saddle shoes; and they attached to my shoes with clamps that were tightened with a roller skate key. I wore my key on a string around my neck so I wouldn’t lose it.

I never did learn to swim, despite the fact that we had relatives who lived by the shore, whom we visited often. It wasn’t easy. (No car, remember?). To get there we had to take a bus, then a streetcar (on which I invariably got sick), followed by a ferry, and finally a train. No wonder I couldn’t swim. I was probably much too exhausted by the time I got to the beach to do no more than plop on the sand.

I also never had a stuffed animal as a child. Can you believe it? I don’t remember feeling deprived, which must mean that none of my friends had any either. Today’s kids, on the other hand, can’t find their beds (or floors) because they are hidden under mountains of stuffed dolphins, elephants, alligators, turtles, rabbits, ducks, ponies, giraffes, hippos, penguins, whales, dinosaurs, pandas, puppies, kittens, monkeys, lions and tigers and bears — oh, my! And if those aren’t enough, they also have clones of all of them that are computer programmable and incorporated into a myriad of electronic games. I have a secret fear that some day all those animal Webkinz are going to band together and take over the world. (Actually, they might do a better job than most of the humans in charge today.)

Though I never had a Teddy bear, I wasn’t completely toy-destitute. I did have a beautiful Shirley Temple doll, and a baby doll that would drink from a bottle and then wet her diapers! Talk about high-tech. I also remember a toy washing machine with a wringer. I know, no one under the age of sixty today remembers washing machines with wringers, but they were really the cat’s meow (that’s “cool” in today’s lingo). Hey, they beat going down to the river and scrubbing your clothes on rocks.

Many of today’s teens have their own cell phones. Of course, these did not exist. when I was a child. Landline telephones did, but it wasn’t until I was a teen-ager that my family had one. The first phone I remember was a black, clunky two-piece job — a mouthpiece mounted on a six-inch rod and an earpiece at the end of a cord. No dial. No push buttons. Instead, when you lifted the ear piece from its perch, an operator (always a woman) would ask, “Number please,” and she would make the connection for you.

My parents’ first phone was on a party line — a connection we had to share with one or two other families. When we picked up the receiver to make a call, if we heard others speaking, we were expected to hang up quietly and try again later. However, some people (not me, of course) would just pretend to hang up and, instead, would listen to the conversation. Who could blame us (I mean, them)? We had no TV. No tabloid newspapers. How else could we learn the latest gossip?

Travel has also evolved exponentially. While today’s toddlers jet off to Disney World with their parents while they’re still in diapers (the toddlers, not the parents), I took my first flight when I was twenty-five. No — not with the Wright Brothers, but in a propeller-powered plane. Noisy! Slow! Bumpy! But I loved it. I didn’t know any better.

Yes, times have changed — and are changing. I can’t imagine what the next hundred years will bring. Unfortunately, we won’t be here to see. Or maybe we will. I just read that scientists are working on extending the human life span to 200 and beyond. Apparently they’re not worried about where to put us all because by then NASA will have established communities on other planets.

I hope there will be plenty of job openings on Venus or Mars or wherever I’m sent; because I’m going to run out of money before I’m 100.


Editor's Note: Rose Mula's most recent book, The Beautiful People and Other Aggravations, is now available at your favorite bookstore, through and other online bookstores, and through Pelican Publishing (800-843-1724), as is her previous book, If These Are Laugh Lines, I'm Having Way Too Much Fun.


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