What were we — or our parents — thinking?

Published 4:10 pm Tuesday, December 1, 2020

There are very real concerns today about children’s exposure to new and uncharted dangers, particularly through the internet and social media. Those concerns, if anything, may have increased as children spend days at home and on their computers thanks to the COVID-19 shutdown of schools.

I don’t envy parents today. In addition to their other parenting skills, they have to fully understand computer capabilities if they are to keep up with what their children are encountering. To a computer troglodyte (a tag given me by a more technologically enlightened editor and friend years ago), it’s pretty overwhelming.

These are simply things that my generation of parents, and our parents before us, never had to deal with.

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But that doesn’t mean there weren’t risks when we were growing up. They were numerous, and we always seemed willing to take them.

We thought nothing of riding on the back of a tractor, standing on a drawbar with only the back of the driver’s seat as a hand hold, as the tractor bounced along over rough ground or even down an asphalt highway. We routinely rode in the back of pickup trucks or, once in a while — just for kicks, you understand — on the hood. What could possibly go wrong with that?

Seatbelts were yet to be installed in cars and, initially, were only an option. You could install a set of lap belts by simply drilling holes in the floorboard and bolting them down, if you were wimpy enough to want them.

Lawn mowers not only didn’t have automatic safety cutoffs. To start them, you wound a rope around an exposed spool atop the flywheel and yanked it. To shut down the mower, you would press a metal tab against the spark plug with your foot to short the plug and kill the engine. Wet, bare feet were not recommended for this procedure.

As small children, we learned to climb trees, the taller the better. Later, my brother and I used our climbing skills to scale the metal rings on empty silos owned by nearby dairy farmers. Sitting straddled atop the silo, we would hoist blower pipes that would be fastened to the side and used to fill the silos with chopped corn. There was a 50-foot drop inside or outside the silo if you fell.

Nor did adults who supervised us seem as safety conscious — or perhaps lawsuit conscious — as today’s youth leaders. A school marching band performance back in the 1950s stands out in my memory as something that would never happen today.

We were to play “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” to whoever was the homecoming queen that year and, in preparation, the band director issued large cotton balls to each member of the band. The balls were soaked in lighter fluid — yes, you read that correctly — and we were instructed to shove them up our sleeves for safe keeping as we marched onto the football field.

Each of us was also issued a pad of matches. Once on the field, we placed the cotton balls on the ground, lit them, and the field lights were turned off as we played the sentimental tribute.

Having finished the song, we were instructed to snuff out the fires with our feet, and march off the field. We were told to be certain the fires were fully out. You wouldn’t want a football player to fall on a hot cotton ball.

Fortunately, nobody’s uniform sleeve was ignited by residual lighter fluid fumes, nobody’s socks caught fire as they tamped out the fires and I never recall anyone saying what a stupid thing we had just been directed to do. But, then, that was more than 60 years ago.

Definitions — and dangers — have changed quite a bit since then, but dangers still exist, and they can be at least as harmful than those we faced.


John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is j.branchedwards@gmail.com.