We grew up in a US time when horses were still used to deliver milk and baked goods, and collect recyclables (generically called ‘rags’ back then)… It was a slow time, when summer days were a week long, and to get from Saturday lunch to the starting bars of the first Looney Tunes of the Saturday matinee with 25 cartoons and cowboy double-feature took about 3 days.
There was no tv then, so all we could do in the living room was live. That was mostly at night. During the day, if not at school daydreaming out the windows we were always out playing, up to many miles away, on foot or bicycle, often taking our lunch with us. The radio was in the kitchen, for listening to after dinner or while doing the drudgery of homework while Mom did the ironing.
The only apparatus in the living room was the big clunky iron telephone you had to dial, then wait for the dial to roll clickingly back till you could whirl in the next number but there were only 5 numbers in those days, since there were about 2 billion people in the world and only a tiny portion in Albany. My Brady/McTeague grandfather, an electrician for the phone company, had one of the standing phones with the earpiece on a side hook and the dial at the bottom, like in all the old black-and-white fast-paced newspaper movies. “Get me the desk!” Things began to change palpably when the phone numbers started getting longer. Where I live now my number is 10 digits long, 15 or more if you’re calling from another country.
We had no Victrola, as phonographs (itself a neoarchaism now!) were called back then; the only person in the family who had a Victrola was my Robinson/Kelly grandfather, a NYCRR conductor, who had a then merely quaint wind-up one in his basement, with a big morning glory megaphone where the sound came out. Next to the whizzing green felt turntable it had a little metal cupful of playing needles like headless finishing nails that lasted about an hour and were attached to the tone arm by vising them in place with a knurled knob.
The living room in those days was where guests sat and chatted or Dad read the newspaper in the big red easy chair under the standing lamp by the window after dinner. On really rainy days when we had friends over or went to their house, we played in the living room: checkers, cards (War was a favorite), chess, Monopoly, Clue, Go to the Head of the Class… but when the weather was even remotely tolerable (in winter there were no limits) and we didn’t have measles or mumps or whooping cough we would never in a million years have stayed inside, we’d be out somewhere exploring, playing, finding stuff to do all day long, even into dark in summer, home only to eat then out again, except for the detested but implacable Saturday night bath.
Each of those days was about a week long. The school year was about a decade in length, but seemed longer. I remember one time at the end of summer vacation realizing it would be 9 months till summer vacation, an impossible duration, as time-distant as the Civil War, which had ended only 80 years before, when great grandma was a teenager. Then at the start of summer vacation, school was almost 3 months away, in the heart an essentially unending length of time, though we knew better.
Comics were a new thing then too, this was only a few years after the first Batman, the only copy in existence now a crumbling million-dollar item. I used to own millions of dollars worth of comics at today’s prices, bought them for dimes I got doing odd jobs in the neighborhood, original Donald Ducks, Little Lulu, Mad, Superman, Batman, Captain Marvel and all the many others, read ’em and tossed ’em in a pile, filled my wagon and went trading comics in the neighborhood.
It wasn’t a better world in many ways, there was more manifest prejudice, for example, and pollution was the norm– litter wasn’t even a full-blown concept yet (the word ‘litterbug’ was the winner of a contest to give the phenomenon a name), and though age and nostalgia likely play a big part in my perspective, it seems from here that many of the technoadvances we now enjoy have been achieved at the cost of time’s depth and richness. The journey is where the treasures are.
In a Tarzan movie I saw one long-gone Saturday afternoon, Tarzan is shown a movie on a screen set up in the big white hunter’s jungle camp; on the screen Tarzan sees a train rushing at him and panics. “That train in the picture can go from coast to coast in three days,” explains the civilized white guy. “What for?” asks Tarzan.
In so many ways, those were the days.