Stories are a way of transmitting knowledge from one generation to another. They are an important part of oral tradition, and they help people understand their history, culture, and identity. Through storytelling, we can pass on important lessons, values, and beliefs.Shared storytelling can help us learn from each other. When we encounter a difficult situation, relating to our past experiences can help identify what worked well and what didn’t. This can help us and others develop new strategies for coping and handling future challenges. I often wonder if passing on these stories from one generation to the next may warp the illusion our younger generation has of my six sisters and me. Ah, well, truth be told, you can’t change the past; and I wouldn’t want to. As you read further, a heads up: don’t try any of this at home. We were poor kids with nothing to lose while also trying to have some fun.
We did not have much as kids. The great part was that most of the cousins on my mother’s side didn’t either and the neighborhood from which we grew was mostly made up of first or second generation Western Europeans who were in the same economic category. Meaning that parents were primarily mill workers, laborers or worked for the State. Kids did not have lots of toys. If you had a bike that was a big deal – and that bike was often shared among family members and neighborhood kids taking turns. First dibs was the only form of reservations.
We went to our neighborhood playground in Crompton where we played baseball, Knock-Hockey, jacks, marbles, constructed stuff out of popsicle sticks, made potholders from little, square metal looms, braided gimp ropes, smoked “punk-sticks” (you’ll have to research that), bought penny candy if we had a coin or two, set off rolls of exploding caps with any rock we could find or just hung around with friends sitting on top of the monkey-bars. We played games like Simon Says, Red Rover, Kick the Can, Hide and Seek. The teenage kids played with the younger kids. No one was bullied. Everyone just had fun. There were some negotiable situations when the older kids would up the stakes for the losers in a game. They would bargain comic books, or baseball bats, favorite gloves, etc. Not to keep, just to use for a couple of games or a specific duration of time – conditions were agreed upon by both parties.
Roller skating was a common, neighborhood past-time. Certainly not the elegant roller blades or shoe skates that we have today. Skates were metal, usually stainless steel foot/base plates with two wheeled axles front and back. Each had a raised heel support that housed the foot and secured the ankle to the skate by leather straps and brass buckles. You would slip your foot onto the skate and press your foot against the heel stop and use your skate key to adjust the length of the skate (found underneath). Then, with the buckled straps you would secure your ankles in place. Once the length was right, you would have to use your skate key to adjust the metal toe grips on both sides of the skate until they were tight enough around your shoe to stay on. If that rubber strip on your sneaker or the leather rim on your shoe was flimsy, that clamp would dig into the sides of your foot while skating. Believe me, there were many skate blisters in those days! Roller skates were metal, when those wheels hit the concrete and you were cruising through the neighborhood – WOW! They made some noise!
Roller skates were useless if you didn’t have a skate key on hand to adjust them. The hexagonal loop on top was used to turn the bolt that adjusted the length of the skate and the tubular end fit on the pin that tightened the toe grips. We all wore those keys around our necks on a string. If you were a “cool” roller skater, you had a braided, four-strand, rounded gimp rope that you made yourself at the local playground and that’s how you wore your key. If you lost the key, you would have to get new skates. Fatsky-chansky! Our parents would never buy a new pair if we lost the skate key. Almost all of our roller skates were passed down through two or three older siblings. Most of my friends had hand-me-down everything, including toys. Wearing those metal keys around your neck was also a risk — they were big and they were heavy. If you fell or were whizzing down a concrete or tarred surface and found yourself air bound and on your landing you were hit in the face with that key – it was like being pistol whipped by Luca Brasi.
Neighborhood kids shared baseballs, mitts and bats; footballs; basketballs (there was ONE hoop in the neighborhood. I still don’t know who owned it, or if it was free standing or nailed to the side of a shed or who put it there, as it wasn’t in anyone’s yard or driveway. It stood off the side of a neighborhood street under a cleared area, surrounded on three sides by maple trees. Everyone played there and everyone was respectful of each others’ space. Someone had a soccer ball (that no one used for soccer); we used it for Dodge Ball or Freeze. I think that we were the only family with a croquet set. How we got one, I will never know. It may be because we had the only flat, 1-acre yard in the neighborhood. Which, if playing croquet, is a good thing. I do remember there being many “bending of rules” depending on who was playing and who was winning. Thankfully, no one lost their heads. We were comic book kids back then. Superheroes. There was always a heated debate over Marvel vs. DC comics and who were the greatest superheroes. We shared comic books until the pages fell out.
We had a crazy game of Kick the Can one day and my sister Susan, in her enthusiasm kicked the can good and hard. She contacted that can against the power of her foot and the can flew straight up, slitting her lip which required stitches. She still has the scar. In those days, you didn’t need video streaming to become a game warrior.
My sister Annie was tiny and very thin. Teams loved calling her over during Red Rover. She would literally run, leap and land on the hands or arms of the opposite team. But to no avail. She was an easy opponent. However, Annie was a great hider. Because of her size, she could squeeze almost anywhere and into the most unlikely spots. When playing Hide and Seek, the older kids would be frustrated after a long search for her; especially if it was getting dark and the time to return home was close at hand. Annie did have a downfall in that game, and those who knew it usually used it to its full extent when necessary. You see, Annie loved bananas. So when the time of desperation arrived, the “It” person would yell, “Hey! Annie! Do you want a banana?” And inevitably my sister, in her little squeaky voice would yell back from her hiding place, “Yes!” Game over.
My sister Marie became an archer at CYO summer day camp (free camp if you belonged to a Roman Catholic Church). I don’t know who gave her the bow and arrow set. As I mentioned, we had an acre of land and an apple tree stood in the far, northeast section of the yard. Marie, in her teens, decided that she should test her archery skills. She asked my sister Frieda (two years younger), if she would stand up against that tree with an apple on her head. Don’t get me wrong, my sisters are really bright; A-students they were. But they were as daring as they are bright. The distance my sisters had between them, I cannot recall. I don’t believe it was the same 120 paces required for William Tell, however, it did appear to be a wide gap. Just as my sister Marie was pulling back the string on her bow, ready to let the arrow fly towards my sister Frieda’s apple (and head), my mother happened to notice both of them from the window. “Marie!” She cried. And my sister let that arrow fly and a second later, that apple was stuck to the tree with my sister Frieda narrowly escaping from beneath it. Perhaps this is why we have a greater appreciation for Gioachino Rossini. Sure, he’s Italian, but our admiration appears to go even deeper than that.
If you faced our backyard with your back towards our house, the acre of yard stretched out in front of you. At the far end of the yard was a steep hill, maybe 40 feet at its highest point. At the top of the hill was a steel-link fence that surrounded the Emanuel Lutheran Church cemetery. We climbed that hill all the time, to peer at the “scary cemetery” as the hill was easy to ascend and a cemetery was always a place of mythical curiosity to us. The hill nested some large, old trees and was littered with thick, sprawling roots, some of which protruded 2 – inches out of the ground. Getting a foothold on those roots made the climb easy. My four oldest sisters would roll a 55-gallon lidded, metal drum or barrel up the hill. Once, at the top of the hill, they would put my sister Susan, who was about 6 or 7, into the barrel, provide her with a pillow, then close the lid shut. This had to be done by actually kicking the lid closed until it was securely in place. They would then ask my sister Susan if she was, “Ready,” and my sister would respond, “Ready” from inside the drum. My sisters would then push the drum down the 40 foot hill. Because the hill was so steep with those protruding roots, which made for a fast, bumpy, air-born ride for Susan until the barrel finally came to a stop in the middle of the yard. My sisters would quickly pry open the barrel, retrieve my sister and the game would continue until Susan had had enough or a responsible adult immediately stopped them.
How could kids be allowed to play such dangerous games? How could parents or neighbors be so irresponsible? Someone could get killed! Yes. But no one did, thankfully, and having to find innovative ways to play was part of our growing up. We believed in Robin Hood, William Tell, Peter Pan, Capt. James Hook, The Lone Ranger and Tonto, Superman, Captain America and Wonder Woman. And although our heroes’ actions were daring, their deeds were for the sake of good. We wanted to be like them. We believed we could emulate them and there was never malice in our games.
I often wonder, “My God!, how did we live to tell it!” And although it was, in fact, dangerous to play some of our games, was it worse than the violence that children are allowed to stream into their bedrooms for hours, today? When those video games become their hero-realities and kids search out guns in their own homes to inflict harm on others? When they can no longer discern dying on screen from dying in reality and people don’t come back as they do in their streaming video game? There is no reset button. That is malice and this is a different world, today – malice is the norm; even cool.
I must admit that summers were the best. Looking back, I wouldn’t change anything. Except maybe the day when I realized I wasn’t a boy, and my mother told me that I could no longer ride my bike or spend time outside bare-chested. That I had to wear a t-shirt “because you’re a big girl, now.” Devastating. We rarely played inside our house or anyone’s house. Even in winter weather outside play was expected. Only in the worst rain or snow storm were we hunkered down in our houses. Of all of our neighborhood friends, I can barely remember the interior of two houses and even then, only one room in each house. We did not need to tell our parents where we were or where we were going. We were safe in our neighborhoods. At least, safer than kids are today. We rode our bikes all morning, returned for lunch, then rode again. Returned for dinner and if the sun was still high, out again. We were gone all day. And then, when the street lights came on or the 8:00 p.m. West Warwick Fire Station alarm went off on Main Street, every kid knew what time it was and where they were supposed to be. Suddenly, it was as if an invisible stage director were blocking the end of a scene – and all the actors simultaneously left the stage and were homeward bound.