Sydney M. Williams
Essay from Essex
“Growing up in the 1940-50s”
November 20, 2018
“Anyway, the consequence of all this is that kids were left
pretty much to decide for themselves what games they
would play – indeed even to invent their own games.”
Antonin Scalia (1936-2016)
Scalia Speaks: Reflections on Law, Faith, and Life Well Lived, 2017
My wife and I spent a few days, recently, at the home of four grandchildren, while their parents went to New York for a well-deserved weekend. While they were at a casino charity gala at the Yale Club, sitting in the bleachers at a Dartmouth-Columbia football game and attending Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West, with the German tenor Jonas Kaufman, at the Met, we were in our cars. In the roughly forty hours we were at their house, I made fifteen four-mile trips into town. (My wife made a few of her own.) Two of the trips were for my own purposes – buying newspapers – but the rest involved the grandchildren:visits to friends, sporting events, shopping, restaurants, etc. Heading out on the 15thtrip to somewhere, I thought of the gap between their growing up and mine. Mine were the post-Depression and post-War years. My parents, being artists, worked from home. Both of them had traveled abroad when young, but once settled in Peterborough, NH – apart from the War, visiting parents in East River, CT and Wellesley, MA, attending horseshows and going skiing – they rarely left home. The decades since my childhood have seen vast changes.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s there were, at least in our house, no electronic gadgets, apart from a radio on which we listened to WBZ broadcasts of Red Sox games and shows like “The Lone Ranger,” Fibber McGee and Molly” and “The Shadow.” There were no electric appliances – no stove, refrigerator, washer-dryer or dishwasher; no blender, TV or toaster. A wood stove served the house until after I was married – and an electric refrigerator only arrived in 1953. Before that, we made weekly trips to the ice-man. (In my earliest memories ice was delivered, but that service was suspended not long after the War.) Ice was stored in a wooden, tin-lined ice chest and had to be replaced every four or five days. Dishes were washed by hand, and my mother, at least initially, used a laundromat. After my father died in 1968, she got a television and an electric stove. In terms of news, and apart from the radio, my parents subscribed to The New York Herald Tribune. Life, allowed us to imagine ourselves in foreign and exotic places. We read The Saturday Evening Post for its serialized stories and glanced through The New Yorker and Punch for their cartoons. We read a lot, as there were hundreds of books in the house.
Like many rural families, we had a barn. In our case it housed horses, goats, chickens, a few ducks and, later, a couple of peacocks. The goats were used for milk and butter. The chickens and ducks for eggs. The peacocks for ornamentation. The horses were an expense, until my mother began giving riding lessons in the mid 1950s. We usually had about five horses: “Nona” (a Chestnut that had belonged to my father’s family); “Jill” (a dark-colored horse who, when she died, my father buried in front of the barn); “Judy” (a Chestnut cross between a Thoroughbred and a workhorse and my usual mount. “Judy” also used to haul manure and felled trees, which were cut up and split for the wood stoves and fireplace); “Whinny” (a grey Welsh Pony given to my mother by her former headmistress, Miss Charlotte, on the occasion of the birth of her fifth child); “Star” (sired by an Arabian and foaled by “Whinny,” generally ridden by my brother Frank), and “Mitzi” (the Shetland on whom we all learned to ride). What I loved best was riding through the woods and over the “hill” to our grandparents’ summer home and then galloping “Judy” home along dirt roads. A favorite pleasure was inviting a friend to go riding, putting him or her on “Mitzi,” and then riding past the watering hole, where “Mitzi” would inevitably roll, especially when she sensed the rider was a novice.
Once, at a horse show in Dublin, New Hampshire, I got my foot caught in a stirrup and was dragged about a hundred feet, with no damage except to my ego. But my mother’s work paid off. Her youngest child, George, ultimately became a nationally-ranked dressage rider and today is president of the United States Dressage Federation.
We swam and rode horses in the summer, skated and skied in the winter. We played politically incorrect games, like “cowboys and Indians,” where the youngest were forced to play the Indians, because they always ended up dead. We traipsed through the woods, pretending to be frontiersmen, carrying toy cap-guns. (My father did not like guns, so there were never any in the house.) My father did build a jungle-gym. It was made from six-to-ten-inch diameter trees he had cut down. It stood about fifteen feet high. It had swings, bars and cross-beams on which we learned to balance. My sister Mary used it as the center piece for a Children’s Circus, which she organized in the late 1940s and that ran for a dozen years. The proceeds from the Circus – initially about $30.00 – went to what is now the Crotchet Mountain Rehabilitation Center.
As well, we played more hum-drum games, like marbles, which required a combination of dexterity and guile, with, perhaps, more emphasis on the latter. We carried them around in little leather pouches. The goal was to win your opponents’. We wrestled, sometimes for fun, other times more seriously. We played catch, and stuck crab apples on the end of a stick to see how far we could catapult them. Once I broke a dining room window. My mother made me tell my father what I had done. The trip to the studio, where he was working, was a hundred feet from the house. It took hours, or so it seemed. He commended me for my honesty, not knowing credit belonged to my mother. As we got older, and on some weekends, we went to the movies; though I have no memory of my parents ever having gone. An afternoon feature, as I recall, cost $0.35.
Another difference were cars. My son and his wife, with two children of driving age, own three cars. (An embarrassing admission is that my wife and I, with five drivers in the family, once had six cars.) Until my sister Mary and I bought a car together in 1957 – a 1947 four-door Ford coupe, for which we paid $95.00 – my family had only one car, despite nine children and living four miles from the village. The first of their cars was a 1938 Chevrolet station wagon. (I have a picture of it on the wall behind my desk, a suitcase tied to its bumper, my sister Mary and me in front holding dolls, and a goat sticking her head out the rear window.) The next was a 1941 Ford, bought second-hand after the War. That was followed by a 1953 Ford wagon and, four years later, a 1957 Ford wagon. When my mother hitched the car to the horse trailer to take a few children to a show, my father was out of luck if he needed to go to town. And when my father took a bunch of us skiing my mother had to stay home.
One consequence was that we took the bus to and from school. After-school activities would not have fit into our parents’ lifestyles. “Helicoptering” and “hovering” parents were years in the future. We entertained ourselves. Our nearest neighbor was a mile away. I was the second oldest, so knew best my older sister Mary and younger brother Frank. Next came three girls, followed by three boys. Essentially, we were trisected, though Mary substituted for my mother when the latter was in the barn or away. I was generally less helpful. Chopping wood, pitching hay and cleaning stalls were chores to be endured, not enjoyed. (I recall once the unpleasant and difficult task of burying a goat who had died when the ground was still frozen.) Most of all, though, we had time to play. Frank and I let our imaginations roam. We played in the woods and fields. While guns were not permitted, my father reluctantly allowed cap-pistols and small hunting knives, the throwing of which was an art we practiced but never mastered. The cap-pistols, however, were good for scaring chickens, goats and horses, much to our delight and to their dismay. We sometimes camped outside, and there were even times when we made it all through the night.
Permitting children to travel alone seems quaint in an age when parents have been arrested for letting children walk home from the park or from school. We were warned about speaking to strangers, but “stranger danger” was an alien phrase. I was one of the more outgoing of my siblings, and perhaps that is why my mother and father let me fly alone when I was thirteen – my first rime on a plane. I was to meet my maternal grandmother in the Adirondacks. She was staying with her sister and husband at their camp on Upper Saranac Lake. To get there from Peterborough I flew from Keene, New Hampshire to New York’s LaGuardia, change planes, and then to Lake Placid – both legs on DC-3s. I got there without incident, but with memories that come with the excitement and freedom of being on one’s own. Wings began to sprout.
There is no right way of bringing up children, and my fondness for the past does not mean it was better than today. Nevertheless, there are lessons to be learned from history, and there are things we can do better today. We should be unafraid of letting children experience failure. We should not confuse sentimentality with compassion. We must recognize differences in children and encourage them in their strengths, while doing our best to correct their weaknesses. Children should be taught the Golden Rule, of doing unto others as they would have people do unto them. They should learn civics and the Ten Commandments. Society should encourage the traditional bonds of marriage and acknowledge the benefit of two-parent households, even as we know it is not always possible. We put undue pressure on children today, as their activities are programmed for little or no down-time. Screens take time away from reading; though video games are better than television, as the latter is passive where the brain is concerned. Luck plays a role. Accidents happen, for which there are no warnings. And there are bad people who do bad things. As well, children are different: some mature faster than others; some are better athletes, others more musical or stronger scholastically. Some have disabilities, as did one of my brothers who was born with Prader-Willi syndrome.
But I worry that “safe places” and “trigger warnings” do more harm than good. As much as we would like to, we cannot protect all children against all harm. They have to learn to walk alone, to be independent and to take responsibility. Government provides invaluable services – a free society could not operate without it – but the concept of pre-packaged parenting – is alien to reality. Seventy-five years ago, because of the War, families were disrupted. Single-parent Moms struggled to perform both roles. But they knew it was unnatural and, hopefully, temporary – that the separation was due to the War, not choice. The general sense was that government should govern, teachers should teach and parents should parent.
To return to the rubric at the start of this essay, Justice Scalia grew up about the same time as did I, though our lives were very different. He grew up in the city; I in the country. His father, a professor of Romance languages at Brooklyn College, was an immigrant from Sicily and his mother, an elementary school teacher, was the daughter of immigrants from Italy. My parents were artists and my family had been here for generations. He was an only child. I was one of nine. He was brilliant and an over-achiever. I was average and an under-achiever. He reached the peak of his profession. I struggled up the rungs of the Wall Street ladder. Nevertheless, we had in common the need to be inventive during our free time as children. His quote, at the top of this essay is from a speech he gave in 1997 at the University Club of Washington, D.C. It applies to us both. It was imaginations that gave currency to our childhoods.
Returning to my grandchildren’s driveway for the 15thtime that weekend, my daydreams evaporated as my mind turned to the job at hand. Don’t get me wrong, though, my children and grandchildren are smart, attractive and entertaining. I love them, and I love being with them.