I am in an outdoor public place watching several kids play on their smartphones. It is a pandemic era. They wear masks. They haven’t blinked in over an hour. Or moved. Just thumbing away. Zero movement. Someone better get these children some urinary catheters.
This is a hard time in history to be a kid.
I can’t get over how different they are compared to the way we were. When we were kids we were not half as “hip” as today’s children. These kids are smart. They have cutting-edge phones, earbuds, skinny jeans, light-up shoes, and unique body piercings. Compared to these modern children we were complete dorks.
Do you know what my uncool friends did for fun? Our mothers made us pick wild strawberries. That’s right. Strawberries. My mother would detect my boredom and say, “You know what we need? We need fresh strawberries.” And away we’d go.
These hip kids are going to laugh us right into the nursing home one day.
Certainly, video games existed during my youth, but my people didn’t have them. And don’t get me wrong, I would have killed for a video game. But it was a pipe dream. Back then, if you had a video game console, this meant that you wore silk undies and a man named Wadsworth turned your bed down each night.
The first time I ever saw a video game was at Michael Ray’s house. His father was an importer, his mother was a competitive horse jumper and Junior League vice president.
The game was Pong. It was a blank television screen with a singular dot drifting from left to right between ping-pong paddles. This dot traveled about as fast as it took to complete law school. Every kid within three counties traveled hundreds of miles just to see this dot.
My father forbade me from playing such games. He once told me plainly, “Son, if you play video games your brain will melt.” And he didn’t say it like he was joking.
Looking back, I’m sure my father got a great laugh out of this, but I sincerely believed him. For years I thought that video games would cause brain matter to leak out my ears. So I never touched them.
Instead I became a grade-A dork. We built clubhouses. We lived for baseball. We shot craps for Milk Duds. We picked strawberries behind the filling station. There were millions of berries back there.
A filling station—for younger readers—was a merely place that sold twist chew and Navy plug. Also, if you needed your radiator serviced, or new brakes, there was always someone happy to complete the job in the same amount of time it took to finish a single game of Pong.
After you picked berries, you followed a creek through the woods to the crazy guy’s house. Everyone visited him. He had a thick beard and he would always sit outside, burning rubber tires on a campfire. Among us kids, you were sort of considered a cool customer if you hung out and shot the bull with him. But he scared me. I would have rather taken my chances with a catheter.
And when the sun would lower, you knew it was time to rush home. We always seemed to know the way back home. Even though we traveled thousands of miles on cheap bicycles, we somehow navigated without a GPS.
When we’d trot into our backyards our mothers used scolding voices to say things like, “Get washed for supper!”
Supper. It was always “supper.” Never “dinner.” Dinner was something eaten on Sunday afternoons after church, or on Christmas.
In the bathroom you would do intensive washing before supper because your hands would have mud beneath the fingernails. And grass stains, they were part of everyday wardrobe. Cuts and bruises were your trademarks.
You LOVED ugly scrapes. These gave you serious bragging rights. Sometimes you’d lift your shirt in the middle of Sunday school just to show Tommy Williams where you got punctured in the spleen with an axe.
Tommy would call you a liar. He’d say, “You didn’t get hit by no axe! I heard you fell off a tricycle!”
The funny thing about our suppers was that, by today’s standards, our food was about as nutritious as Soviet nuclear waste. Our parents didn’t think about cholesterol, gluten, fat, carbs, lipids, folic acid, antioxidants, BPAs, or omega 3s. We just ate whatever.
Sometimes it was meatloaf that Mama stretched out with oatmeal and crushed Saltines. Sometimes it was pinto beans and pig parts. Or, if Mama was running short on time, French toast. Gag me.
After helping clean dishes, we’d wander into the den and watch something ridiculous on TV, like “Fantasy Island,” or “Love Boat.” This came complete with six hours’ worth of commercial breaks advertising brands like Life cereal, Aqua Velva, Tab Cola, Doublemint gum, Wendy’s (“Where’s the beef?”), and Alka-Seltzer. And we actually LIKED this kind of TV. Because like I said, we were dorks.
And when the lights went out you still weren’t ready for bed. So you’d read comic books by flashlight until you fell asleep with a flashlight blaring in your face.
Your mother would quietly sneak into your bedroom, click off the flashlight, and fold your comic book. And maybe if you were lucky she’d kiss your forehead while you pretended to be asleep.
The next morning, you’d jump out of bed, throw on scuffed jeans, grab your pocket knife, and do it all over again.
Believe me, I know today’s kids are much cooler than we were with their technology. But I feel sorry for children who are growing up in amidst a pandemic, because some don’t have a choice but to see the world with their phone. This is a difficult time to be alive. But I think it’s harder for children. You know what I think we need?