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?
Jennings Philip - February 4, 2021 9:59 am
You are a master of well placed “exaggerative comedy.
RICHARD WYMAN BRANNAN - February 4, 2021 10:53 am
Are we brothers from a different mother? I’m a lot older and tv was different, Cowboy shows on Saturday. Just a test pattern after six P.M. One channel. What a wonderful time.
Jana - February 4, 2021 11:17 am
I loved the commercials back then, particularly the Alka Seltzer and Wendy’s commercials
Christine - February 4, 2021 11:19 am
Howdy Doody, Buffalo Bob and all their friends were there. I was very young and lived in Indian Head, Md. Had a very fun life roaming the woods, riding horses, and movies on Saturday morning. We were sheltered in the 40s and 50s.
It was a different time.
MR - February 4, 2021 12:05 pm
What a beautiful picture of what childhood was like back in the ‘olden days’ not too long ago. Those ‘olden days’ were ‘golden days’.
TJ - February 4, 2021 12:21 pm
But, I LOVE French Toast.
Jo Ann - February 4, 2021 1:34 pm
Thank you, Sean, for reminding us that we older folks had a much different childhood. We were outside all day, making up our own games. Very little supervision or parental involvement. We made up our own rules, too. Not saying bad things didn’t happen, but you didn’t hear about it immediately & for days afterward. I’m glad I grew up before internet, smart phones, & Facebook. Whatever stupid things we did, our picture wasn’t broadcast all over the world & online forever!!
Charlie Mathers - February 4, 2021 1:36 pm
That crazy guy in the woods, burning tires? I’m still here. Come by and be cool some day. Nobody comes by anymore. 😕
Jan - February 4, 2021 1:51 pm
The sad thing about our childhood is there will never be another one like it again. Playing in the woods, hiking up the mountain behind our house with a picnic of peanut butter crackers and water, playing whiffle ball in the pasture with our cousins and the kids in the neighborhood were so much fun. Of course you can’t go back, only forward to whatever the future holds in store …
Kate - February 4, 2021 2:01 pm
People can still be outside and children can still play and run outside, (but maybe not explore so much away from their homes – might depend on where they live). The pandemic has NOTHING to do with kids or adults being glued to phones and video games. They have been doing that for a while. As for TV, if there is ANYTHING on anymore worth watching, would someone please share what it is.
Teresa Tindle - February 4, 2021 2:21 pm
That was how I grew up, how my children grew up, and I’m so sorry my grandchildren have cell phones. I know how smart they are, but my goodness children need to be children. They deserve not to have a care In the world.
Bob E - February 4, 2021 2:46 pm
Very entertaining – brings back fun memories.
PS – Bob likes French toast.
Marianna Parker - February 4, 2021 3:04 pm
But Sean… the wild strawberries are not very sweet….did your mom add sugar?
Julia Swaney - February 4, 2021 3:05 pm
I think we’re about the same age Sean, circa 1961?
I grew up in Southern California and my brother and I ran around in the canyons behind our neighborhood where there were rattlesnakes and coyotes and cactuses. We came home when we got thirsty or hungry or if it got dark. We ran around the neighborhood in camo from the army surplus store with flashlights and built forts that were nailed to the house out of lumber we scavenged from building sites.
My mom was a little bit of a hippie so we ate homemade whole wheat bread and homemade granola. My stepdad took me diving for lobster and abalone off of the jetties and sometimes we got to eat that for dinner as well, Yum! I think those are all gone now because of pollution and global warming…
Anyway, I agree that this is a hard time to be a kid.
My contribution is that when I have my grandson Charlie who is five we play outside read lots of books and color pictures. Tonight we’re having a sleepover and a trip to the socially distance swimming pool and roasting some hotdogs over the fire ring are on the plan. No strawberries in sight but we have hope here in Colorado for some Good old-fashioned fun!
Bob E - February 4, 2021 3:15 pm
Here’s a “groaner”:
What is the best way to start the day?
Dietrich is to read Sean.
Lauren D Ulrich - February 4, 2021 3:38 pm
Such a real description of being a kid “back in the day”! The details, the phrasing, the implied emotional responses–all of it! Your really ARE a gifted writer, and I think part of your gift is that it seems to the readers like you’re just “talking out your head.” (Though anyone who’s ever done any writing know that it takes unbelievable amounts of time to make anything sound like it’s just “talking.” ) Thank you–again–for starting my day with joy~
Donnie Walker - February 4, 2021 3:45 pm
So glad that I grew up in that time wandering the mountains playing in the creek catching lizards. We built forts played army and used dirt clods as handgranades. Seemed like the days would last forever then it was time in the evening to play hide and seek catch lightning bugs. To make money I would collect drink bottles and sell at local stores. Sad thing is I did not know how blessed I was to be a part of really getting to be a kid and young adult during this time. I have wished many days at my age now of 66 that I would be granted a wish to go back for just one day to spend time at granny and papaws to sit at her table and play in the yard. I wish too that I could take my grandson with me so he to could live some of my stories about childhood. I feel so sorry for our young people of today for the most part they will never enjoy being a child like I did.😢.Donnie Walker
Patricia Gibson - February 4, 2021 3:55 pm
Amen, yes kids today have technological advantages but adults forget that their life is far more complicated and worrisome than ours were. Too bad they missed the simpler life.
Bill - February 4, 2021 3:58 pm
Pong..pong. What a dorkie game, but that was the cat’s meow, then. Who knew how video games would evolve. If you remember the dot would go faster every time you hit it. Of course, who knew how computers would take over our lives, especially the little ones that are too small to read sometimes.
We didn’t pick wild strawberries, but wild blueberries. There was a vacant lot down the hill from our home in NW Indiana. We could get all the blueberries we wanted. Of course we ate many of them in the picking process.
Where’s the beef that was about 1984, if I remember correctly. Thanks Google, but I vividly remember the commercials.
BTW, my wife, going on 50 years this year, makes a mean meatloaf with a ketchup type glaze. But ketchup goes on everything especially Mac and Cheese. One of my granddaughters says Yuk when I bring that up.
Helen De Prima - February 4, 2021 4:00 pm
Like my cousins and I grew up, only on horseback.
Nancy - February 4, 2021 4:07 pm
I always thought dinner was in the middle of the day—not just on Sunday. I live in California now and we do have lunch and dinner.
Ron Mahn - February 4, 2021 4:28 pm
Still have my one game. Don’t/can’t play it anymore but the game sits on my shelf as a reminder of the worthiness of simplicity.
Ron Mahn - February 4, 2021 4:30 pm
“Pong” not “one game”
nebraskannie - February 4, 2021 4:57 pm
Thank goodness you have those memories to share with us, too! When our littles come around, we don’t have ANY screen, except Friday Movie Night. Our time is taken up with playing, building, learning, nature walks, and all the things I’ve been so grateful my parents gave me. Work is play, and vice versa. Learning to wash the dishes was fun AND a big deal, and it still is! I know life will be different for them, as it always is, but I want to give them this type of memory before they’re all gone. We have no children of our own, but we’ve raised decades of other’s children and when we get cards and letters, they remember…as I do…
Martha Black - February 4, 2021 5:28 pm
You oughta tell Tommy falling off a tricycle or bicycle ain’t no joke and can be mighty traumatic as the ole “Bicycle Song” Porter Wagoner used to sing can attest:
I was goin’ down the hill doin’ ninety miles an hour
When the chain on my bicycle broke
I was scratched all over by the rocks and the gravel
And punctured to death by the spokes
I ain’t a-lyin’. I was layin’ there a-dyin’
With the handlebars a-stickin’ down my throat!
I had the front wheel for a necktie, the back wheel for a collar
I was wearin’ the fender for a belt
You can talk about your accidents in your hot-rod Fords and airplanes,
But the accident I had will take the cake.
I was layin’ in the grass with the sprocket in my (pause) pocket.
I was never goin’ to ride that bike again.
Ken P - February 4, 2021 5:39 pm
“The next morning, you’d jump out of bed, throw on scuffed jeans, grab your pocket knife and do it all over again.” Love it!! We didn’t have much growing up. What we did have was fun, we knew how to make the simple things fun. Riding bicycles,playing in the creek, fishing, good times. Thanks for bringing to mind fun times!!
Gordon - February 4, 2021 6:27 pm
Much of your writing today was “on point” with my childhood in “small town LA (lower Alabama)”. Those were great times. I feel sorry for today’s children.
Linda Moon - February 4, 2021 7:07 pm
Play On Smartphones. Only a maroon would accept the oxymoron: Play, Phone. The description of “smart phones” is a contradiction of terms. I prefer clever “dork” kids to today’s so-called “hip” kids. Maybe the “hip” (NOT!) children will become like most of mine who are now two new generations of fresh strawberry pickers, kayakers, and Appalachian Trail hikers. They’re wise young men who’ve left that world that their father and their Pops forbade them from entering, like your father did for you. I think we need more adults who teach kids to forever see the outside world of strawberry fields.
MAM - February 4, 2021 8:01 pm
And you’re young! We oldsters did pretty much the same things as you did. My favorite was walking down the road by myself, up the levee and along the top and down to my “secret” hiding place on a bit of land Daddy owned about a mile or so from our house. There I sat on the tree branch that hung over the water. I sat as still as I could and watched the birds set down on the pond, fish for their supper, If I was lucky a possum or raccoon wandered by or a fish jumped up and splashed me. Those WERE the good ol’ days. We became quite self-sufficient, didn’t we?
Jane - February 4, 2021 8:30 pm
Agree. But I also remember my dad..born on New Years in1897….telling us about all the stuff we missed in being raised in the 50’s…like playing mumbledy peg with your pocketknife…while standing in the barnyard..with no shoes.
Elinor Steele - February 4, 2021 8:56 pm
Your writing is a delight! I can hear you talking as I read each of your entries and relate to them all — I’m from Atlanta. I had to laugh about “we need strawberries” … when I was bored, my mom would hand me a brown paper grocery bag and tell me to go into the backyard and collect pecans. The next time she saw my “nothing-to-do” bored face, I had to shell those collected pecans. I finally caught on!
Christina - February 4, 2021 8:58 pm
I agree with your dad that the brain will melt playing video games (all the creativity, playfulness, and real connections to say the least). The problem is if I tell my son about it, he will find a YouTube clip that proves something else 😩
Susan from Wausau - February 5, 2021 2:27 am
When we take my granddaughter’s three electronic devices away, and she sulks for a while, she goes out and calls the neighbor’s big ole puppy, and starts exploring on our small acreage. She climbs trees, makes secret hideouts, collects ‘artifacts’ and has a wonderful time ‘adventuring’, as she calls it. We had to kind of show her how, but then she was off. She comes home filthy, tired and full of stories. They can still do it. They just need a little push. And rip the tablets from their hot little hands,
Charaleen Wright - February 5, 2021 5:55 am
Susan - February 5, 2021 12:12 pm
Thanks for the memories. I would do it all over again. And we Were the cool kids!
Susan Kennedy - February 5, 2021 10:54 pm
I have similar memories. Playing outside from dawn till dark, riding bikes, building forts, fried baloney sandwiches, running around barefoot, penny candy from the country store, cartoons and cereal on Saturday mornings….today’s kids don’t get it.
Julie - February 15, 2021 9:29 pm
Hmmmm…Fresh Strawberries or Technology? I’ll gladly take the Berries EVERY single time🍓