There Was A Time When I Felt Safe

There was a time

I fondly remember the good times, back when stores stocked large glass jars filled with various pieces of brightly-colored penny candy and two-cent sugar cookies. When Dr. Pepper was a treat. Sticks were used as guns, horses, baseball bats, and farm implements to pull behind imaginary tractors. Boys played hard and long, until rings of sweat and dirt formed circles around their necks. Girls wore Saddle Oxfords and dresses. And Dennis “The Menace” Mitchell nearly drove good ‘ol Mr. Wilson to the loony bin.

The lunch counter at the drug store offered full-dressed hot dogs (mustard, cole slaw, and chili) for a quarter. For an additional nickle you could get a glass of Coke, and, if you asked nicely, the clerk would add a generous squirt of cherry flavoring.

Ginger Ale, chicken noodle soup, and a chest smeared with Vicks was what your mom gave you when a cold settled into your body.

We wore hand-me-downs and our mothers saved Green Stamps. The A&P was the grocery store, and the guy at the gas station pumped your gas, checked your oil (which was almost always a quart low), and cleaned your car windows. Our “company” dinnerware came from inside detergent boxes, and we found real toys buried deep inside boxes of cereal and Cracker Jacks.

Eggs came from chickens, not the supermarket. And we found bottles of milk on our doorstep. My grandfather drove a truck, delivering blocks of ice to homes all across town. My grandmother worked in town, at a Five and Dime store that sold little white bags of cashews that were kept warm in a glass case heated by a bright light bulb.

My father worked as a bookkeeper at the time, and I was fascinated by the speed his fingers flew across the push-buttons on the mammoth-size adding machine sitting near the corner of his desk. After each succession of numbers he entered, he’d pull down a large handle attached to the side of the machine. Sometimes, he’d let me pull the handle. I didn’t know what purpose it served, but it was fun to do just the same.

My mother was a stay at home mom whose main purpose in life, I thought, was to keep us fed and healthy. She also washed our clothes and dishes. In her spare time she filled little books with Green Stamps, painted by-the-number pictures, worked crossword and jigsaw puzzles, and relentlessly watched her soaps. The Edge of Night was, I believe, an addiction she couldn’t shake.

AM was the only option on the radio, and black and white TV’s were equipped to receive only 13 stations. We were lucky if we got four of the thirteen, and that was only when a rainstorm was approaching. The only ceiling fans were in businesses. Some stores, though, boldly advertised “Ice Cold Air Conditioning Inside!”

The Beatles and The Dave Clark Five appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show, and I remember my father thought their music was ridiculous. My mother, though, thought they were cute (she remained, however, a devoted Elvis fan until the day she died). There was The Lone Ranger, the Mickey Mouse Club (RIP Annette), Lassie, and The Rifleman, and, of course, Steamboat Willie, the original Mickey Mouse.

My great-grandparents lived on a farm with no running water, no bathroom, and no heat. They cooked and stayed warm by using a wood cook-stove in the kitchen and a potbelly cast-iron stove in the “settin’ room. Metal grates between the downstairs ceiling and the upstairs floors allowed an occasional puff of warm air to rise through, offering a scant bit of warmth to the rooms above. During the winters the adults piled so many layers of heavy patchwork quilts on us that we were practically immobilized for the duration of the night.

The days were much longer back then, or so they seemed, and we occupied our time with bike rides to the creek to catch crawdads, or we’d make the long trek through the woods and to the vast field of tall, dry grasses and wildflowers, where the evil witch lived in the Bates-Motel-like house that stood in the center of the meadow. Well, we all fantasized that surely only a witch would live in such a spooky, weathered dwelling that was in desperate need of whitewashing. None of us ever saw her, though. Actually, in all the times we stood there watching the house, we never saw any sign of movement whatsoever. But we knew she was there, and we knew if we’d taken a single step closer she’d have zapped us into oblivion. That, we knew for certain.

We, the kids of my neighborhood, had no qualms about walking to a friend’s house, even if the friend lived on the other side of town. Sure, we’d have to cross the concrete bridge over a muddy river, and we’d have to make our way across a few busy streets. Sometimes, our imaginations led us astray, forcing us to wander down to the riverbank where we’d see who could skip a rock the most number of times across the water’s surface. The longest skip also won accolades from those who hadn’t quite learned the art of locating “the” perfect skipping rocks. But boredom would set in and we’d soon be back on our way.

Since the drugstore was the halfway point in the trek, a stopover to check out the latest Batman, Superman, and Archie comics was a must. We’d enter the store through the front, but we exited through the back so we could see the men coming and going to and from the back alley poolroom. The place was off limits to women and kids, which made it a challenge to sneak peeks inside when someone, a banker, the owner of a retail clothing store, or even the local sheriff, opened the door. The sounds from inside were thrilling to us, because we knew they weren’t intended for our ears. So we savored the “clacking” of breaking pool balls, men swearing, deep, rumbling laughter, and the country-croonings of Hank, Buck, Dollie, and Willie streaming non-stop from a juke box.

We’d stay out all day playing with our friends—football, army, cops and robbers, baseball, and all the other things boys did before there were computers, video games, and widespread school shooters, child rapists and murderers, kidnappers, and the like.

We were at home before dark. We took a bath. Ate dinner. Watched a little TV, listened to the radio, read our ten-cent comic books and Hardy Boys mysteries, drew pictures, and went to bed at a reasonable hour. The next day we’d start all over again, without worrying that someone was going to explode a bomb at the finish line of our foot-races. We weren’t concerned that someone would shoot the neighbor’s baby in the face. There were no drive-by shootings where our grandfather was wounded while seated in his favorite front porch rocker.

Kids felt safe in school. Police officers were our friends and protectors. We didn’t call them names or throw things at them.

I’d only seen a couple of guns—the ones carried by police officers and the .22 my grandfather kept for shooting rats at the feed store (the owner paid him five cents for every rat killed). Sure, lots of people owned them—guns, not rats, but they used them responsibly.

Walter Cronkite never once reported about some wacko killing people and eating their body parts.

We didn’t hear vile language on the radio or TV. Soldiers and cops were our heroes. So were our hard-working parents.

Teens didn’t kill their parents. Teens didn’t rob old folks and then knock them to the ground.

We didn’t hear of murder-suicides nearly every week. People didn’t simply walk into a school and start killing kids.

Dogs didn’t kill people.

People didn’t attack people on public buses.

No one was pushed in front of moving trains.

There was no worry about poison in restaurant food.

Soldiers didn’t divulge classified information.

Families ate meals together, and it wasn’t fast food.

School was for learning, and we did. Kids didn’t feel as if the teachers owed them a passing grade for merely showing up. We had to study and work for good grades. And teachers were the bosses, not the students.

Being a U.S. citizen truly meant something back then, and we weren’t afraid that some half-crazed man-kid in North Korea would start lobbing nuclear-tipped missiles all over the globe.

We didn’t worry about suicide bombs.

Pressure cookers were for cooking, not killing.

We didn’t see people blown to bits on our own precious soil.

Sure, there was a time when I felt safe.

But it’s certainly not today.

And, unfortunately, tomorrow’s safety is not guaranteed.

*Bottom two images – ABC and CNN


23 replies
  1. Lee Lofland
    Lee Lofland says:

    AH – Like when Sarah Winchester’s place sat on a piece of large rural farm land that was at one time, three miles outside of the San Jose city limits. Now, however, the mansion is in the middle of town.

    I always enjoyed visiting the Winchester House, with its 10,000 windows, a Seance Room, and history of ghosts and constant construction – 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for almost 38 years.

  2. 1015 Adam Henry
    1015 Adam Henry says:

    Yeah, I remember those days too. Even as much as so in a ‘magical’ place called Silicon Valley. The computers have always been here and its only in the past 20 years during the revolution, where began the insane property development that you see now. So instead of fields and orchards that was so prominent accross the land, its now condos, office buildings and industrial parks and all the social ills that urbanization brings.

  3. Carly Carson
    Carly Carson says:

    I’ve been thinking a lot about the childhood my kids are having. We live in Boston. One of my kids was in first grade on 9-11. We couldn’t watch TV because we didn’t want the kids seeing the horrific pictures, but like most Boston area residents, we know families who lost someone in that attack. That same child is now a senior in high school. One of her friends and classmates was seriously injured in the marathon attack. In a kind of bracketing of her childhood, this will impact her graduation as 9-11 impacted her sense of safety as she started school. Of course, other families have been far more grievously wounded than we have, but I’m speaking to your thoughts about a sense of safety in the world, which my kids don’t have in the same way that lucky kids used to have.

  4. Raphael Salgado
    Raphael Salgado says:

    Just wanted to chime in again and say I guess it didn’t stop TNT from airing the Castle episode “47 Seconds” tonight. Bomb in a backpack. Oy vey!

  5. Chris Roerden
    Chris Roerden says:

    Very well expressed, Lee – as are the other folks’ recollections, including those of Ray and Bud. I felt safe, too, anywhere in the big city, NY, where I grew up and could roam by myself in the later 40s, taking the subway to HS in the 50s, at the movies, etc. – anywhere but at home. I never knew whether it was beat-up-on-my-brother day, or if I’d somehow trigger my father’s wrath over nothing or for the same thing I’d done before that was never noticed. The safest time at home was escaping into a book and staying out of everyone’s way. I’m surprised that I and others like me turned out as well as we did.

  6. SZ
    SZ says:

    Lovely post Lee. What a charming read and reminder !

    We used to play kick the can. Fast food was there, however it was a treat. We had a drive in A & W and they had served on roller skates.

    Good times

  7. Raphael Salgado
    Raphael Salgado says:

    Great post, Lee. Thanks for writing that.

    I’m on track to move to a quieter, apparently safer and relatively more upscale town in New Jersey this summer. I wanted my wife and kids to move closer to the center of the town, where we can walk the streets, know all the small mom ‘n pop shops, and feel like we’re part of a tight-knit community that looks after each other and enjoy things as I haven’t felt in decades, and even more especially since 9/11. A sense of cynicism and foreboding eats away ever so slowly at my soul each day, I’m hoping this change of environment could rejuvenate it.

    On a side note, since we’re all Castle fans here, I just wanted to add that ABC just announced that next week’s Castle episode is being postponed or rescheduled, due to its particular theme (diffusing of a bomb) and in light of the recent tragic events in Boston.

  8. Nancy Kattenfeld
    Nancy Kattenfeld says:

    Very evocative piece, Lee, and reminiscent of my childhood as well. I’ve often lamented that my kids can’t have the same freedoms I did. Maybe we’re projecting our own fears onto our children, but I don’t feel safe for them anymore. I worry every minute they’re out of my sight.

  9. Mary Brookman
    Mary Brookman says:

    Agree with you Lee. I grew up in a small town and had a safe childhood. Today, I feel tension whenever I take my grandchildren to public places, more than nervous if they wonder out of my sight for a few seconds. It is sad they won’t have the freedom to grow without us with them every second.

  10. Stacy Allen
    Stacy Allen says:

    Hey Lee,
    This is brilliant, and rang so true for me. So much of what you wrote I experienced in my childhood as well. Brought back so many memories. I love your writing. I love your perspective.

  11. Tori Scott
    Tori Scott says:

    My childhood was almost like yours, with a couple of exceptions that gave me a glimpse of the darker side of life–both experienced in the “big city”. Small town life was the best. In the early 60’s things did change a bit. The Cuban missile crisis, crouching in the hallways with our hands protecting our heads. The JFK assassination. The Vietnam War. Unfortunately, darkness did creep in and children now have no hope of experiencing the idyllic childhoods we once had.

  12. Barbara Rae Robinson
    Barbara Rae Robinson says:

    Yes, I even felt safe living in Los Angeles. I grew up in the 40s when Los Angeles was still a nice place to live. My father was born and raised in south-central L.A., in an area that’s pretty much a war zone now. My brother and I walked to our elementary school by ourselves, using a tunnel under Venice Boulevard to get there. We were told, however, not to go into the tunnel if someone was down there. There was never a problem. We left Los Angeles in 1947 and moved to Pomona, where we were still safe. We took public transportation to junior high and high school. No problems. I was very naive in those days and didn’t understand what a person needed to look out for. I’ve even cruised Hollywood Boulevard with other teens, just having fun. No problems. Life is different now. And I’m sorry. Growing up back then gave us freedoms we can’t give kids nowadays. Sad.


  13. Larkin
    Larkin says:

    Lovely post, Lee.

    And a pretty darn good Rorschach test, too, apparently.

    My mom is still an Elvis fan. Thanks for the memories. 🙂

  14. Lee Lofland
    Lee Lofland says:

    And, most can’t argue the difference in the threats on the street – then and now. I can, though, because I’ve “been there, done that.” And it was far safer then than it is today.

    Never drew my weapon for many years, other than to clean the dust and lint from it. It was a near daily occurrence in later times, including having to kill a guy in a shootout.

    Never carried pepperspray or a Taser until later years because they weren’t needed. Used the stuff like bug spray later on, though. I’ve never deployed a Taser on anyone other than another police officer during training. I’m not a fan of them.

  15. Bud
    Bud says:

    (sorry, hit submit by error)

    then and now is a complicated bit of statistical analysis, crime data, public health data. Preceived safety is personal and subjective: nobody can argue with how you felt.

    The flip side of Ray’s point (kids are safest in a park surrounded by strangers) is that they are most at risk (of injury or death) in their mother’s car.

  16. Bud
    Bud says:

    Your evocation of those days was powerful. It was my childhood, too. I felt safe as a kid.

    I know more now about the world I grew up in. I wasn’t as safe as I thought I was.

    Comparing real safety

  17. Lee Lofland
    Lee Lofland says:

    Bud and Ray – Thanks for the insight, but I believe you’ve totally missed or misunderstood the point of my story. The title is “There Was A Time When I Felt Safe.” That’s referring to me, not when you or others did not.

    I didn’t pen this one to start an argument about race, guns, priests, etc. Instead, I wrote what I remembered about feeling safe as a child in my personal hometown. And, unfortunately, as an adult I know longer feel that way, for me, my family, friends, and others.

    Still, I have to respectfully disagree about crime and violence in the U.S. being just as bad years ago as it is today. I was a cop working the streets over 30 years ago and I can assure you things were much safer in those days than it is today and when I left the job a few years ago. No doubt.

  18. Bud
    Bud says:

    Yes. My life, too, as a kid in the 50s & 60s. All true. Safe.

    But. We had just finished WWII and were still fighting in Korea. Stalin was still filling gulags with dissidents. McCarthy was wrecking lives in America. Mao was remaking the world for a billion Chinese, not especially nicely. We hid under our desks for nuclear war drills. Little black girls in church were blown up with bombs, freedom riders and uppity negros could be killed without consequence. Gangs romped through rough city neighborhoods (pathetically under-armed, by today’s standards, but still). The Hells Angles rumbled.

    As post-war normalization recrystallized society, women were back to half-a-dozen career choices at a fraction of the wages men were paid.

    Measels and polio and flu and all the other poxes were being chipped away at, but more young people died from them and the old died younger. Grownups smoked cigarettes. Auto accidents were more frequently fatal.

    And there was a pretty good roster of grizly horribles: rapes, murders, dismemberments. There wasn’t a 24/7 cable news industry rubbing them in our faces, but True-Crime mags and tabloids made a valiant effort to cash in.

    Priests were busy in the vestries abusing little children, as were uncles and neighbors and scout leaders.

    We didn’t allow talk about all this. We kept it inside our selves, our familes, our towns.

    We weren’t as safe back then as we thought we were, by a long shot. We aren’t as unsafe today as we sometimes think we are.

    Some of us had great childhoods, in those days. I did. Not everybody did. And the seeming security of those times was purchased at a price we’re still paying — denials, repressions and lies.

    Just saying.

  19. Ray Williams
    Ray Williams says:

    Yes. There was a time like that…I was a kid in the 50s, too, and it seemed idyllic.

    If you were a white kid. Emmett Till wasn’t safe.
    Bryant and Milam were proud US Citizens who got off scot free for Till’s murder exonerated by a jury of US Citizens who held their country’s declaration that “All men are created equal” close to their hearts.

    You could respect your parents unless some nutter declared, without having any credible evidence, they were Commies. Then they had no jobs and no respect from anyone.

    Back in Texas in the 50s some guy carried a suitcase of dynamite into an elementary school and set it off.

    And soldiers didn’t reveal classified information. A pity, because the folk in Savannah would then have known that the US military was releasing mosquitoes with dengue fever and yellow fever over their city.

    No, I’m not some “foreign nut” who is anti-American: I am a US Citizen proud that we’ve moved forward a long way since the 50s even if we have not yet reached our goal.

    Statistically, today our kids are safest at the park surrounded by strangers

    But you are right: I did FEEL safe back then.

  20. Mel Parish
    Mel Parish says:

    Wonderfully evocative, Lee. Even though my childhood was in the UK, you brought back many memories – things just seemed simpler in those days, and I don’t think it’s just because we were children then. I certainly believe that childhood was a lot less stressful than nowadays. It’s so sad that the freedom to roam has been curtailed. It was one of the joys of being a child.

  21. GunDiva
    GunDiva says:

    I had a similar childhood and memories I will always cherish. Unfortunately, I got to see the dark side at a very young age – behind the idyllic facade, my father was one mean SOB; a philanderer and wife beater. However, I wouldn’t give up that part of my childhood either – it made me a much stronger adult. And I’m able to fondly remember running around the neighborhood all day long with my friends, playing in the irrigation ditches and “forest” and coming home in time for supper. For lunch, we landed at whoever’s house was closest.

    I’m sad for our children, who don’t get to have that kind of an upbringing.

    And I mourn our society, what’s left of it.

    Thanks for bringing a smile and a tear today, Lee.

Comments are closed.