How Did We Survive at All?

by Harry T. Roman


I wonder if boys still have “cuddies”?

I seem to remember being wracked by the affliction. Girls used to point at us and scream…


Or maybe they would watch us all drink from the same Coca-Cola bottle and shrivel up their faces and shake with the imagined chills….

“Boys are disgusting!”

Heck we wiped the top of the bottle off on our sleeves between swigs, so it was clean. What’s the big deal? That is what sleeves are for, wiping off soda bottle tops, and of course your nose.

If we dropped food on the ground, we kissed it up to God. It was clean after that, so we ate it.

We even drank water from a garden hose on those hot summer nights. Sure it tasted a little weird and maybe sort of rubbery. But I don’t recall any garden hose deaths in my neighborhood. Ever taste the water from those old green iron water fountains in Branch Brook Park-remember the ones that looked like giant daisies turned upside down? It used to taste like liquid iron, but none of us turned rusty, or brown.

How many times did you hang onto the back of a car riding down your snowy street and get a free ride to the corner? Or maybe stand in defiance of a snowplow’s wave of white stuff as it passed?

One cold winter morning, following a record snowfall, a Newark garbage truck/snowplow once buried my friend Kenny as he stood bravely at the curb. After it had rumbled past, only a talking head was visible, as he laughed, screamed, cried, and hollered all at once. We dug him out, and he survived. After that, he ran into his house whenever he heard a snowplow.

We played with fireworks too. Cherry bombs, ash cans, the works. All our fingers remained intact. No one spontaneously combusted, except for a few sparkler burns here and there.

Contrary to popular beliefs, your insides did not get stuck together if you ate school paste either. The kids in my classes loved the stuff. They ate big gobs of it—put a big dent in the school supply budget as a matter of fact; but somehow we all had normal body functions following a paste-fest……no one petrified.

I still have a piece of pencil lead stuck in my right palm, from grabbing the wrong end of a pencil positioned point up in my pocket, so I wouldn’t jam it into my leg if I fell. I still recall the moment I jammed my hand into my pocket to get something out, and the stinging sensation followed by that awful sound of a pencil point cracking. I am still here.

Threw stones too, by the handfuls. I was deadly with the damn things. I could take out a bobbing soda bottle on the lake in Branch Brook Park with one throw. Put several stitches in a guy’s head up the street. He never threw stones at me again after that.

We survived our parents administering “the rod” when necessary, and even having a teacher give us a whack on the old padded area. There was no long-term damage to our psyches or some intervening public interest group to meddle in anyone’s affairs. You did the crime, you paid the price.

Climbed garage roofs, and fences too…..even those big schoolyard fences. Hey that is what pointed toe shoes were for, so you could get them into the links on the fence and get some really good climbing leverage.

Played tackle football with no helmets and no shoulder pads, no cup either. Played touch football in the streets, and basketball on asphalt playgrounds. No one died, or broke a leg that I remember. Lots of skin abrasions, though. We survived.

We managed to dodge between trolley cars, buses and zipping autos on busy Bloomfield Avenue. We crawled under cars with just a car jack and some old tire rims holding our jalopies up. Did all our own mechanical work, and changed tires too when they went flat. Some of us can remember using tire irons too to get the tire off the rim. We used highly volatile tire patch glue as well for those damn near porous inner tubes.

We rode bicycles without helmets…can you imagine that!

How many times did you patch a bad muffler or exhaust pipe with asbestos patch, dipped in water, much like the way a doctor puts on a cast for a broken arm? Now you couldn’t buy the stuff in a store if your life depended on it. It’s hazardous materials…..

“Son, thanks for helping me clean out the old basement workshop. I’m too old to use this stuff anymore.”

“Just call me if you need something done, Pop.”

“Don’t forget to take that big box over there.”

“Where did that come from?”

“It’s all the stuff you can’t buy anymore—Freon, termite killer, asbestos patches, lead based paint primer…all that stuff they banned.”

“Thanks, Pop!”

You wouldn’t believe how that stash kept me going over the years with home and auto repairs.

How did our Nation become such a bunch of pansies, wimps, and wussies?

Chemical spills…what of it? Take out the garden hose and wash it into the street gutters. There were no guys in white plastic suits every time someone spilled antifreeze or motor oil in the street. Seems like overkill to me. Mother Earth survived volcanoes, earthquakes, dinosaurs, and meteorite hits, and rock & roll, and still pushes up the green stuff every year. Give me a break here.

Heck we burned the autumn leaves in the street, and everyone survived. I remember no one gasping for air. Bronchitis and asthma was what you got if you smoked all your life. Now someone gets asthma if another person is smoking a mile away. People that sensitive ought to be mounted atop firehouses as early warning signals. They can be weathervanes that point in the direction of smoke smells……

“Hey you there on Bloomfield Avenue. Put out your cigarette. I can smell you smoking all the way over here by the skating rink!”

“Kiss my ashes!”

Over 90% of the population now has asthma; and peanut allergies. Where does the danger end? How can all American peanut butter suddenly become so deadly?

We rolled in dirt, fell in lakes in Branch Brook Park, swam in tar balls in the Atlantic Ocean, got stung by jellyfish, hornets, and bumblebees, itched to death in poison ivy, oak and sumac….. and still we are walking poor fragile Mother Earth.

Raise your hand if you stepped on a nail, got some stitches, skinned your knees once a week, broke a bone, knocked out a tooth; and left some skin on a Newark street after falling down…from playing all day long in the street….with real cars going up and down them!

Lead paint? It was everywhere. It was your parents’ job to monitor their kids and their behavior. What loving mother would let her children eat lead paint? They took the lead out of the paint to make it safe and now you paint your house every 5 years instead of 10.


Know what else we survived?

Having the Bible read to us in class every morning. It produced no religious zealots, or made us “prissies”. It gave us no guilt complexes, nor long-term hang-ups; and none of us had to have remedial time with the school psychologist. It did make us aware of right and wrong; and very few ax murders, drive-by shootings, or drug binges resulted. No rapes, molestations, or other such behavior.

There was only one thing I remember as being able to snuff your life out in the wink of an eye. It was the one thing that could seriously endanger your life…….bringing home a note from the teacher! That was about as close to facing death as I can remember.

Somehow we all survived, and not once do I remember anyone suing anyone else.

How, I wonder, did lawyers ever survive back then?!


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