It’s absolutely amazing how many snippets of a person’s past can be recalled, both intentionally and spontaneously. These are solid memories, not only those based on photographs. I often wonder if children today will be able to tell the difference when they are older, given that they’ll have so many digital images from which to cull their own history. The lines between living the experience and remembering the digitally captured moment may become somewhat blurry.
I vividly recall my first day in the first grade, which would have been in 1960. I was shifted from the brief afternoon class in public school kindergarten to the full day structure of Catholic school first grade, and I remember this only because my mother had me wear red socks. I was six years old and perfectly capable of selecting my own socks, but she laid out my dark woolen trousers, white shirt, school necktie and stiff brown shoes with a pair of fire engine red socks. I have no idea why. Perhaps she had a cocktail that morning or she thought red socks were required. Beats me, but as we lined up and sat down on the metal folding chairs in the auditorium for orientation, all eyes were on my ankles—or at least that’s how it felt. I vaguely recall a life-sized statue of Jesus turning its head and mouthing the words, “Nice socks, kid. Your mom pick those out?”
Nobody was there to take a picture of that moment, but I remember it as if it were yesterday, and ironically enough, I don’t remember what color socks I put on this morning. These old memories, whether they are nostalgic now or character building then, seem to pop up at the oddest times. I don’t remember what happened to those socks, but I know that I never wore them again since I didn’t want to be known as Red Sock Rick for the rest of my educational career. This does strike me as odd and wasteful since the golden rule of clothing back then was to outgrow it or wear it out. Not wearing something because it wasn’t liked simply wasn’t an option.
This clothing based frugality extended its way to shorts, since I don’t recall ever, and I mean ever, having a pair of store-bought shorts. The tried and true method of acquiring a pair of shorts when I was a kid was based on a tenuous balance of wearing out a pair of pants before outgrowing them in the waist. Jeans were simply cut off at the knees and left to fray, while dress pants were cut and hemmed. The cut-off jeans were the optimal choice for a number of reasons; since hemmed shorts made out of dress pants gave the impression that we were Depression-era youngsters off to go chase a barrel hoop with a stick. They were also unreasonably baggy, so if one had the misfortune to own a pair of these shorts, the summer would be spent guarding the nether regions, lest some sort of stinging insect fly up the abbreviated pant legs and use the groin as a dartboard.
This was not a completely irrational fear since every lawn on the street was carpeted with flowering clover. Nobody knows what this looks like anymore because modern pesticides have turned the pasture-like quality of natural lawns into putting greens, but back in my day, lawns were simply the area that wasn’t asphalt. Nobody cared what grew there, which meant lots of clover, which attracted bees like crazy. These malevolent bees patiently laid in wait for a carefree kid with baggy shorts to pass overhead, and when that happened, they sprang into action. There was a rumor that floated around every summer about some poor kid with baggy shorts, who had his underwear drilled by so many bees that he wasn’t seen again until school started in September, when he took the bow-legged walk to the bus stop, stingers still dangling off him like some sort of human cactus.
The clothing thriftiness extended to bathing suits as well, where cut-off denim shorts doubled as swimming gear. Hemmed shorts made out of dress pants didn’t work because one dive into the water would fill them with an air bubble so big, a kid would float around helplessly as would a fishing bobber.
Denim cut-offs were fine in lakes and such, but the public pool had to put up a sign forbidding such attire since the shedding, frayed edges caused all sorts of problems with the filters. We must have been on the strictest of budgets since my mom actually groaned when she found out I needed proper swim trunks for my swimming lessons. Having clothing that was specific to a task was deemed frivolous. If it couldn’t be worn in multiple ways, it was rarely considered.
I also remember things that were not clothing related, with food holding a big section of my memory. Mom worked, and she didn’t have much time for baking, so dessert was usually pudding or Jell-O. Dessert was part of the meal back then, most often used to bribe a kid to clean their plate. Starving children in China were also a ploy to make us finish our dinner, but that didn’t have the same sway as a bowl of butterscotch pudding. Me? I was a skin eater. The thick, rubbery crust that manifested on the top of a bowl of pudding was my favorite part. I would peel it to the side, quickly eat the soft underbelly, and then relish the gummy butterscotch layer last. Chocolate also had a decent pudding scab, but butterscotch was my favorite.
School lunches were basic: baloney and mustard on white bread, wrapped in Cut-Rite wax paper. On Fridays, we had tuna fish or egg salad, since the law back then in Catholicland was no meat on Fridays. We all ate at our desks, and when the combined smell of tuna fish and egg salad hit the airstream, it smelled as if a group of longshoreman let loose a collective fart that could have launched a zeppelin. It was awesome since there is nothing better in the mind of a young boy than farts, the smells that a fart produces, or equally wonderful—something that isn’t a fart yet still smells like a fart. Maybe peeling off sheets of sunburned skin, but that was a distant second.
Peanut butter and jelly seldom made the school lunch cut since Mom never could figure out a way to keep the corrosive properties of jelly from soaking through the bread and the wax paper. Another hour past lunchtime and the paper bag would have been gone too, consumed by the lava flow of Welch’s grape jelly. When Baggies came onto the scene, I got more PB&J lunches, but I had to bring the Baggie home to be washed and reused. We weren’t hemming shorts out of old uniform pants so we could waste money throwing out sandwich bags.
I have so many weird and fantastic memories from that era, ranging from listening to bullfrogs croak in the night to a Frisbee-sized magnifying glass that our neighbor (who worked at Bausch and Lomb) gave us. I could detonate an entire roll of caps with a single magnified sunbeam in less than five seconds, which was not as quick as placing the roll on the sidewalk and bashing it with a hammer, but the tension level was much higher and the results were more flamy.
Skippy trucks selling ice cream, bikes with coaster brakes, Mom wearing an apron, Dad in khakis and a white T-shirt, our dogs, our pet raccoon, crawling out my bedroom window so I could sit on the garage roof and read comic books or a MAD magazine, the creepy chair with the growling lion heads on the end of each arm that my grandmother had in her living room, the first time I held hands with a girl at the roller-skating rink at the seventh grade skating party, cartons of Neapolitan ice cream where nobody ate the strawberry section, street softball, boondoggle, saving all sorts of bugs in jars and poking air holes in the lid, sleeping outside at night on a lawn chair, the way a real copper penny tasted—all of this and so much more actually happened, and there isn’t a shred of evidence of any of it, but it did happen, and I remember it. I remember all of it.