I remember growing up in the 50s with a good deal of fondness. Yet when I think of specifics of those “happy days,” I picture our gang, and I picture the toughness that we seemed to develop in our neighborhood. Don’t get me wrong. We didn’t live in an inner city ghetto, or projects as they are depicted today. We weren’t extremely poor. We always had food, and we were clothed adequately, if not lavishly. Utilitarian would probably be the good word. In a day before discount stores, clothing was frequently hand me downs, or the Jake and Bill’s store downtown, or my mom’s discount at Black’s. I don’t really remember clothes mattering very much to anyone in our gang until junior high school.
I think of the neighborhood gang (we weren’t really a gang in the juvenile delinquent use of the word) and I guess economically I put us all on about the same level. Some parents had better jobs than others, but there were not great discrepancies that I remember. No one had a lot of excess, especially the Catholic families with many kids, paying tuition to go to the Catholic schools and all. They might have been the poorest.
And still I picture us as a tough bunch of little kids. There weren’t TVs in the early days, and even after a few of us had one, we didn’t spend much time watching. There wasn’t much on the TV. No, we spent most waking hours outdoors when we weren’t at school. Especially in the summer time.
After the last day of school, I remember removing shoes and socks, shirts and spending each day in a pair of jeans. There was no sleeping late, and as soon as a piece of bread and peanut butter was ingested, it was out the door, on the bike and gone until supper time. We might return at lunch time, but usually we would just go to someone’s house and grab what was available for lunch. I remember trying to time going to Ray’s on grocery shopping day. His mom would buy soft white bread and a jar of mayonnaise and that would be lunch.
We lived just two blocks from the river and that afforded us many woods and water adventures. We weren’t supposed to be there, of course, but we went anyway. It’s hard to keep little kids out of the woods and away from any body of water. I suppose we were all lucky that nothing bad ever happened to any of our gang. I only remember one drowning as a kid, and that wasn’t someone we knew. We were there for the dragging for the body and seeing the guy pulled out and into the boat. It was pretty ugly to see. It made an impression that probably made us more careful about not taking too many chances.
And yet we were great risk takers. The school playground was asphalt, and there was a basketball court that provided a bicycle racing track. We learned to modify bicycles for racing, replacing the front wheel with a smaller wheel than the rear and substituting a long pipe for handlebars. This allowed us to go faster and almost lay the bicycle down as we circled behind the basketball poles. There were, of course, times that we actually did lay the bike down and the pipe handlebars would dig into the asphalt spilling us, ripping elbow, knee and shoulder skin. Nothing serious. We healed. It only hurt for a little bit, and the glory of winning races was worth the pain.
From a very early age, a pecking order of toughness began to develop in our gang. We knew as kids who could beat who in a wrestling match. We never really got into punching each other, except with Ray’s 16 oz boxing gloves that his uncle gave him. Those things were so padded that we easily punched each other without any damage at all. But I think wrestling was the real trial in establishing the pecking order, and contests would occur at anytime, whenever anyone felt he had developed a new hold or maneuver that would permit him to win a match and move up in the hierarchy. Headlocks and scissor locks were usually the decision makers, and if you couldn’t avoid one of those, then you were pretty much done, and “uncle” would be your salvation.
Whenever a new kid moved into the neighborhood and wanted to become a part of our gang, it was first necessary for him to engage in a “fight” to decide if he was worthy and where in the pecking order he might fall. I remember in particular one kid, Johnny, who moved in during the school year. The first day he attended classes, we all started scoping him out. On the playground at recess, he was watched and sized up. He wisely stayed on the fringe, not being too eager to try and join.
At some point in the process, I don’t remember the exact mechanics, it was decided by the “leaders” of our gang that I was to be the one to engage Johnny is a wrestling match to see how good he was. It was a fearful thing for me, and I can only imagine how Johnny might have felt. But at that time, how he felt was not really my concern. During the afternoon recess, the challenge was delivered. We would meet after school in the field where we played football just down the street from the school.
Of course word spread that there would be a “fight” after school, and a fairly large group of kids gathered in the field. I suppose the gathering was not unusual for the neighbors to see as we often went there after school to play football, to run races, wrestle or just goof off. In any case, we weren’t too concerned about the neighbors and what they thought. I remember just being really fearful of this “fight.” Johnny was a complete unknown and while I enjoyed wrestling with my friends, I wasn’t sure how this would come out.
Rules were laid down by the leaders; it was to be a fair fight, whatever that meant. In our gang that pretty much meant that body punches were allowed but not face punches. For some reason, I don’t think I ever saw any of our group throw punches to the face. (Interesting!) We were instructed to begin and Johnny and I started moving about on the inside of the circle that had formed. We hunched over and moved around, watching each other for an opening to charge.
As always, the crowd pretty much dictated what was to happen. When they got bored with nothing happening, they would yell at us to get started. When that yelling got intense enough, I guess one of us would charge the other, and the plan was to try to knock, push, trip the other opponent to the ground. Once on the ground, of course, ideally you would be able to get him on his back and be strong enough to prevent him from rolling you off. Hopefully you would get his shoulders pinned to the ground and it would be over.
That’s not what happened with Johnny and I. We must have been fairly evenly matched in strength and skill, and we rolled around, first one on top and then the other. We tried headlocks, but the other was able to squirm out of it. We tried to get each other in scissors, but neither could hold it. And so it went on and on. In my memory, it was a very long time that we wrestled like that. Eventually, of course, we both got physically tired and the crowd got tired of seeing nothing happen. I’m sure we weren’t very exciting to watch.
In the end, we were both tired, and I think we both realized we were pretty evenly matched and that neither of us was going to get a decisive victory. I think the leaders must have come to the same conclusion, and the match was called a draw and at the same moment, we let each other go. We stood and shook hands, and it was all over. Johnny had earned the right to be a part of our group and I, at least, was not beaten in the process.
As we grew older, wrestling matches were replaced by weightlifting. The older kids in the neighborhood became the models for us to emulate. Wrestling and bike racing was for little kids. And then it was cars. The better looking the car, the faster, the hotter, the tougher it was and of course since you owned it, the tougher you were. However, having a hot car meant money, and that meant a job. So there were a lot of years in junior high school when you could only aspire to such heights. If you knew guys with tough cars, then you could hope to be tough by association. On some days they might even let you ride in the car and maybe get seen by others so they would know you to be tough. Pretty much a dream trip. Not very real.
I’m not sure we were tough by today’s standards. Today it seems that a measure of toughness is the hardships that you’re able to endure and overcome. We had hardships to overcome in the 50’s, it just seems a much more mental or emotional game today. I don’t think that makes it easier, just different. For me, I don’t dislike the memories I’ve brought with me from those “happy days” of growing up in a tough neighborhood. In fact, I stand up taller and thank my “toughness” for getting me through those days unscathed.