Before there were electric typewriters, televisions, credit cards, iMacs, PCs, iPods, personal data assistants, Android phones, GPSs, video games, e-mailing, texting, sexting, baby boomers, soccer moms, and Little League baseball, it was a very different world for us kids growing up on the East End of Long Island.
A few things haven’t changed, thank God. Every Memorial Day there are still parades with marching bands, twirlers, drum majors and majorettes, and even a few ladies’ auxiliaries and the like. There are still fireworks displays every July 4, but things were very different during the 1930s and 1940s. We were born into the Great Depression, became tweens during World War II and teenagers after it was over, learning to consume alcohol, smoke cigarettes, and neck.
Listening to the radio, farming, fishing, and hunting occupied our spare moments. We were not barraged in school with test after test to see how we compared regionally, statewide, nationally, and internationally. Life was busy and enjoyable.
Although we all caught chicken pox, whooping cough, and scarlet fever, and feared catching polio, we didn’t know the difference between A.D.H.D., autism, and post-traumatic stress disorder. There were no special schools for teaching us how to talk correctly or get on with others, but we managed to get through each day. Our mothers gave us cod liver oil in a spoon, rubbed Vicks VapoRub on us when we had colds and were snuffed up, and Bayer Aspirin and One-A-Day vitamins were the only medicines we took when we didn’t feel well.
The language we conversed in was common parlance. The only acronyms we used were “radar” and “snafu.” If it weren’t for the Polish and Italian kids in the neighborhood, us mostly Presbyterian kids would have been limited to “damn,” “hell,” and “Jesus Christ.” I didn’t hear of the F word until I was in high school.
Almost all of the boys enlisted in the military; otherwise they might have been drafted. Very few of us went on to college. Many girls went to college, mostly to teaching schools. There were some very early serious romances, a few of which ended up in shotgun weddings. I didn’t hear the word “abortion” until I was in college. Then, again, I might have been a bit slow. A few kids sat in the back of the classroom and read nothing but comic books all day long. Yet they were accepted along with the rest and after graduation went on to hold down jobs as carpenters, farmers, plumbers, truck drivers, and the like.
The best part of every year was the summer, which for us started on the last day of school in June and ended on the first day of school in September. There were no child labor laws in our neck of the woods, and if they existed, they weren’t enforced. We grew up working at this and that, getting paid for our efforts in paper money and coins directly. Come June, many of us kids were down on our knees picking strawberries, then peas, string beans, and potatoes or peaches, in that order. We wore through a lot of jeans at the knees and the peach fuzz irritated your arms and armpits. The produce we picked was often sold from card tables set up by the side of the road and manned by our sisters. There were enough “summer people” or “city people” to make it profitable.
Most of us had Sunday-best suits, either handed down or purchased in Riverhead, but we only wore them for Sunday school, church, weddings, and other special occasions. We had cobblers to repair shoes that seemed to last forever. Otherwise our mothers and big sisters were our tailors, making and repairing clothes, darning socks, and the like. Having few changes of clothes and few changes of footwear required less closet space, which was always at a premium as there were no McMansions and most of us shared bedrooms with our siblings according to sex.
Whether we were legitimate baymen or just out for food, almost all of us clammed, crabbed, or night-lighted eels. Almost all of us were berry pickers — strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, huckleberries, wild cherries, beach plums, and cranberries, in that order. To pick the cranberries, we North Forkers had to come to the South Fork, particularly to Napeague and Montauk. For our generation, that was always an adventure.
It was fin fishing — starting with the March run of flounders, ending with frostfish catching in late November and December — shellfishing, berry picking, and hunting, but even the annual fall leaf raking, that got some us deeply involved in nature. And we became intimately involved — hands, feet, all of the five senses — in nature’s ever-changing diversity, seasons and species, sounds and movements, forms and colors.
How could you not become attached to a box turtle that wandered into your strawberry patch and sported such a red beak? How could you not be stupefied by the fish that you corralled with your hands, only to have it blow up like a ball in them? The bat that flew into the bedroom at night where the window was screenless, the skunk that effluviated on your father when he went to get the car out of the garage, the male robin with bright red breast that woke you up early in the morning by fighting with his image in the window pane for the good part of an hour?
Yes, nature entered into us in bits and dribbles, throughout our formative years until some of us, as young adults, looked into the mirror and saw that we had became part of it. Once so noted, the relationship would be never-ending. If we were to start over and grow up in today’s “brave new world,” this oh-so-well-ordered environment with its highly structured emphasis on competition, achievement, and “making it” rather than on just being, what might become of us?