I recently received a copy of The Dangerous Book for Boys. It was sent to me by a guest who first started fishing in the Adirondacks with his father and me back in the early '80s. He now has two boys of his own.
The book has become an international bestseller since it was first published in 2007. It professes to offer a "nostalgic look for every boy from 8 to 80, covering essential boyhood skills such as building tree houses, learning how to fish, finding true north and even answering the age-old question of what the big deal with girls is."
The large, well-illustrated volume includes instructions on everything from building a fire to tying knots to skipping stones, and beyond. It is The Boy Scout Handbook on steroids.
Photo by Joe Hackett
Tools for adventuresome boys include a BB gun, bow and arrows, mask and flippers, a bedroll and a tree fort.
The book arrived with the inscription, "If there was ever a little boy hidden behind a man's disguise, it would be you. Thank you for teaching all of us how to be real kids!"
Despite an often-professed youthful exuberance, I remain, by and large, a product of the 1950s. I was born halfway through the decade, as rock 'n' roll was coming of age and the Greatest Generation was finally hitting full stride in the aftermath of World War II.
The 1950s were difficult times for many, as the horror of a worldwide conflict continued to haunt people of the era. Certainly the war was fresh on their minds since the conflict robbed the most important years of their lives. There is no doubt that many of the young men and women who served returned hardened and bitter from the horrors of war. Many more didn't return at all.
It couldn't have been easy with the prospect of a new Cold War looming on the far horizon, carrying with it the threat of atomic bombs and the end of the world. The future surely must have seemed bleak. Yet they retained the strength and resolve to hoist our nation upon their shoulders as they toiled and oiled the country into the greatest era of prosperity that it has ever known.
Looking back on the situation, it is difficult to understand how the 1950s evolved into the Happy Days with the advent of flashy new cars, the space race and a host of famous new movie stars. It was a decade that delivered hula hoops, Schwinn bikes, Barbie and the development of a consumer-based society.
Big, modern houses sprouted up in the burgeoning suburbs and advertisements touted the arrival of fancy new household appliances, ranging from televisions to stereos and steam irons to hair curlers. No one doubted it: it was going to be a better life.
Back then, loafers were a pair of shoes not a description for lazy people. Hobophobia was a fear that all children had of being carted off by wandering gypsies. I believe the fear was stoked by parents who had invented the myth to keep their kids close to home. The term "child abduction" hadn't yet been coined.
Almost every kid owned a bike and helmets were required only for the soap box derby. With a stack of baseball cards and a couple of clothespins, a bike could be turned into a motorcycle. And only tough guys rode motorcycles.
Cars didn't have seat belts and kids could still sit up front. Air bags were the old ladies down the street who'd never shut up.
When you pulled into a gas station, the guy in uniform would greet you at the pump, and ask, "Fill 'er up, sir?"
He'd also check the oil, wash the windshield and kick the tires. Ten dollars would easily fill the tank and you'd usually get change back. I've still got my old Esso shirt from before the days of Exxon-Mobil.
Clothes were manufactured to last long enough to be hand-me-downs, an original term for recycled. Shoes were actually resoled and watches were really repaired. PF Flyers truly increased a kid's speed, but it was never fast enough to escape dad's belt.
Gentlemen wore hats, which were always tipped to the ladies, and children knew their place. Families ate meals together, bedtime came early and kids knew better than to talk back.
Kids would leave home in the morning and stay out all day. No one knew what they were doing and nobody cared. Parents trusted them to do the right thing, as long as they were back home before dark. If you didn't return home dirty and grass-stained, your parents would ask, "Now, what have you been up to?"
Our prized possessions included a transistor radio, complete with an earplug - the iPod's of the era. Every boy owned a jackknife and yet most of them could still count to 10 on two hands. Matches were made of wood and they came in a box. Cigarette lighters weren't thrown away, they were actually refilled.
Although every kid was warned not to play with fire, nearly every boy did and very few towns actually burned down. A magnifying glass offered a great alternative when matches were not available.
Soda came in glass bottles and kids often shared it with two or three straws. Nobody ever got infected; they knew who had cooties.
If they wanted to contact a friend, they went outside to see them. They did it face to face and did things with each other, rather than to each other. Kids were perfectly capable of creating their own entertainment for hours on end.
Back then, there was a strange concept known as "imagination," and it was a child's greatest tool. It offered an instant escape from the ordinary day-to-day routines, such as homework, detention or similar after-school chores.
Kids were always outside playing games, riding bikes and exploring. They could never build enough forts, snow caves or dig enough tunnels. They hung out at hangouts and they knew all of their neighbors.
They fell out of trees, got cuts and bruises and chipped a tooth or two, but there were never any lawsuits. They learned to take risks and they accepted the fact that there were bound to be accidents. In the process they learned what things they should not attempt to do again, like jumping off the bridge or picking a fight with the fat kid.
Most of all, they learned to provide for themselves, and in the process they discovered that fun could be had with the most basic of equipment. Kids could entertain themselves for hours with just a hank of rope, a pocket full of rocks, a big stick and an active imagination.
Of course, it also helped to have such cool things as a slingshot, a bow and arrow, a Daisy Red Rider BB gun, mask and flippers and a magnifying glass. How's that for a Christmas list?