When I was eight years old, my parents sent me to a religious Jewish day camp in the Bronx. First thing in the morning, we had the morning prayer, followed by an hour and a half of Talmud class. Then, we’d grab a ball and go up to an uncovered, blazing hot, black tar roof with only our tzitzit and kippahs to protect us. The closest we ever got to shade was when we peeked through the fence, and we could see some across the street.
We were dehydration nightmares. Jewish kids were passing out from right to left. Even though Franz Greiter invented sunscreen in 1938, my parents never had any. We had baby oil. What happens to oil when you heat it? It gets hotter. With a couple of eggs and some baby oil, my back could have doubled as a grill.
On another note, I don’t think my toys had warnings. They should have read, “Your child will either choke or take someone’s eye out with this. Batteries not included.” It took less than 15 minutes before we broke our green army soldiers into tiny razor-sharp sliver-thin pieces. As I got older, Bic pen caps, with their stiletto tip, were my chew of choice. Try getting one of those out of your throat when it’s lodged in there sideways.
Once, when my parents gave me a bag of 50 marbles, I swallowed one. For the next three days, they used the same strainer we used to wash grapes to try to catch the marble.
We had no car seatbelts. Every time my father made a sharp turn, I found it quite enjoyable smashing as hard as I could into the door to see if I could knock the door from its hinges. When my wife Nancy was five, she fell out of a moving car. That’s probably why she’s…
At 10 I got a shiny new Schwinn bike. Eventually, when my seat broke off, I rode either standing or sitting on a rusty steel cylinder. I had the bike for years and never put new brakes on. Instead, I would drag the tips of my sneakers along the cement pavement to stop. Going downhill at 20 miles an hour, it was touch and go if my toes could handle the stress. When a toe started to stick out of the front of the sneaker, it was time for a new pair or off to the hospital to sew a toe back on.
No bike helmets. Everyone ended up with stitches in the head. There were no childproof caps on medicine bottles. It was twist and gobble. Until the magnetic mechanism locks were invented, good luck if you got stuck inside of the refrigerator. Hopefully, there was some sliced baloney.
But all this was a step up from, let’s say, when Abe Lincoln grew up. I read that when he was a kid at night when he wanted to go to the bathroom to make a Lincoln log, he would have to go to an outhouse. The outhouse was five miles away. Waiting outside his door might be a bear, mountain lion, wolf, or snake. Still safer than your wife catching you sneaking in at 3 a.m.
Yes, in many respects, it was less safe for my generation. But what we did have that most kids don’t have today was freedom. Even in New York, I was free to roam anywhere and everywhere. I could take the subway or ride a bus by myself. Free as a bird.
Yes, in many respects, it was less safe for my generation. Yes, many children got hurt, and sadly some even died.
But what we did have that most kids don’t have today was freedom. Even in New York, I was free to roam anywhere and everywhere. I could take the subway or ride a bus by myself. Free as a bird. No calling, texting, or Facetime. No tracking my every step like I was a wanted criminal.
Before I’d go out, I told my parents (sort of) where I was going. Not because I didn’t want to tell them, but because I didn’t know. I was told, “Be home around six.” I’d ride away on my bike, and sometimes it was raining hard, or the wind was so strong it would almost knock me over. Holding tight and not getting knocked over made me feel invincible. I was something you don’t hear much about anymore. I was my own man.
Mark Schiff is a comedian, actor and writer, and host of the ‘You Don’t Know Schiff’ podcast.