A Child of the Fifties

by Paul Schroder

Chapter 3

My Father had taken me for a drive while he explained some of the complexities of life. It wasn't the birds and bees talk because, at five, I just wasn't ready yet. The talk involved some grown up words I'd heard that confused me. Evidently, in my innocence, I had also said some stuff that cracked my Father up. He had to stop the car, at one point, to dry his eyes and blow his nose.

He informed me that f*** was a word I was way, way to young to be using because it was a cuss word and, "that is all you need to know about that word at this stage of your life." And when we got home he was still chuckling. He and Mother were whispering in the kitchen and then both of them burst into laughter.

I wasn't sure if I was being made the butt of a joke or not. But I decided it could only be about my brother's friend Charlie. I mean, a boy without a wiener does seem pretty funny.

We boys all slept in the same bedroom. My toy chest was there and I went in there and gathered up some toys to take out into the back yard. Adjacent to our back yard was a big, ol' field. It was a terrific field, as far as fields go. There were cardboard boxes that once housed refrigerators. They were great for making forts. Some bigger kids had set up a dirt track to race their bicycles on. My main interest was a spot where someone had dumped a huge load of sand. It was perfect for setting up your army soldiers and making roads and stuff for your cars and trucks.

Usually my friend Jimmy would play with me but he was visiting his grandmother. So, I was getting absorbed into my solitary game of building roads to drive my cars on. I had a whole set of little cars I got from Santa. It contained all of the major makes and models, including pick-up trucks. There were also ambulances, police cars and fire engines. They came in a soft sided carrier, like a suitcase, with inserts. I was always careful to put them all back into the case when I was finished playing. They were my pride and joy.

I was immersed in my play and hadn't noticed another boy approaching until he got up rather close to me. He looked to be about nine or so and pretty big boned. He had a baseball bat and was using it to knock rocks around. He wandered up to see what I was doing.

"Wut'cha up to, shrimp? Ahhh, playing with yer little boy toys."

I'd stopped making tire screeching noises and just sat on my haunches, to see what was going to transpire. The kid looked formidable. As inexperienced as I was in the ways of the world, I knew a potential bully when I saw one. I didn't react or say anything back.

"Let me see this here" he says, scooping up one of my cars. "This here looks like a Studebaker, ain't it?" He holds it up between thumb and forefinger to show it to me. I nod my head yes.

"Would you say this could be a pretty fast car?" Again I nod my head yes.

"I'll bet it is. In fact I bet it goes like a bat outta hell."

With that he tossed my car up in the air and then smacked it as hard as he could with his bat.

"Yep, looky there. It's going like a bat outa hell... ha, ha, ha, ha."

All his talking was done behind my back because I was going like a bat outa hell myself, towards home. I had visions of him knocking home runs with all my toys unless I got someone to stop him.

I hit our yard running and was heading for the house. Only as I passed our garden shed I put on the brakes. I could smell cigarette smoke, and I knew what that meant. I threw open the door to see my brother kicking back on a storage carton while smoking and looking at a Playboy magazine.

I'm sure Dick was thinking that I was about to go running into the house to tell on him. But I yelled at him instead.


He could see by the copious amount of tears and snot that I was far more concerned with my toys than with his smoking.

"So, where is this a'hole?"

"I point towards the field and he steps out of the shed to take a look. He emerges just as we hear the crack of that kid's bat on another of my cars.

"Well, that little sum'bitch" he says.

Now, my brother is kinda short for a fourteen year old, or so I'm told. But he looks way big to me. And for a short guy he can run pretty fast. He definitely outran me while heading for the culprit with the bat. The kid was bent over, reaching for another one of my cars and so didn't see my brother coming up on him. But he heard Dick's foot stomps at the last second and turns around just as my brother grabs a hand full of his shirt.

I won't go into detail about what Dick said or did with him. Needless to say, the boy's face was a mixture of tears and snot that complimented mine. He sent the kid to gather up the two toys he'd batted while Dick stood there with the kid's bat. It took him awhile to find them and when he did I looked them over.

Now, the toy cars of the 50's were die cast metal and could stand up to some real abuse. Being rocket launched by a wooden bat, however, sort of voided their warranty, so to speak. Their little wheel assemblies were smashed to smithereens. I held them up and frowned.

Dick said, "You wrecked his cars ya little turd. How ya going to pay him back?"

The boy reached into his front pockets and pulled the lining out, showing they were empty.

"I don't got no money and my Ma don't got no money too."

"What's your name?"

"Carl," he spits out.

"Well, Carl. It looks like we will be holding this bat until you can pay my little brother a quarter for each of the cars you smashed up."

"Two quarters?" He snorts, "they ain't worth two quarters."

"So take me to court you little turd bird."

"Now take a hike. If my little brother sees you in this field again he'll come get me. I'll show you a magic act. I'll show you it's possible to sit on a bat and make it disappear."

Carl let out a huff, turned and walked away. Dick handed me the kid's bat while we stood and watched for a little bit as he slowly threaded his way off of the field.

I had stopped being angry at Carl while he was standing in front of my brother with his pockets hanging out. "He didn't have no money and neither did his Ma." That kept playing over in my mind. I saw something else he and his Ma probably didn't have either... hope. He acted tough and he was cruel but I felt like it was all a mask to hide behind, so people wouldn't see he felt empty.

You might think this was pretty insightful for a five year old. But these weren't thoughts that were registered in my head so much as a perception, a knowing. This was emotional insight and I felt my heart break for the bigger boy.

Dick had wandered back towards the house. Since he wasn't paying me any more attention, I took off running towards the end of the field. The field dead ended at a sidewalk on the next cross street up. I caught a glimpse of Carl walking down that sidewalk and rushed to catch up to him.

He heard me approaching and turned around. I stopped a few feet away, out of breath.

"What the hell do you want, kid? I told your brother I don't got no quarters."

"I know," I said, and I held his bat out to him. He looked at the bat and then looked at me, quizzically. After a minute, he reached for the bat and took it from me. We looked at each other for a few seconds more.

"I'm sorry I broke your toys." he says. "I was mad at my Pa for going to jail and leaving me and my Ma on our own."

I could feel my eyes start to leak at this point. After all, I had a father that was at home right now and was taking care of all of us and who loved me.

I asked him where he lived and he pointed to a house up the block a ways. He said he and his Mother had to move in with his Grandmother.

"If you want, you can come over and play with my toys and play in the field too." I tell him. "I'll make sure it's okay with my brother. He really ain't so bad as he seems."

"What's yer name, kid?"

"Paul," I answered.

"Yeah, I might do that. You're a good guy, Paul. See ya around."

With that, he turned and continued his journey homeward. But I noticed he no longer had that dejected hunch to his shoulders.

I turned and made my own way back home, my mind running a mile a minute. I was a five year old philosopher trying to digest the meaning of life. My conclusion? Sometimes life gives you ice cream, sometimes it gives you Brussel-sprouts.

I never again told on my brother for smoking. It seems like the dynamics in our household were changing. Oh, and when I got home, I climbed up on my Father's lap and gave him a long, long hug. He was reading his paper, but I don't think he minded the interruption. He didn't ask any questions. Father probably figured, rightfully so, that I was counting my blessings and he was on that list.

Craig, his brother Barry, and Steven, Craig's friend, and I were all on our bikes and kind of riding lazy circles in our street. Steven had a Schwinn 3 speed, while Craig, the oldest of us four, had every boy's dream bike, a Schwinn Panther. It had shock absorbers for the front tire, chrome fenders, a luggage rack and even a built on headlight and horn. Not to mention it looked like a rocket!

Now, although it was pretty, Craig would be the last to admit it was a clunker to ride. The bike was heavy and it took some leg strength to get it up to speed. Steven's 3 speed, however, was a light weight racing bike. And since Steven was younger and didn't have the leg strength Craig had, it evened the two of them out.

But then there was Craig's little brother and I, who were stuck with our little kid's bikes, and mine, embarrassingly, still had training wheels attached to the rear.

Training wheels are a pain. If you get up speed and try to turn sharply they drag and cause you to wobble. If the guys decide to ride somewhere, like the market, I can't go because I can't keep up. I have a little kid's bike and little kid's training wheels..."argghhh".

Barry, Craig's little brother, has been off training wheels since the start of Summer and he can keep up with the bigger boys. Well, one morning they counted out their change and had enough to split something at the store. And off they went. And I walked dejectedly into the house.

Luckily this was one of my Father's at home days and he and my Mother had just returned from doing the weekly grocery shopping. Dad was occupied putting groceries away and I walked up to him and tugged on his shirt.

"Father" Tug, tug. Wait.

"Father" Tug, tug. Wait.


"What, Paul, what? I'm pretty busy here."

"Father, will you take the training wheels off my bike?"

A sharp intake of breath from my mother. She's the one that insisted Dad put the training wheels on before they stuck it under the Christmas tree. If this had taken place today, along with the bike there would have been a helmet, goggles, knee pads, elbow pads, shin pads and gloves. And if they made them in my size there would have been a plastic cup as well. That's my safety conscious mother for you.

These were the days before helmets and other safety gear though. But the one bit of safety gear that my mother could provide was an extra set of wheels to keep her baby from falling over.

"I don't know Paul," my mother explains. "You've only been riding since it warmed up a couple of months ago. Up until now you were riding a tricycle. It will be too cold to ride at all in another couple of months. I think maybe the rest of this year you continue with the trainers and then next summer your Father can remove them."

I think my Father saw a light die in my eyes. My vision of dashing here and there with my friends was crushed. I was to be stuck being the one left behind.

I didn't bother to answer. I just let out a sigh, turned and walked back outside, my head hanging down. I sat on the steps for awhile. My parents were arguing. I couldn't hear the words but I was counting on the result I was working towards. Sure enough, my Father comes outside carrying a spanner wrench. Could I play on my Father's sympathies or what?

I look up from my perch on the step towards my Father, standing so tall above me, and I grinned. He shook his head and grinned back.

"Now understand, Paul. Your mother is relenting only if I run alongside you for awhile while you get your balance. You better learn fast because I can't keep up a running pace for long." I nod my head in total agreement.

He spends a few minutes removing the assembly and then tightening everything back up again. He gives the rear wheel a spin to make sure it doesn't wobble. Then he tests the tension on my chain. Of course I'm watching him like a hawk. My Father can do absolutely anything, even be a bicycle mechanic.

"Okay boy, climb on" he says, holding the bike by one handle bar. I clamber aboard and he lets go of the handlebars, holding instead under my seat. I wobbled.

"Grab the handlebars" he insisted. I did.

"Now, if you feel yourself falling one way, turn your handlebars that way. But, If you get up a bit of speed, the bike will stay upright better than if you're going slow."

"Start peddling, kid." And I did.

Wobble, wobble, wobble. He grabs a handlebar and settles it down.

"Go a little faster." I do and the bike stops wobbling.

Just then Barry whizzes by on his bike. "Come on over to my house. We're playing army." He yells over his shoulder.

I start pumping like mad, right out of my Dad's hands. I have places to go and things to do. I didn't look behind me, but if I did I would have seen my Dad, hands on hips, looking like a proud father.

I yell in return, "Hey, Barry! Wait up!"

My mother and Jimmy's Mom had been taking turns driving us to an occasional Saturday morning matinee. One of my brothers would have to come along to escort us because we were too little to go by ourselves. My oldest brother, Billy, was 16 and his driver's permit had just turned into a full fledged license to drive. He was a fully licensed driver with nothing to drive however.

Since Billy was the mature and reliable son, he was also the one Mother could trust with any important assignment. He was about to inherit the family station-wagon on Saturday mornings to take us little kids to the matinee.

"You will obey all the traffic laws and always stay withing the speed limit."

"Ma, you know I always do. I'll drive the same even when you or Dad's not in the car."

Dick nodded in the affirmative. He's definitely keen to make these trips with Billy and us. After all, he and Billy will sneak some girls along and they were picturing some epic make-out sessions.

"I know you do, Billy, and you know I trust you. But Mrs Grundle may need a little more convincing. After all, you are going to be entrusted with her five year old too."

"Mom... Dick will go with me and we will watch them together. If one of em needs to take a leak, why one of us will follow along. They're in good hands. Remind her of that."

What my mother or Billy didn't know was that, when Jimmy's mom realized she wouldn't have to go to another damn matinee again, she was 100 percent for it. She had to seem to voice concern over Billy's age and inexperience in driving, but then she allowed as he was certainly mature enough for a teenager. I'm sure she was mentally kicking her heels together.

Mom gave Billy a buck and a quarter. 50 cents would go to two gallons of gas to get us there and back again. Thirty cents for three tickets. (Mrs. Grundle was responsible for Jimmy's ticket.) That left money for popcorn and sodas. Jimmy's mother gave Jimmy a quarter. That's 10 cents to get into the matinee with a main feature, two or three serials and cartoons and still leave 15 cents for snacks.

Starting at 9:30 or so on a Saturday morning they would keep us occupied for at least four hours. My gosh, after a plethora of cartoons we'd be able to see the latest installment in the adventures of Captain Marvel, Zorro and Flash Gordon. Then there would be a major feature. Westerns were the big thing back then and Roy Rogers was becoming the most popular cowboy actor. He probably made fifty films.

Jimmy would run down to my house and we'd wait, impatiently, for our Mother to give last minute instructions to all concerned. Then Billy would climb into the driver's seat, Dick would take the front passenger seat and Jimmy and I hoped into the back seat. This lasted about 1 minute until we turned a corner to pick up my brothers' dates. Then me and Jimmy had to climb back into the rear facing seat while Dick and his date would sit together in the back seat. Billy's date, of course, was up front with him. This arrangement was satisfactory with everyone.

Jimmy and I were warned about letting anyone know they were sneaking their girl friends along. If we blabbed then they wouldn't be able to take us anymore. That purchased our silence. Besides, it was better with the girls along anyway. My brother's would ignore us and we could enjoy ourselves without being teased or insulted. When we sat in the theater, me and Jimmy sat in the row just in front of the four teenagers, so they could keep us in view. I don't know how well they kept track of us though with their lips locked together.

Oh Man...next time, my mother yells at Santa! Boy, she can kick some ass!

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