Contacting Craig

To contact Craig for speaking or interview opportunities, email at
Visit his website (Big Fat Grace) at

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Last Innocent Age...We Entertained Ourselves

Part of watching my daughter grow up has been sorting through all her old toys that I have in storage. I am a bit of a pack-rat when it comes to her. I guess it's because having been divorced since she was about 2 years old, my time with her has always been so broken. Once a week and every other weekend and two months in the summer. It always feels like I am running against the clock with her and I guess I held on to anything that reminded me of her childhood, even as I watched it speed by me like the shadow of a sports car.
I was looking at the boxes and boxes of toys she used to adore, and reminiscing about the toys I had as a kid. I was surprised to recall how much of the great fun my friends and I had, was a result of making it ourselves.
We all had bikes. Back then, the bike to own was a "Spider Bike" It had long "Ape-Hanger" handlebars and a "Banana seat" and a "Sissy bar". The taller the sissy bar, the cooler your bike was. Gary Savage, who was much older than the rest of us on the street, had a Schwinn version of this bike. But Gary's was modeled after a dragster. It was a five speed...almost unheard of back then...the shifter looked like a stick shift in a race car. It had a fat "slick" on the back and wheelie bars. It came right from Schwinn this way. It was the coolest bike any of us had ever seen.
We would take Testers model paint and customize our bikes, and we all went up the street to Pete's Citgo station and got an STP sticker that wound up on our chrome fender. The only plastic these bikes had on them were the seat cover and the handlebar grips. They were tough as nails. We built ramps in the street and jumped them. We rode down hills that defied gravity. We rode miles to Nonesuch creek and they laid in the sun all day while we fished. I delivered thousands of newspapers from my bike. We rode "no hands" and inevitably crashed once or twice when the "killer wobbles" got the best of us. And of course...we all put baseball cards in the spokes with clothespins. It made the bike look like a roulette wheel but sound like a Harley. You clamped the cards to the braces on the fender and they clicked the spokes as they went by. You could get 2 cards on each side, front and back. Eight cards per bike. We sounded like the Hell's Angels riding up and down our street all day and into the night.
One particular summer, Tommy Riccio, my neighbor across the street, found an old bike in the trash. He was always amazingly creative, and he cut the front forks off the bike, slid them onto the ends of his front forks and made the first real "chopper" we had ever seen. Tommy's front wheel was a good two feet further out than the rest of us. It was Easy Rider!
The only video games we ever saw were in arcades. Arcades! Remember those? We played pinball. That's it...Pinball.
We read comic books religiously. My favorites, beside the superheroes, were the "Creeper" comics. Tales from the crypt, the dark side, etc. I loved comic books. I loved the ads inside. I always wanted to order a bunch of the "Army Surplus" weather balloons they were selling in the back, tie them to a big garbage can and float away. I never ordered the balloons but I did buy the "1001 plastic army men" in the footlocker. The footlocker was much smaller than it appeared in the ad. It was about the size of a shoebox, and while I never actually counted...there weren't 1001 army men in there. But they were enormous fun no matter what. We staged epic battles in the sandy banks of the creek behind the houses. We made handkerchief parachutes for them and threw them out of our upstairs windows and they became part of the "101st Screamin' Eagles". And of course...we sent most of them to a horrible, deformed, fiery death under the power of the enemy death ray, which looked remarkably like my grandmothers magnifying glass complete with sound effects of us voicing the pain of the dying soldiers claiming "It BURNS!" and calling for their moms.
When the plastic army men twisting and melting grew old...we found an ant colony and cooked many an ant. Picnic goers may never know how deep a debt of gratitude they owed us.
We were creative. One summer evening, Tommy Riccio came outside holding about 10 feet of thread. My mom asked him; "What are you doing Tommy??" he replied..."I'm taking my beetle for a walk." He had found an enormous June Beetle and tied thread to it's leg. The thing was flying around, tethered to this thread. It was the funniest thing I'd ever seen. We caught lightning bugs and put them in glass mayonnaise jars, with holes puncture in the top. That became our nightlight. We used to go behind the houses and "Fight the Bats". There were common house bats back in the fields and being knowledgeable about wildlife, we knew they responded to high pitched sounds. So we'd go back there at dusk and click rocks together, convinced we were driving them to dive at us. Tommy Riccio had a Crossman 760 BB gun and he'd try shooting the bats. We never hit anything and never realized until we were adults that the bats were diving at small insects and the rock-clicking thing was of no importance.
We read a lot. I read the entire Hardy Boys series. I read Sherlock Holmes. One summer I decided I wanted to be a detective and I took two old baseball hats and made my own "Deerstalker" cap. (A Deerstalker is that hat that Holmes wore, with a bill pointing forward and one pointing back) I put the magnifying glass to a use much different than melting down invading plastic forces or making the picnic world a bit safer. I don't think I solved a mystery or avenged Holmes' honor against Moriarity, but I had a lot of fun.
We listened to baseball games on transistor radios. AM stations only back then. WAMS played Top 40, WFIL was Top 40 until it became "Oldies". WCAU was all news. I was walking to school in the fourth grade, and Tommy Riccio had a transistor radio with him. "Born to Run" came on for the first time. When Bruce hit that crescendo at the end, the hairs on my arms stood up and I got chills. From that day forward I was a fan.
We slept in Kevin Messicks backyard in a pup tent. Slept was using the term loosely...we stayed awake all night, telling jokes we'd heard our dad's tell and would never tell with an adult around. We told scary stories and argued about who the best baseball players were.
We decided, one particular summer, to hold our own Olympics. We made weights out of some rebar and cinder blocks. We used a hubcap for a discus, and a softball for a shot-put. We wrestled and ran and swam and fished and played. We had BB gun wars and never shot our eyes out. One summer they were building a freight Depot across the park in a field were we used to cut trails and ride our bikes. We would stand there for hours watching enormous machines transform the earth into a flat square. We stole matches and lit fires from the dry grass in the fields and we never burned anything down. We played stickball, wallball, Buck-Buck, up-and-down-tag, and Relievio. We rang doorbells and ran away to hide and watch the neighbors answer the door, convinced they had no idea who it was.  Of course they did...but they played along and acted angry but probably laughed at us when they closed the door. ...and maybe they were just wistful for a moment when they remembered doing it themselves many years before. We soaped windows on Mischief Night and trick or treated with pillow cases. We did everything together because we really, deeply, loved each other. I think, of all the things I see different in my daughters' world...that is the thing that hurts the most. Neighborhoods aren't like Monroe Avenue was back then. Lifelong friends are so much harder to develop and maintain. It's such a different world. We didn't have half the toys and devices they have now, but we had creative minds and we had love for each other and we had fun. We made our own fun, and it was ours and we loved it.
...sometimes I wish it were still that easy

No comments: