I THINK WE were a lot more independent, as kids, than is generally true today. You can argue that it is a more dangerous world now, and I won’t disagree. But I will suggest that our childhood world had its perils – they were just different, and although I believe society is now more dangerous for children, the world, the physical environment, in which we, as kids, entertained ourselves was fraught with peril; being as it was not overly encumbered with fences and barriers and warning signs. Litigation being what it was in the 1950s, we were mostly free to explore, and enter, and climb over, and to routinely take risks which are simply not available today. Couple this with the fact that our days, in summer anyway, were unorganized and almost an entirely unsupervised. We had few, if any, of the planned “Activities” by which today’s children expect to be entertained.
The summer weekday, and many Saturdays as well, started with breakfast — a bowl of corn flakes (Kellogg’s, of course), or Wheaties, Cheerios, Rice Krispies (Snap, Crackle, and Pop), or whatever was your favorite.
There weren’t too many pre-sweetened cereals in those days. There was Raisin Bran, puffed wheat, (the name escapes me), the multi-colored, and supposedly multi-flavored Trix (Raspberry RED, Lemon YELLOW, Orange ORANGE), and of course, Tony the Tiger never let us forget that Frosted Flakes were Grrrrrrate.
Being a fairly typical child of the fifties, after breakfast I would often just disappear until lunchtime. Summer days were mostly a series of random, and unplanned, events. My bicycle — sometimes with neighbor Billy Elliot riding on the back — would take me anywhere I wanted to go around the east side of Aurora, and sometimes beyond. We roamed far and wide, from various parks, to downtown, to the railroad bridge over the Fox River which was, for several reasons, a favorite destination.
The EJ&E (Elgin, Joliet, & Eastern) railroad bridge crossed the Fox River about a mile from our house. The solid green vegetation around and below the bridge was a close enough approximation to our vision of the jungles of the South Pacific. We fought and defeated many imaginary Japanese soldiers in that swampy, sweaty green. The bridge structure itself, and the shallow rapids of the river at that spot, looked to me very much like the movie version of the “Bridge on the River Kwai”, which greatly enhanced the fun. Oddly enough, this is the very place at which I received, from my Mother, my phobia of snakes. But when we were fighting the Japs, I didn’t give it a thought.
The bridge also offered a different kind of fun. From the pedestrian walkway, tacked to the side of the span, you could — with no warning signs, fences, or guard rails to protect us from the 40 foot drop — cross over to the tracks and climb down onto the center support; the top surface of which was perhaps 4 feet below the track supporting ties. This offered a very private space, a great view of the river, and much excitement when a train thundered by just inches above our heads.