In my day a ‘play date’ would be a pretend outing with a girl…

Just another old guy story, and I don’t even feel like an old guy, or another in-my-day story.

And I’m the baby of my family. One of my two brothers is 20 years older than I. But I’m a ’49er (1949 that is).

Anyway: until maybe ten or twenty years ago I never heard of the term “play date”. I first heard my daughter use it. She was taking one of her kids to a play date. She has three kids. One is an adult now. Another is closing in on adulthood, but the third is in second grade — she still drives him to the houses of little friends for “play dates”.

If I heard the term “play date” when I was a kid I would have thought it had something to do with that little girl next door who always wanted to play house or with those teenagers that hung out at the local drive-in.

It’s just the way things are nowadays. Parents, with good reason, don’t feel it safe to simply let their children loose to roam the streets (well for the most part or in most places).

But my sister and I were noting how different it was in our day (she’s a 1941er). “Mom had it easy; she just opened the door and let us out”, she noted.

I was always roaming around on my own, often on my bicycle. Except for my first three and 3/4 years of life living in San Francisco, I grew up in a series of three small Central Valley towns of California.

Were there dangers? I’m sure there were, but I suppose not nearly as much as today.

Once one of my cousins and his family visited us. He lived on a farm. While I am sure he, being an adventuresome type, explored every inch of that farm, he may not at his age gone much beyond. We left the house and walked a little around the neighborhood, sometimes taking alleyways. I think those alleys fascinated him, for sometime after we returned to my house he, unbeknownst to me or anyone else, took off again. At some point my aunt realized her youngest child was nowhere around.

I recall concern. I don’t recall any panic. Finally we got a call from the police. The found a little boy wandering out by the county hospital on the edge of town. I can tell you that was quite a little distance from our place — not a long, long ways I guess, but a pretty fair piece.

I rode along with my aunt and my uncle to go retrieve him.

He did not appear to be a bit scared.

I think the only danger might have been he could have been bitten by a dog. I say that because at some later date I was while riding a bicycle in that same area. Ouch! some pretty big teeth marks in my leg. Fortunately the animal control was able to capture the dog and determine it did not have rabies. The people whom I thought it belonged to claimed it was not their dog but a stray. Maybe, but how come it came back to them when they called it?

But back to the idea of free roaming. One thing in our favor when I was young was that in the small towns things were fairly close by. And most of my friends lived just down the street. And we had sidewalks and not many busy streets, although we actually lived on a busy street — a main thoroughfare and state highway. In fact, I got hit by a school bus on that street right in front of our house when I was in first grade. There is always danger. I was supposed to have used the crossing in front of the school where one of our teachers would serve as a crossing guard. Kids do not always do what they are supposed to. I was not too seriously injured. Maybe the bus had a dent in it — I don’t know.

And you know? there was another incident I doubt I even told my folks about. I walked along a seldom-used spur line of a railroad out of the city limits to what they called the gravel pits. I had been there with my brother before. But on this day I was alone. A kid a little older than I came up to me and pointed what appeared to be a handgun at me. Actually I think it was a pellet gun (still very dangerous of course). At first he was menacing, but then he relented and walked off.

And of course there are always neighborhood bullies. That’s part of childhood.

Also once I began hanging around the railroad station to watch the trains come in. Every time I heard the train whistle I would hop on my bike and dash off the several blocks to the old downtown station. Most were freight trains, still pulled by old oil-burning locomotives that looked like the old steam ones, but there were also passenger trains pulled by the more modern-looking locomotives. There was a nearby park. And there was an old man with a beard there who looked like Abraham Lincoln. He said he used to work on the railroad back east. I often talked to him. At some point I told my parents about my acquaintance. I was surprised to see concern on their faces. They advised me to avoid him. My parents were that way, that is they seemed to avoid outright prohibitions in most cases in favor of advisories, you might say.

These days “don’t talk to strangers” is a pretty standard rule for children — and for good reason of course. Way back then I don’t think I was in any danger. But one never knows.

My oldest brother spent much or at least several years of his growing up in San Francisco. Right off hand I don’t know at what ages. It was before my time. But I know from hearing my folks talk that he was always out of the house on his own when he could be.

Oh, and this transporting children all over the place in a car for play dates — and heck, what about the fact that at any elementary school you will see a long line of cars lined up to drop off kids in the morning and another to pick them up in the afternoon? All that would have been impossible when I was a kid because for one thing a lot of families only had one car and it was parked outside of a workplace somewhere.

I remember when I was in one town my schoolmates were jealous of me because I lived so near the school — just a few blocks away. They had to walk many, many long blocks. Although they often walked in groups, sometimes kids walked alone. I don’t recall of anything serious happening — no kidnappings or worse. But of course it could have happened.

(I had mentioned a school bus. In my time school buses were only for my classmates who lived beyond the city limits — country kids we called them.)

And more than the not getting car rides here and there, we as children spent so much time outside. And we did not have to have sophisticated toys. We used our imagination. My best friend and I often played cowboys like we saw on the TV westerns. We both had toy gun belts and hats and so on, but often we just dispensed with the costume, even the toy guns, and used our imagination.

We often did something like a reenactment of the OK Corral at a real set of old corrals next to that old rail spur line I mentioned.

I think all that outside exercise was good for our health. And I think our imagination was healthy for the budgets of our parents who did not feel obligated to make major purchases for our entertainment.

But all that is not to say parents in that time did not give expensive gifts to their children, and some really over indulged them.

It has been an ongoing evolution.

But I think we’ve lost something. We’ve lost a lot of the fun of childhood. We’ve lost our innocence. We’ve lost our security.

And of course it was far different for those who came before me I know. Somewhat better but somewhat worse.

Modern conveniences and advances in science and medicine have certainly made things better.

But not everything.

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