Memories Of A World We Once Knew

SchoolbusLast week I was reminded of something that happened to me on the first day of either Kindergarten or Grade 1… I don’t remember which. I was either five or six years old; we were picked up in the morning by a big yellow school bus, and dropped off in the afternoon by the same. The driver of that bus, it should be noted, was a heavy smoker, and so the bus always smelled like cigarettes. That wasn’t too terrible though, as most of our parents also smoked.

I met the kid who would become my best friend for the next four or five years… until he switched schools and we fell out of touch. Mark Nadler and I hit it off. He and his family lived a few blocks away from me and mine, in Ville St-Laurent, Quebec.

We decided, without consulting anyone, that we wanted to play together after school. We told the bus driver (through the cloud of cigarette smoke) that it had been arranged with our parents, and that he was not dropping me at my house, but at Mark’s. It took a couple of minutes to convince him, but he shrugged his shoulders and said ‘Okay.’ Let’s put aside for the moment that it would have had to be arranged by our parents the night before, and Mark and I had not known of each others’ existence until that afternoon.

I remember being jealous of Mark’s toy collection (a jealousy that would never abate during our friendship). I also remember that we watched Gilligan’s Island, and that his nanny must have been Scottish, as she had a wee obsession about the Loch Ness Monster. We also played outside – Mark was my first friend who had a road hockey net, and we had a great time shooting the ball around in the street in front of the house. These memories might not be from that same day – we would have many play dates in the following years – but they are things that I remember.

I also remember that an hour (or two) later, my mother showed up. She was not at all pleased, and yelled (as only Miriam could) for several minutes. It seems that aside from having a fun time with my new friend, there were other less pleasant consequences to a five year old lying to the bus driver and being dropped off at a stranger’s house rather than his own… without calling his mother to either ask or at least inform her of this. I was grabbed by the arm, thrown over her knee, and spanked… hard.

Let’s look at this entire story – which is as true as my memory allows – and evaluate it through the eyes of the year 2021.

  1. Bus drivers smoking? This would absolutely never be permitted. Under no circumstances would any jurisdiction in North America subject our children to that! Bonus: for those of us whose parents did smoke (especially during the cold winter months when we were not allowed to roll the car windows down): this is considered actual child abuse in many jurisdictions! Of course, I was physically abused as a child too, and nobody seemed to care back then. How times have changed!
  2. Bus drivers would never take the word of a 5/6 year old. If they did not have the change in writing, you are being dropped where I was told to drop you… and I don’t care if the permission slip was approved but misplaced! You are going home unless it is written in triplicate otherwise.
  3. I do not know if there are still a preponderance of Scottish nannies in North America… I have not encountered one in many years. Most nannies are from third world countries… but anything’s possible, right?
  4. I do not know if parents yell at their children anymore. I was certainly discouraged from doing so. While I do not agree with this particular position, there are again many who would consider raising a nasty voice to a child a form of abuse.
  5. There are debates to this day about spanking. As someone who was abused as a child, I am torn between thinking that it is completely unacceptable, and that when a child puts himself in danger there is no better way to convince him to not repeat the offense than by patting his bum. I do know that whatever a parent’s position on that debate may be, the corporal punishment would, in this day and age’ likely have waited until we were in the privacy of our own home, and not in front of witnesses – Mark, his mother, the nanny, and maybe others.
  6. My mother did not call 9-1-1. Actually, when this incident occurred there was no 9-1-1… but there would have been a Police Emergency phone number. I do not know if it would have occurred to my mother to call them, but when the doorbell rang it was indeed my mother, and not the police.
  7. Are children still allowed to play in the street? I cannot remember the last time I saw it, but I suppose it is possible. What is less likely is that there would be a couple of 5-year-old children playing in the middle of the street without any adult supervision.

Fast-forward all these years later, and I am a parent myself. Had I realized that my child was not dropped off by the school bus, I would have called the school to make sure he got onto the bus; then I would call the bus company to see why he had not been dropped off; then I would call the police. Sometime after my child had been located and was safe and sound, I would have a very stern word with the bus driver… who would then likely file a union grievance and sue for his distraught state of mind, but that would not have been my concern. If it turned out that any harm had come to my child because of the bus driver’s neglect, there is a good likelihood that a disproportional amount of harm would then come to the bus driver… and again, union grievances and legal action.

The world has changed since I was a child, and not necessarily for the better. Sometime before my twelfth year, parents started inspecting Halloween candy, because someone might have tampered with them; certainly anything that was not wrapped and factory sealed was immediately thrown out (I was never partial to caramel apples anyways). All this, despite there not being one documented and confirmed case of Halloween candy tampering in North America. Children do not set up their hockey goals at opposite ends of the street, and then move them to the side singing ‘CAR CAR C-A-R!’ (And if you are my age and Canadian, there is a very good chance that you read that in the same tune as I typed it in). In fact, many Toronto neighbourhoods have bylaws against street hockey (which sounds to me like the most un-Canadian law possible). Even absent laws like that, these games (in which we were always playing for the Stanley Cup, and when we flipped a coin, the losers got to decide which team they were, because the winners were the Montreal Canadiens) would never be allowed without adult supervision.

When I was five or six years old I was allowed to walk or take my bike to Cumberland Park, which was a big deal because there were swing sets and slides and monkey bars (all made of solid steal, and all dug into the grass with no soft-landing wood chips or cork. At first I was not allowed to go without my older sister’s supervision… which in retrospect was a lot of responsibility to put on a 7-8 year old. I was allowed to play in the sandbox, and as long as I had not eaten in the past hour I could even swim in the pool. Where were my parents? My father was at work, and my mother was either at home, or at work with a nanny at home.

Shortly before my eighth birthday my family moved to Westmount – a few months after Mark and his family did, and we were just two blocks apart. We were no longer going to be picked up by a big yellow school bus, rather we would walk three blocks to the city bus, that would drop us all off in front of our school. I do not remember how it worked (but most likely Mark’s mother or father would have driven Mark and his sister to our house), but the four of us would walk to the city bus stop together. Again, my sister (almost ten years old now) was in charge from the time we left the house until we got into school… and if I recall, she was paid to escort us all. Are kids that age allowed to take the city bus alone today?

There was a park down the street from our new house, and since there were no intersections that needed passing, I was allowed to go there alone. Remember, I was now almost eight years old! I could walk if I wanted; more often than not, I would ride my bike. The park was on a hill, and the greatest thrill was riding my bike to the top, and then shooting down at the speed of sound! It was amazing, it was great fun! I fell off my bike doing this once and broke my elbow… and I was told to be more careful.

One day, when I was eight years old, I was playing in the park with a little girl who might have been a year younger than I was. I do not know what the perceived infraction was, but her mother beat me. To be clear, she did not throw me over her knee and spank me, but she hit me repeatedly. She left bruises and worst. When I got home in tears and told my mother what happened, she looked at me and said ‘You probably deserved it. What did you do to that girl?’ To this day I have no idea. I do know that any parent today would go to that woman and if not have her arrested for assault and battery, then at least have a good talk with her to find out what happened and where she got off.

Like most of my friends, my parents drove a wood paneled station wagon. I remember car trips when the smallest kids (and I was always in that group) would climb into the back of the station wagon. I almost finished that sentence with: ‘…and held on for dear life.’ The truth is, there was nothing to hold on to. We bumped and jumped around at the whim of the road conditions and speed of the driver. Forget about seat belts, there were no seats. Fast forward to the present: My child had to be safely buckled into his car seat until he was something like eight years old… and to not do so would have expensive consequences. Of course, our parents were almost always smoking in the car, which is not only an infraction, it is considered child abuse today.

I understand that I grew up in an atypical familial environment, so there are some things that I thought were normal that might not have been. One that I am pretty sure was the norm was the evening menu. We had two options: Eat… or Don’t Eat. There was never the option of ‘I don’t like what Mother prepared, so I would like something else.’ This was fine most nights… but then there were the nights when my mother made her extra-spicy curry chicken. While this has changed since, I was definitely not a fan of spicy foods when I was young. To this day I cannot stand most Indian food, in good measure because of this weekly dish. (Also, I came home from India with dysentery… but I didn’t like the food before that!)

Growing up, there were five English language channels on TV – two Canadian, three American. We had a little black and white television in the kitchen that we would be allowed to watch during dinner. We watched Pulse News on CFCF-12 (with Brian Britt and Mitsumi Takahashi) . If we did not wish to watch Pulse News then… well, too bad! You watched it anyways. (For those of you under a certain age: before televisions were in full colour, they were black and white. Also, there was no remote control… you walked up to it to change the channel. Also, we did not pay for satellite or cable TV, and the television had antennae on top that we often had to adjust depending on the weather and what channel we wanted to watch).

On the subject of television, most houses had one TV set in the house… but even if you were lucky enough to have two, you could only watch one program at once. If there were two programs you wanted to see at the same time, you decided which you wanted to see more. There was no option to record the other one or somehow watch it later… you simply missed it.

I know that some of my readers are by now thinking that this article is a giant complaint about getting old. Surely someone will suggest I should have named it ‘Get Off of My Lawn!’ It’s not about that. It is me waxing nostalgic about how things once were. Don’t get me wrong… I know that the world is a very insulated place for most children, and that the times that I am recalling were also the times of Son of Sam, Ted Bundy, and Jeffrey Dahmer. Growing up in the idyllic 1970s and 1980s while mostly ignorant of the wars in Vietnam and Cambodia (which ended when I was very young), the rise of terrorism, and so much more. Closer to home, it was the height of the separatist movement in Quebec, and while I do not remember the FLQ terrorist incidents (most of which happened before I was born), I do remember my father having to change his license plates which had previously said ‘La Belle Province’ to ones that read ‘Je Me Souviens’ – no longer was Quebec the Beautiful Province, it was a province remembering the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, a battle 220 years ago to which many French Canadians trace their national shame and subjugation by the English. Of course I remember well the referendum on separation (the first one), and like many wondering would I wake up the following morning a Canadian as I had always been, or an unwanted anglophone citizen of a newly founded country.

It is awesome to me to see how much the world has changed in the 49 years of my life. While our children certainly do not have the freedom that we had, I suspect their life expectancy is higher than ours was. I got through childhood nearly unscathed… which is to say, none of my friends died. One of them had a brother who did though… I mean from playing, and not from disease or whatever else. Also, the advancements in technology are almost unfathomable. in 1977 (I was 5 years old) the founder of Digital Equipment Corp. (Ken Olsen) said that “There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home.” While I only have two computers in my home right now, that is still for a single individual living with his dog; in the past I have had far in excess of ten computers at a given time. By the way, I am not the exception to the rule. Nearly everybody has a computer in their home. I revised the original definitive statement to the qualified nearly everybody because I know there are segments of society who cannot afford them… but if you are reading this, chances are you are not using a shared computer at the public library to do so.

We have come a long way in my short lifetime. I used to make fun of my father whose grasp of some of (what I considered) the most basic technologies was laughable… but how different really is his inability to program the VCR (which perpetually told him it was 12:00) from my lack of understanding of something my sons take for granted? Of course, I am somewhat of a technology enthusiast (some might say Geek), but there are still plenty of things out there that I don’t understand… and I still think some of the things my kids use are dark magic!

When my father was born, FDR was President of the United States and a man named Richard Bennett was Prime Minister of Canada. There were eight teams in the National Hockey League (two of which folded within 7 years), and the world was deep in the Great Depression… and hurtling at a breakneck pace to a second world war. When I was born, Richard Nixon was POTUS, Pierre Elliot Trudeau was PM of Canada. That year the NHL expanded from 14 to 16 teams, and the world was focused on the war in Vietnam, a very hot part of the Cold War. My sons? One was born during the Clinton presidency, the other during the Obama era. There were 27- and 30 teams in the NHL… and the world is where we are. Where will we be when they have children? What great advancements will they witness in their lifetimes? Wonders so great we cannot fathom. Hopefully they will be good ones.

I don’t know where Mark Nadler is these days, but I hope he is doing well. Quebec is still part of Canada (despite the best efforts of the separatist movement, which is still alive and kicking). There are now 32 teams in the NHL (and, as with the year my father was born, my Habs are again in last place). We hope the advancements in attitudes, technologies, and science will help to make the world a better place. In the meantime, have a great weekend!


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