By Ray Lesser
I’ve entered my second childhood this year. Turning 50 has been a great excuse for my half-century friends and I to have dazzling parties, exotic vacations, and any number of fantasies acted upon, before we become too old to remember what it was we always wanted to do. But one of the best entertainments of the year has been revisiting the almost ancient past, the late 1950s, when we first learned to crawl, walk, and talk back to our parents.
Growing up in the suburbs of Cleveland, in a neighborhood filled with other kids, I remember endless hours of cowboys and Indians, cops and robbers, Nazis and Allies; basically any game that involved choosing up sides and then trying to capture or kill each other. We also had terrific free-for-all battles using water hoses to blast each other and throwing volleys of crabapples, acorns, buckeyes, and rotten pears at the enemies of the day.
The guy who owned the Good Humor franchise lived on our block, so not only would the Good Humor truck come around with great frequency, playing its twinkly music and dispensing ice-cream treats to all the screaming little kids, but the Good Humor man would let us ride in the truck with him around other neighborhoods and ring the bell. Lots of other guys used to drive trucks selling things, too, like the Milkman, the Produce man, and the Meat man. Nowadays I imagine how great it would be if we had a Good Handyman truck, or a Good Babysitter Bus prowling our neighborhood for business.
All my siblings were between 11 and 14 years older than me, and I got to tag along through parts of their ’50s teenage experiences (because my Mom insisted they take me with them, so she could have a few minutes of peace and quiet). We went places like the drive-in, where waitresses wearing roller skates would bring trays of hamburgers and malts that would attach to our partly rolled up car window, while we listened on the AM radio to the latest hit singles by Elvis (“You ain’t nothing but a hound dog”), Jerry Lee Lewis (“Goodness gracious, great balls of fire!”), and The Coasters (“Yakety Yak, Don’t Talk Back!”).
All the teenagers wanted to look cool and act cool, which for the boys meant greasing their hair with Brylcreem and wearing tight t-shirts with their cigarette packs stuck under the sleeve at their biceps, while snapping their fingers and singing four part harmonies. I have my brothers to thank for the fact that I’m not a smoker, because when I was about four years old they gave me puffs of their cigarettes until I got so sick I never wanted to smoke another cigarette again.
Without air-conditioning we spent much of the summer hanging out on various porches, where everybody in the neighborhood was given a nickname. The boy nicknamed “Sewer” because of his sewer mouth made up most of our nicknames. Sewer is now a talk-radio host in California. “Sig” (after Sigmund Freud) went on to undergo years of analysis. “Tsetse” (like the fly that causes malaria) became a doctor specializing in exotic diseases.
I was nicknamed “Ivan Skavinsky Skevar,” after a popular song, that was one of President Eisenhower’s favorites:
There are brave men in plenty, and well known to fame,
In the army that’s run by the Czar,
But the bravest of all was a man by the name
Of Ivan Skavinsky Skevar.
He could imitate Irving, tell fortunes by cards,
And play on the Spanish guitar.
In fact, quite the cream of the Muscovite team
Was Ivan Skavinsky Skevar.
I was given this nickname because my grandfather fled Russia to escape a 20-year induction into the Czar’s army, and, coincidentally, I was good at mimicking my father, whose name was Irving. My fortune-telling and Spanish guitar-playing abilities came later in life.
In my house, Grandpa lived in the sunroom, next to the living room, and used to smear Vick’s Vapor Rub all over his chest each night, and all over mine, too, if I complained of a sore throat, or started sniffling or sneezing. Grandpa used to make wine in five gallon clay jugs, out of elderberries or plums, and then store it in a little room under the basement steps where he could frequently be found, sampling to see if it was ready. Another room in the basement was the dark room, filled with chemicals and strange equipment, where my brother Alan sometimes printed black and white photographs, and sometimes snuck into with his girlfriend.
The technology of the ’50s was amazing. We shared a party phone line with the neighbors, so I could often pick up the receiver and listen in to one of their daughters telling the latest gossip about the seniors at her school. Or maybe that was my own sister. No matter, it was still fun to secretly listen in. I think George Bush never outgrew this stage of childhood. The phone we used back then was a black rotary dial model, which my mom continued to rent from the phone company for over 50 years, until she finally moved. The amazing thing was, even though the dial was incredibly slow, and the ring was anemic by the end, it still worked, and had much better sound than most of the phones I use nowadays.
Then there was the fun of going down to the shoe store to watch the bones wiggling inside your feet. Here’s a radio commercial from back then:
“Every parent will want to hear this important news! Now, at last, you can be certain that your children’s foot health is not being jeopardized by improperly fitting shoes. Miller Shoes is now featuring the new Adrian Fluoroscopic X-Ray Shoe Fitting machine that gives you visual proof in a second that your children’s shoes fit. The Adrian Special Shoe Fitting Machine has been awarded the famous Parent’s Magazine Seal of Commendation