Chapter Two of BOOM: A Child of the Beach in Toronto Remembers the 50s

The hula hoop became a craze with kids, and adults, in the 1950s. Photo: Toy Hall of Fame. Inset photo, Fess Parker as Davey Crockett.

Below is Chapter Two of former Beach resident Keith Black’s book BOOM: A Child of the Beach in Toronto Remembers the 50s.

Every Tuesday over the next few months, Beach Metro News will post up another chapter of the book on our website at https://www.beachmetro.com/ for readers to enjoy. For more information on the book, contact Black at kandjomemee@gmail.com

To see our earlier story on Black, and to read Chapter One, please go to https://www.beachmetro.com/2020/07/14/former-residents-book-looks-back-on-growing-up-in-the-beach-in-the-fifties/

 

BOOM: A Child of the Beach in Toronto Remembers the 50s

CHAPTER TWO: ‘Managing to stay on…without barfing’

By KEITH BLACK

Perhaps it is time that I brought up the subject of girls. So far, they haven’t appeared very often in this narrative. I regularly saw girls at the beach although we didn’t really associate with them and sometimes I saw them splashing around in the water close to land.

But I can’t recall ever seeing a girl on the sandbar. Maybe they decided to abide by the safety rule about swimming out from shore.  I also must say that I don’t remember any girls engaging in the construction and subsequent destruction of a sand metropolis with the resultant death by drowning of all of the occupants. Perhaps they didn’t want to participate in mass murder. And I certainly don’t recall any females volunteering to enter a mobile box and plunge uncontrollably down an embankment. As I look back and think about such things, it is becoming painfully obvious that we boys were about ten, going on ten while the girls were about ten, going on middle age!  But there were, however, times that we were compatible.

You’re it! Olly olly oxen free. Ready or not, here I come. Green Light—Red Light. Get Ready, Get Set, Go. One Two Three, I’m Home Free!  These were words that were heard regularly in our immediate neighbourhood and could be heard echoing throughout the streets and laneways of the Beach and, no doubt, throughout communities across the country.

So many children!  At one time I had a photograph, since lost, of me on a tricycle lined up with about ten other kids, boys and girls on their trikes, awaiting the start of a race on a quiet street, probably Avion Avenue. This would have been organized by one or more of our mothers with photographs in mind. This would have been one of the rare supervised events which, as we got older, dwindled in number.  After that, we were on our own. All it would take is one of us to come up with a good suggestion, one that satisfied the requirements of both sexes, and away we went.

While games of Tag and Red Light/Green Light were often played, they grew tiresome fairly quickly and died out within 15 or 20 minutes. But that was not the case when there were 10 or 12 of us within a mutually agreed playing radius of about 200 yards and a truly epic game of Hide and Seek was played. The game could last an eternity, perhaps 70 or 80 minutes or longer.

Hiding places abounded but some of the best ones were behind shrubs adjacent to homes; there were lots of them. The fact that we had to trample through flower gardens to get to them was not considered to be a deterrent. In fact, it wasn’t considered at all. Nor were fleas considered when someone decided to hide in a doghouse. To be covered with ants after having hidden among a group of peonies was not an issue until, that is, it was noticed by playmates who then shunned you. Hiding under parked cars was a popular choice; a little bit of oil or grease in your hair or on your clothes never really hurt anyone, at least until you got home.

Often, after a lengthy period, “It” would be tormented by one missing child whose hiding place was known by some of the others who would be congregated in small knots of conspiratorial conversation. And it was usually one of these kids who would give away the location by regularly looking in a particular direction. I vaguely remember one occasion when one child was not found and no one seemed to know where she was. We all became a collective “It” and searched in vain. One by one we all became disinterested and wandered off leaving the missing girl to her fate. None of us had what one would call a worry gene. As it turned out, the young lady in question had had to pee and went home and stayed there. None of the boys would have bothered to go home. I guess that this particular game of Hide and Seek was never officially ended and continues to this day.

And the boys and the girls certainly played together at playgrounds, the best one being near the foot of Woodbine Avenue.

playground (plā-ground): noun. a confined space containing objects made primarily of steel, concrete and wood set on a hard surface in which a large number of children simultaneously run, jump, slide and swing uncontrollably at great speed in, around, under, over and through the steel, concrete and wood objects;  a school of hard knocks.  in short, great fun.

And the playgrounds of the Fifties were great fun. The swings were higher, the slides were higher and steeper, the teeter-totters were higher and longer and the monkey bars were also higher. Everything was built of cold hard steel set in concrete pads, except the seats, of course, which were made of splintering wood. You could always tell when a kid had been on the swings; their hands were orange from grasping the rusted chains. When one child was chasing another while yelling something about certain death, it often indicated that the “chasee” had jumped off of the teeter-totter when he or she was on the downside. A crying child usually indicated either a fall from the monkey bars, an impact with a swing, or, most likely they had gone down a slide while wearing shorts or a skirt after the slide had been baking in the hot sun, the slide itself being, of course, steel. Ouch!

And then there was tetherball, a vertical steel pole about 8-feet tall with a ball tethered to the top with a cord 6-feet in length. The idea was to keep hitting the ball in one direction while your opponent standing on the other side tried to hit it in the opposite direction. The game was won when the tether had been completely wound around the pole. After a few good hits, it was amazing how fast you could get that ball travelling. It was also amazing how much it hurt if you got hit by it squarely on the nose.

But by far, our favourite device at that playground was the merry-go-round or carousel.  If I remember correctly, it was an octagon about 6 or 7 feet across with wooden seats and steel rails and it rotated. Children ran around holding on to the rails and when it was spinning at a good rate, they hopped on. The whole idea was to get it spinning as fast as possible while trying to jump on and off, or try standing on the seats while holding the handrails, or sitting on the handrails or try the “look ma, no hands!” trick. It was wonderful fun without any major competitive edge to it unless you consider those kids who were held in high esteem by managing to stay on a long time without being thrown off and without barfing. You don’t see these things at playgrounds anymore. I wonder why?

I intend to stay completely away from any debate about the relative merits of today’s playground equipment. I suspect, however, that current apparatus designers and their advocates would place the playgrounds of the Fifties on the “Fault of the Fifties” list. I don’t.

Every once in a while a fad bursts upon us, soars for a year or two, and then fizzles out. The boys had been visited by such a fad in 1955 when a majority of them wandered the streets with what looked like dead raccoons sitting on their heads with the tails dangling at the back. These were the Davy Crockett coonskin caps which came about as a result of Walt Disney introducing three television episodes of the adventures of Davy Crockett played by a fellow named Fess Parker. To us he was larger than life; and he really was; he was 6 feet, 6 inches tall. What is difficult to believe is that when he made the TV shows, he was….are you ready for this?….29 years old! Yes, I wore such a hat. Apparently there was an all white version available called the Polly Crockett cap, but I don’t recall ever seeing a girl wearing one.  Ten years old going on middle age!

But in 1958 another fad struck both genders with unimaginable force and, in fact, though it was intended for children, many adults succumbed to its appeal. This was the hula-hoop, a ring of colourful plastic which was twirled around the waist, the hips, the knees the neck or the arms and legs. 25 million of these were sold in the first four months with 100 million being sold worldwide in two years at $2 each. It seemed that everyone was frenetically attempting to twirl these hoops sometimes with less than favourable results. It was rumoured that there was a spike in the retirement accounts of chiropractors. Yes, it seemed that everyone had one and yes I did. For what’s it’s worth, I think it was yellow.

I don’t believe that the next pastime to be recalled could be considered a passing fad. Early last century, an ancient city which is now called Mohenjo-daro in Pakistan was being excavated. It was built over 4,500 years ago. At this site were found small stones which were perfectly spherical. Archeologists have determined that these were marbles. For over 4500 years, children (of all ages) have been playing with marbles and in the Fifties, we boys and girls had them too. You may have noticed that I said we had them; I didn’t say we played with them. Boys played with marbles; girls collected them.

Aggies, catseyes and plainsies, they were all beautiful glass balls infused with colour. Boys played a variety of games with them, often involving keepsies which meant that if you lost a marble during the course of play, it was lost forever, unless that is, you were able to win it back. The loss of an aggie was painful. As I said, girls, loving the styles and colours of the marbles, didn’t often subject them to loss, but kept and treasured them. We all had bags or sacks of various sorts in which to keep these prized possessions, the elitists among us sporting the ultimate, a purple Crown Royal Whiskey bag with a drawstring. I think I kept mine in a plain brown paper bag which had been previously occupied by a peanut butter and jam sandwich.

Sleeper. Walk the Dog. Around the World. And, my favourite, Rock the Cradle. That was about the extent of my repertoire of yo-yo tricks.  I had a black Cheerio Pro yo-yo with cut glass “diamonds” embedded in each side. It was beautiful. I am happy to report that it was made in Kitchener, Ontario. The popularity of yo-yos ebbed and flowed over the years, peaking in 1957. That year the Toronto Daily Star newspaper sponsored demonstrations and instruction throughout the City at numerous venues culminating in yo-yo contests in ten movie theatres during a Saturday matinee at the end of June. I remember attending one although I did not participate; my four tricks just wouldn’t cut it. Yo-yos were big with both boys and girls. They were destroyed in 1958 by hula hoops and never really recovered.

Most boys and girls of the Fifties owned roller skates but actually used them sparingly. They weren’t at all like the inline skates of today.  Each skate consisted of four wheels attached to an adjustable metal framework which clamped onto regular street shoes and tightened with a key. It was rather difficult to skate with them and virtually impossible to stop.  And any effort to turn sharply usually resulted in them falling off or worse, partially falling off. Some kids seemed to get the hang of them fairly well. I was not one of them. I think that girls were generally better at it than boys. Helmets? No. Knee pads and elbow pads? Of course not!

So groups of boys and girls did often play together. And then there were the “girl” games a boy would occasionally be coerced into joining. In truth, there was no coercion. Sometimes when I was wandering through the neighbourhood looking for something to do or for some of my friends, I would come across a small group of girls playing. I would stop to talk and to watch and would then be asked if I wished to participate. Before saying “sure”, I would take a quick glance around to make certain that none of my friends were in view. Looking back on it, I am certain that I was not the sole perpetrator of such unseemly behavior; it just wasn’t admitted.

A piece of chalk and a flat stone. That’s all that girls (and an occasional boy) needed to have hours of fun. Throughout the Beach and, indeed throughout much of the world, sidewalks and pavement were marked with chalked hieroglyphics consisting of a grid of numbered squares. Hopscotch, oddly known in parts of Scotland as Peevers, has been around for at least 400 years and was played by virtually all little girls in the Fifties. And some boys.

Another “girl” game that I occasionally got roped into playing involved 10 odd little metal things with 6 prongs called jacks and a small red rubber ball. Bounce the ball, pick up some jacks, catch the ball, bounce it again, pick up more jacks, clap your hands, bounce the ball, touch your forehead, clap your hands behind your back catch the ball, then bounce it again, pick up more jacks…..I never really did get the hang of it nor fully understand the object of the game but I had fun.

While Hopscotch and Jacks were very popular, there was an activity that was definitely the number one pastime among girls in the Fifties.

Cinderella dressed in yella

Went upstairs to see her fella

Made a mistake and kissed a snake

How many doctors did it take

1, 2 ,3, 4, 5….

Johnny broke a bottle and blamed it on me 

I told ma, ma told pa

So Johnny got a spanking so ha, ha, ha

How many spankings did Johnny get

1, 2, 3, 4, 5….

The official name was Jump Rope, but, of course, no one called it that. It was skipping. The best thing about skipping was that it could be done solo or with three or more girls. With two people turning a long enough rope, four, five or even six could skip simultaneously. And any number of participants could jump in and out while the rope was turning. Then there was skipping with two ropes: double dutch, and skipping at double time: peppers. It was fun to do, it was fun to watch and it was fun to sing out the nonsensical rhymes. Yes, boys did it too….sometimes. I was actually quite good at it.

So we boys did play with the girls more often than we cared to admit. You will have to ask girls how they felt about it. I don’t need to hear the answers. Thanks.

Please visit us at https://www.beachmetro.com/ on Tuesday, July 28 to read Chapter Three of BOOM: A Child of the Beach in Toronto Remembers the 50s.


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