WHAT DID I PLAY WITH AS a kid? Petrol. Growing up on an orchard meant we had a big tank of it for tractors and pyromania. My brother Bob showed me a great trick: if you filled the incinerator drum with loose layers of newspaper that had been sprinkled with petrol and then you flicked a lighted match into it, there was a mighty ‘whumf’ and flaming paper was fired high into the air. A thrilling fireball followed by panic as you stamped out all the fires before they burnt down the packing shed.
Another brother, Neil, was working at the top of a ladder when he looked down to see Bob splashing a can around underneath him and flicking matches at it. Neil leapt from the ladder; he then discovered the can only contained water. (Bob was more dangerous than petrol).
Fires, firecrackers, firearms … wonderful playthings and a great part of a 1960s rural boy’s healthy upbringing. As the youngest of five children, I suspect my parents considered me surplus to requirements and not worth a lot of protection; they were delightfully neglectful. I could dawdle home from school, play on the railway lines, swim in the creek, or bike off to my mates’ places. I only had to phone if I wasn’t going to be home for tea.
1960s culture permitted adventurous and exciting childhoods (even if it didn’t specifically approve of my gasoline antics) and so, of course, I am nostalgic for those times. I can also understand why people of my generation look a little peevish and bemused as they see their grandchildren being strapped into car seats, scrubbed with antiseptics and never allowed out of sight.
Even before Facebook started endlessly recycling it, a piece of e-rubbish used to frequently wash into my inbox, bleating on about how good it was to be a child raised in “the good ol’ days”. Here is part of it:
“We survived being born to mothers who smoked and drank while they carried us and lived in houses made of asbestos and didn’t get tested for diabetes or cervical cancer. Then after that trauma, our baby cribs were covered with bright coloured lead-based paints. We had no childproof lids on medicine bottles, doors or cabinets and when we rode our bikes, we had no helmets or shoes. As children, we drank sugary drinks or water from the hose, would ride in cars with no seat belts or air bags, and riding in the back of a ute on a warm day was always a special treat. You might want to share this with others who have had the luck to grow up as kids, before the lawyers and the government regulated our lives for our own good.”
Thank-you to the well-meaning people who pass on this and other variants of this splurge, but most of this e-mail is daft! “No one I knew died”, it says, which mainly says they didn’t know the hundreds who were harmed by infections, poisonings, and other accidents.
Back then, the hospital admission rate for children from accidents was four times higher than today. And the death rate amongst children was six times higher. Maybe I didn’t know the victims (apart from that guy I knew who lost a leg in a bike accident … and brother Neil, who got injured when he whacked a bullet with a hammer to see what would happen … and cousin Graeme, who did exactly the same thing … and another cousin who almost died on a tractor) Well, actually, it did happen, a lot. Too often. If you really want to know what reality is, you have to let statistics penetrate your nostalgia.
Things are better now … but not great. Our child accident rates are twice those of Australia and triple the rate in the UK; the last figures I saw showed we were the worst in the OECD for deaths and accidents for children and adolescents. 2,600 children under the age of five years are admitted to hospital with an injury annually, and around 50 die.
Thank-you, twentieth century: you were a lot of fun. Those of us who survived salute you. But when it comes to my grandchildren, I’m glad they have careful twenty-first century parents looking after them. And I suspect those same parents are hiding my matches.
AFTER DECADES STUDYING FAMILY LIFE, JOHN NOW FOCUSSES ON THE ‘PRIME-TIME’ ISSUES OF LATER MIDDLE AGE. CHECK HIM OUT ON JOHNCOWAN.CO.NZ – ESPECIALLY IF YOU NEED SOME WRITING, EVENT SPEAKING, VIDEOS MADE, OR SOMEONE TO HAVE A COFFEE WITH.