Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Surviving Childhood: Red Ball Jets and a Rusty Nail

Surviving childhood is something that, when you look back, it’s a pure wonder that most of us were able to do so. Growing up in the fifties and sixties seems pretty tame when compared to fears that parents face in this century. However, the dangers were real. Back then though, they didn't preempt Howdy Dowdy or Gunsmoke to tell the whole world about some nine-year-old kid that was killed because he turned the tractor around too tight while cultivating a field.

I grew up in town but I loved the farms. Dad’s primary source of income was his night job in the factory. However, He often hired out to a couple of different farms on a part-time and seasonal basis. I was about six-years-old when I first started going along with him on these jobs.

One particular farm that Dad worked didn't have any other kids around so I had to find my own entertainment. For obvious reasons, the farmer didn't want me on the tractor with my dad or anywhere near the operating machinery. I kept myself occupied.

There were buildings and nearby patches of timber to explore and I had a BB gun of my own. I had some moderate limits but, for the most part, as long as Dad could get a glimpse of me, from time-to-time, when he passed near the buildings, then all was well.

There were grasshoppers and butterflies to catch. The grasshoppers would spit tobacco juice onto my fingers. Occasionally, I might catch a caterpillar. That would keep me focused until I could find a jar with lid, to keep the caterpillar in, so that it would spin a cocoon. Of course I would also need to find a nail and hammer to punch holes in the jar lid so that the caterpillar would have air.

Dad was mowing weeds near the buildings and along the fence rows in the steamy hot August of summer. With the exception of some feeder pigs, this farmer didn't keep livestock so the place had a tendency to get overgrown. I was wearing my Red Ball Jets as I chased around and explored the farm. These sneakers weren't exactly Air Jordans but they, or any variation of them, were what kids wore in the fifties.

They told us on Saturday morning television commercials, between episodes of Roy Rogers, Sky King and My Friend Flicka, that Red Ball Jets would help you to run faster and jump higher. Leaping tall buildings in a single bound was out though. Superman was the only guy who could do that and he didn't need Red Ball Jets.

I was making my way over a board fence on the farm one day. At the top and on the other side of fence, I wasn't about to climb down. Like Superman off the top of a tall building, I jumped to the ground.

Dupont didn't invent Kevlar until about 1965 and it didn't come into commercial use until the next decade. Even if Kevlar had been around in the fifties, it probably wouldn't have been used to make Red Ball Jets anyway.

I hadn't caught any caterpillars that day so I really didn't need a nail to poke holes in a jar lid. Something that I needed a nail for even less was to poke a hole through the sole of one of my Red Ball Jets. It worked out that way just the same.Unnoticed by me, a board lying on the ground held a rusty nail in perfect upward posture for an imminent impalement.

A nail through the sole of my Red Ball Jets wouldn't have been much of an issue if my foot hadn't been on the inside of the sneaker. Given the situation, the nail also did a pretty good job of poking a serious hole into the sole of my foot. At that point, like any healthy six-year-old with lungs and vocal cords, I screamed like bloody murder.

At the same time that I began wailing, I had the natural instinct to use my uninjured foot to hold down the board and pull my other foot free. Like Matt Dillion relieving himself of a Comanche arrow from his flesh wound, I pulled the nail out. I don’t know how far away Dad was at the time but he was by my side in seconds on that day.

 Dad pulled off my rusty nail-poked Red Ball Jet and sock. He examined my injured bare foot and determined that I “was going to live.” I don’t remember now what was done, if anything, to treat the wound. I’m quite sure, however, that I would have resisted any attempts to dab Merthiolate on it. Merthiolate was the cure-all for scrapes and small cuts in the day. It was also good for giving you something more to bawl about because of the intense burning sensation that it caused on an open wound.

Dad wasn't usually much for nurturing. From my earliest memories, he would typically offer to “give me something to bawl about” if I didn't quiet down in short order. This was generally without regard to the cause of my crying. On this day, however, he held me close until I calmed down and softly reassured me that I would be alright. I have cherished the memory.

Read more about growing up in the fifties in 
Time Marches On 

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