When I was a kid my mother would let my two brothers and me call one telephone number that offered weather information and another that offered the correct time. We loved it. It was free. We had dial phones. We called all day.
Soon we progressed from calling for the time and weather to making random calls. There was no caller ID in those days. You simply dialed five digits at random and an old lady hard-of-hearing or some guy who was wheezing or perhaps a non-English speaker answered. If they were especially upset, we called back!
Back then, a week was not complete unless at least one of us had a tetanus shot and another got stitches. I had two-dozen tetanus shots by my recollection before I was 13. Contusions? Concussions? Abrasions? Abscesses? You betcha.
One of my brothers spent an entire summer in traction after a boy pushed him off a slide and he broke his arm in something like nine places. We envied my hospitalized brother his pasha-like life in which ginger ale and ice cream were brought to him on demand. And every day was like his birthday. Presents arrived continuously. We prayed to be seriously injured ourselves but, alas, the gods ignored our entreaties.
When not otherwise engaged in various forms of petty vandalism, thievery and practical jokes, we enrolled the unsuspecting in correspondence courses or ordered magazine subscriptions. I was constitutionally incapable of passing a doorbell without ringing it and running. Even now, in full middle age, I have to watch myself when I wander up to Eddie’s as the night is beginning to flower. I have that itch.
We eschewed vandalism, largely, because if we had been connected with it we would have had to pay to repair or replace something. We preferred good old-fashioned mischief. High jinks! Graffiti, now elevated to the level of urban folk art, was not known to us. For reasons for which I can only thank God, we did not dabble in arson. Nor were we cruel to animals. Dogs liked us, and a number of them followed us on our appointed rounds. (Dogs are basically small boys on four feet, but wiser.)
The rule of our happy home was that, as long as the constabulary or an ambulance did not visit, we were ignored by adults. Most days were spent risking life and limb crossing railroad trestles or scaling vacant buildings. Disturbing construction sites was our specialty. No beehive or hornet’s nest was safe. Nor was wet cement.
Today, there is no time for wet cement, no time for disturbing hives. Children have to improve their backswing or their backhand. Or learn horseback riding. And there’s lacrosse camp and field hockey camp and football camp and soccer camp to attend. I rarely meet anyone in Roland Park or Ruxton whose spawn are not headed to the hall of fame, or at least Princeton. Some one-third of them are fairly certain of an Olympic berth in swimming. Plus, there’s always a college-level mathematics course to enroll in, the better to lift the next year’s test scores.
Children might be better off without so much adult supervision. I wouldn’t give them munitions or a flamethrower, but they ought to be allowed to be children. The summer these children know is not the summer of not so long ago. I fear adults have plainly ruined the season.
When it rained in the summer we were schooled in what my father called “life skills”: we were taught to play poker. My youngest brother, the traction patient, was an adept card sharp at 6. Elderly ladies visiting from the Rosary Sodality took faint when he, then no more than 5 or 6, inquired if “three of a kind beat two pair.” My mother and grandmother smiled approvingly.
Five-card draw was the house game. “Slapjack” or “Go Fish” or “Spite and Malice” were for sissies. We also knew that there was no such thing as “a friendly game of poker.” I hope someone somewhere is teaching small children the difference between a flush and a straight, but I fear not.
Just as the urge to ring a doorbell and run overcomes me at times, I still like to call and find out what the temperature is. Don’t you? When someone tells you that it must be 100 or that we had a frost the night before, I like to dial 410-936-1212 and get the facts. The folks who made the recordings always sounded so pleasant.
According to The Sun, the custom dates to the 1930s. But, alas, by the time you read this it will no longer be possible to call Verizon for this information. For some weeks now, the very grim voice of a very unfriendly man has warned that as of June 1 there will be no more free weather information or temperatures, and no free time service.
Just as summer is no longer summer in many ways, the telephone ain’t what it used to be. No free weather information, and they won’t even give you the time of day.