Generation X, or Gen X, refers to the generation of Americans born between the mid-1960s and the early-1980s. If you are a member of Gen X, you may recall that our childhood and teen years were absolutely DOMINATED by the fear of nuclear war. Movies like The Day After and hit songs such as 99 Red Balloons were ever-present to remind us that it could all be gone in a mushroom cloud.
Our generation didn’t suffer any “duck and cover” delusions that had assuaged our Baby Boomer ancestors. Gen X was raised on the idea that one nuke was going to render it all irrelevant. We knew no standard-issue school desk could save us. Meanwhile, as we all worried about nuclear war, where was the catchy pop song to warn us about a global pandemic? We were misled.
At any rate, it (probably) made us stronger. We are wooden spoon discipline survivors (or maybe a thrown Dr. Scholl’s sandal if your mom was younger). We are also the lead paint exposed, seat belts optional, car seats nonexistent, no bike helmets, riding in the bed of a pickup truck generation.
Our play time was spent on blacktop or gravel. Jungle gyms and metal slides were the implements of choice. Merry-go-rounds were metal and devoid of a single safety device. They were literally designed to throw you. If you were flung off into the stratosphere, there was a good chance you were a latchkey kid and there was no one home to go crying to. You just had to walk it off.
On the upside, if you planned it correctly the fiery hot surface of the metal slide smoldering in the sun could easily cauterize any wounds from prior falls.
One thing we wouldn’t have been able to do is rinse off any wounds with water from our water bottle. I sincerely do not recall a single human of any age who carried a personal, reusable water bottle around with them in the 1970s and ’80s. I actually don’t even recall disposable bottled water. Were we all just dehydrated and didn’t know it? I mean I know we would go run around outside all day.
Maybe barge back in the house once in a while for a Popsicle or a “pop” if you had a liberal parent or babysitter too absorbed in soap operas to care. Generally, we just drank out of a garden hose. Learning to let it run for a minute so you didn’t scald your own lips off with sun-steamed hose water was just how evolution worked.
The fancier public parks and playgrounds had water fountains. I’m sure our parents knew how germs worked — they also assumed that anything we got from getting too close to a public drinking fountain was simply going to build up our immune system.
We were, after all, the “a little dirt can’t hurt” generation. Sure our parents made us wash our hands from time to time, generally, so we didn’t get their houses all sticky. They just weren’t obsessive about it. If hand sanitizer existed back then, no one in my world knew it. We just used soap and water.
With no one obsessing about germs or hydration, we just stomped around all day being nearly feral, overheating, playing with bugs and garden hoses, and leaving our DNA on various trees and playground surfaces.
I think it was a nice surprise for many parents at bathtime to count all the ways we had injured ourselves without their knowledge or oversight. We certainly knew better than to complain about cuts and scrapes.
Our elders believed in the power of mercurochrome. That little red bottle of acid and pain kept many kids from reporting cuts — even if they went to the bone. All those adults who report they still have pieces of gravel and playground embedded under their skin from long ago mishaps? They were just trading the emotional scars of 1970s first aid for physical ones.
It was the absolute epitome of summertime kid thrills to hear an ice cream truck. That carnival-meets-serial-killer music vibe would come jangling down the street and kids would sprint — like full-on track stars — to shake down their parents — or the couch cushions — for some change to buy ice cream.
We were the generation raised on staying away from strangers in vans who offered us treats. That is unless that stranger at least applied some cartoon-like graphics and music to the van — then sure, kids, chase it a few blocks until you’re completely out of sight of home and take whatever sweets you can get.
In the wise words of a fellow Gen X childhood survivor “we didn’t go home unless a bone was sticking out, someone was unconscious … or it was time to eat.”
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