Our sense of smell has a powerful influence on memory, and early childhood memories seem to be especially susceptible to olfactory triggers.  Several weeks ago I was rummaging through some boxes that haven’t seen the light of day in years; one of which contained my most cherished childhood possession—American Flyer electric trains made by the A.C. Gilbert Company of New Haven, Connecticut.

After opening the box and without even thinking I held one of the locomotives to my nose.  Suddenly I was transported to another place and time and found myself at the corner of 76th and Wellington on the west side of Chicago.  It was the 50s and everyone liked “Ike,” the Yankees were the best team in baseball, Syracuse and Ft. Wayne had NBA franchises and we watched “I Love Lucy,” Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts and “The Millionaire” on our 12” black & white TV.

As I reminisced I recalled running through sprinklers, chasing fireflies and playing ‘hide n’ seek’ until the street lights came on.  I remembered the jingle of the Good Humor man’s ‘bells’ as he peddled (yes, I said peddled) through the neighborhood as well as the calls of mothers shouting from their front porch steps for their kids to come home for supper (it was supper, not dinner.)

In those days we rode our bikes everywhere, and when we were short a bike or two one friend would hop on the handlebars, the second on the rear carrier and we rode triple.  Little League was competitive—one team lost while the other won (no trophies or ribbons for just “making” the team) and a Mickey Mantle 31-inch Louisville Slugger was the ultimate baseball bat.

We called our neighbors Mrs. Faulkner, Mrs. Marviglia or Mrs. Zelinski—no first names for adults back then—of course that’s unless we were referring to ‘Gene the barber,’ ‘Roy the shoemaker’ or ‘Elsie’ our local bakery maven (best long-johns on the west side.)  We played and laughed, quarreled, had fights, made up and laughed again.  And considering the unsupervised modes of play, it’s amazing more of us didn’t lose life or limb.  (Once while trying to hit a tomato Roger Negzeila was balancing on his head, Danny Skaluba tossed one of his father’s darts and it stuck squarely between Rog’s eyebrows.  Watching Rog pull the dart out kept the three of us in stitches for 20 minutes.)

Those were the days when a simple stick could be magically transformed into an Indian’s spear, a soldier’s rifle or a machete to cut through the jungle while hunting wild elephants.  Grape Nehi was the ultimate summer beverage, unless we splurged on “Green Rivers” or vanilla Cokes at the local drugstore’s soda fountain.  (Note: regular cokes were a nickel; vanilla cokes were six cents!)

America was booming, and as a nation we produced more steel, electricity and oil (yes oil!) than the rest of the world combined; and even at that tender age, we took pride in those facts because our teachers and parents told us to.  Cars in those days had “Strato-steak” engines with “Power Flight Range Selectors” and “Torsion-Aire” suspension with “Triple-turbine-TurboGlide”—our family car was a white Plymouth station wagon with black-wall tires and no radio.

On rainy days we would head to Cummings “candy store” to get the latest issues of “Superman” or Walt Disney’s “Uncle Scrooge.”  And when there weren’t any new comics, we’d go home and play ‘electric football’—a game to paraphrase humorist Bill Bryson, was probably the dumbest game ever foisted upon the children of America.  In case you’ve forgotten, that’s the game with the vibrating playing field where 22 miniature players would move in every compass heading possible regardless of how they were positioned.  To add insult to injury, the players had to be reset after every play, which soon became tedious—so we seldom played for more than 10 minutes.

And what trip down memory lane would be complete without a recollection of your first crush.  When the Mickey Mouse Club first appeared on TV—(“Hey there, hi there, ho there, you’re as welcome as can be…”) my buddies drooled over Annette Funicello, but my favorite was the pretty blue-eyed blonde, Cheryl.  And speaking of girls, back then the worst thing anyone ever caught from the opposite sex was cooties.

Summer days were endless, summer nights were “hot and sticky,” and a pitcher of ice-cold lemonade could be found on almost any front porch in the neighborhood.  There were 32 million kids under the age of 12 living in the United States during the mid-fifties, and on any given July afternoon, at least half of them could be found at the Riis Park swimming pool.

Neighbors would routinely ‘impress’ a kid into service to help with a minor chore and no one thought anything of it—and for good reason—sometimes we received a dime or even better, a piece of fresh-baked cherry pie for our efforts.  Big decisions were made by “hand climbing” a baseball bat or “eeny-meeny-miney mo”—what could be more fair?  And the neighborhood “tom-tom” system alerted our mothers to our activities before we ever got home for supper.  Fortunately, few adults ventured near the railroad bridge at 80th and Grand, so our ‘adventures’ there went unreported.

We often take for granted the importance of our olfactory sense, but for conjuring up those long-forgotten childhood memories, there’s nothing like a “fragrant blast from the past.”

Quote of the day: “Nostalgia is like a grammar lesson; we find the present tense and the past perfect”

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