Growing up

Maybe every generation feels the same way, but it sure seems that life was simpler when I was growing up. In junior high and even high school, physical education class was like elementary school recess; we were free to do as we pleased. So we would play tackle football, without pads of course. Many times I got my bell rung and went home sore and hurting. But I survived and somehow felt better for it. I can hardly imagine schools allowing that type of play today.

Now days, you can find lengthy instructions for how to handle a light bulb containing miniscule amounts of mercury if it breaks, as if your house has become a toxic waste site. Yet I distinctly remember my father bringing home a large stoppered-test tube half filled with a few ounces of mercury as a gift for me.

 I would take it to school and pour it out on my desk to play with it. I was fascinated at how the liquid metal behaved. I lived through it, but my wife would tell you that exposure to this heavy metal could explain a lot about my behavior today.

I remember playing outside on days when I was mad at my mother for something she forbade me to do. I would walk along on the sidewalk singing the kid’s rhyme about “step on a crack and you break your mother’s back,” stomping on every crack intentionally. Then, a few seconds later, horrified at the thought of what I’d almost certainly done, I would run home, fully expecting her to be lying on the kitchen floor writhing in pain. Fortunately, that never happened.

Even back then, you could see the world changing. One day my dad thought it would be cool to make my friends and me rubber band guns like he had as a child. He built our L-shaped “guns” out of 1×2’s, attaching a wooden clothespin as the trigger. He then cut up an old inner tube into one inch rings and tied a knot in the middle of each.

He placed one side of the loop over the end of the “barrel,” and then showed us how to stretch the band and place the other end into the clothespin. When the trigger was pulled, the band would be launched and hit the victim with the force of a ping pong ball. While we had a great time with our all-but-harmless “guns,” some of the other kids’ mothers let them know that they considered this to be a dangerous idea.

After school and during the summer, we always played outside. At the beginning of the summer, we would come in at night with our noses bright red and a few days later, our faces would be peeling. But by the August, we were brown as coconuts, and our hair had turned nearly white.

Coppertone was just launching their ad campaign featuring a photo of a little girl having her swimsuit pulled down by a small dog to reveal her tan line. At the time, it wasn’t clear to me what the point of having a dog gnawing on a girl’s swimsuit bottom was supposed to be, but evidently my mother understood. 


She jumped on the band wagon and bought some of their product. After that, going out to play was preceded by the application of that nasty white goo on my face and arms. I hated it, but am now thankful for my mother’s wisdom and susceptibility to the Madison Avenue marketing machine. 

Brad Paisley’s song “Welcome to the Future” talks a lot about how much technology has changed our world over the past few decades. After Dee Dee and I got married, I had a legal excuse to revisit my childhood days, playing games with my stepsons, Michael and Chris. While we did sometimes play ball outside, more often we could be found “killing” scores of bad guys on Atari. We had a blast … I mean they did; I was just being a good dad. 

While I would struggle to figure out the rules of the games and how to work the controllers, I was amazed at how quickly my sons became proficient. Whenever he got a new game, Michael’s first act was to throw away the instructions. But within a very short time, he was kicking Mario’s butt. 

When Britt came along, we played simpler games, at least at first. Often times she would sneak into our bed in the morning, and we would play “face-circles.” This game involved her closing her eyes while I drew circles on her face with my fingertip. Then there was “sea critters,” which my dad had played with me when I was her age. 

This game consisted of me holding my hand above her stomach while she tried to guess what sea creature was descending upon her. For instance, if I held my hand with fingers widespread, it was a starfish. She had to guess correctly as I lowered my hand in order to stop the creature’s descent. Failing to name the creature in time meant I tickled her stomach. Of course, often times I would cheat and tickle her even if she guessed right, or would make up some new, ridiculous critter that she couldn’t possibly guess. 

Then it would be time for me to go to work. As I prepared to leave, she would say, “I want to go with you, Daddy,” When I told her she couldn’t, she would cry. With my heart melting, I would try to console her, to no avail.  

That is until Dee Dee would arrive and say, “If you stay with me, we’ll read a book. And I have cookies.” 

Britt’s eyes would light up, and she’d reply, “Bye, Daddy,” and then scamper off behind her mother. I guess if you want loyalty, get a dog. 

Sometimes, she would make up her own games. For example, she would climb beneath the covers of the bed leaving an unmistakable and clearly visible lump. But I would play along and begin calling her name, feigning anger when she didn’t answer. Meanwhile, she would lie partially still while giggling loudly. 

At the time she was tiny, which made her next game all the more humorous. She would pull a pillow case over her head, hold her arms high with her hands forming claws, and say in a ghostly-sounding voice, “I’m a big scary monster,” as she slowly lurched forward. She was neither big nor scary, and certainly no monster. But she was incredibly cute. 

After she had gained a full command of the alphabet, on Saturday mornings sometimes she would come lie on her stomach in our bed and I would write letters on her back with my finger. She would try to guess the letter and then figure out the word or phrase as quickly as possible. 

Of course, we eventually graduated to video-based games like Ghost Squad, the purpose of which was to kill bad guys, but with really cool graphics and much deadlier weapons. But we also played cards and board games.

I would never try to let her win. What I would do is give her a handicap, such that when she won it was real. Gradually she would improve to the point that she could consistently beat me at many of our games … without the handicap. On one occasion, I caught her clearly cheating. I didn’t fuss at her; I simply ended the game and refused to play for the next day or so. She didn’t like that much at all, but to my knowledge, she never cheated again. 

When she left for college, the games ended. I pretended at first that it was just a break, like a vacation. But in my heart I knew the truth. It was over. We still play games when she comes home on break, but my little girl has definitely grown up. When we played backgammon last week, she offered me a handicap. 


Disclaimer: Frank Wilem is an author, speaker, and all around funny and entertaining guy. On this blog, his stories are based on his real life experiences, often with a satirical twist.

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