Last week I mentioned that candy stores were everywhere when I was a youngster. And I mentioned that although we called them candy stores, they sold a lot more than candy.
What they really sold was fun. Back then we had lots of fun, but most of it didn’t cost much or we couldn’t have afforded it. A dime was spent with care in those days, and a dollar was a major investment. But being kids, we still managed to have fun.
That’s what kids should do, you know. Have fun.
Now I agree that a kid should be able to speak the language, count his brothers and sisters, tell a bush from a baboon, sing three on-key notes, name at least one president of the United States, and fix a light switch without getting electrocuted.
But youth is for youth, a time for fun. Besides, some things called fun are more than fun. They teach. In those days we worked and played together most of the time, not alone. So our games taught us things, not just about the world, but about each other.
There are things which can’t be learned from a book, watching a video, or staring at a computer screen. Most of the things we learn about life — and each other — we learn without knowing it, one real-life lesson at a time. And one of the greatest places on the planet to begin learning was right there in the candy store. The candy store was a mirror of youth, a place filled with childhood dreams, childhood ideas, and of course, childhood fun.
What could be more fun than putting together your own two-penny kite, taking it up on a hill, setting it free from gravity, and watching it soar so high in the sky and so far out from the hill that it seemed to hover at the very edge of the world?
And it wasn’t only fun. As I said, we learned things.
What kind of things? Well, first of all, you had to put things together in those days. And some things, like that two-penny kite, could be ruined — and ruined fast — by being careless or getting in too much of a rush. So you learned to take your time. You read the instructions and looked at the illustrations. And with a little time and effort you ended up with something that might just fly.
But that wasn’t the end of it. Even after you had the kite together you weren’t done. There was the matter of the tail, for example. What was it for? How long should it be? Why?
And the launching. Do it right and you had something that would lift into the air with a life of its own. Do it wrong and you had two cents worth of busted sticks and paper. Maybe you turned to a friend for advice. Or maybe you’d flown a kite before and you offered advice to a friend. Is that learning? You tell me.
Eventually with a little patience — and some wind — there it went. Up! Up! Up into the sky! Soaring. Pulling on the string. Darting and dipping in the wind. Way up there. Your kite. Yours!
But look! Ernie’s kite is even higher up. And so is Alice’s.
“Hey, guys! How’d you get them so high?”
And so you learned some more.
Compare that to sitting alone at a keyboard, Johnny.
Or think about something as dumb as buying a dribble glass. There you are, you and Ernie Sousa, looking at a whole row of them on the shelf, some bigger, some smaller, some plain, some fancy. Checking the prices. Pointing out to each other how invisible the holes are. Laughing and giggling. Poking each other in the ribs.
“Oh, boy, Tommy! Are we gonna get Herbie with this one!”
“And Annie too.”
“Well ... I don’t know. Maybe not Annie. I don’t think ...”
“Huh? Why not Annie? She’s ...? Oh, I get it. You like Annie.”
“OK, not Annie. Who else we gonna get?”
See? Learning. Ernie’s a friend. How do you treat a friend?
Yes, we were learning about the world. Thinking about things. Asking how they worked. Trying them out. But we were also learning about people. People near us like Ernie and Annie, but also people in general. We were absorbing the unwritten laws.
On the other hand, one candy store had something in it I never quite understood: a cigar an inch thick and 16 inches long. I often looked at it up on the wall in its heavy cellophane wrapper. I knew it was a joke. But what kind of joke?
A whoopee cushion I could understand. But a giant cigar?
What do you do with it? Tell the guys the doctor said you were only allowed one cigar a day and then pull that thing out?
Who would laugh? One cigar a day? For a 14-year-old?
I suppose it would be funny now, but now it would kill me.
That ain’t funny. Although I admit it may be educational.
There were other downright educational things in that candy store. One of them was a little red-painted machine shaped like a guillotine. It had an opening into which you could stick a cigar. There was a little plunger on top. Stick in the cigar. Push the plunger. Whammo! One neatly trimmed cigar tip. You could also put a finger in that slot, slap the plunger, and ...
Keep the finger. Or so claimed the kid who owned it.
Worked for him, of course. He would never tell us the secret, but he would trim something, show us the sharply trimmed end, stick in his finger, slap the plunger, show us an unharmed finger, and dare us to put one of our fingers in.
And no, none of us ever put a finger in that thing. Would you?
The lesson we learned from that?
Easy. Trust your fellow man — but only so far.
I think that comes under the heading of Continuing Education. It also goes under the heading of being able to count up to 10 without having to take off a shoe and a sock.
The kids often bought rubber knives and daggers in the candy store and went around stabbing each other with them. Then someone bought a real metal knife in there that would slice through wood, but had a retracting blade which made it safe to stab a buddy. Or so Herbie said. Often. “C’mon, Tommy! Lemme stab you dang it!”
Stab me? Like hell! That much of a buddy I ain’t.
I learned a lot of things in that store, one of which was the best learning experience may be the one you never have.