The Good Old Days

I grew up in a rural part of New Jersey, about 30 miles from Philadelphia. I lived in a place called Foxís Mill, which was a suburb of Daretown, with a population of around 300. Back then, Daretown had a Post Office, public school, two feed mills, a railroad station, two general stores and a Studebaker-Hudson automobile dealership.

Jack Eganís General Store sold nails, chewing tobacco, breakfast cereal, lunch meat, overalls and gasoline. It took only five minutes to get there on my bicycle, and a thick chocolate milkshake made with real ice cream cost just 20 cents. For a quarter, Jack would make it a malt. He had a well-worn soda automat that had been there since anyone could remember and it only accepted nickels.

To find a selection like Egon's today, you would have to drive 20 miles to a mall. You spend ten minutes in the parking lot, looking for parking near the entrance. Then you walk a mile inside the mall, searching for stuff on your list. If you need a ball point pen, you have to buy a package of 10, and if you buy one package, you get a second one for half price.

Not much is left in Daretown today. There is no store, train station, school or Post Office, but thousands of people are buried in Daretown's four cemeteries. Daretown is just a rural delivery route of the Elmer Post Office. Located five miles from Daretown, Elmer has a population of 1,200 and boasts a hospital and four pizzerias. Most other businesses have closed in recent years, including three new-car dealerships and a furniture store.

When I was a kid, I walked about a mile to school. I had a bike, but was not allowed to ride it to school. The Bike was well-used when my father gave it to me for my birthday. I promptly took the fenders off, removed the handlebar, and installed a steering wheel from a junk car. That was really cool! My "Rollfast" bike was only fast going down hill, but it was easy to ride no-handed. I wore leg clips to keep my pant legs from getting caught in the chain.

I rode the bike to fetch glass gallon jugs of milk from a nearby farm. The milk was always fresh and still warm, which prevented it from freezing on the way home in winter.

Boys got peashooters and pop-guns that shot corks for Christmas. Girls got home-made Raggety Ann and Andy dolls, or if they were lucky, a newfangled doll that could drink from a baby bottle and wet its diapers.

We didn't have a television when I was a kid, but I made what appeared to be an antenna and mounted it on the chimney. I even ran a piece of string from the antenna to a cardboard box in my bedroom. I attached plastic knobs from an old radio and cut a window in the front which displayed a cover of LIFE Magazine.

My Uncle Hank lived in Quinton and was the first person in town to own a TV. It was a huge box with a tiny round screen, built by Zenith. He could only get one station with any measure of clarity. Programs were aired about two hours a day, but for much of that time, my uncle was busy turning knobs and adjusting his antenna to get rid of "interference." He put his TV on the glass-enclosed porch so neighbor kids could watch through the windows. When it was cold or rainy, Uncle Hank invited the kids inside to watch. That was a good excuse for parents to come looking for their kids so they too could watch.

Ten years later, color television appeared in stores, but they were too expensive for most people. Some placed a tri-color plastic screen in front of their TV so people would think it had color. You could buy a large magnifying glass to mount in front of the TV screen to make the picture larger.

The only phone in our house was in the living room and it was a party line, which means we had to share the number with several neighbors. Before you could dial, you had to listen and make sure no-one else was using the phone.

If someone wanted a telephone installed back in the day, they just called "Ma Bell" and got a live representative. The phone was installed within hours. The government decided that it was time to break up Ma Bell's monopoly and ever since, it is next to impossible to get any kind of service. Ma Bell was replaced by another monopoly and if you try to contact that company, an electronic voice tells you to press keys until your fingers are sore. Most people give up and use cell phones. They pay more for the service and have to stand in the rain or snow to get connected, but while they are at it, they can use their phones to check the weather and take pictures to send friends.

My mother had an agitator washing machine with wringers to squeeze water from the clothes so they would dry quicker -- on the clothes line. Because the line sagged from the weight, husbands made clothes props for their wives. Before ironing the clothes, Mom sprinkled them with a soda bottle that had an aluminum bottle stopper with lots of small holes in it. You could buy the stoppers in the Five and Dime store. Flour mills sold flour in cotton sacks with colorful prints and designs so people would buy their brand. My mother sewed dresses and shirts from the sacks. We kids went berry picking or worked in the garden to raise fruits and vegetables for canning. There were always rows of canned goods in our cellar.

Back in the 50s, several radio stations gave us local news, and stations in the greater Philadelphia area offered a wide choice of music from rock & roll to easy listening and classic. There were two or three Christian stations and in 1960, evangelist Percy Crawford pioneered Christian TV when he established Channel 17.

Today, we have hundreds of radio stations, all broadcasting the same noise which they call music. And most of them are owned by the same investor groups who also own the newspapers and TV stations. Public radio has some classical music, but most of the time it is promoting liberalism or asking for donations. The last Christian FM station that we could receive, closed in 2011 after the owner's end-of-the-world prophecies failed to be fulfilled and people stopped giving.

People tell me that I can listen to the kind of music I like if I subscribe to satellite radio for $10 a month. Unfortunately, Social Security payments minus Medicare deductions donít allow for such luxuries.

Most people pay $100 or more a month for cable TV and get dozens of channels including one or two that they actually watch. That too is beyond our means, but we do have basic cable. And that allows us to send and receive email plus listen to whatever we like on internet radio. We can even listen to the Austrian evening news while eating our lunch -- due to the time difference.

The first records were cylinder-shaped, invented by Thomas Edison in 1877. Then came disc-shaped records of 78, 45, and 33 rpm. There were various other recording devices. The wire recorder came first towards the end of the thirties, but owners got frustrated with tangled and kinked wire. Reel to reel recorders with vinyl tape were more popular, but people didn't like to fast forward (or back) to find a specific place on the tape. My first recorder was a 1963 Wollensack 2-track reel to reel recorder. It boasted High Fidelety (Hi-Fi) and stereo sound capability by hooking one channel to an outside amplifier. The tapes had to be re-wound afterwards, but later reel-to reel recorders had 4-tracks and eliminated the need to rewind. Compact cassette tapes arrived in the mid sixties. In the 70s and 80s, there were AM / FM-Stereo car radios with 8-track recorders, but the 4-track cassette ruled for about three decades. Around 1990, compact discs (CDs) began to replace both records and tapes of all kinds. Nearly all aspects of the audio-visual entertainment industry are now dominated by digital technology.

Fifty years ago, you could go to a local bank and ask for a loan. The bank manager knew you and your family. You filled out an application and Papa co-signed. When I got my drivers license at 17, I wanted to buy a beautiful coral pink and ivory '55 Ford convertible with dual exhausts, fender skirts, a continental tire on the trunk and extended bumpers. My father refused to sign for me to buy the car, so I bought a wrecked '46 Ford from a local junk yard and built my own convertible. It was not my dream car, but I put fender skirts on it and painted it 1955 Ford coral pink. By the time I was 25, I had owned 38 vehicles and I made a profit on all but one of them. I took pictures of them with a Brownie box camera that used blue flash bulbs.

Until the fifties, headlight dimmer switches were located on the floor near the clutch pedal and ignition switches were on the dashboard. Cars came with signal lights, but you had to turn them off manually after use. Most states still require a person to learn hand signals, but few drivers are familiar with them. I recently drove a Model A Ford in a local parade. Driving back to the garage, I signaled with my hand for a left turn. A police cruiser was approaching and saw my signal, but he thought I was waving him down. I let him go with a warning!

Drive-ins came into style in the fifties. First were drive-in fast foot restaurants with pretty waitresses on roller skates. Then came drive-in movies and drive-in banks. The corner drug store and Five & Ten Cent Store had soda fountains and pinball machines. Diners were popular and they had juke boxes, with remote servers at each table. A clever student patented a 45 rpm record of silence for juke boxes and made a fortune from people who preferred to eat their meal in peace!

I never owned a credit card until I was retired. I once needed to rent a car, so the mission gave me a business card. When we bought our first home in 2003, we were told that we had no credit. Even though we paid half the price in cash, the bank refused to give us a mortgage. We were finally able to get a home equity loan because the Bank President and Chairman of the Board were personal friends. No one at the phone, gas and electric companies knew us, so we had to pay caution fees to get service. Now that we have debt, credit card companies hound us by phone and mail wanting us to sign on as their customers.

When I was 47 years of age, I bought a Commodore 64 computer. Eleven years later, I got an email address. At 74, I am using my 12th computer, but it takes twice as long to start it and get it in "work mode." If I want to delete something, Microsoft asks if I am really sure, but I can mistakenly hit a wrong key and wipe out a day's work.

And people wonder why I keep talking about the "good old days!"

Ralph V. Harvey, 2012