Growing Up Required ‘Survival Of The Fittest’


I was having a conversation with my friend Nic, and we were talking about how the concept of “survival of the fittest” seems to have fallen by the wayside, especially when it comes to humans, especially children. I hate to start any sentence with “In my day…” But: In my day… you had to be tough right from the get-go.

Those were the days when daddies balanced their tots on one outstretched palm and put them to bed in cribs with bars exactly one head’s-width apart. Mommy came in to check on Little Stevie later and generally found him struggling to free himself. He didn’t know to turn his head sideways — he was only four months old! No matter, Mommy would poke him back into the crib and give him a bottle to fall asleep with and pack blankets around him. All no-no’s today due to drowning, suffocating and other stuff like that.

But this was the beginning of Little Stevie realizing it was survival of the fittest!

I put up a vintage toy display in my store for Christmas and was amazed by some of the things we played with, like made-in-Japan tin toys with razor-sharp tabs inserted through equally razor-sharp slots during assembly. Or cap guns that, if held close enough to your ear, would render you deaf. Or, my favorite, the child-size fencing set. No, not fencing like you stretch carefully around your land to protect it — fencing like two children vigorously stabbing at each other with swords while screaming, “I’m Zorro!”

But let it not be said that the inventors of the 1950s didn’t have one eye on safety — they did. The set came with masks made of metal screening (which poked out at the sides) and had straps so loose that they instantly slipped around the neck and were discarded. In fact, the reason the inventor only had one eye on safety was that he probably lost his other eye in a tragic product testing accident.

But Nic agreed we grew up fine.

Remember Quicksilver? It was a plastic maze game filled with mercury. Every kid on the block tried to get the mercury through the maze once, got frustrated, and smashed the game with a hammer. Everyone I know had a palm full of mercury sooner or later. Those with cuts on their palms went insane, I guess.

Survival of the fittest!

Back then, we kids routinely ate the paint off the wall. There was a little peely part, and it got bigger and bigger as we fiddled with it instead of falling asleep. It tasted chalky. And, in case you’re wondering, of course it was loaded with lead. Admitting to having ingested lead paint as a child has become my No. 1 excuse as an adult. (“Deb missed the deadline again?” “She ate lead paint as a child, you know.” “Oh, that explains it. Poor Deb.”)

But when you get right down to it, I had something far more dangerous in my household than razor-sharp toys, loud cap guns, pointed swords and lead paint.

I had a brother.

When angered, Jimmy would throw a brick at my head. I would duck. It would go through the window. Jimmy would get punished.

Survival of the fittest.