The Lost World Of My Childhood

Thomas F Campenni
5 min readNov 15, 2021

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The America of my youth is long gone. It exists only in the minds of those of us that were around in the 1950s and 1960s.

Kids today have no idea how to amuse themselves without electronics and a panoply of outside stimulus. We used broom sticks for toy guns and then later to hit spaldeens after winning (or losing) a WWII battle. Some of us had toy guns especially if it was soon after our birthdays or Christmas, alas, to break as the year went by. But no matter what, you could always find a broom handle, a branch, or a piece of wood to do double duty in battle as a prop or in a stick war.

Today there is no “Cowboys and Indians,” “the Battle of the Bulge” reenacted or “Cops and Robbers.” Parents would no longer tolerate that type of play. Yet video games are more and more violent. And I don’t remember a school shooting…ever.

While war and cops and robbers were primarily a male endeavor, my female cousins and neighbors were always inserted in the fight or battle if they wanted to be. Of course, they were our nurses, dance hall girls, and pretend Calamity Janes. When we were playing ball, they played right along side us.

My older girl cousins would often play “house” with we younger kids as their children. When that game was over, we would all play double Dutch, tag, hopscotch, red light/green light, or hide and seek. As we became older, sex segregation kicked in and the street games between us boys became more cutthroat and confrontational.

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We had quarter movies for summer afternoons and Saturday matinees with a matron to keep us in line, nickel fountain drinks and penny candy. I remember one Christmas; my mother gave me $2 for Christmas shopping in Woolworth’s where I carefully selected presents for my family. She even bought me a hot chocolate at the lunch counter.

By the time I could walk by myself to the deli, lunch counter or pizza parlor, I could buy a bologna sandwich on a hard roll, a grilled cheese sandwich, or 2 slices for 25 cents, but at the counter I needed to have another dime for the tip.

After school I would see if I could collect enough discarded soda bottles with their 2-cent deposit to buy a Devil Dog and a Yoohoo drink for 17 cents. The bodega man would spot you the two cents if he knew you and you brought back the empty bottle as soon as you were finished.

There were no play dates. Parents seldom interfered once you were out the door. In Snoopy cartoons or comic strips, there are no adults and that was pretty much our play world.

Occasionally, there would be a catch or a handball game with an adult. Perhaps a game of checkers and as you grew older chess or a board game at night.

I did learn to play poker by watching the adults Saturday night or after Sunday dinner. My grandfather taught me Briscola, Scopa, and Calabresella. Those are Italian games played with a 40-card deck (no eights, nines, or tens.) My father taught me gin and pinochle. Television was not as big a deal then. People sang and played instruments, listened to records and the radio.

They still had radio shows such as the Lone Ranger, Johnny Dollar, and Gunsmoke. They didn’t sound so cheesy on radio as they did when watched on television with the poor visuals. Yet by the very early 1960s radio dramas were over. But then we had WABC radio with Cousin Brucie and Dan Ingram at 770 on the dial. WINS and WMCA also played the latest hits but couldn’t keep up with WABC and became a news station and a Christian one.

Was life better? I think if you were a kid, it was much simpler. After about the 2nd grade, you walked yourself to school and played outside with your friends after and on weekends and summers without hovering parents. Vacation trips were limited and not every year. Every vacation I ever went on involved seeing my grandparents in Florida.

Though my dad would take us to racetracks from New York to Virginia, New Jersey, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. We would live flush or praying that the gas would last until we were back in New York.

Much of your life if you were Catholic revolved around your parish. You would ask others what parish they belonged to and instantly knew everything about the other kid. There were altar boys and choir. The Latin Mass had to be learned and the individual quirks of each priest when you served.

In my youth I knew scores of priests, brothers, and nuns and some could be difficult. Yet I can honestly say they all had my best interest at heart. Could the clergy have changed so dramatically since then? Maybe, I just was one of the lucky ones, but I don’t think so.

I would not want to come back and be a kid anymore. It is too hard and difficult. There is no freedom. You cannot just have a tussle with a school mate without a cop involved. Parents now are worried about shootings, curriculum and what their kid is reading.

Yep, give me the days when I spent hours at the playground with my friends, played on roofs and in derelict buildings, had fights, and threw rocks. I fondly remember going with my father to the bars he owned or worked in and learned the dignity of being paid for your labor. Even if it was just carrying cases of empties up and down stairs.

That feeling carried over to when I worked in kitchens and dining rooms and the good tiredness that I felt after a slammed shift as a teenager and then, for a while, as an adult. In those lines of work, you know immediately if you make a mistake or are successful. To this day, I try never to go from here to there unless I am carrying something.

It is a different world with different rules and different sensibilities. Too bad today’s children will never know the freedom that we had at their ages.

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Thomas F Campenni

Currently lives in Stuart Florida and former City Commissioner. His career has been as a commercial real estate owner, broker and manager in New York City.