Weird Nostalgia for a Weird Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving Day 2020 was like no other in memory, you certainly don't need to be told that. On a day when extended family usually gather around a table to share a meal and express thanks for what we have, COVID-19 quashed this annual get together. To say that 2020 has been a weird year would be doing a disservice to the word weird.

As if forced closures of everything from factories to gyms were not enough, then came the edict from those we elected forbidding large family gatherings for the holidays. In New York State, their governor employed teams of law enforcement officials to count the number of cars in driveways and encouraged neighbors to report any large gatherings to a special hotline. In Pennsylvania, the governor ordered that its residents not only wear masks in public but in the home as well.

So for those that did gather, the groups were smaller, the entertainment limited, and the normal spirit for the beginning of the holiday season was lacking. At the function I attended, there was a wonderful mix of young and old, who initially exchanged pleasantries before the food was served -- buffet style. After dinner, the kids made a beeline to the upstairs for a round of video games while the adults retreated into the living room for conversation.

Before that conversation began, we wisely agreed to ban any political discussion, instead choosing to talk about finances and estate planning and express our collective worries about where the future was taking us. We focused on our 401Ks and other investments, how to protect assets if illness strikes, and what we thought best for our children. When this discussion began to turn political, we all decided to take a "cooling off" period. Then, as if on cue, the kids came barreling downstairs, taking a break from the violence and destruction of their video games. In short order, the conversation turned to school.

We talked about the merits of home study and what they were missing by not attending school. Somehow during this discussion of 2020 issues, we began to talk about "the good old days" and the weird things that school offered some five decades ago compared to today's classroom environment.

This was a pleasant turn to nostalgia and discussions about the childhood of the adults in attendance. The kids sat in amazement at some of the stories and wondered aloud, "how did you guys get along without cell phones and computers?"

They were also shocked that videogames did not always exist and that most of the things we did actually required imagination to enjoy, not someone else's pre-programmed imagery put on a computer chip for the user to experience.

The first discussion was around elementary school and what primitive things we enjoyed compared to today's kids. Now, this is not to say one generation is better than another or the things we did were healthier and more wholesome, but doggone it, we think it was. And when it comes to weird, looking back, we had that market cornered -- in an innocent sort of way.

So here are the fond and quite weird memories I shared. How many do you remember?

DITTO Mimeograph Machines

Going to school on a cold and crisp November morning was always a challenge for those of us who lived in the Northeast some 50 years ago. Climbing out from between those warm covers, washing up, and getting ready to enter the elements was something most of us did not relish. October and even early November often had its share of warm spells but as late November approached, the daytime highs dropped into the 40s and the mornings saw frost coat the last few leaves that fell from the trees that were entering their winter nap.

As schoolchildren, this time of year found us caught between seasons, still wearing the fall windbreakers that were not heavy enough to keep us warm but using the winter jackets would make us sweaty and uncomfortable. So once out of the house, we welcomed the warmth of the school building.

The ditto machine and the magic elixer we loved

As we would settle into our seats, dropping our coats in the "cloak" room, the day's first class was usually math and we would wait for the handouts to come from the teacher. When we heard the “whoosh-whoosh-whoosh” of the ditto machine, printing out the purple colored copies we would be working on that morning, the sluggishness left our bodies as we were gleeful with anticipation of the reward that was about to come.

As the teacher passed out the papers “fresh off the press” so to speak, they would be warm and the smell was, let’s just say intoxicating. Each of us would take the paper, hold it to our nose and take a deep breath, and for a moment, the day’s cares just seemed to float away, until fresh oxygen managed to clear out the brain cells that had been killed by the chemical used to print that morning's lesson. This was the wonder called a ditto machine, or sometimes called the mimeograph.

The purple copies that emerged

So what was the ditto machine? Those of us who remember can compare it to today’s copiers, only much more primitive. There was the master copy, a smooth waxy type original that was thickly inked and attached to the machine. The plain paper went onto a drum and spun around, using a chemical and heat to somehow melt that waxy substance onto the blank paper resulting in a purplish copy.

That chemical that we longed to smell was methylated spirits, which lingered on each handout for several minutes, the dessert that capped our breakfast cereal.

And what were methylated spirits? Denatured alcohol, a mixture of ethyl and methyl alcohols. Ethyl alcohol, commonly called ethanol or grain alcohol, is the alcohol found in adult beverages. It is a powerful and potentially addicting intoxicant. Now, I certainly don't believe that smelling these handouts led to a massive group of drug users, but it is interesting to think about just how primitive and quite innocent our upbringing was.

My story was viewed by those listening with some disbelief, but I assured them it was true. In those days we did not view everything in the world as being bad or think we were victims, in fact, it was being able to learn and experience what was right and wrong on our own that had a more memorable impact than someone "protecting" us from the real and perceived evils of the world.

Then I moved on to other ways we made copies, by using a simple device called carbon paper. "What is that?" asked one of the grandkids. You can bet I told them.

Carbon Paper

Until the invention of the copying machine, the only way to preserve a copy of what we were writing or some other important document, we used carbon paper. For those who don't know what carbon paper is, like those young ones I was talking to, it was a thin paper coated with printer’s ink, not graphite. The term carbon referred to the color of the ink and not the substance that coated the paper.

Carbon paper, our first Xerox machines

The use of carbon paper began to disappear due to three major innovations -- the invention of the Xerox copier in 1959 (although schools were not able to afford this until much later), the development of carbonless paper, and of course, the word processor.

And speaking of the copying machine, our local library installed one in the late 1960s and a copy cost twenty-five cents, equal to $1.89 in today’s funds, a pretty steep price for an elementary school student. So when a group of us would make our way to the local house of books, we put this expensive toy to good use. One kid would act as the lookout for the librarian and the others would provide cover. This left the one brave soul who would be the experimental subject – sitting on the glass plate of the machine to make a copy of his backside. The resulting copy would then be taken to school the next day and passed around like a trophy for all to see. Such was the use of the copying machine for the “educated” bunch in our town. This little exercise has since become the norm at drunken office parties and in movies about reckless youth, but I am proud to be a member of the first generation to discover this novel use of the Xerox machine. By the way, I did not share this with the kids for fear of them thinking their elders were a bunch of sickos.

The Eraser Cleaner

One of the prize jobs in our school was cleaning the erasers from the chalk dust made when the teacher wrote a lesson on the slate blackboard with white chalk and erased it for the next task. Kids would vie for this precious assignment, which always seemed to go to the teacher's pet. The eraser cleaner looked like an upside-down vacuum cleaner with a spinning brush attached.

The machine we longed to operate

The eraser would be pushed down against the brush, which sucked the chalk dust from it, filling up a small cloth bag, similar to the Hoover Upright vacuums of the day. There was something oddly gratifying about doing this, perhaps it was having some control over a machine that we were actually allowed to use without supervision, or maybe it was seeing all the chalk dust from assignments written and erased from the blackboard being violently sucked into nothingness as some sort of revenge against the teacher who made us do this work that provided the satisfaction we felt. This story was met with the statement, "You guys were strange." Yeah, maybe we were.

Ink Wells

This was a dangerous thing in the hands of the wrong student. In most elementary schools, we had penmanship classes using a stick pen that we dipped into ink wells. The ink wells were usually in a hole drilled into the center of our desks, into which we dipped the pens during our writing assignments. The pens had a sharp point but we had to turn them in after class as the adults in charge instinctively knew that somehow a kid would lose an eye while horse playing with them. But the ink was also dangerous, especially with a mischievous kid sitting behind a young lady with long, blond hair.

Our school desk and the hole for the inkwell

More than once, girls had their pigtails dipped into these dangerous containers. Sadly, I was one of those students who decided to experiment with a peer’s blond hair. I took several strands and dipped them into my inkwell. I was horrified as her hair just seemed to suck up the ink that spread several inches up the back of her beautiful golden locks. The result – I lost my inkwell had my desk pushed to the back of the class for a month, and had to write an apology letter to the young lady and her parents. "If you did that to my hair," said one of the girls at the Thanksgiving dinner, "I would've punched you." What could I say, I did deserve a good belt in the face.

Then the discussion left the education realm and turned to recreation. "What did you guys do to have a good time?" I was asked. "Did you have video games?" My look to them was one of amazement, stating that most of us didn't even have a television in the 1960s and those that did were lucky to get three channels using an aerial that had to be pointed in just the right direction. But what we did have was comic books, lots of them. And in those comic books were wonderful things we could buy, like pets, and pets were fun. But not just any pets.

"You could buy animals from comic books?" asked one of the kids incredulously. My answer was "absolutely, and some pretty wonderful ones at that." And so I launched into my diatribe about mail order pets, and realizing that in some ways, our comic books served as the internet of our time offering such wonderfully decadent services. It was ideal for those of us who earned their own money delivering newspapers and could purchase these bizarre offerings.

Sea Monkeys

The ad was enticing, an entire family – a mom and dad wearing crowns and the kids with long tails. The promise was that they could be trained to do tricks and would entertain us for hours. For a buck or two, how could we go wrong?

Somehow the sea monkeys did not resemble the pictures

As it turned out, sea monkeys were nothing more than brine shrimp, the brainchild of a money man named Harold von Braunhut (who was later accused of being a Nazi sympathizer), and a marine biologist, Dr. Anthony D'Agostino. Sea Monkeys were originally marketed as “instant life” a name that was not catchy enough to grab the imaginations of gullible kids.

The two inventors were able to mix-up a concoction that allowed the purchaser to dump a dusty powder into a plastic tank of water and within a short period of time, the tiny shrimp would appear.

Strangely enough, one of the kids stated that sea monkeys are still available and my research indicated that to be true. I guess there is some hope for today's kids.

Dyed Easter Chicks

When I brought this up, I received a look as if I had just ingested some of that fluid from the ditto machine. But yes indeed, dyed baby chicks could be purchased through these ads and if you wanted them market-fresh, the local Woolworths store also sold them for the Easter holiday, usually costing about a dollar apiece.

Colored "peeps", alive and ready for Easter gifting

How were these chicks dyed, you may ask? Were they dipped into a solution upside down and if so, how inhumane was this? Well, thankfully I did my research on this years ago to find out just how these chicks were colored like Easter eggs.

It appears, according to multiple sources, that there were two ways to dye the baby cluckers, one was to dust them shortly after hatching with a dye. The other way was to inject the eggs with a dye about two weeks after the eggs were laid. Using the first method would allow the chicks to be multi-colored while the second method only allowed a one-color bird.

But then came the major problem, children who received these animals for Easter soon grew tired of them after the holiday passed, and as the birds grew and the baby fluff molted away, they began to take on the typical appearance of a small, ugly chicken. As the bird rapidly matured came all the smells and cleanup needed to operate a successful in-home coop. In my case, we received them a few years as gifts and when they grew into that problem, my father would take them to the local "magical farm” where, as he would tell us, "They would live out their lives in happiness." In reality, he either dropped them off at the local animal shelter or more likely let them loose into the wild to become dinner for some coyote. But the farm story satisfied us then, but deep inside, we suspected something far more sinister happened to them.

Squirrel Monkeys

Now this one is so unbelievable that those in the room openly questioned my sanity until I popped up a story from the internet on my phone proving that monkeys were indeed for sale in comic books "back in the day". And I can’t blame anyone for thinking that buying a live monkey from a ten-cent Batman comic must be a lie based on today's standards, but some five decades ago, a lot of strange things were available -- if you knew where to look.

An "adorable pet" with a nasty temper

Now, I always wanted to get one of these simians but was strictly forbidden from doing so, and anyway, the price was pretty high for someone with just a paper route. Depending on which comic book you read, you could purchase one for anywhere between $18.95 and $25.00 -- in today’s money, that’s $145 to $190. Delivering papers would require me to save my earnings for nearly half a year to afford one of these creatures.

I only knew of two people who claimed to have purchased one of these monkeys. One kid was a senior in high school who was a bit uncanny, having a collection of medieval suits of armor with swords as well as a tank full of funny looking lizards that he bragged about. According to him, when his package arrived with the monkey, or more accurately what was left of it, the box contained a rotting carcass crawling with maggots (which he fed to his lizards, so the money he spent had some purpose).

Another guy, the local ne’er do well who spent three years in the seventh grade, told a story that became a legend to us elementary school numbskulls. Whether it was true or not was open for debate. But according to him, his monkey arrived alive and when he opened the box, it jumped out and went wild, running around the room, knocking down décor, and defecating on the furniture. He stated that when he grabbed it by the tail, it attacked him, biting and clawing until he was a bloody mess and required stitches. The animal escaped out an open window never to be seen again. Was it a true story? Who knows, his veracity is to be questioned given the fact that he spent so much time in elementary school and always had a good excuse as to why he was held back. On the positive side for him, he was the only eighth-grader who could drive to school making him legendary for accomplishing that feat.

But in searching the internet, multiple sources report that between 1968 and 1972, over 170,000 squirrel monkeys were sent to comic book readers from a breeder in Florida. And the recipients reported that if these animals arrived alive, they were hungry, probably dehydrated, and ready for battle. They weren’t the happy little darlings as advertised in the comic books. So the story about the monkey attacking the kid I knew did have some credence.

Pet Rocks

Along came the 1970s as marketing genius Gary Dahl purchased tons of Mexican Beach stones that cost him next to nothing and re-sold them for $3.95. The rocks were called alternatives to “real animals”, and according to the ads, they did not destroy furniture, do any business on the rugs, and did not consume food.

We actually paid for one of these things

What really made the rock sell was the design of the box. It was shaped like a McDonald’s Happy Meal box with air holes in the side. Upon opening the box, the rock was nestled in straw and contained an owner’s manual with ways to train the new pet. It guaranteed that it could be trained to “play dead” immediately. Yes, it made Dahl a millionaire several times over.

"Boy, you guys were really stupid," said one of the kids. Maybe so, but it wasn't just pets we could buy from the comic books, we also had an interest in science and health. I shared a few stories about our more inquisitive side.

X-Ray Specs

This was our favorite. The ad stated that for just one dollar, we could buy these glasses that would allow us to see through fingers, eggshells, and even clothing. The ads were quite alluring, stating, "look through things, look at your friend, is that his body you see under his clothes?"

Another fleecing of America's youth

But the picture was that of a woman who was being oogled with the magic glasses. And yes, eighth-grade boys were eager to see if the girls in class had a different anatomical bone structure than the boys – all in the name of science -- of course. Those of us who could afford the glasses put our money together to get several pairs while using one envelope to order them, saving a little bit by needing to buy only one stamp.

We waited over a month for them to arrive and when they did, we were not only disappointed but downright angry. It quickly became apparent that could we not see through things and the two tiny holes punched out of the cardboard lenses made everything seem dark. Then we read the fine print on the package that stated the glasses “only give the illusion of X-Ray vision and don’t actually allow the wearer to see through anything”. There went our biology lessons with the girls in the eighth grade.

Muscles by Mail

As we entered high school and watched the girls swoon at the football players, many of us who were small and lacked the "manliness" of the senior gridiron stars turned to our comic books for help. Anyone who ever picked up a comic book in those days remembers the ad titled, "The Insult that Made a Man Out of Mac!" This promised that in just seven days, the user of the Charles Atlas method of "dynamic tension" was guaranteed to attain the look of a Greek God.

A promise that fell short for so many of us

The ad featured a comic strip within a comic book that saw Mac get sand kicked into his face by a bully, who of course had all the girls salivating over his chiseled physique. This ad was targeting those of us who were insecure in our masculinity and needed to gain the confidence we lacked as we began to explore relationships with others. This was especially important after the X-ray specs we bought didn't quite work out the way we wanted them to.

There were very few who openly admitted to purchasing this course, fearing even more ridicule from those who seemed to disdain our mere presence. But what was especially exciting about the Atlas course was that it did not require any equipment. According to the literature, it was a method that used a process called "Dynamic Tension", which consisted of a series of isometric exercises that would help you became "a new man" without the aid of weights or drugs.

I bought the course and began my journey into Muscleville, yanking and pulling on my own arms, pushing against immovable objects, and doing pushups while standing up between doorframes. I began the course as a 112-pound weakling and ended it as a 113-pound weakling. Even worse, the spastic looking exercise routine left people wondering if I had some sort of tropical disease.