Back in the day, If you were seen being walked to school or dropped off by your mother, well, you were a “momma’s boy.” Life was miserable.
Photo illustration by Stacey Warde
Wherever you look these days, especially in the suburbs, you see children wearing crash helmets. Some even wear them while walking around. I can’t imagine wandering the streets of Compton, California, where I grew up, wearing a helmet—whether on foot or a bike.
My father a former big league ballplayer, was proud to have faced the most fearsome fireballer in the game, the great Hall of Famer Bob Feller, without a helmet, but with only the cloth cap and its Detroit Tiger insignia on the front.
“Not wearing a helmet separates the men from the boys,” he said, when helmets were brought into the game in the 1950s.
Of course, dad was beaned in 1942 and hospitalized overnight with a concussion, but he was back in the lineup the next day, head swathed in a bandage, because he did not want to lose his shortstop position and loathed the idea of being considered soft—a “pussy.”
In those days, real men ruled. Today, pussies rule.
I recall feeling like a pussy wearing a helmet in Little League, but the umpire told me I could not play without one. Later, in high school, I was beaned by a hard-throwing future bonus-baby, and the helmet possibly saved my life. The impact of the ball smashing this helmet an inch from my ear sounded like a bomb exploding inside my skull, and I had a concussion, was out cold a few seconds, but, though scared, remained in the game, because I was a Compton boy, and we frowned on pussies.
I know without a doubt that any kid who rode around on his bike in Compton with a helmet would have been the recipient of physical and verbal torture; his bike would be taken and mangled and his helmet crushed and his reputation ruined, marked as a “pussy.” If you were seen being walked to school or dropped off by your mother, well, you were a “momma’s boy.” Life was miserable. And there was no end to it. This was possibly a bad thing.
But maybe it was a good thing. I recall receiving my first haircut during Army basic training. It wasn’t a haircut—they shaved you bald. A sadistic, sarcastic sergeant stood nearby to make sure all your shorn locks were gone, and he inspected heads.
“Hey, troop!” he snarled at one kid sitting in the barber chair. “I don’t see no nicks or scars on your ugly skull. Where’d you grow up—Beverly Hills? Miss your mommy? You a goddamn sissy?”
I was proud to have several nicks and scars. Dad said, “If a kid doesn’t have a few nicks and scars on his head by the time he’s 10, well, he’s lived a sheltered life, and he’ll end up a pushover.”
I suppose, these days, kids are pretty much indoctrinated into wearing helmets, like putting on a pair of pants. They are also shuttled around by parents who want to keep their kids off the streets and safe from danger, and every game in which they participate is organized, supervised, and more or less controlled by parents who possibly wish to keep their children shielded from bullies, or from alliances formed to ward off bullies, or where teams might be chosen and bonded into rivalries so virulent and grudging that small gang-like skirmishes arise and create a neighborhood cohesion that could be considered a brotherhood.
My question is: What is the mindset of children growing up wearing protective gear, who have too many toys and are over-protected and shuttled around and organized and supervised and vigilantly controlled? Do they resent doting and the stifling of independence? Do they give up on sports early because they’re weary of coaches and parents, and retire to dark rooms to play video games, surf the Internet, and talk on cellphones? Does overprotection and underexposure stunt social and survival skills and precipitate a need for danger and adventure, which, unfulfilled, produces rebellion, discontent, non-conformity, anger, emptiness, depression, and a propensity to escape a life made too pat, too easy?
Is this why our parks, playgrounds and streets seem empty and lifeless, without the joyous shouts of fun and games, some of which are invented by children left on their own, without toys, and parents? Our parents told us to go play and come back for dinner and don’t take candy from strangers; we fell off bikes and sprained, broke and razed limbs and chipped teeth; we dealt with bullies by bouncing rocks off their heads. There was an unspoken pact to never back down, and some of us went on to be pretty good soldiers when called upon. There was some pain and dissension. Perhaps it prepared us for the unpackaged world, where things never went the way they were supposed to.
But, then again, maybe what goes on today prepares these kids for the pre-packaged world.
In any case, these helmets should be outlawed—if for any other reason they’re so huge and make the kids look geeky. You’ve got a skinny little body, on top of which is perched an oversized helmet, and it bobbles and bobs around above their scrawny necks and sparrow-like shoulders. Because these helmets are designed to protect not only their heads but most of their faces, it must be difficult to see. Pretty soon helmets will have two tiny eyes glowing out of slits, and there will be an aerial on top, so the kid can be tracked 24/7. Wee voices will emit from the helmet in robotic monotone. Kids will walk down the street, and the only to recognize any of them will be by their helmets, but if all the helmets look alike, nobody will be able to tell one kid from another, so that the companies that manufacture these massive enclosures will be forced to produce styles and models similar to automobiles, so that those in the neighborhood who own the most expensive cars can purchase their kids the latest state of the art crash helmets advertised on TV, in comic books, and websites.
Sometimes I think the authorities, helmet makers and parents take all the fun out of life. Just think how less fun it would have been for my sister when she brained me in the head with her baton if I’d been wearing a helmet. This particular incident was one of the highlights of her rather stormy childhood. It helped make her the strong, indomitable woman (college professor and mother of two grown boys) she is today. And perhaps turned me into the borderline idiot I am today. §
Dell Franklin is publisher of The Rogue Voice. He can be reached at email@example.com.