Crime and Punishment Part One

(Originally posted in 2019)

If you’re a Boomer and you’ve made it this far in life, you are resilient! Each of us has confronted and survived a broad array of challenges in our lives. Some of us have been blessed with lives relatively free of trauma; others of us live with the various manifestations of PTSD born of childhood abuse, spousal abuse, the terrors of war, health scares, or any number of other sources of trauma. It is possible that some things, which would be traumatic for a child today, might not have made it onto our personal trauma lists in the Fifties and Sixties. For example…

In the summer of 1952, I lived with my parents and baby brother in the tiniest of row houses on a triangle-shaped block. Our street—Argyle Street—was a crooked one in The Hill section of Harrisburg. I recall having, at that time, a small, vinyl wallet with a head shot of, I think, Roy Rogers embossed on the front of it. Inside that wallet was the sum of my accumulated fortune: some nickels and dimes and quarters that had been handed to me at odd times by aunts, uncles, and grandparents. I cannot imagine the treasure amounted to more than a few dollars, but I clearly understood its buying power.

My mother, Lois, was a stickler about keeping me away from sweets, a difficult task because my father’s mother was a diabetic who took a vicarious pleasure in watching me wolf down Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and the like. At the top of Lois’ list of embargoed goodies was chewing gum, the very worst of which was bubble gum!

Four houses up Argyle street from my house, on the point of our triangle-shaped block, was a grocery store. If you’re a Boomer and lived in a city neighborhood of row houses when you were a little kid, you’ll likely recall a neighborhood store where the owner probably lived upstairs. The store’s shelves would have been stocked with the basics, including eggs and milk, and if it was an especially good store, there might have been some produce and some meats: chicken, ground beef, and pork chops. And there were candy bars and packs of Topps baseball cards.

In 1952, Topps switched from including taffy with each pack of baseball cards to including a baseball-card-sized sheet of…wait for it…BUBBLE GUM!

I was four-and-a-half-years-old in the summer of 1952, and having never seen a professional baseball game, baseball cards meant nothing to me. Harrisburg has had a baseball team off and on from as far back as 1884, but I had never seen Harrisburg’s Senators in person (they were actually disbanded in 1952 and not resurrected for another three-plus decades), and since we did not have TV in our house until 1954, there had been no opportunity for me to even watch a World Series game.

I certainly knew what TV was—an iPad-sized screen that revealed the moving shapes of humans in a blizzard—because I had watched a bit of TV here and there during visits with family friends and relatives who were more affluent than my parents. And for about a week in that summer of 1952, I’d watched our neighbors’ TV through their front window until the father finally noticed me and chased me away amid a cacophony of threats that I took very seriously.

Baseball, to me, was the softball our dads played at Sunday School picnics, or the hardball that older boys played in the paved space between two rows of garages just up Argyle and across the street from the grocery store. At not quite five, I was too little to play with older boys, but I would hang out and watch, and one of those boys shared a piece of bubble gum with me from a pack of Topps baseball cards.

The moment that gum touched my tongue, I was hooked. I didn’t give a fig about baseball, but from that first taste, I craved bubble gum.

I knew better than to ask my dad for a dime to buy a pack of baseball cards, so I asked Lois instead. “No,” was her answer. I intended to honor that response, but my Jones was too strong, and like the most devious of addicts, a few days later I took the wallet containing my treasure to the corner grocery store where I bought a pack of baseball cards.

On the other side of a wall, which bordered the parking area where the boys played ball, was a cemetery, and seated on the ground behind that wall, out of sight, I consummated my devious plan. I ripped open that pack of cards, which I left on the ground (God only knows what cards those might have been in 1952!), and slowly, bit by bit, I began to chew that aromatic, sweet, luscious bubble gum.

As with all such substances, it wasn’t long before the flavor was gone, but my money wasn’t. I spit the well-used wad of gum into the grass between two tombstones and headed back to the grocery store, pulled two dimes from my wallet to buy two packs of cards, and returned to the scene of my evil doings. I can remember all of this, but I’ll be damned if I can remember the name of the grocer, so whoever this man was, upon the occasion of the fourth iteration of my nefarious scheme, he told me to stay where I was—I did—while he called my mother to ask her if she knew I was up the street buying baseball cards.

In what seemed like only seconds, Lois stormed into the grocery store wearing a do-rag, an old white blouse, chartreuse pedal-pushers, and probably navy-blue Keds because they were what were always on her feet unless we were going to church. More significantly, she was wearing a wide-eyed expression I had never before seen, and she was carrying a wooden handled hairbrush with which I had had more than a passing acquaintance.

Lois grabbed me by the arm and dragged me down the street, worrying my backside the entire way with the hairbrush while I screamed in pain and embarrassment—the big boys had stopped their ball game to watch and laugh.

If my mother acted that way today, she would be a lead story in the electronic equivalent of the local newspaper, which she would be sharing with her new best friend and cell mate. Perhaps that is how we should respond as a society today, but such a response was not the norm in the Fifties. In fact, it’s likely that my mother was seen as something of a role model by any moms who happened to hear my caterwauling and looked out the window to investigate the source.

In the Eighties, a school psychologist explained to me that such parental behavior was unlikely to traumatize kids in the Fifties and Sixties because warming backsides and the like was not only common, we kids had known that if we crossed a line, there were possible punishments, and we weren’t surprised when they were delivered. “In this day and age,” the psychologist had suggested, “physical punishment is sufficiently rare, so that what my mother did in public then would have likely traumatized me if she had done it today.”

The recollection of my crime and the punishment meted out by my mother brings to mind a story of the relationship of trauma to crime and punishment that occurred sometime during the winter of 1960-61 when I was in the eighth grade, but the telling will have to wait for the next post.

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One thought on “Crime and Punishment Part One

  1. Hey Jeff,

    I think that corner grocery store is Gran’s Grill today. What house number did you live in?



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