Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Occupying Ourselves


An erector set like mine. Photo from Eli Whitney Museum — Erector Sets and Manuals

In the area where I live, we noticed that the minivan was the car of choice when our son was growing up. Parents were defined as “he or she who pays and drives.” We were kind of alarmed, actually, at the expectation that after school you were supposed to take your kid to leagues, lessons, “enrichment” opportunities and more. It seemed kind of weird to us, but we thought it might be weirder if our son didn’t get to do anything, and so we did a few things like Scouts, football in middle school, or later, voice lessons in high school.

It was weird because both my wife and I remember just keeping yourself occupied after school. In good weather you played pickup baseball, basketball or football, at least if you were a boy. You skated or sledded or built snow forts when it snowed. And in those seasons where it was chilly and damp, you found things to do indoors.

Girls might do sewing projects or weaving projects, drawing, painting, or crafts (gender roles were pretty well defined back then–what boys could do and what girls could do). I would sometimes fiddle around at my dad’s workbench cutting out wood into rubber band pistols or making contraptions out of scrap wood. We had various “kits” — electrical kits where we could wire up different circuits and learn about switches and electricity. There were crystal radio kits with a crystal tuner and and a long string of wire that served as an antenna and an earphone where you could listen to radio stations. It was so cool when it actually worked.

We had an Erector set that afforded hours of alternating frustration and pleasure. The set had a little electric motor that would drive various gear or pulley arrangements. There were instructions for building a draw bridge that would raise and lower, an amusement park ride like the Rockets at Idora Park that would turn, and various moving vehicles. The frustration was usually in tightening all those little nuts and bolts that held the various contraptions together. The sets even furnished screwdrivers and tiny wrenches. One time I decided to experiment and see what happened when you put both screwdrivers in an electrical socket. I got zapped, sparks flew, and I blew out the main fuses in our fuse box. Needless to say, I didn’t try that again.

Later on, it was building HO slot car racetracks in my basement. It was incredible the layout I built in a 6 foot by 2 foot space along one wall of our basement-spirals, loops, multiple levels, bridges and tunnels. I learned to make the cars run fast by cleaning oxidation, playing with gearing, swapping tires. I invited my buddies to join me. If I wasn’t racing slot cars, I was building models of my favorite hot rods.

We occupied ourselves by doing, by making, by puttering. We learned how things worked–or didn’t. We worked out compromises in pick up games, learned to take care of ourselves. I’m not sure when and how this different model of leagues, lessons, and other parent-organized activities became the dominant model. I have no idea which way is better. All I can say is that I never felt deprived, and learned a lot about the ways people and things worked. It was a great way to grow up.

Was it like this for you?



4 thoughts on “Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Occupying Ourselves

  1. I grew up south of Y town. South Range class of 73. After reading this this morning I found myself in the middle of the floor assembling a Radio Flyer wagon for my granddaughter. I looked at all the parts and bolts, the picture, then the instructions. I thought “thank God I played with Erector sets!” 🙂

  2. Bob, you are right on the mark. I got crates from Mahoning Plaza Loblaw’s to make wooden models of boats and spaceships. I could get into the spaceship, as it was that large. In basement, I had a sheet of plywood on saw horses that I built things with my erector set, Lincoln logs, slot car set and a Kenner sky scraper kit. My dad carted me to bowling league and Scouts. Now, my daughter was in dance classes, plays, and swim teams. Much more paying and driving these days, just like you wrote.

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