Things we knew as kids

This will be an audience-participation-type column in which readers will be invited to submit some of their own comments on how things used to be (and maybe still are).

The inspiration came from a web site that lists a number of things we were taught as children, things that were probably explained to us by our parents, who heard the same things from our grandparents, who in turn . . .

Get the picture? I write this in spite of the expected denials from members of the Trujillo family — my siblings, who have been prone to say, “That’s not the way I remember it.” Dorothy Maestas, in particular, often insists she and I must have grown up in different households.

But like a good umpire with 20-20 vision, “I call them as I see them.”

The web site I came across lists some behaviors near to many of us. One of them says that if you make yourself cross-eyed, there’s a good chance your eyes will remain in that position. I remember as a child doing that because it made my brothers and sisters laugh. And they’d encourage me to keep doing it. Then Mom stepped in with a strong admonition to stop it. How many readers learned that . . . and maybe even still believe it?

We didn’t get to buy gum very often, but when we heard Example No. 2, we had to try it out. You see, Mr. Eisebel Peña owned a grocery store directly across from our house on Railroad Avenue.

One day one of the Peña sons, Ernesto, filled a large glass container with hundreds of pieces of Fleer’s bubble gum. In a big spending spree, I risked a dime for 10 pieces. Being in a hurry, Ernesto pulled out more than I’d bargained for: 13 or 14 pieces. The next day my brother Severino and I tried the same thing, but received only 10 pieces. “How come yesterday you gave us more than now?” one of us asked.

Ernesto, who must have been primed, said, laconically, “Today’s been a bad day.” Regardless, I’d stuff them into my mouth until it bulged and swallow them.

How many readers have been told that swallowed gum stays attached to your stomach forever and ever? Only recently have I learned that the gum-as-cement warning is false. Swallow away!
Here are a few other warnings we received, and probably even heeded in our youth:

    • If you eat carrots, you’ll be able to see in the dark;
    • You must wait at least 30 minutes after a meal before going swimming;
    • Cracking your knuckles will cause arthritis;
    • If your nose itches, very likely you will soon have company at your house;
    • Never swallow a watermelon seed because it might remain there forever, like gum. And if you swallow dirt, you might even discover a watermelon growing inside you;
    • If you spill salt, when you die, you will need to sweep it all up with your eyelashes before you can enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Now try to imagine the consequences for a careless driver of a Morton’s Salt semi-truck. His cleanup duties would probably outlast those of the saltaholic who over-seasons his scrambled eggs.
    • And finally, if you failed to include the name Mary and Joseph somewhere in your children’s name, you and they would need to spend 10 more years in purgatory.

These, then, are some of the more common admonitions I heard and believed. And here are some of the warnings that came to me as a product of a parochial school education: At the last judgment, everybody will know everything about you; there will be no secrets anymore.

It’s difficult to think of a warning with more scared-straight implications than that one. So if I fantasized about Mary Lou, then everybody in the world (in all creation) would be privy to my little secret? And if I cheated Ernesto out of a few penny pieces of gum, that secret would be out as well?

Trivial as they may seem, to a naive kid, a stranger to the ways of the world, some of these were serious.

As a student in graduate school, I studied F. Scott Fitzgerald and practically memorized works like The Great Gatsby and Tender is the Night. One volume included a short story, “Absolution,” which for a time seemed like my own autobiography.

Here’s what happened: Confession was a weekly ritual at the old Immaculate Conception Church on Grand, Fifth and University, where an abandoned Allsup’s sits.

We didn’t have much choice; what if we had little or nothing to confess? “Surely, Arthur, you will have committed many sins by Friday,” said our homeroom teacher, Sister Mary Mala Pica.

So what choice did I have? Do I compound the lies by confessing to sins I hadn’t committed? Do I keep my time in the confessional short by reporting only what I thought would interest the priest and earn penance, and upon leaving church, be thought of as a sanctimonious third-grader?

That, roughly, is the story line for Fitzgerald: a boy in a confessional who hasn’t been bad but believes fellow penitents would refuse to believe anybody could get away with a 30-second confession.

These are some of the fears I clung to, unintentionally turning them into nightmares after I finished my bedtime prayers.

I wonder how many readers had experiences like these. Please send them in to this column. The email addresses are below.

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