I grew up in a four-square house south of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. I loved that home for a million reasons, but mostly because our family was all together when I was 5-12 years old. Flawed as we were, there were many joyous days.
The period we lived in our Lancaster home was also a unique time in American history. We moved there in 1962 when I was five and lived there through 1970 when I was about to turn thirteen. The world changed right before our eyes. News that John F. Kennedy was shot came through when I was on the playground at Willow Street Elementary. The Vietnam War raged. Civil rights protests flared. Then Bobby Kennedy was shot. Martin Luther King, Jr. too.
All the while, the songs of the Beatles rang through our four-square home. It started with Love Me Do and rattled all the way through to Why Don’t We Do It in the Road on the White Album. I admittedly struggled at times to understand it all. Then the Beatles broke up I was twelve years old. That spring, my father announced that we’d be moving away from our Lancaster home to Illinois. It felt like my world was falling apart.
My 7th-grade friends held a going away party. The presents included the Beatles single record Get Back on 45 RPM. I played that 45 with the Red Apple on it . The music sounded and felt so bittersweet. Get Back…get back…get back to where you once belonged…
But I couldn’t. Our family was moving away from Pennsylvania. All that love and innocence and coming-of-age experience from our Lancaster home was packed in yellow and green Mayflower moving boxes and stuffed in a big truck that sat in our dour driveway with sadness written all over it. We got in the car and drove to Illinois, which was 750 miles away.
All good children go to heaven
That day, my brothers and I piled into the back of our 1965 Buick Wildcat as dad pulled the car into gear and we rolled down that long driveway the last time. We felt sad. We felt lost. We felt torn from our friendships and ripped from that house we loved.
But our father had found work out in Illinois and that meant we had to move. As we drove up Route 222 toward the Pennsylvania Turnpike, my oldest brother and I put our heads together and quietly sang the entire medley off the back of Abbey Road. The lyrics covered almost all of life and included things to come for both of us…out of college, money spent…and in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.
But what a childhood. No regrets there. And it’s funny what you retain from periods of great change and joy. Here are just a few.
The period of my elementary to junior high school days was a time of great change in children’s toys.
Technology was starting to deliver all kinds of wonders, including incredibly pliable plastics that enabled the creation infamous toys such as the Rat Fink line. These grossly detailed creatures captured the revolutionary snark of the 60s and the disdain of a New Generation toward authority and The Man.
New kinds of rubber were being developed from space research and material experimentation. These included the first amazing Super Balls that bounced so high and far it was easy to lose them in the weeds if you couldn’t catch up.
Super Balls were so superior to cheap red foam rubber balls that hardly bounced at all. You could slam those stupid red foam rubber balls on the ground and they’d still barely make it over your head. They were the height of mediocrity. There was a life lesson in that too.
Super Balls, by contrast, made us believe in the possibilities of a better world. The feel of that hard compressed rubber in your hand was like owning magical powers. The sensation of sending that ball so high in the air was a release of emotion as well as energy.
Red Ball Jets
To go out and play, we all wore tennis shoes or “sneakers,” as we called them.
I ran around in a brand called Red Ball Jets. It always bummed me out when that little tab of rubber with the Red Ball would come off one of the shoes. And it always would.
Then I’d have to pull the other little Red Ball off the back because my childhood version of OCD would not allow me to leave one Red Ball on the back of my shoe and not have another.
But while those red dots lasted, I’d go running around the yard glancing back at how they looked as I ran in my Red Ball Jets. And yes, I once ran into a tree while doing that.
But I swore they made me faster. One of life’s other lessons is that what you believe about yourself is as important as the reality you face. Certainly that proved true in the world of sports.
Branding and self-perception
Thus I experienced, in some small way, the power of brand marketing and self-perception. It would come true again with the running shoes I’d wear years later in cross country and track. I was a high-school runner when Nike first emerged on the market. Then came college and along came Brooks. Etonic. New Balance. Reebok. Tiger.
The list of new running shoe brands kept growing, and has never stopped. Runners keep trying and trying, in essence, to find their next pair of Red Ball Jets so they can go faster.
As the saying goes, you’re only young once, but you can be immature forever.
And forever it shall likely be. Life is filled with both the joyous and the bittersweet. What never changes is our desire to find our way back home somehow. I cherish those childhood memories. But I also cherish the child that still remains within me.
And my belief in Red Ball Jets shall never wane.