Traffic Lessons Parents Once Taught Children

Keeping kids safe, 1950s-style

Children are Alameda’s most-valuable and most-vulnerable treasures. Too many of these treasures have to face danger on the way to and from school, as well as at school. While preparing to write this story, I read the tips and advice on Bike Walk Alameda’s website. One piece of advice addressed making sure that young children cannot open doors leading to the outside of the house.

This tapped into some wonderful memories for me. I am a child of the 1950s. I was born in 1947 and it wasn’t until 1961, when I entered high school that my parents joked that I could go outside on my own. Some years earlier, they ensured that neither I, nor my three siblings, would ever open a door to go outside, into the basement or up into the attic without permission. They did it with red fingernail polish. My mother painted a dot of this polish on the nobs of all the “forbidden doors.” 

My father gathered us all together inside the house at the front door and announced, “Do you see that polish?” We all nodded. “None of you are ever to touch a nob with that polish on it without me or your mother with you.” He then sent us off to find all the other doors with red dots of polish and had us report back.  

We found the other three doors and one-by-one told my father where they were. We never, ever opened any of those doors without permission. “Heaven help any of you who disobey,” my mother said, using one of her favorite stock phrases. (When my parents sold the home in the late 1980s, the real estate agent asked about those red dots.)

A second order from my parents also bears repeating. “Never get into a car with a stranger.” I was so afraid that I would break this rule that I wouldn’t even get into a car with someone I knew. This rule hit home when a “stranger” picked up a classmate at school. The grape vine went wild with gossip and rumors: He ran away, was kidnapped or even murdered. “Heaven help any of you who would do this,” my mother fretted. The classmate returned home late in the evening safe and sound. His uncle had taken him to a Washington Senators (yes Senators, not Nationals) baseball game as a birthday surprise. 

My parents also ingrained a third rule into us, “You are not to walk to and from school by yourself.” We always obeyed this rule. We took “Heaven help you,” quite seriously. “I feel better knowing that you all walk together,” my mother said. She would then recite all the Hansel and Gretel-like things that happen to children who walk alone. “You never know these days,” she would say. 

I was four or five years old when the city I grew up in painted crosswalks at most of the major intersections. My father walked us to the ones nearest our home and explained what they were. You are to stop at the curb, look left, then right. Do not step out if a car is coming. “Do you understand?” my father asked — his equivalent of “Heaven help you.” We understood. 

I was surprised at school that no one had told any of my classmates about the crosswalks. Not even a week later, a siren sounded while we were on the way home from school. We had a volunteer fire department in town. Whenever there was an emergency, sirens would sound: one for an ambulance, three for a fire. Only one sounded. The next day we learned that an ambulance arrived at our school. A car had hit one of my friends. He was crossing the street in front of the school. 

The next day firemen came and painted a crosswalk where it happened. We were all taken outside. The firemen gave us all plastic fire helmets, and Sister Miriam Theresa gave a lesson on crossing the street. “Heaven help any of you who don’t use that crosswalk or the other crosswalks,” she said, echoing a familiar phrase. 

We lived near a lake and could walk there to fish. At first my father came along. He later gave us permission to walk to the lake on our own, with more rules, of course. 

“First of all, don’t do anything that distracts you when you’re walking along the road.” We always had our fishing rods along and wanted to practice casting along the way. That rule stopped us from doing that. “Second,” my father admonished, “always walk facing the oncoming traffic. That way you can see the driver and the driver can see you.” 

To get to the lake, we had to cross two streets with no crosswalks. “Stop and wait. If a car is coming, wait until the driver can see you, then look the driver straight in the eye. If the driver doesn’t meet you eyeball-to-eyeball, wait until he does. If he doesn’t, let him go first. Remember he’s bigger than you.” 

All this 1950s advice applies 60 years later. Keep unsupervised youngsters safely inside your home. Don’t let a stranger entice your child into a vehicle. Don’t do anything distracting while you’re crossing or walking along a street. Respect the crosswalks and use extra caution crossing where there are no crosswalks. Make that “eyeball-to-eyeball” contact with the driver of a vehicle and always walk facing traffic. Just as in 1959, Alameda will remain safer in 2019 if the children are guided by and obey rules like these.