I was reading the paper Sunday when I came across a column about the way the children of the 40s and 50s grew up. Basically, it wondered how we survived.

I started thinking about my childhood. My generation grew up before the wonder drugs created in World War II. Mainly, that meant no penicillin. Stepping on a rusty nail could literally mean your life.

So could any number of diseases –diphtheria, strep throat, polio. The vaccines against polio didn’t come along until I was in high school, and every summer our mothers would remind us constantly about the dangers of getting too hot and then jumping in cold water – like Lake Storey. Sometimes the lake and the kids pools at the Custer parks would be closed because of the threat.

Bronchitis was my particular nemesis, and some of my earliest memories are of hacking till my whole torso ached. Mom would get up in the middle of the night to bring me a spoonful of sugar saturated with terrible tasting cough syrup which would knock me out so I could get some sleep. (I’m still susceptible – only now I get up to get my own.)

Disease was not the only threat to us. Our own youthful natures were also dangerous. We climbed trees, rode no-handed on bikes, slid down the Burlington embankment along Lincoln Street on cardboard boxes and inner tubes and ran to beat slow-moving freights to crossings.

Our neighborhood gang, the Blaine Avenue Bulldogs, was especially prone to dumb stunts – like playing "chicken" during the winter at Cedar Fork. The idea was to slide down the snowy brick side, then jump the creek at the bottom. Balance and timing were absolutely essential. Naturally, most of us didn’t have it.

The mere process of crouching down on your haunches and staying in control enough to be able to rise up and jump as you reached the bottom was more than most of us could manage. That’s why we called it "chicken." You were pretty certain to get wet. The question was how wet. Even the bottom of your pants leg was enough to disqualify you – but it proved you weren’t "chicken."

Usually, someone would go flat out into the creek on his hind side. The splash and the scrambling, yelling dance that followed gave the rest of us a big laugh. Then the game was over – because the splasher would have to go home and change and face grounding for the rest of the day because he’d played at dreaded Cedar Fork.

Our mothers hated Cedar Fork. Because it gathered street run-off and God-knew-what else, they saw it as a pesthole just designed for sickening, maiming or drowning children. Speeding Santa Fe trains ran just above it, ready to kill the unwary. Of course, we weren’t unwary – just stupid. We were always on the lookout for trains, which you could hear honking a long way off, and especially city cops or railroad detectives who would eventually come to run us off if we lingered too long in the area.

We climbed all over the viaduct where the Burlington crossed the Santa Fe – so there were always two sets of rail dicks we had to worry about. Had they ever cooperated with each other and the Galesburg police, they might have had a chance. But they didn’t – and like a feral pack, we could easily elude them, even when they came in pairs.

But we did get injured in our play there. A slight concussion and a cracked elbow, as I remember it. But nobody was killed – so we accepted the casualty level.

Ditto for swimming summers in Lake Rice down by its dam. There was an old pumping tower which we used as a place to dive. We’d hike down the Santa Fe right-of-way from Farnham Street, strip in the woods south of the Lake and then splash around until we got blue and pruney. Then we’d sit in the sun – watching where we put our bare butts – until we dried off. Then it was back up the hill to Farnham Street, down North to Blaine, and a big glass of Kool-Aid full of sugar and ice to recharge our energies.

In the evening, it was boot tag with a flung galosh, rassling, or maybe free form football in the Coxes’ side yard. When nine o’clock came, our moms would start to call from front porches up and down the block. In we’d go, pulling off sweaty, torn and grass-stained clothes, to be checked for cuts and serious bruises (treatment: iodine or liniment). If we were lucky, we could get by with a sponge bath before bed. Otherwise, it was into the tub for a full scrub – which we resisted heartily. We thought dirt was a part of our world, so what was wrong in wearing it?

Yes, when I think of the way we grew up, I wonder how we even reached puberty let alone adulthood. And I still have some scars to prove it!