Scanning Around With Gene: Danger Around Every Corner

The first bicycle I chose for myself was a Schwinn Varsity ten-speed model in a color called "campus green." I paid for it in part with money I earned mowing the neighbor's lawn and cleaning our pool. In those days a bicycle was essential transportation for kids, who were actually allowed to go places by themselves.

A recent search through some old files turned up the original paperwork and city license for that bicycle, along with a small safety booklet that was supplied by the local police department and endorsed by the local school district. Click on any scan from that manual to see a larger version.

Titled "It's great to be alive!" the 16-page booklet contains straightforward advice for children and shows in rather graphic detail the consequences of carelessness.

The safety violations in this booklet are not all that important -- what matters are the outcomes, which all involve some sort of injury or death. Most of the images here are the "punch lines" to some obvious form of irresponsible behavior.

I don't remember reading the booklet when I got that bicycle, but then I wouldn't have thought I needed any safety tips. By that time (age 10 or 11), I was already well versed in the proper operation of a bicycle, looked both ways before crossing the street, and knew better than to play around abandoned refrigerators.

My mother was a school nurse and, like this booklet, took a grim view of horseplay and thoughtless behavior. From earlier than I can remember, we were told of the dangers inherent in everyday life, and how to avoid them. "You certainly don't want to be crippled for life," was a fairly common statement around the house, and that was the presumed outcome for children who ignored safety rules.

I know we all heard stories of kids with eyes put out by rubber bands and similar tales of lives needlessly changed forever. I personally never knew a child who was blinded or maimed due to irresponsible behavior, but I'm sure plenty of tragedies happened. And kids have always been taught to fear strangers.

In fairness, adults didn't have a lot of options in those days, so using abject fear was a common parenting tool. There were no reflective bicycle helmets or knee-pads for skateboarders, no designated bicycle lanes, many fewer supervised activities, and we didn't even have seat belts in cars until the mid-1960s. When accidents happened, they were usually pretty grim.

I do know that in my case at least, these scare tactics worked -- I was not a chance taker. I escaped my childhood without even a simple broken bone, just a few stitches now and then.

The poor kids in "It's great to be alive!" were not so lucky. Staying alive is actually quite a bit of work in this booklet.

I suspect that these scare tactics are not looked upon favorably in today's parenting environment. I doubt if local school districts give out booklets like this. The temptation to use fear must be very strong, however, because that's what parents feel when it comes to the safety of their children.

I just hope whoever supplied the drawings for "It's great to be alive!" didn't suffer any long-term stress. It couldn't have been easy depicting the sad fate of all of those children.

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