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August 15, 2011

I Was Just Thinking: Back-to-school used to be a simpler affair

Daily Star

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Have you seen the "back-to-school" sales now going on in stores?

Ahem, hello? It's still summer!

Which got me to thinking about back-to-school shopping when I was a kid in the 1950s. The list seems almost infantile by today's standards.

Top on our list was a book case. Preferably one with a zipper that went all the way around it to keep it shut. Inside we could keep our books, tablet, pen and pencil, a sharpener, a ruler, an eraser and a three-ring binder. And that was it.

The whole preferred school item list could be bought in Sidney at Kent's Department Store for less than $10. For everything. For the year.

As I watch our kids go out the door to school these days, burdened under 20-pound backpacks, I wonder how they do it? And each has a pocket calculator, which would have certainly been banned in my day if they had even been invented yet.

Grade school was simpler. Crayons, for example. My box had a standard set of eight colors. Simple box, nothing elaborate. I do remember that I thought we gained a new color in the school year of 1958, "Midnight Blue." Only later did I realize that only the color's name had been changed from "Prussian Blue" to assuage international sensitivities.

And what ever happened to "Flesh?" It suddenly became "Peach" in sixth grade. Maybe the advent of werewolf movies caused Crayola to "tone down its tones."

And then there was the jewel of the back-to-school items. The one particular item that we kids actually had an opinion on (hard to get passionate about a No. 2 pencil). The singular item that spoke to our inner self and our unique personalities.

The lunch box.

The metal lunch box of my day was strong and cheap. And there was another great benefit to them.

You could get one that advertised your favorite TV star or show on it. Talk about wearing your personality on your sleeve! With the advent of television (and Saturday morning television programming), lunch boxes were an absolute must for all the kids my age.

My favorite one was a 1957 Davy Crockett box with thermos. Fess Parker was on the front posing with his long-barreled rifle, "Old Betsy." It was bright yellow and was my pride and joy. The thermos bottle was like a little, round metal silo in which your milk would stay cold. The thermos worked in theory only, but it provided another avenue for exciting scenes to be played out of Davy fighting the bad guys and "varmints" all around the silo. I loved it.

I wore my lunch box out. I protested when my mother tried to persuade me to upgrade it as I got older; say, to a Flintstones lunch box or, even later, an F Troop lunch box. I kept Davy and Old Betsy with me until the metal rusted out and the thermos lost its, well, thermosocity.

Soon, I left my friends on the shelf in my bedroom and marched off to school with plain old lunch money in my pocket.

As I watch the kids today trundling up East Street on their way to school laden with their backpacks and school supplies, I remember the breeze it was to throw my notepad and pens and "Flesh" and "Prussian Blue" crayons into my zipper catch-all case, grab Davy and Old Betsy from the refrigerator and join my friends on the corner to walk to school.

Today's suggested list of school supplies totals hundreds of dollars. It all adds up. The Post-it notes, graph paper, black-and-white-speckled composition notebooks, glue sticks, pocket calculators, hand sanitizers (!), multi-colored folders, non-toxic permanent markers, etc. That's a lot! (In fact, if you have an extra item to spare, Oneonta Family Services is looking for some to help those families in need this year.)

And backpacks.

Funny, I never had a backpack a single day of my school years, including college.

Oh well, time moves on and kids are more sophisticated. Things today are cutting edge, innovative, modern and hi-tech.

I wonder how many kids today still cover their textbooks with grocery bags from the market?

And despite the money my parents spent on supplying an army of eight children with their school supplies, it is nothing compared to what today's parents have to shell out.

I only have one regret. I wish I had Davy and Old Betsy still around.

I just checked on eBay and there is one going for more than $1,000!

I'll catch you in two ...

'Big Chuck' D'Imperio can be heard on weekdays beginning at 6 a.m. on WDOS-AM 730 in Oneonta, and also on Thursday nights from 7-9 p.m. on WSRK-FM 103.9 for his "Oldies Jukebox Show." You can find "Big Chuck" on Facebook under Upstate New York Books. He invites you to contact him at His columns can be found at