THE PEOPLE who are interested in such things say that not only is daytime television viewing actually falling off, but there is some evidence that children don't watch as much as they used to.
I never could understand how a normal kid could sit still that long.
Especially in the spring. There is something about the spring that is bigger than both of us.
Every year in Clinton, N.Y., there would be a certain day, maybe in April, when you would hear the icicles crashing from the drainspouts, and out the window you could see the black earth steaming in the plowed fields, poking up through the snow, and somewhere you could hear a tractor snoring.
That was the day the fads started at school. Somebody would bring his top and start practicing with it at recess on the hardpacked bare dirt schoolyard. (Whatever happened to hardpacked bare dirt anyway?) Within two days everyone had a top. Even if you had to get your mother to buy one for you.
Our porch looked like the bar floor of a golf club, it had so many holes where I threw my top at it. I must have devoted 10 hours of concentrated work to mastering that thing. I got so I could hold it spinning on my fingertip, but that was nothing.
The game of top was the same as marbles: You tried to knock the other guy's top out of the circle drawn in the dirt. I have seen people land a top precisely on the flat head of a spinning rival top, a space the size of a quarter.
Two weeks later, someone would bring a bag of marbles, and suddenly tops were dead and we all had marbles. Then a young genius brought a homemade pair of stilts all the way in on the bus and paraded around at recess, and that evening 300 kids were hammering and sawing out in the barn.
Some fads were storebought. One spring Delahunt's stocked up on a balsa model plane for 25 cents that had two wings in tandem and a rubber band attached to the nose so you could fire it like a sling-shot. Depending on where you placed the wings you could make it loop-the-loop or spiral or soar or land on the roof.
And no sooner had we all jimmied a quarter out of our mothers for that, than the Jack Armstrong Telescope was announced on "Jack Armstrong the All-Amercian Boy" on the radio. If you bought a box of Wheaties and paid a dime, the grocery store had to give you a telescope. It was a foot long and magnified two or three times, and Jack Tritten was the first person to have one because he had nailed his mother just as she was heading down to the market the same afternoon it was advertised. He wore his telescope to school the next day, slung over his shoulder on a loop of wrapping twine. We were crazy with envy.
Usually we had to send away for stuff, and it took forever, maybe six weeks, and the package was always smaller than you expected.
There were turtles and horned toads and the Tom Mix Whistling Ring (to call your horse with) and the Jack Armstrong Pedometer (one girl wore hers to a dance on the sash of her Best & Co. dress) and the Orphan Annie Code Badge from which you could decode a daily message about the next afternoon's episode.
Hardly a week went by, but we were all getting some toy by mail order, either with boxtops or from Johnson Smith & Co. Mail ordering isn't what it used to be, now that there's a shopping mall 100 yards down the road from every farm.
Perhaps the cereal manufacturers knew about our spring fads and catered to them. But don't get the idea that we depended on that, even for a minute.
There were little darts we made out of a kitchen match, a needle and paper vanes. They were wicked. They'd fly clear across the room and stick in a plaster wall.
There were slings, the David-and-Goliath kind, that took awhile to get the hang of but could loft a golfball-size rock half out of sight. We also had conventional slingshots, including a tiny wire one that came in a penny candy called a Guesswhat. Ideal for assassinating your buddies in study hall.
There were applesticks: supple wands cut from the tree with a sharp end that you stuck a small green apple on and whipped it across the orchard with a flycasting motion.
There were treehouses. I had a succession of them, the best one made from an antique door I found in the barn and hauled a mile to my maple tree. I sat there for hours, smoking my father's oval Regent cigarettes and reading Dostoevski while the dog waited patiently below.
And guns. What was it about guns? There seemed to be a universal law that any L-shaped object constituted a gun and if one was shot at you, you were honorbound to fall dead for at least a minute. Pointing a finger didn't work. Found objects like carpenter's squares and forked twigs were a gray area. But anything you made, even the crudest wooden shape bootlegged during Shop and adorned with three nails (trigger and two sights), was deadly as far away as its victim could make out what it was.
And things to ride on: in the snow, skis with leather straps that went over your galoshes toes, sleds and trays. Toboggans were sissy. Indoors: My sister and I invented a hair-raising sport of riding down the carpeted stairs in a cardboard carton.If you didn't hit the bottom just right, you cracked your head on the hall hatrack.
One Sunday an Ella Cinders cartoon showed Blackie rolling down a hill curled up in an old car tire. A bunch of us spent an entire afternoon attempting this. Score: one broken collarbone, three skinned shoulders and six ripped pantlegs. It was the skinned shoulders that baffled our parents.
When the snow started to melt, the brook beside our road ran kneedeep, demanding to be dammed, and for six hours, until the sun died and the night wind rose, we worked in furious, perfect amity, piling snow and frozen mud in the breach, sloshing in icewater over our boot tops, sinking our arms up to the elbows of our mackinaws in the rushing stream.
Something in the coming of spring awakened our rage to learn, our maniacal pursuit of glamorous and arcane skills. I took up yodeling, whittling, model plane making, cartooning, juggling, knitting (my father was quietly mortified, but imagine! here was this thing you could do that would turn a piece of string into a cloth! Never could tell when you might need a skill like that).
We all yearned to be ventriloquists (Johnson Smith: "THROW YOUR VOICE! 10 CENTS!") and knife throwers, covering the barn door with thousands of wounds from icepicks and birthday jackknives.
We learned to belch at will. One guy could make his saliva squirt like a miniature fountain when he bent his tongue. We practiced whistling till giddy: with two fingers, one finger, acorn tops, bottle tops and blades of grass.
We practiced wiggling our ears and looking cross-eyed until our mothers shouted at us, "Stop that, for heaven's sake! You'll stick that way!" It wasn't merely that you had to know these things to be socially accepted. It was a matter of self-respect.
Later on, when the weather got warmer, we took to our bikes and BB guns. Still later we found out about girls. But never again was there anything quite like the rush we got from the simple fact of spring.
Now that I think of it, the really amazing thing is that TV managed to last as long as it did. CAPTION: Illustration, no caption, Illustration by J. R. Williams