In the January 6, 2009, posting, I mentioned that the “Children at Play” street signs in my neighborhood today show a running boy wearing knickers. The signs are recent; only the symbol is ancient.
I used to wear knickers but only until about the third grade. The knicker legs ended in a tight, knit sleeve just below the knee. The high socks covered the sleeve and folded over a rubber band that held them up. This style clearly showed my superiority over the Irish kids at St. Cyril’s Catholic school who wore their socks under the sleeve. Sloppy. Their way was quicker in getting dressed, but the knicker leg drooped down to mid-calf during the first recess.
The knickers I wore were of corduroy that emitted a woosh-woosh sound at every step and were far more practical than long pants. Long pants were made of heavy wool that had to be dry cleaned, although I am unaware of how this was done. Like today, clean ones just appeared in my closet. Who knows how this happens? Magic, I guess. None of the guys in the locker room know either. Maybe it has something to do with the Higgs boson.
Keeping a crease in wool pants was a big deal. Pants had to have a crease, but even with the utmost care the crease would almost disappear right before your eyes. While in the process of sitting, you were expected to pinch each pant leg a little above the knee and pull up to keep them from binding. Try getting a grade-school boy to do that a hundred times a day. Forget just once and you would have baggy knees that looked ridiculous. Disney’s Goofy looked goofy mostly by being drawn with baggy knees. So, it was a big deal when permanent-crease pants were developed, more important than the often-quoted sliced bread.
But even with a permanent crease, wool pants still stunk when they got wet, which was frequent because we walked to school. On a rainy morning, the whole school stunk, every hallway and every classroom. Later generations never smelled that, but it was sort of like a wet dog, only worse. And they itched. When we got home, we always changed back to cotton corduroy play-pants. Nobody had to nag us.
Wool pants invariably developed a shine on the seat from wear that contrasted sharply with the rest of the fabric. It did make walking at night safer. We must have lit up like a football field when a car approached us from behind.
Then the fabrics all changed imperceptibly. By the time I got to college, only a few years later, the style was cotton chinos with a curious, tiny, nonfunctional belt in the back. It was the signature preppy look. The tiny belt was everywhere, even on the back of jackets and shirt collars. Suit pants were still mainly of wool, but these new wool blends didn’t bag at the knees, didn’t shine, and didn’t stink. Eventually, they even became wash-and-wear.
So, grandchildren, appreciate what you have. Appreciate what we went through for you. That street sign protecting you is me almost seventy years ago.
NOTE: St. Cyril’s Catholic school is on the recent list of schools to be closed. It is obvious on even a brief visit to East Lansdowne that the upwardly-mobile Irish and Italian kids that once went there have long since moved on, leaving East Lansdowne as a depressed borough whose residents are largely supported by welfare. Eddie Vetter and Julia Novielli are the exceptions who still lived there when I checked a few years ago. Julia and Fred Weinstein were the undisputed smartest students in our grammar school class.