Summers before smartphones

What was life like for young people before cell phones, before Facebook and blogs, before Instagram and Snapchat, Twitter and Tumbler and Match? Before kids spent hours exercising their thumbs, sitting on a chair or lying on a bed or sofa, playing video games and texting?

I asked some of my over-60 friends what was life like when they were young. What did they remember doing, especially during summers, in their spare time, time spent without 24/7 news, before smartphones — basically before the technological revolution?


“Waxing my dad’s car, sitting around the dinner table with my siblings and parents having actual discussions; the anticipation of waiting for the mailman to deliver a letter,” says Neill Franklin, a former assistant police commissioner who now heads Law Enforcement Action Partnership. “Although I enjoy immediate access to unlimited information in the palm of my hand,” admits Mr. Franklin, he claims he would “hastily trade it all for the tranquility of pre-1980.”

Although we didn’t have specific exercise classes (yoga, Zumba, Tai Chi, etc.) back then, we all rode our bikes — outside.


“I remember riding my bike through Lower Charles Village, through Lovegrove and Hargrove alleys,” says my long-time friend Clarinda Harriss. “My friends and I would wait in those alleys, pocketing our coins, for the Good Humor Man.”

The Good Humor Man, who sold ice cream novelties, also came to central New Jersey, where I grew up. Orange cream sickles were my favorite. I, too, remember collecting fireflies — or lightning bugs, as they were called in Baltimore. Clarinda says she and her friends “could sell them to Johns Hopkins for a penny apiece, or a whole glass jar with holes for lids for $1.00!” Not sure what they were used for, but I don’t remember Princeton University wanting my fireflies.

When I asked my minister friend Sharon Smith, who also grew up in New Jersey — northern New Jersey — what she remembered, she, too, mentioned riding her bike with her friends, never fearing to venture out of their neighborhoods. Sharon also recalls swimming and rowing in Palisades Park. And waiting for the latest Archie comics to arrive at the corner store. I also loved Archie comics, waiting to see whether Betty or Veronica would win red-haired, freckled-faced Archie.

Growing up in Mt. Washington, my computer-tutor friend Semmes Kramp, meant “staying outside, exploring the surrounding woods and looking in the streams for salamanders.” Semmes, who still lives in Mt. Washington (but with his wife and their 20-year-old cat, rather than his parents) also remembers riding his bike a lot.

Not only does my mall-walking friend, Mary Alice “MA” Bonner remember riding her bike and dancing to “The Buddy Deane Show.”

“I was the jitterbug queen,” she admits, “even winning trophies.” An early marriage to Lee Bonner, a bassist in the band called The Lafayettes, solidified Mary Alice’s interest in music. She even taught dancing — “to all my neighbors and to sister members in the PTA,” she says.

Besides reading lots of books and riding my bike — and, no, I didn’t look for salamanders — I, like Mary Alice, watched “Bandstand” on TV after school, dancing with my six-years-younger brother. “Bandstand,” out of Philadelphia, was New Jersey’s version of Baltimore’s “Buddy Deane Show.” Occasionally, I actually danced on Bandstand, taking a bus to Philadelphia with a group of girlfriends.

The boys in our junior-high-school classes never went with us; they were involved in after-school sports. (Girls didn’t really do sports back then.) Thus, it was special when one of us girls got asked to dance by a “Bandstand” regular.


Somehow, we all managed in those bygone days to enjoy ourselves, to interact with friends and family, and to get plenty of exercise. What is most amazing to my friends and me today, though, is, as friend Sharon points out, “summer seemed to last forever.”

And “we were happy to go back to school.”

Lynne Agress, who teaches in the Odyssey Program of Johns Hopkins, is president of BWB-Business Writing At Its Best Inc. and author of "The Feminine Irony" and "Working With Words in Business and Legal Writing." Her email is