The Virginian-Pilot
                             THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT 
              Copyright (c) 1994, Landmark Communications, Inc.

DATE: Sunday, October 23, 1994               TAG: 9410210265
SOURCE: Tony Stein
                                             LENGTH: Medium:   84 lines


It is a quiet fall evening as I write this, quiet except for the far-off shouts of children playing. The sound is almost a whisper on the wind, and it is a whisper that beckons me back across the years to my own childhood.

It was a happy childhood in a simpler time. The rules of life were mostly clear and unyielding. Your parents' word was law. Your teachers' word was law. No matter that some of the ``laws'' were ugly or unfair. There was a certain security in having unquestioned answers quickly at hand.

I lived in a village called Hewlett, about 20 miles from New York City. Next to our house was Sam Levine's grocery store, the classic mom-and-pop store where Levine would pull customers' choices down from high shelves with a long-handled clamp. If you didn't have the cash, your account was kept in a composition book with a mottled, black-and-white cover.

For me and my friends, the central point of the store was the candy case, a cornucopia of sweets that sold for a penny each. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, a penny bought a goodly munch. A nickel bought a party. What to buy was a decision not easily reached. You stood and you pondered. And pondered. And pondered. Finally, you chose and turned your sweat-soaked pennies over to Mr. Levine.

We kids thought he was cranky. Looking back, I guess he had a right to be. He spent large chunks of his day waiting for the neighborhood Big Spenders to let loose their grungy coppers. Nor did it help that he was, now and then, the victim of that ancient telephone joke, the one probably first played by Alexander Graham Bell.

It was hooked to the fact that Prince Albert brand tobacco came in a can. You called Mr. Levine. You asked if him if he had Prince Albert in a can. Yes, he said. You said ``Well, let him out!'' and hung up. This was always done in the company of several friends, all vainly trying to suppress giggles while you played 9-year-old comedian.

Mr. Levine's store was also the source of my traditional childhood entertainment. Baseball games depended on the 25-cent balls that huddled in the corner of one of his shelves. They started out round and white and shining. Soon they were dirty and lop-sided. Then they reached the stage where the seams popped and the innards oozed through. No problem. You wrapped - bandaged, as it were - the ball in black friction tape and kept the game going. Yes, the sticky friction tape occasionally made it hard to get the ball out of the glove. No fair taking an extra base when that happened.

Another great neighborhood pastime was cops and robbers. Armed with cap guns, the evil-doers and the forces of truth and justice filled the air with noise and acrid fumes. Our weaponry was most often a Dick Tracy cap gun. Named for the comic strip detective, of course, it sold for 15 cents.

But I remember a day when Mr. Levine put a new gun on his shelf. It was Western six-shooter style with scrollwork on the grip and a chamber that revolved like a real gun when you pulled the trigger.

I wanted one. I ached for one. I lusted for one. But they cost a dollar and this was 1939, when a dollar was serious cash. There was a grave family discussion in which my mother and dad pointed out to me that a dollar would, for instance, buy five loaves of bread.

If I couldn't have my deluxe-model six-shooter, I could at least ride with cowboy idol Tom Mix or go adventuring with Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy. They were my radio heroes, and the big cabinet radio in the living room was an irresistible magnet in the late afternoons.

Radio let your imagination soar. You could see Tom Mix roping the rustlers clearly in your mind's eye. You could see Jack Armstrong fearlessly battling the bad guys. Who needed pictures?

For that matter, reality sometimes absolutely torpedoed the magic of radio. My wife remembers an old-time radio program called ``The Johnson Family.'' It was a favorite in her neighborhood until she and her friends saw the star of the show at a country fair. They discovered that it was just one man sitting at a microphone doing the voices of all the people they had happily pictured in their imaginations.

I guess one of the rites of passage that ends childhood is your first date, and I remember mine well. I was 13. My friend Don and I took Barbara and Billie Lou to lunch and the movies. Both were green-eyed redheads, and Barbara had by then forgiven me for dipping her pigtail in the ink well in the fifth grade. We rode our bikes to a hamburger stand called the White Castle. Burgers and a drink for each of us cost a total of $1.20. That was 30 cents each. The movie was two bits apiece, and candy was a nickel a box. Total for the entire social splurge - $2.40.

Date-wise, those were the good old days. by CNB