Inside the Brown Bag

The Submarine Races

By Peg Brown

“We all live in a yellow submarine, yellow submarine…”

Until I heard that song, sung by Ringo Star during the 50th Anniversary Celebration of the Beatles first appearance on Ed Sullivan, the word submarine was not one I had used in a long time—but the song did tickle some memories of the past. As high school students, an invitation to watch the submarine races on the St. Lawrence was an invitation to go “necking” at the City Docks or the more secluded river edge, down a dirt road, past the Diamond Match factory. The only thing that submarines and watching the races had in common was heavily steamed up windows.

The whole boyfriend-girlfriend thing of our generation seems pretty tame in hindsight. But I offer this disclaimer—boyfriends were not my strong suit, and I admit to be no expert on the topic. My first boyfriend was Bobby Garvey, one of the Garvey twins—in about second grade. Open displays of affection at that age usually involved friendly shoving, pushing and chasing and jumping in big piles of leaves. My next serious boyfriend was Paul McCadam—a fellow camper at the Presbyterian church camp, Oak Point. But as Paul lived beyond Morristown (12 miles away), it was a long-distance relationship doomed to fail.

As I remember, we “went steady” at what now seems to me to be a very early age. I remember receiving a friendship ring in sixth grade and wearing it around my neck on a gold chain. (And they called it puppy love!!) Wearing class rings to symbolize you were taken had to wait until our junior year where these more serious tokens were either worn on chains or on your ring finger, made to fit by yards of white adhesive tape. Kissing and other preliminary “stuff” certainly occurred. In the junior high years, parlor games like spin the bottle and post office were ways to get an early introduction to physical expressions of affection. While I remember that spin the bottle involved sitting in a large circle on the floor and literally spinning a bottle, hoping it would stop while pointing to the latest heartthrob in the room, whom you then took into a closet for a kiss (which of course happened in only about 20 percent of the cases), I really forget the details of post office. Let it be said that I was not among those who were considered the most desirable picks.

Boys rated their ability to explore the female anatomy in baseball terms (getting to first, second and third base—and, of course, the elusive home run), and French kissing was truly progressive. If you did have a steady, you could be sure that the breaking up process would be full of drama. Neil Sedaka had it right in his 1962 signature song, “Breaking Up Is Hard to Do,”—especially in a small town where everyone knew everyone’s business. Without the advantages of social media, locker rooms and girls’ bathrooms were the best place to pick up the sordid details of the latest break up. I remember one of my friends asking me to return her “steady’s” ring, accompanied by a white envelope filled with a gold chain all separated in little links. Her explanation—“I want him to know I’m really broken up about this.” Could we ever have been this young?!

Let’s be honest. Sex education of any formal type was almost non-existent as we were growing up. We did have some primary source materials—“Lady Chatterley’s Lover” made the rounds in more than one study hall. Hidden behind an open text book, one never read the whole paperback—just the pages that had been dog-eared and marked as “hot.” Health was not yet part of the New York State curriculum, and although 10th grade biology (raise your hand if you remember “Teddy Bear” Stratford), included academic information on reproduction, there was certainly no talk of birth control, sexually-transmitted diseases sexual abuse, date rape or sexual preference. Many girls were prepared for the changes wrought by puberty through films shown at their churches, with titles such as “You’re a Young Lady Now.”

We have to remember that we were of the generation where Lucy and Desi, although married in real life, had to sleep in separate beds on their television show because of the censors. We should also remember that for much of the 20th century, women who married had to quit their jobs as teachers (hence, so many Misses in our elementary school life). Later, married teachers who were pregnant had to resign and as late as the 1950s, the discussion of evolution in science classes was still a bit “dicey.”

Was there sexual activity among teenagers in this rather Puritanical time? Of course. The first birth control pill was not marketed until 1960, but it wasn’t until 1972 that the Supreme Court legalized birth control for all citizens, irrespective of marital status. Abortion was illegal until Roe v. Wade in 1973. So what happened to young women who became pregnant in the 1960s? Most of them were “sent away” to give birth to their babies and then place them for adoption. Many returned to finish their high school education, and few ever discussed the reason for their absence. Even in a small town like Ogdensburg, these pregnancies remained in the shadows.

Let me end on a somewhat lighter note. I was reading over the messages written in my yearbook. I think I missed my first proposal. On the inside flap I found the following message, “I want to truthfully know if you could put up with seriousness like this the rest of your life.” I was just 16—no wonder I I’m just getting it. I guess there was more than one reason that the song title beside my picture in the yearbook is “What Kind of Fool Am I?”