Topic: A New Zealand Childhood: Growing up in the 60s by Rose Johnston

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I grew up in the 1960s in a state housing area in Rotorua with a mixture of working and middle class families. I was born in 1953, one of the ‘baby boomer’ generation - kids born after the Second World War. In many respects we had the best of New Zealand as children growing up: free healthcare, education, and a half pint bottle of full cream milk daily at school, better known as school milk. We had grown up under a model welfare state that looked after its people.

We never used the word ‘unhappy,’ though we knew what it meant and what it felt like. That wasn’t a word our parents tolerated as they had grown up during the depression years and knew what going without and being unhappy was all about. As far as they were concerned we had everything, and no right to complain. My father’s words, “You don’t know how lucky you are, and you don’t even know you’re alive,” rang in my ears throughout my childhood.

Discipline in the home was normal and usually dished out by means of a hiding if you played up. Kids fighting and arguing amongst themselves was considered a normal part of growing up. Our dads, to a point, were great advocates of ‘let them sort it out.’ Our mothers, on the other hand, relied on the trusty old wooden spoon, strap or a stick to deal with us when arguments and fights got out of hand.

The kids I spent most of my time with growing up were all roughly the same age. We practically lived outside on the street, especially in summer, and how I looked forward to those long hot days when we stayed out until dark. The scent of fragrant flowers from our mum’s gardens, and freshly mown lawns that blended in with the warm summer air made me feel happy and energetic.

We always had a game of sports on the go. You name it, we played it: rugby, soccer, cricket, baseball and tennis were mostly our favourite games. There would have been at least a dozen of us kids who were loyal regulars, and some of us were rebels, especially me.

Because we spent a lot of time together outside didn’t mean we were always the best of chums. I was a fighter and had a fiery temper, especially when the boys cheated or pushed me around. I wasn’t afraid to argue the point and if it came to the crunch, I’d have a knockdown, drag-out fight with them. I was pint-sized and comical when I got mad, so the boys never took me seriously when I charged them. They’d roar with laughter when I challenged them to ‘put their dukes up.’

My mother always had one ear tuned to the street knowing that an argument or fight could erupt at any time. It would be me she was waiting to hear, the moment she heard me shouting and arguing she’d be out there like a shot armed with her wooden spoon.

One day we had a game of baseball on the go. I was running to my base when one of the boys out fielding raced towards me and tackled me fiercely to the ground. He was bigger than me and the impact of his force really knocked me for a sixer. I saw red and my temper flared up like a rocket.

I tackled him back and cursed him with all the swear words I knew: shit, bloody bastard, bugger. Swearing was an absolute no-no for kids; you either got your mouth washed out with soap and water, or a damn good hiding. Out shot my mother with her wooden spoon trying to catch me as I ran off. When she finally caught hold of me, all the kids, mainly the boys, jeered and snickered as I danced and hopped around trying to dodge her whacks. Sometimes she couldn’t catch me so I’d hide out until after dark then slink back home hoping she had cooled off. It was always a gamble; Mum could hold onto her anger for ages. Sometimes I’d get lucky and nothing would happen.

Naturally, there were plenty of other times when we played without fights or arguments, and the sound of laughter and cheering could be heard up and down the street. The feeling of camaraderie we shared in those moments was important to me. In my own childish way I felt that’s what life should be all about.

As we grew older, there came the distraction of the Beatles and television, and our common interests expanded. Music was definitely a bonding experience. Instead of the sound of laughter or arguments resonating in the street, our mothers now had to put up with the sound of the Beatles blasting out of the radio or record player. And to make matters worse, we would also be screeching out the songs.

We still played our sports, but not as often. We not only had pop music, but the advent of TV opened up a new world of entertainment for us. I was the perfect candidate to be sucked into an artificial reality. One of my favourite programmes was Bonanza. For an adventurous child the Ponderosa seemed an idyllic place to live and play. The Cartwright brothers - Adam, Hoss and Little Joe - were my heroes, and Ben Cartwright was the perfect daddy.

I can recall pestering my mother one day about wanting to live on the Ponderosa. She raised her eyes up towards the heavens to ask God for help, or, more likely, to curse him for giving her such an impossible child.

In 1966 I entered into my teenage years, and that was when life started changing for me, and a new battle on the front began with the boys. I was confused and troubled as my body started changing shape and form, and I became self-conscious and miserable about these changes. The boys started looking at me differently now, and would make smart remarks about my boobs or my bum, both of which seemed to expand overnight. I still had my fiery temper, but I felt as though there was a great divide between us now, and I had to change the way I reacted to them and not retaliate like I did as a child. I now had to learn to ignore them.

This was all strange and new as I was used to being around the boys as a child and now I didn’t feel the same way about being around them anymore, as they too were changing. Instinctively, I knew they had become more of a problem where my body was concerned. I didn’t know what, how or why, I just knew somehow that I had to watch out.

My mother never talked to me about ‘the facts of life,’ as it was referred to back then. I had no clue about how babies were made or even what sex was. Fortunately for me, I had a really caring friend whose mum had talked to her about the ‘facts of life.’ One day at school, she put her arm around my shoulders and told me all about it. I was shocked and horrified with this new information about my body and what could happen to me if I didn’t watch out, which was a good thing really, as it kept me out of trouble. I didn’t dare let on to my mother that I now knew all about ‘the facts of life,’ I had no idea how she might react to that.

I began to despise the boys as I had become more aware of the power they kept trying to exert over us girls. Sometimes it got too much to bear with their behaviour and smart remarks and I would lash out verbally at them when they insulted me or my friends.

As the 60s progressed our parents became increasingly disgruntled with the inconstant times. Fashion and hair styles changed radically along with the music and social mores, which started influencing young people’s attitudes and behaviour. Now they faced dealing with kids who were rebellious and anti-authority. They could not tolerate what was fast becoming a new culture. The Generation Gap kicked in and parents found it hard to relate to teenagers sucked into a ‘degenerate’ culture.

I had grown up in a time of ‘history-making’ where social norms were breaking down. Music in particular was the way of change, and it had become a strong medium in influencing our perceptions of what the social norms should be. A new generation and culture had evolved that would influence generations to come.

I look back on my childhood years with an open mind, as being a time in my life where I experienced some of life’s valuable lessons, and will always regard that time as precious, and childhood as being one of my greatest teachers.


ABOUT THE WRITER: Rose Johnston is working on her memoir of the 1960s and studied on the Diploma in Creative Writing course run online by Waiariki Institute of Technology.

‘A New Zealand childhood: growing up in the 60s’ was written for the Memoir & Local History Competition 2011, run annually by the New Zealand Society of Authors (Bay of Plenty Region) with support from Tauranga Writers.


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