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Simple guiding rites made growing up easier

There is no doubt that times have changed. I'm sure each of us, at one time or another, has said "I remember when . . . ," and then made some statement that sounds ridiculous in the context of modern living, like, "I remember when cigarettes were 10 cents a pack," or "I remember when bread was 7 cents a loaf."

Former President George Bush talked about a "kinder, gentler America." It just doesn't exist anymore. Every morning when we open our newspaper we are bludgeoned with stories about the most heinous types of juvenile crime. Your memory then goes back to a time when the worst crime that kids committed was stealing apples from a fruit stand or breaking a window while playing baseball. All the schools had to worry about was that some miscreant would chew gum in class. Think about the crimes that were committed by Leo Gorcey and the Dead End Kids, then ask yourself what has happened to innocence. Why did everything change?

Some of the things that have changed and almost disappeared from our society are the rites of passage. We didn't call them that when we were going through them, but we remember those benchmarks in our lives that defined our place in society. There was a time when every young person knew exactly where he or she fit into the structure of society. These rites of passage have disappeared for the most part, and I wonder if their absence is one of the contributing factors in the behavior of those young people who act out against the law in sort of "Hey-look-at-me" phenomenon.

There was a time when every girl and boy knew their place in the family and in the community. For boys, the rites of passage were the first haircut, graduating from short pants to knickers and finally to long pants. I remember my first pair of long pants. They were green corduroy and they whistled when I walked. I think I slept in them the entire first week I owned them.

Boys looked forward to smoking. We smoked leaves rolled up in newspaper and corn silk. One summer we discovered we could smoke rattan. In three months, we smoked up my mother's best rattan porch chair. We also looked forward to our first beer. One of the guys took a quart of beer and four cigars from his father's closet. I was never so sick in my life. And I remember the first girl I kissed during a game of spin the bottle at a birthday party when I was 12. We also looked forward to our first bicycle and, like kids today, to obtaining our driver's license.

We were less sophisticated than modern kids. We didn't have television to teach us about sex. We learned about it in whispers on the street corner and, in most cases, we got the wrong information. I think I was 17 and in the U.S. Navy when I learned how babies were born. I knew how they were conceived, but not how they were born.

I remember the day I was accepted into the company of men. I was about 15 and attended my cousin's wedding. The men were congregated in the parlor and were playing a game called "Boss and Under boss." The boss and under boss would confer and then allow their subjects to drink a glass of wine. When my turn came, they both nodded and I was allowed to drink a 1-ounce glass of wine. The old Italian men smiled and congratulated my father and my grandfather. My younger male cousins heard about it and I was the hero of the day.

What's the point of all this? I knew exactly where I stood in the eyes of my family, in the neighborhood and in the community at large. As I passed each milestone, the attitude of the people in the community changed slightly until that time came when I knew that I was totally accepted. I didn't have to act out or commit a crime to call attention to myself.

The same type of rites applied to the girls, too. At a certain age they could cut their hair and lengthen their dresses and wear nylons. They could use makeup and date boys and I'm sure that first kiss was as memorable to them as it was to the boys.

Today, the rites of passage seem to be a lot more sophisticated and different from those that defined us as we were growing up. I suppose that difference is what we mean when we talk about the "generation gap."

Joe Lentini lives in Hernando Beach. Guest columnists write their own views on subjects they choose, which do not necessarily reflect the opinions of this newspaper.