One of my greatest fears from early childhood was that I’d fall into the three-quarter-inch gap in the seaside boardwalk planks in Asbury Park, New Jersey. We lived a few miles inland and would go to the boardwalk amusements every once in a while. I remember so vividly the smell of tar mixed with the tang of salt air. Every time I smell tar, I go back to childhood and the boardwalk. Here’s the weird thing—I love when that happens. I love the smell of tar. But for some reason, the little gap in the boards absolutely terrified me. In my mind, they were a foot wide.
Such is the strangeness of childhood fears. What’s also strange is how we all remember what those crazy fears were. So, I’ve been asking people about theirs, and, to a person, they had no trouble dredging up an example from early in their lives.
One man was completely freaked out by Winnie the Pooh. Screamed bloody murder when he saw the cartoon or, heaven forbid, came face-to-face with a stuffed one in the toy store. He can’t figure out why, though. Tigger, Eeyore, Piglet? No problem. Only the cute little soft-voiced, gentle bear made him cringe.
A more common one was mannequins. That, I can understand. Some of them creep me out, even now. Especially when they’ve been made to have facial expressions. I saw one recently whose face was cast in a freakish wide-mouthed laugh. He had heavily painted eyebrows that pitched together over his nose and way-too-bright blue eyes. He looked maniacal, like something the Joker would leave around to taunt his next victim. How that mannequin was an asset in selling men’s clothing was beyond me. What store owner would buy him? I ponder the good judgement, not to mention the sanity, of such a business owner. He’d be the type to have a trap-door in the dressing room or a secret two-way mirror.
An older man confessed to a paralyzing dread of chalk as a kid. Chalk? He had this fear long before the jumping into Bert’s sidewalk chalk drawings happened in the Mary Poppins movie, so we can’t blame Walt Disney or Dick Van Dyke. Maybe his mom banged the dust out of chalkboard erasers near him when he was an infant?
One little girl went nuts if she saw colored sprinkles. All-brown chocolate ones were okay. Just the happy and festive multi-colored sprinkles gave her nightmares. In an unexpected side note, clowns, known for multi-colored faces and outfits that universally give us the willies, didn’t affect her at all. You’d think they’d trigger the same reaction.
Speaking of nuts, a boy had a near-panic attack if confronted by peanuts. Not peanut butter, but the nuts. He didn’t have an allergy. All he can fathom now, as an adult, is the Mr. Peanut icon spooked him.
Product mascots when we were young were everywhere and pretty bizarre, come to think of it. The Jolly Green Giant? I was leery of him. Thought he was always about to squash those cute little green sprouts dancing around him. Speedy, the Alka-Seltzer boy? On the old black and white TV, he looked like a demented ventriloquist’s doll, and I hated those things. The Stay Puft Marshmallow Man with his stupid tilted sailor’s cap? I can’t explain why he creeped me out, but he just did. And why did he look so much like The Michelin Man? And for the life of me, I couldn’t comprehend Mr. Clean. An adult man who helped women clean the house? Oh, Please. My dad never cleaned anything, except the grill and the lawn mower. None of us kids fell for that one.
We were supposed to like and trust these icons? We were supposed to be happy to eat Charlie the Tuna’s friends? I submit that maybe the reason for our childhood terrors had more to do with the Madmen's three-martini lunch where they dreamed up such stuff, rather than anything actually being wrong with us.
I believe the only way to get through the slings and arrows life throws at all of us is to find the humor.