My blog recently celebrated its first birthday. For a year now, I have been musing on childhood and toys of the 1950’s and 1960’s, taking a two-month detour to the 1910’s through 1930’s with the inimitable Helen Geiszler, now 100 years old.
The childhood memories that I have been discussing are mostly those of baby boomers who grew up in the United States. I got to thinking not long ago, “What was childhood like for children outside of the United States during the 1950’s and 1960’s? Did they spend most of their time outdoors like we did? Did they play the same games? Did they play with the same toys? Did world affairs affect their childhood?
With those questions and more in mind, I decided to have a chat with my son-in-law’s father, Miljko Bobrek, who grew up in Bosnia in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Some of his responses were just as I expected, and some truly surprised me.
Born in 1954, Miljko grew up in a small town twenty miles north of Banja Luka, Bosnia’s second largest city. He lived in the Banja Luka area all his life until he escaped with his wife Sonja and their 13-year-old son Alex during the Bosnian War in 1992. He now lives in Knoxville, Tennessee, with Sonja and their daughter Katya, who was born after they immigrated to the U.S. Miljko has a PhD in electrical engineering from the University of Tennessee and is currently a member of the Senior Research and Development Staff at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
Back: Miljko, Sonja, and Katya
Middle: Alex and my daughter Leslie
Front: their sons Andrew on left and Mikey on right
Before we compare childhood in the United States to childhood in Bosnia, we must first situate ourselves geographically, politically, and economically. Just as I grew up in Pennsylvania, a state within our country, Miljko grew up in Bosnia, which at the time was a state within the communist country of Yugoslavia in Eastern Europe.
In stark contrast to the poverty of the Great Depression and the sacrifices made during World War II, post-war America, under the leadership of Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower, entered an unprecedented time of economic prosperity and relative peace. The G.I. Bill afforded veterans low-cost-mortgages, low-interest loans, access to college education, and one year of unemployment compensation, as well as other benefits that spawned economic growth. Spending on military defense generated further growth. With minimal inflation, low unemployment, and a balanced budget (Imagine!), the standard of living in the U.S. was at an all-time high, ushering in an era of burgeoning families (thus all of us baby boomers) and comfortable living in the suburbs. Consumerism became rampant within middle class families, who now owned cars, TV’s, and a plethora of other luxuries—bought on credit.
World War II ended in 1945, and my dad was discharged from the Army Air Force in 1946. Shortly after, my mother became pregnant with their second child, prompting them to move from an apartment in the city of Pittsburgh to a newly built home in a Pittsburgh suburb. Born Ed and Ann’s fourth child in 1951, I was plopped right in the middle of the newly-minted suburban way of living.
Following World War II, Yugoslavia, which included the Socialist Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina, established a communist government under the leadership of Josip Broz Tito. During my childhood in the 1950’s and early 1960’s, I attended a Catholic grade school where many of the teachers were nuns from Eastern Europe. With woebegone faces, they would describe life behind the Iron Curtain in just enough detail to leave us equating their communist dictators with Hitler and Satan.
However, according to Wikipedia, “The Yugoslavian communist doctrine of ‘brotherhood and unity’ particularly suited Bosnia’s diverse and multi-ethnic society that, because of such an imposed system of tolerance, thrived culturally and socially.” Its extensive natural resources spurred industrial development, leaving Bosnia a peaceful and prosperous country during Miljko’s childhood. Read more.
Miljko concurs: “Yugoslavia and Tito were trying to be in between. We really had much, much more freedom [than other Communist countries]. We could travel everywhere. It’s not like being in the Soviet Union or East Germany. We enjoyed a little bit of both sides. We could travel; people had passports. You could get visas in many countries or even travel without visas. We were lucky a little bit that we were not really suppressed that much.”
Miljko’s was a middle class family in which his father was a car mechanic and his mother was a homemaker. Just as in the U.S. at that time, most mothers stayed home to run the household and raise their children.
If you have been reading my blogs, you know that I took a survey of baby boomers in my area, asking if they were outdoor kids or indoor kids during their childhoods. The overwhelming answer was outdoor. And Miljko Bobrek over in Bosnia? His answer came quickly and easily: “Oh, definitely outdoor. At that time, everybody was.” There’s something we had in common!
I also asked survey respondents what activity they participated in most often during childhood. The number one response was riding bikes. It seems that every kid in my Pittsburgh area had one, even in families where budgets were tight. In my family of five children, we had several bikes albeit second-hand and, in one case, missing its fenders.
Surprisingly, at least to me, Miljko did not have a bike of his own nor did most of the kids in his neighborhood. “We had one bike, but that was Dad’s bike, and he went to work with it. Sonja’s dad also had a bike, and, when we were big enough, we were riding their bikes when they were available. But we didn’t have small kid bikes.” I wondered why.
Next, I asked Miljko what play activity he took part in most. “The most popular sport was soccer, so we played soccer. That’s Europe.” That was the answer that I had expected. I never realized the popularity of soccer in Europe until I met Miljko’s son Alex, my daughter Leslie’s husband. In our country, soccer takes a back seat to football, basketball, baseball, and hockey, but in Europe as well as South America, Africa, and most of Asia and Central America, soccer is king.
Miljko continued, “We were chasing whatever—a ball or sometimes we didn’t have a ball, so we made a ball from something.” He tells me that for a long time, his family had no real soccer ball. “Until our dad went to the Soviet Union on a business trip in 1966. He brought us back a real football—the soccer ball—and then we were for the first time playing with a real one. It was either a plastic one or a rubber one. Everybody played soccer.”
The rest of the story rather broke my heart. “The very next day when we started playing, obviously, everyone was interested in that, and some bigger boys that were much older than us took over and kicked it into a barbed wire fence. It made a big scratch, and I remember my brother and I were crying. It was a shiny nice soccer ball and there was a big scratch.”
Just like my neighborhood where we had enough kids to field two teams for wiffle ball, Miljko confirmed that the same was the case in his Banja Luka neighborhood except that they were playing . . . soccer. “There were always plenty [of kids to form teams]. Since you mentioned it, it’s always boys and girls–never mixed. That would be a no-no. That would be unusual,” he laughed. So it is plausible that at the same time we baby boomers were batting around a wiffle ball in a field or an empty lot on a summer morning, the boys of Bosnia, six time zones away, were likewise kicking around soccer balls on a summer afternoon.
Back when I was a kid, nearly every American boy (plus a few girls like me) collected baseball cards. For a nickel, you got a pack of six cards plus a slab of pink bubble gum. I wondered if Miljko and his friends collected soccer cards in the 1950’s and 60’s. “Ooooh, yeah. That was very popular. They were usually packed with chocolate.” Interesting. American baseball cards were packed with bubble gum; Yugoslavian soccer cards were packed with chocolate.
I mentioned to Miljko that the boys stored their huge collection of baseball cards in milk cartons or shoe boxes. “That’s the exact same. We had shoe boxes,” Miljko affirmed. “But we actually gambled with the cards. You play and win them from the other guys. You just grab a bunch of them and ask the other guy to guess whether it’s an even or odd number. If the guy guesses, say ‘even,’ he gets all the cards. So that’s a way you could pile up your collection.” We also discovered that both the kids in the U.S. and in Bosnia played various “flipping” games with their sports cards in an attempt to win more for their collections.
Miljko volunteered, “There were two other games that we played at that time. Because of limited resources and toys, you played with something that’s out there. There was a game that was very similar to cricket, I think. You have a bat about two feet long that we can easily make ourselves, and you have a thing that you hit. It’s just a three or four inch stick. It’s played the same way as baseball. There’s a pitcher and a batter. So I don’t know whether that’s really specific for back home then or if kids were playing similar things around the world.”
“There was another game,” Miljko added, “that maybe is not played anymore—with marbles. Since we didn’t have those glass marbles when I was a kid, we used steel balls from ball bearings. My dad was a mechanic, so he’d bring an old ball bearing, and we would crack it open and take out the balls, and we played with them. Actually, we dig out a hole as big as our fist with our heels. You can do it right away very quickly at school or any place. Then you would play and try to place your marble or your ball in that hole. When you hit your opponent’s ball, then you take it—or you get a point.”
I was curious as to why they didn’t have glass marbles in Bosnia in the 50’s and 60’s when they were sold all over the U.S. Miljko opined, “I don’t know whether they existed anywhere [in Europe]. They did, but I remember that they were around a little bit later. They weren’t available that much. Sometimes kids would break a brick and run it against something sharp and make a red ball marble from brick. We had plenty of those steel ones, so that was sufficient, I guess.”
When I was a child, I sometimes longed for toys that the other neighborhood kids had, but my parents simply could not afford everything on the wish lists of five children. I never did get a Barbie doll or Chatty Cathy. No miniature doll house or Easy Bake Oven. But among the five us, we had plenty of the popular inexpensive toys of the 1950’s and 1960’s. After hearing Miljko’s stories, I’m thinking perhaps I was a little spoiled after all.
I’ll soon publish part 2 of my interview with Miljko Bobrek. Besides a soccer ball and soccer cards, did Miljko own any of the popular toys of the day? Did Sonja own many toys? Did many families in Bosnia own a TV in the 1950’s or 1960’s?
Karen Gennari is the author of The Crab Hollow Chronicles, a fictitious memoir based on her experiences growing up in a neighborhood full of boys in 1961/62. It also explores the merits and challenges of life in a Catholic family of seven.
Join nine-year-old Karen Schmidt in her attempts to navigate Crab Hollow Road amidst the overwhelming male majority who beleaguer her at every opportunity. Does Karen have the fortitude to weather toadnappings, midnight escapades, false impersonation, and more? Along the way, relive the people, products, music, sports, and headlines of the early 1960’s. Virtually every page references the 1960’s. Lots of your favorite toys are mentioned in these pages.