updated 7/6/2009 1:39:34 PM ET 2009-07-06T17:39:34

Before the 1980s fitness craze and the embrace of a new health conscious, many American childhoods unknowingly defied, even defiled, future wellness rules. Most folks over 40 can recite a rash of youthful lifestyle deeds and diets that — according to modern beliefs, anyway — bordered on the dangerous, or the deadly. Yet the vast majority lived to boast about it.

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Read on for survivor stories: 

Not only was it five, or perhaps seven, nights of red meat, but it was also fried in Crisco shortening. I never rode my bike with a helmet, never buckled up, and both my parents smoked like fiends. And yes, I played outside in the dark. Plus I spent many of my weekends at a bingo hall, sometimes on school nights, and talk about second-hand smoke. I can still remember that by half-time the air had a bluish tint to it and my nose just burned. I used to take ice water and breathe in and out of the glass. My dad let me light and shoot off fireworks in the middle of the street in town. Today you can't even buy fireworks in this same town! At one time the local shoe store had an x-ray machine and everyone was encouraged to get their feet x-rayed!
Lisa S. Icenogle, 50 grew up in Casper, Wyo.

My mother thought I was too thin as a child (a thin child in those days — I was born in 1943 — was a huge embarrassment to a mother, especially a Jewish mother), so she made me drink EGG MALTEDS for breakfast every morning: chocolate, whole milk, malt, a RAW egg all missed up in whatever blenders were called in those days. And about the sun, I stayed out in it until I threw up. We spent the summer in New Jersey, and the DDT trucks used to drive down the street spraying DDT from the back to kill the mosquitoes.
— Dale Koppel, 66, grew up in New York

The slats on our cribs were too wide; our Fisher Price “Little People” were clearly choking hazards; and there was lead paint all around us. (How did we survive?) The serious answer is that a small minority of people didn't, so as a society we have taken precautions to prevent those few unnecessary deaths. It is strange to think, though, that clearly we survived, and all of our friends survived; but my 1-year-old daughters are not allowed to play with my husband's “Little People” because they are painted wood and about as wide as his thumb.
— Michelle Hill, born in 1970

My mother fed me my bottle (no breast) with a cigarette in her hand. She was blown away by what I went through to prepare for childbirth and the pressure to breast-feed lest you ruin your child’s chances of a Harvard admission. To this day, she eats raw ground beef when making meatloaf because otherwise, she can’t get the seasoning right. I’ve told her not to do this, but she thinks I’m overreacting.
— Janet M. Riley 44, grew up in Mission Viejo, Calif.

I was raised eating Burger King and Kentucky Fried Chicken every night (both parents worked). To this day I have no problem eating red meat and taking prescription drugs (if necessary). I smoke (in moderation) and eat pretty much whatever I want. I don’t believe in fads: I have been through counting fat grams, measuring food, eating macrobiotically, etc. If I have learned anything it was from my maternal grandmother (who lived to be 94): everything in moderation. There is one very important factor, however, that many people leave out of their lifestyle; a good attitude. It means everything. If you don’t have one, you might as well not be living because you won’t be enjoying life anyway.
Judith Gotlieb, 47, grew up in Miami Beach, Fla.

I grew up in a household were we ate red meat and potatoes, played outside until dark and sometimes after dark, and the form of getting home was when Dad came out and whistled loudly. Not to mention, when we did something wrong, we got punished or spanked. Not only by our parents, but the principal or neighbor parents if it was bad enough. My parents had a three-prong belt in the kitchen pantry and a cherry stick in case our mouths went off too much. We had respect for adults. Unfortunately, the society of today doesn’t allow kids to play outside unsupervised because of all the criminals that could stalk your kids or the idiots texting and calling each other on the cell phone, not paying attention to where they are driving that could hit your kids.
Bob Brumm, 40, grew up in Birmingham, Mich.

My mother cooked Sunday lunch, covered it up and left it sitting on top of the stove till supper. Why did we never die of food poisoning? When I was 11 or 12, I often walked the four or five blocks from my mother's fabric store to her bank, deposit bag in hand. Never gave it a thought. My favorite place to ride on a car trip was beneath the windshield, on the flat shelf above the back seats, staring up at the sky (or the stars) ... dreamily dozing, mile after mile. Car seats may be safe, but they make EVERYBODY miserable. I'm no renegade, but I think it was a lot more fun to be a kid in the '50s and '60s than it is now. I think all these rules, all this fear and propaganda, is taking a toll on American independence and creativity. Being prudent is one thing; living in fear is something else altogether.
— Jayne Jaudon Ferrer, 53, grew up in Wauchula, Fla.

Our only adult organized sport was baseball. We very loosely “organized” vacant lot football games in the fall that usually turned into a no-gloves-free-for-all before the game was over. If parents were around, they’d break it up, but hell, it was tackle football with no pads, very little different from the fights, except for the football. High school was like "American Graffiti" with southern overtones. The entire social structure was based on who could drink the most without passing out, who had the fastest car. We had accounts at 17 and 18 at small country stores for beer. I had a job delivering milk at 9. An ad for the job would have read: Pre-teen boys to jump on and off moving milk truck with glass bottles in pre-dawn hours before school. — Mike Hill, 61, grew up in Dawson, Ga.

I specifically remember riding in the front seat of our baby blue Valiant STANDING UP and watching the scenery. My mom says if she turned a corner too sharp and it made me lose my balance, I bopped her on the head with my baby bottle! I never had a baby seat. I NEVER rode a bicycle with a helmet. I still have a tendency to think to myself "Wimp!" when I see someone riding with one. A typical week at our house meant we ate goulash one night, pigs in blankets the next, spaghetti the next, chicken pot pies the next, fried chicken the next, and there was always a roast with all the vegetables at least once during the week. If beef was bad for us, we should have been dead by 1975.
— Becky Phillips, 44, grew up in Arlington, Texas

I remember my sister and I riding in the back of my Dad's pick-up and seeing who could keep their balance while standing up (we did have a shell on the pick up truck.) Never had a helmet (and still don't). In the summer I could be gone from sunrise to sunset playing with friends (at 8 or 9 yrs). When we wanted to go somewhere we walked or rode our bike (and even across town was not too far to ride. Took all day sometimes).
Lee Brasher, 40, Salt Lake City

The '80s weren't that much better. I was born in 1981 as an only child to two over-protective parents. Sugary cereals, snacks, and fruit drinks were banned in my house. Candy cigarettes and risque Garbage Pail Kids cards also were banned. Even so, I recall sitting in the front seat of the car (without a seat belt or booster seat), and this didn't cause anybody alarm. Bike helmets were unheard of. Rated "R" movies? Why not. I was allowed to rent Silence of the Lambs for my third grade sleepover. As an eighties baby, I don't think I'm alone here...
Amy, Delaware

I remember car rides from Ohio to Georgia each summer to visit my grandparents. We never wore seat belts and both of my parents smoked the whole way. I thought I'd die the time we had a car with air conditioning and they wouldn't roll the window down. I remember my grandmother making french fries, onion rings and fish using the deep fat fryer. I only had to get popped with grease a few times before I learned to give it a wide berth. My favorite was on the play ground swing set....the ones with a plastic rectangle for a seat and steel chains holding it up. We used to get the swing going and then lie back and twist our legs around the chains and let go of our hands. Of course this was without adult supervision. I'm amazed my head is still attached.
Kelly, born in 1971, Columbus, Ohio

Our physics teacher in the 1960s had us each in turn push our bare fingers down into a big bowl of mercury! This was to demonstrate Archimedes' principle. As far as I know, none of us died from mercury poisoning. We all have stories like this, and they are amusing. But we also shouldn't forget that life expectancy has increased by more than 30 years over the last century, at least in part because public health experts are helping us avoid the stupid things we did in the "good old days."
Allan Green, Cooperstown, N.Y.

While growing up, my family had 2 vehicles; my father's 1960 Corvette, and a motor home. When we went "somewhere nice" like church, all 6 of us(4 kids, Mom & Dad)piled in the Corvette with my baby sister on the dash and my younger sister in my father's lap while he drove.
Sabrina Bell, Reno, Nev.

My mom had an old, green Lancer with the back floor boards rusted out. I remember lying on the back seat (no car seat or seatbelt) watching through the floor as the pavement streamed by. Also, she once forgot her purse when she took me, a young toddler, to get a haircut. She left me as security at the barber shop while she drove to her dad's house down the road to get money to pay the man. I sat on the steps and drank a Coke while we waited.
Rafe Poirrier, Gonzales, La.

I grew up in the deep East Texas piney woods. Summer time was living in the woods and on the creeks, drinking water straight from the creek and eating anything we caught or picked. I have eaten about every kind of wild animal indigenous to our area. I would be out all day with only a pair of cut-off jeans to wear. My Mom would always make the comment she could not tell the difference between the dirt and my tan. Did not know what sun screen was. We had meat with every meal, processed ourselves, but we also had a garden with fresh or home canned vegetables, too. We had a dairy and my job every evening was to go to the barn and get a gallon of milk; raw milk that the cream would rise on to be dipped off and poured on my cereal. We rode bikes everywhere, didn't know what a helmet was, except in football. We made homemade wagons called dobies, would make a path down a steep hill through the trees and ride until we hit a tree or rolled over. I have never broken a bone, had any type of surgery or a major illness. Most of the kids in our school grew up like me. I do not recall anyone having leukemia, cancer or major illnesses, but there were a few broken bones. I would not take for my childhood, pure and carefree. I have tried to teach my children the same way, but times have definitely changed, for the good or the worse. Life is like child rearing, what works for one does not always apply for the others. I have seen lots of treads come and go, but for me the best judge of what we need and keeps us healthy is not man made, doctrine or otherwise.
Scott Johnson, 60, grew up in Winnsboro, Texas

My friends and I used to go trick-or-treating around our Los Angeles suburb every Halloween and we would travel MILES from our homes in order to get to the areas where they gave out the best candy (all the kids knew which blocks were the best). We would be out for hours and hours and our moms never knew where we were or when we'd be home. And we would eat half the candy while walking around the neighborhood, defying everything today's kids are told about needles or razor blades in candy bars.
Michele Hintz, 41, Seattle

I had my tonsils removed at age 4 due to constant respiratory problems. When I awoke after surgery, my mother and my surgeon were smoking at my bedside. There was a tall ashtray at the foot of every bed in the pediatric ward.
John Hennagir, Columbia, Mo.

I wonder what the nutrionists' war cry was during those wonder years (if there was one). I can remember taking a 10 - 20 minute bike ride in any direction from home to a confectionary store. Yes, very high calorie and suger intake, but to ride a bicycle...play wiffleball...swim in rivers w/ depth's over your head from dawn to dusk gave us, or our parents, no concern or anxiety that exists with todays current issues and propaganda. Pass that Hershey bar please.
R. H. Mocolock, 55, Allentown, Pa.

I played outside after dark, rode my bicycle everywhere without a helmet, didn't wear a seatbelt, took the train and bus alone to Northern Michigan at age 11 to visit family, went to the orthodontist (at age 11) via train and a one mile walk by myself, lived in a home with guns (my father was a hunter) and hundreds of prescription drugs (he was a pharmaceutical salesman) in the basement. How did we ever survive?
Laura, 54, Chicago


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