Cautionary Tales of Old

Somehow, I think we’ve lost a great art form of the cautionary tale, to the realm of “let’s not upset the children!”

Back in the day, fairy tales were told to warn kids about dangers. Like going into the woods? A wolf might eat you. Strangers with candy houses? Might eat you as well. In the original Cinderella by the Brother’s Grimm, the stepsisters weren’t ugly – they were beautiful – but their vanity and bad attitudes turned them ugly. They may have also got their eyes pecked out during the wedding. Because they were horrible, and the point was that horrible things can happen.

We don’t tell such tales these days.

Which is why, when I start telling people about the cautionary tales my grandfather, a retired police officer, would tell us kids, in the name of safety, people clutch at their pearls and gasp at the horrors he shared with us as kids.

I never thought about it as scarring when I was seven and my grandfather warned us about the dangers of playing on railroad tracks – which is what you did as a kid growing up in the Chicago area because train tracks were everywhere!

“I remember that one boy…it was this crossing right here…” he’d say as we drove in the car with him through an obnoxiously normal Chicago neighborhood full of brick houses and chain link fences. “They were playing chicken with the train and he lost. We were picking up bits of him with a spoon for days.”

With a SPOON!

I was horrified and amazed at the same time. Which is different than traumatized. And his story made its point in my head – I never tried to beat a train. I knew what could happen.

“See this here? That’s where I hit my head when I got sucked under a train.” he’d say, pointing to the “hole” in his head.

He’d been six years old, the youngest of a large family full of daring older brothers who would hop trains for a free ride – the thing to do in 1920’s Chicago. My grandfather was the pesky little brother who wanted to keep up with the teenagers. His brother shooed him off. “Go home Ed! You’re too little!”

But he was hard-headed and tried to jump onto the train as well…and instead, got sucked under it. They all thought he was dead, including the railway guy who put a sheet over his still alive little body. My grandfather was unconscious for three days, and his brother was afraid to go home and incur the anger of their mother after thinking he’d killed his little brother. My grandfather, thanks to his hard head, survived, and his mother was more relieved than mad when his brother came home.

Life lesson there? Don’t be a bad example to siblings, and don’t try to hop onto a moving train or even get too close to one. They’ll suck you under. To this day, I stay behind the yellow line.

My grandmother was his equal in such tales. She was a big fan of the seatbelt before seatbelts were cool. Because – and again, we’d drive through the intersection as she’d tell me – when my mother was six years old or so, my grandmother was driving her, and as the car made the left turn in the very busy, four-laned intersection, the passenger side door popped open and my mother and her “life sized” doll both tumbled out. Well, the doll tumbled first, causing other cars to stop as my mother was tumbling out. My mother was mostly unharmed, thanks to it being winter, and my grandmother having sewn her quilted trousers.

Lesson there? Seat belts and padded clothing can save lives.

We also learned how my mother, as an infant, nearly choked on the seat strap of the high chair when she slid down (causing my grandfather to make a t-bar addition to the chair so she could never slide through again) and how we should chew carefully so we don’t choke on food, like my grandmother once choked on a fishbone (but was saved because her father grabbed her by the ankles and shook her as she hung upside down…a visual that’s stuck in my head forever.)

Okay, so maybe this is where I should also mention our family history of anxiety…but meanwhile, I continue the fine tradition of cautionary tales…

“Kids, wear your seat belts or I’ll tell you once more about my friends who were in a horrific car accident…seat belts save lives!”

My grandmother as a child, circa 1920's
My grandmother as a child, circa 1920’s – survivor of the Great Fishbone Incident


This is part of the 31 Days writing challenge…to find out more about it or read more from this challenge, check out the 31 Days page!