When I was a boy, there were only a few ways to learn something. You had to ask someone else - a grownup, usually - and maybe they knew the answer. If they didn’t know the answer, they might tell you to go look it up. Most houses, as far as I can recall, had a dictionary. A few had full sets of encyclopedias. My own grandparents gave us a set that they found at a flea market somewhere. They were old, and I remember spending hours going from one article to the next, following one SEE ALSO section after another.
You could use the school library, of course, and as you got older, the local public library with its card catalog. There were archives of old newspapers, microfiche, and collections of weird old trade journals and periodicals.
Mass media was a handful of TV stations - the three major networks, one PBS station, and maybe a couple of UHF channels that showed old movies and off-brand cartoons. I don’t remember listening to the radio much as a kid. We lived near big cities (Chicago and later Atlanta), so there were two newspapers available. I remember the Tribune and the Sun-Times, and later on the Atlanta Journal and Constitution as separate papers in competition.
If you had questions that couldn’t be answered by your immediate circle of adults - parents and grandparents, teachers, or maybe your friend’s parents, you had to expend a fair amount of effort to find the answers. The one book at the library that talked about whatever it was you were interested in was pretty much the final word on the matter. The point is that it took some work, and so the gaining of knowledge was a two-fold reward. First, you learned something new, which is reward itself. Second, you achieved this as the result of self-directed effort. You had to want to know something, and then go through some bit of effort to find an answer. The gaps were filled by your imagination.
Maybe this is just a memory viewed through then lens of childhood, but the world seemed to be a large, strange and impenetrably mysterious place. Distant events reached us via the distorted word-of-mouth railroad of neighborhood kids. Our imaginations filled in the rest, probably to our detriment. In living memory, I can recall several pretty scary events. I remember watching the nightly news when Chicago’s most famous serial killer was caught. The deadliest air crash in US history happened as we were leaving school. I can remember everyone looking at the smoke plumes, clearly visible from the parking lot. I asked a teacher if we should call someone. She told me that it they firemen were probably already there taking care of it. We hid in the halls once for an honest-to-God tornado once. The City wasn’t really visible but for the glow of it at night towards the east. It sort of loomed there in my imagination: hopelessly huge and the place where my father went every day to find the bad guys. He’d come and go on a train, wearing a gun under his suit coat.
The summer sky was lit up with what we called heat lightning and I can remember at least one electrical storm. My bedroom window look towards a radio tower. One night my father woke me up so I could see the St. Elmo’s Fire going up and down the guy wires of the tower. I had never seen anything like that before and haven’t since, either. But if I couldn’t find it in one of the Little Golden Guides that I used to make sense of the world, it remained a mystery to me. One of my friends - his dad was into ham radio. He used to occasionally show us stuff in his shack. Once he referred to noise in the ionosphere. I remember walking home that day and looking up, half-expecting to see some dim thing moving around high in the sky, barely visible. Clouds, or something. I was becoming aware of the liminal nature of things, though I didn’t know it at the time. There was a world just beyond what I could see, touch, or know. It was larger than I could imagine, mysterious, and more than a little unsettling.
It’s taken me over forty years to recognize these moments as way-stations along a long path of preparation. Other hints came later - some subtle, others not so much.