I think I was about 9 when I got my first hamster.
Every Saturday morning, my mother and I would go to downtown Gainesville. I'd try to sit patiently while she had her hair "done." That involved washing, rolling on plastic rollers and then sitting under one of those hooded dryers for about half a day. Then there would be lots of teasing with a rat-tail comb and liberal application of hairspray. So much hairspray that I'm pretty sure I know what really happened to the ozone layer.
While all these ministrations were taking place, I'd read Highlights magazine, finding the hidden pictures on the back page and learning proper etiquette from Goofus and Gallant. I knew if I'd just bide my time, there would be a payoff.
Lunch was at the counter at Woolworth's. The entrees were fairly average. It was the dessert menu that kept us coming back. To this day, I've never had a banana split that comes close to matching theirs.
After lunch, I'd drag my mother down the wide stairs to the basement and the pet department. There were colorful parakeets and delicate canaries. There was tank after tank of silvery guppies and graceful angelfish.
This was back before folks knew they were flirting with death by purchasing those tiny salmonella-laden turtles. I owned a couple of them myself and lived to tell about it. I guess it just wasn't my time to go.
What fascinated me most were the hamsters. They were just so cute and personable as they went about the business of stuffing their little cheeks full of pellets and running industriously on their wheels. Every Saturday, I'd beg for one, and every Saturday my mother would say she'd think about it.
Then finally there came that magical day when all the planets lined up properly. I started my usual plea, prefaced by, "I'll take care of him all by myself, I promise I will" and, wonder of wonders, my mother said yes. Just like that.
I had Stanley for a couple of years. He lived in a little wire cage on my desk. Each night, I was lulled to sleep by the whirr of his exercise wheel and the scent of cedar shavings.
So what has made me so nostalgic about hamsters? Recently the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a report advising families with children younger than 5 to avoid owning "nontraditional" pets such as hedgehogs, hamsters, baby chicks, lizards and turtles. Advice that sounded like common sense to me was apparently big news. I read it here in The Times, saw another item on CNN's Web site, even caught a mention of it on "Good Morning America."
So are there really parents out there who give baby chicks to toddlers who will put anything in their mouths that won't fit up their nostrils? And even if they are that clueless surely there's someone in their life who has the good sense to say, "Bernice, have you lost your mind? That Komodo dragon is gonna make lunchmeat out of little Travis."
I guess not. More and more we are officially reminded of things we ought to know already. We see it in press releases and on labels and stickers on packaging. Apparently whoever writes these caveats considers the shopping public a special kind of ignorant. Or, more likely, potentially litigious. They've taken CYK (Cover Your Keister) to a whole new level.
I think it all started when an elderly lady in Albuquerque upended a cup of McDonald's coffee in her lap. Since gravity works all and not just some of the time, she wound up with serious burns, sued the fast-food emporium for damages and ended up with a $2.86 million award (which was later significantly reduced.) Now coffee cups all bear the notice: "Warning - Coffee is HOT." Well, I would certainly hope so.
Consider these actual warnings that have been found on consumer products:
"For external use only" - on a curling iron.
"Caution: Remove infant before folding for storage" - on a portable stroller.
And my all-time favorite: "Wearing of this garment does not enable you to fly" - on a child sized Superman costume.
In the words of my idol, Harris Blackwood, "You just can't make this stuff up."
The codicil to those words of wisdom was provided by comedian Ron White when he said, "You can't fix stupid."
No, but you can try. I guess that's what press releases are for.
Originally published in The Gainesville Times, October 16, 2008