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Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Another OT: Childhood Memories. What are Yours?

Six years or so ago I wrote a regular column for a local paper. One of them got a lot of interest, and I still get requests for copies. Since summer is nearly upon us, I thought I would reprint it below, and ask you for your recollections of how life has changed for kids. You can decide whether it is better . . . or not.

When We Were Free to be Kids

    My son asked an interesting question during the endless summer that ended this week: “Papa, when you were a kid, what did you do in the summer?”
How do you tell a 7-year-old who has almost everything that it was better way back when without almost anything? That we perfected the art of doing nothing for days on end—and loved every hour?
    How do you explain we enjoyed ourselves without Gameboys, Playstations, computers, TVs in cars, and portable cd-players? How journeys of exploration and adventure did not include a hand-held device on a sofa? That off-limit swimming holes were better than swimming pools in the backyards of homes we would have considered mansions available only in our dreams?
    Can he possibly comprehend that when we left the house at 7:00 a.m. in cutoffs and a T-shirt, mom never asked where we were going? That catching pond frogs and building tree houses with rope swings was better than having 471 TV channels? That staying out all day and doing whatever we wanted was (gasp!) normal?
That our summons home was the street lights popping on and not a call on a cell phone?
    Would he believe that we hoofed around town or rode our bikes (spray painted cool neon colors) with friends seated between the handle bars, holding on for dear life while trying to keep their toes out of the spokes as we flew down Virginia hill? Or that those same spokes made the coolest Atat-tat-tat” sound if you attached a playing card with a clothespin? That no one had heard of a bicycle helmet, and that we would not have been caught dead in one anyway?
    That digging for night crawlers so we could fish in a muddy creek for bullhead with a bamboo pole and a red and white bobber (with your brother yelling at you for tangling his line) beat the pants off sitting in an air-conditioned house playing Nintendo?
    Can you imagine the damage I might inflict on the psyche of a modern-day El Dorado Hills child if I told him our idea of pure drinking water was letting a garden hose in a stranger’s backyard run for several seconds before taking a warm sip? Or that “organic food” was eating Mr. Weydert’s corn raw off the cob before washing it down with milk straight from a cow’s utter?
    That nothing was more fun than a roundtrip sneak attack on Mr. Bogart=s apple tree, hiding amongst his leafy branches happily munching green apples while stuffing another half dozen in our pockets and planning our getaway? That spine-tingling terror could be had by crawling on our hands and knees into old lady Taylor’s backyard (we thought she was a witch), pushing aside a large piece of slate hiding a well, dropping in a rock, and being brave enough to stay put long enough to hear the splash?
    Today, kids can’t play in their own front yard without adult supervision. We played king of the hill on the large dirt and rock piles left in someone’s driveway blocks away. When we got hurt, we went home for a band aid and iodine (and a good and well-deserved old fashioned belt-to-bottom spanking) instead of to the lawyer’s office with dad to sue the homeowner.
    Can today’s children conceive that we waged war from behind stacked up Culligan salt pellet bags with REAL WWII rifles our dads brought home from Europe or the Pacific, decked out in authentic German and American helmets and canteens—and it was more fun than playing Age of Empires or Call of Duty on a PC over the Internet with a stranger? Would they believe that every 9-year-old had a BB gun, every 12-year-old a .22 or 12-gauge, and responsible use was shooting cans off a fence or an egg-stealing blackbird—but never a robin?
    Would he appreciate that sleepovers meant Jiffypop popcorn on the stove (burned black), kick the can in the backyard and, if you were lucky, a scoop of vanilla ice cream with Hershey’s syrup? Or that bed time meant squeezing into the hot top bunk with your buddy (no one had air conditioning) while his two brothers crammed into the bottom bunk?
    How could I explain all this in a way that made sense?
    “Long ago,” I began . . .
    “You mean back in the olden days?” my son interrupted.
    "Yes, way back when,” I smiled.
    “When what?” he asked.
    My smile melted away and I sighed heavily. “When we were free to be kids.”


Steve Basic said...


Great column, and LOL did most of the same stuff when I was a kid. No way my Mom would put up with me staying home all day. Signal to head home was when the Firehouse siren would go off at 6 PM and had to be back inside for dinner by 6:15.

Hope all is well.

Take care.


J David Petruzzi said...

Amen. We made our own fun, our own toys. And I do see that it has affected how kids today (or over the past 10-15 years) are able to take and handle responsibility when they grow up. When I did a major league slide in the neighbor's backyard at age 8, and tore open my lower leg (getting 10 stitches) of course there were no thoughts of suing - you went home, got your butt paddled, then taken to the doctor's office (which usually got you taken care of right away back then).
Today the world is full of victims, everyone gets offended at the smallest thing, and PC-speak abounds. I wouldn't trade my hours of amusing myself by hitting rocks with a baseball bat, for playing video games, for anything.

B. Forbush said...

We played whiffle ball in the street, had dirt-bomb fights at construction sites, rode bikes all over town...stop at the farm shop for ice-cream. We built forts and climbed trees. We'd play army with toy machine guns and go after the germans and japs. On hot days we took a trip to the pool at the High School. Didn't have to be home til dinner, then back out til about 10.

George said...

Great article - brings back many wonderful memories. I lived on a farm as a boy, spending endless hours climbing through the barn, tramping through the woods, splashing in the creek and generally being where my folks had no idea I was. Closest thing to electronics we had was a black and white TV that got all of three channels. My father used to say that you don't miss what you never had - we didn't have all the gizmos then and were perfectly happy.

Anonymous said...

Damn, this post nailed!!

If I may add a few comments -

When Mr. Taylor threw hard candy out his car window and every kid on the block scrambled to get a piece. Walking home from school on the last day of school before summer vacation and feeling like we just got out of the state penn and finalized saw the sun shine. Riding our bikes past the water works towards Piggly Wiggly, going as fast as we could. Riding our bikes downtown and stealing a can of beer from the Poodle and one of Mike's camels or Arnie's Lucky's. Hanging rubbers on Mrs. Jacob's door handle. Eating raw rhubarb out of the neighbor's back yard and dipping it in sugar. Mowing Mrs. Beckman's yard with a push mower. Getting my first baseball glove by saving green stamps. Being over at Clear Lake on the 4th of July. Diving off the shed in the middle of the quarry and feeling that pipe just scrape your chest going in if you didn't go out far enough. Building forts in the woods between our houses and literally spending all day in it. Giving Timby serious "Ribbies" and not being sued or kicked out of school because of it. Going down "Motorcyle Hill" on our bikes and flipping over end over end. Riding in the back of Timby's Cuda listening to "Purple Haze" or the glass packs on Flash's 1963 chevy only to open the hood to a 4-cylinder.

But of all of this, the best memory in the blog post was "that our summons home was the street lights popping on and not a call on a cell phone."

Of all the things that I have dicked up in my life - these memories of growing up would not be traded for anything.

John K

Jane Johansson said...

What a fun posting! I was a tomboy and have great memories of playing with friends in my neighborhood. And what did we do? We played "spotlight" (a game played outside at night), rode our bicycles through vacant lots, slid down a hill on a piece of cardboard, walked down alleys and peeked in trashcans, caught lightning bugs, and waged full scale campaigns involving intense acorn fights. When it got too hot (and it does get hot in Oklahoma), we retreated inside to play games, watch some TV, and eat Kool-Pops. I had a great childhood!

Charlie Knight said...

Man, yall are old!!