When I was a kid, especially in those prime years when I was old enough to ride a two-wheeler, yet young enough to still enjoy collecting baseball cards, I would spend some of my summer days never seeing my mom. She was home at that time, but I was outside from morning to dusk. I woke up faster then. All it took was to see the angling rays of the sun peeking in my room and the distant voices of my friends. I would pop-up, put on my clothes, which were likely the same ones I had dropped by my bed the night before, pulled down my cap, and ran outside before my mom could corral me.
Every day was an adventure, conjured up as the day went along, with the entire neighborhood as our playground. A nearby field of high grass or weeds would be the perfect place for my friends and I to wander into, far enough not to be seen. Then we would stomp down an area that would be our fort, or hideaway. I’m sure there were bugs and heat in the hottest months, but I don’t remember that so much. Creeks were the best ever! My friends and I would make temporary dams to see if we could create a lake. Versions of hide and seek, war--yes war, and exploring were pastimes that came about without planning or organizing. All seemed to happen spontaneously!
Bikes were essential then. Your bike was your transportation, your chariot, your identity. Rarely did I or my friends ride on the seat. We would peddle fast, standing up as the bike swayed left then right. As we neared our destination, we would swing our right leg around to the left side of the bike, then jumped off running—sometimes letting our bike go to land wherever.
Hunger was never noticed--until interrupted, heads tilted, hearing one of the mothers calling out saying, ‘lunch is ready, come home’. Most of the time we didn’t want to stop for lunch. You can’t ride a bike, carry a stick as a sword, and eat a sandwich at the same time! The sandwich had to wait. Besides, what if you or your friends couldn’t come back out?
There were only three TV channels back then. The kid shows, like ‘Captain Kangaroo’ and cartoons, which would be called violent today, were on in the mornings, but not much of a draw unless it was raining. No video games, of course. We did not learn the hand-eye coordination or develop the manual hand dexterity kids currently have. But I bet we could out-run, out-throw, and out-imagine any kid today! The closest thing I had to a video game was when I took a piece of cardboard, taped it on a dresser, drew on some dials, grabbed a chair and a broom handle, and pretended to fly an airplane. I couldn’t imagine what it was like to fly upside down, so I took my shortened broomstick, stood on my bed, and bent as far down as I could to be kind-of upside down, hoping I could handle steering an airplane while blood was rushing to my head. When I stood up erect again, my confidence was shaken a little. It turns out it is easier doing it for real.
We moved quite a bit. Often I lived in the city where alleys substituted for creeks, and hiding in a field was a little tougher--but hiding in general was easier. In one place, we lived on the top floor of a six-unit apartment building. We had a black metal landing with stairs that zigzagged down to the small, common backyard. I was looking out from our third floor landing one morning when I was about 10 years old, watching traffic and counting how many cars were Fords and how many were Chevys. Suddenly but softly, I heard the lady on the second floor singing. I leaned over the rail and could see into her window, the top half opened, as she was taking a shower. It was the first time I recall seeing a woman’s breasts. I remember getting a little weak in the knees and had to sit down, feeling a little guilty for what I had just seen.
My friends and I didn’t have much room to play stick ball, but we made do in the alley. Balls that ricocheted off garages were in play. Bases were often telephone poles or Buicks, and usually a chunk of busted up concrete or a smashed trash can lid became second base. Once, just like one of those old movies you see about Babe Ruth as a kid, I hit a ball (not a real baseball) that was hit high and far, yet foul. It broke a neighbor’s window. We scattered like roaches will do when you turn on the lights--a scene all too familiar to me back then. My dad, who rarely was home with us, asked what happened since I was out of breath--after all, it was the third floor! I sheepishly told him I broke a window. I think he told me to go face up to it. At least I hope he did, but I really can’t remember that part.
In the summer between 3rd and 4th grades, I would walk a little over a mile to Forest Park in St. Louis on my own. I enjoyed the freedom and adventure. To get there, I walked down DeBaliviere Strip, as it was known then, and passed a nightclub that had photos in a glass display of their star attraction. It said ‘Come see Evelyn Wood and her “$50,000 Treasure Chest”’. I knew what that meant.
There are tall apartment buildings on the west side of Forest Park that I remember watching as they were being built. I would sit on a bench in the park across Skinker Blvd and watch, fascinated, as the cranes lifted beams and huge pails of concrete to the higher floors. To see those buildings today is comforting, proving my past remembrances are real. It seems most of my childhood memories are packed between 8-10 years of age. It may have been because they were the happiest.
PS. Just as I published this post, a friend posted this article on Facebook. Parent Trap. Interesting thoughts. Somewhere, there must be a balance.