Helen Chappell - October 2008

Way Back When


Helen Chappell

   I recently had to make an appointment to spend some time with a beloved goddaughter. What with her social life and her riding lessons, and this, that and the other, this nine-year-old has a busier schedule than I do. Which is good, of course; she’s happy and healthy and enjoying herself immensely, growing into a strong, smart young woman who makes me proud.
    People complain a lot these days about kids being overscheduled and over-protected. Many say between academic pressures, sports, clubs, music lessons, art lessons and keeping up with the strident needs of peer group and pop culture pressure, kids are being robbed of a childhood.
    People talk about helicopter parents who hover anxiously over their kid’s every move, doing the kid’s work for them, intervening in every aspect of their lives and protecting them from the consequences of both their own actions and reality. I even heard a possibly apocryphal tale of a mother who sat in on her teenage son’s job interviews, then called and harangued possible bosses when the kid didn’t get the job.
    The only possible way many kids get any privacy or down time at all is by texting each other, and who knows what they talk about or plan then? I don’t want to know. I figure everyone needs privacy and personal head space, and somewhere in the code of childhood there’s always got to be a place where kids can go and adults, no matter how well-intentioned, can’t follow. It’s the code of the kid.
    I know the world is a dangerous place, and people want to protect their kids from unspeakably bad stuff. That’s right and proper. It’s also right and proper to want your kids to succeed.
    Things were different when I was a kid. Not only did I walk seventeen miles through fourteen-foot snow drifts to get to and from school every day, I wore hand-me-downs from my older cousins and ate all my spinach.
    Yeah, right.
    The world was a dangerous place back then, too. From the first I can remember, I was told not to speak to strangers, not to take candy from people I didn’t know and to avoid, as much as possible, playing in traffic. Bad things happened to kids out there; we saw it on the news.
    And sometimes bad things happened right in our community. Often kids knew more about who was bad or a pervert or lethal than the grown-ups did. Every kid around knew to stay away from certain people and places. And most of us understood what was folklore, like the crabby old witch down the street who was rumored to change into a bat, and what was real, like the neighbor’s adult son who acted a little funny around young boys, even if both held the same amount of wariness.
    So forgive me for what I’m going to say. I do know it’s a post-9/11 world out there, but I just want to give a shout out to the dangerous things I’m glad I didn’t miss when I was a kid.
    Fallen trees are one of my favorite memories. Whenever there was a storm and a tree blew over, the whole neighborhood kid pack was all over it like white on rice.
    First of all, there was the fallen giant itself; how many chances do you get to explore the canopy of a tree, with all those wonderful long branches and leaves? The very experience of crawling all over those barky surfaces and inhaling the sap made it all worthwhile.
    Every once in a while someone’s parent would stick their head out the door and yell for everyone to get down from there for heaven’s sake, you’ll break something. So everyone would back off until the adult went back inside, then we were all over it again, as if it were a shipwreck on the shoals of the backyard.
    Of course we got scraped and splintered and blistered and bruised. We tore our clothes and were covered in sticky tree sap. But this was such a small price to pay for so much fun.
    As a kid, we didn’t have seat belts or air bags, and because of that, there are probably a lot fewer baby boomers. But I genuinely pity anyone who has never had the pleasure of riding around the back roads on a summer evening in the flatbed of a pickup truck. There’s something about the openness and the wind blowing you all over the place and the bugs smacking you in the face that just satisfies something deep in the soul of every kid, especially if there are dogs and ice cream, preferably both, involved.
    Looking back at some of the hell rides I’ve taken on those summer evenings, crammed in with a bunch of kids, I’m amazed I survived, but I did and I’m here to say I’d do it all over again if someone pulled up in my driveway right now.
    I don’t think most kids would get far today if they just went outside in the morning and didn’t come home until it was time for lunch, then went back outside and didn’t come home until either their mom called them in for dinner or the streetlights came on. I suppose our parents knew, in some vague way, where we were, but if they’d known some of the stuff we’d gotten up to, they might not have been so sanguine.
    Give a kid a creek or a pond or some shallow body of water and they’re happy all day. Creeks are full of interesting wildlife like fiddler crabs and crawfish and newts. You can also use a long stick to poke and prod at the mud and debris and turn up all kinds of interesting fauna. Some of which you could bring home and release. Good times!
    Houses under construction were strictly off limits, so of course the minute the workmen knocked off, the site was swarming with kids who swung over empty basement holes, walked across wooden beams and played between the studs. Resisting a house under construction would have been as impossible as ignoring a freshly fallen tree. It can’t be done, especially when things like nails and two-by-fours and mysterious tools were involved.
    These days, if you played on a construction site, the contractor would probably press charges, but those were less litigious times, and the idea you could sue someone for your kids’ stupid mistakes just wasn’t part of our culture. But who can forget the delicious smell of freshly milled wood and the allure of a huge pile of construction debris, just bristling with tetanus-laden nails waiting for you?
    And then, there was sticking your head out the car window. I was genuinely shocked and showing my age when I recently discovered that parents no longer warn their kids not to stick their arms, hands, legs or head out of a car window. No one tells kids the cautionary tale about the little boy who stuck his hand out the car window (I picture a ’51 Ford) and had it taken off by a passing telephone pole. They just don’t build cautionary tales like they used to. Also, these days, kids are strapped into safety seats in enormous gas-guzzling behemoths that could do double duty as Panzer tanks.
    I suppose the world is safer these days. It would have to be. And that kids still make their own fun. But for a part of me, it’s just not the same as going down to the creek with a stick to turn up water bugs.