Three of them, standing on the overpass as i was heading home with a head full of “i’ve still gotta” items for my day.   Boys at that magic age where they’re old enough to have freedom for adventure, but young enough that it’s still cool to just play.

i scooted to the right lane to exit the highway, and watched them signalling the trucks – that universal kid gesture that says “Hey, Mister!  Honk your big loud air horn when you go under the bridge!”   Before i rounded the corner, i heard a trucker comply with their semaphore request.

Flashing back to my own days on the bridge, i could almost feel their giddiness!  Growing up, we had an interstate bridge on our street – maybe a half mile down the road from our house.  Before the days when large, chain-link fences are erected to keep people from dropping projectiles onto the cars below, we spent many hours on that bridge.  Watching for trucks.  Running from side to side to catch them as they approached. 

This is, by the way, the definition of the phrase “Small town, not much to do”. 

We’d get lost in it, though.  The kind of thing you do when you’re a bored kid.  The kind of thing that everyone did.  In the grand scheme of things?  Pretty damn meaningless.

But i miss that feeling. 

With the weight of a couple more dead people* dropping on me this week, along with a few more bits of annoyance and vexation for good measure, i was dragging ass on the way home.  People have noticed that i’ve acquired the habit of a very deep sigh.  Sometimes it comes with nearly every exhale.

When did i forget how to leave it behind?  When did i lose my ability to find mindless amusement in the most simple things?  When did i get so fucking old? 

i’m off on another business trip in the morning.  Some time being stoopid with the Dawg Boyz with friends.  May be just exactly what this ol’ bag of sighs needs… Shame i’m not driving.

adorable traveler found here

* Not literally.  Mom’s sister died on Tuesday at the age of 84.  My boss lost her father within about an hour.  While i’m not close to either of the deceased, their deaths triggered a multitude of things for me to take care of – namely, finding a way for Mom to get to that fucking funeral today, while clearing the massive piles of work-stink that i needed to cover for the boss so she could attend to planting her father.

The other’s gold…

We played together as babies.  We must have, because i simply don’t remember meeting them.  TAB and JLB were the two girls across the street.  Age-wise, they were snuggled neatly between me and my sister, T, making for perfect playmates.  TAB and i were in the same grade at school, with my sister, T, two years ahead, and JLB a year behind.
We became ‘blood sisters’ somewhere about eight years old, using a Boy Scout knife we hijacked from an older brother.
It was the era of “Lord of the Flies” parenting.  Once we reached school-age, we ran wild.  Dads went to work in the morning, and Moms booted us outside in the summer, expecting us to stay gone until lunch time or injury, whichever came first. 
In addition to the four of us, there were five other girls of similar age in our pack.  There were also several boys in the neighborhood, but they were clustered at the end of the street, and we only connected with them for “Girls vs. Boys” games of Capture the Flag, or the big neighborhood wiffleball and football games*. 
Adventures?  All the damn time!  Tree forts were made with construction lumber and supplies swiped** from construction sites.  We’d camp out in sleeping bags at least once a week during summer – often doing a bit of backyard pool hopping on the hottest nights. 
Winter months forced the adventures indoors.  The younger years involved hours of “playing Barbie”, where we’d transport suitcases full of Barbie gear to an empty garage or basement.  We’d set up complex scenarios, our Barbie dolls living out our projected lives as adults.  Oh, there were Ken dolls, too, but they were mostly used as props, or torture victims.
Rather than the four of us descending upon one household for sleepovers, we did something called “trading sisters” – asking parents if we could swap out a sister for the night.  This way, no parent had to deal with more than two squealing girls at a time.  The logistics were nearly perfect.
The four of us stayed pretty close until my sister hit high school and some of her friends had cars.  By the end of her freshman year in high school she’d moved on.  The remaining trio remained close for a couple more years, but over time, we found other friends, got our own cars, and our connectivity naturally declined. 
TAB got married right out of high school.  i remember going to her wedding – to a guy she’d been dating for over a year, but i’d never met.  Having left town for school, i felt a little out of place.  JLB went to nursing school in town.  The next time i saw either of them was six years later, at their mother’s funeral.  After that? Three years later when one of their brothers died. 
We vowed to stop meeting up only at funerals – and did manage a few fun gatherings of the old neighborhood gang.  But life, babies, jobs and the universe colluded to make such events rare.  TAB and JLB were both at Dad’s funeral.  When JLB, who remained single, adopted a son four years ago, i brought Mom with me to the baby shower. 
Last weekend, i was a little surprised to find TAB at the high school reunion – she was always shy in crowds.  As i fluttered around the room – mixing up visits with pleasant people and dodging a few whack jobs – i’d find myself seeking refuge in the corner, where TAB and another shy friend were hiding.  Snippets of conversation, family updates, pictures of kids…. But not much time to really talk.
Yesterday, i got an e-mail from TAB:  “It was so nice to see you at the reunion. I’m a fish out of water at those kind of things but you made me feel more at ease. Wish we could have chatted a little more… maybe next time we see each other.”
The memories i acquired with TAB and JLB are the ones that made my childhood idyllic.  In fact, it’s that idyllic part of my childhood that probably kept me from noticing that i lived in a trailer park.  The more i think about it, TAB and JLB may have provided the foundation that got me out of there, reasonably intact. 
It is my hope that my final words can echo those of my father – “I have no regrets. No unfinished business.  I can go now.”  If there was someone you grew up with that got away from you?  That’s the stuff regrets are made of… 
We’re looking for a free weekend in October…


* Tackle.  Flag football was for girls…
** The ONLY word for this is “swiped”.  Not “stolen”, “misappropriated” or “purloined”.  There are a few other words that come close, such as “pinched”, “filched” or “ripped off”, but in the world of my childhood, the word was “swiped”.

They go round and round…

My first reaction was mild irritation.  Why couldn’t i have cleared the oncoming school bus before the red flashing lights came on, forcing me to stop?  Since i was returning to the office following a mid-afternoon appointment, i decided I wasn’t really in a hurry, and went back to sorting the ‘to-do’ list in my head.
An older man stood patiently at the end of the driveway, waiting for the bus to dispatch a child.  Slightly rounded of spine, he was maybe in his mid- to late-sixties.  i looked again to see if it was a “special needs” bus for disabled students – wondering just how long i’d be sitting there if the wheelchair ramp had to deploy.  Relieved as the emerging child bounded down the bus steps.  He was a gangly thing, somewhere around 10 years old.
My irritation was soon replaced  by amusement.
As soon as the boy hopped from the last step, the old man turned and sprinted toward the front door – a foot race!  The kid went full out, cutting Grandpa no slack.  But Grandpa showed game, using his height advantage and stretching to full stride.  They were neck-and-neck, as the bus pulled away from the curb, blocking my view of the finish line.  i rolled onwards. 
For the remainder of the drive, my ‘to-do’ list was nowhere to be found – replaced by a flood of memories. 
The way it felt to step off the bus on a sunny spring day and race down a driveway that seemed to be miles long.  Watching my son and his friends execute games with complex rules only they understood in little-boy war games.  Putzing around the house, seeing my daughter spend hours at her “art table”, humming tunes to herself as she made magic with glitter, glue and odd piles of colored paper.  In the backyard, my Dad patiently teaching me how to throw a football in a perfect spiral.  The endless feel of a summer afternoon, floating on a raft in Lake Erie while my son tried out his new swim gear – perfecting the art of blowing snorkel-water on his old lady.  Squeals from the family room at midnight, as my daughter and her friends giggled their way through a sleep-over party.
Memories of my childhood.  Memories of their childhood.  Swirled together – the same way i still mush up my cake and ice cream at birthday parties.
Simply from a glimpse into the daily ritual of a man and his grandson…  i was uncharacteristically cheerful all afternoon.

“Lord of the Flies” parenting, c.a. 1967

My childhood was idyllic.  Perhaps because life was actually good, or perhaps because i didn’t know there could be anything different.  My only view of other realities was through books, television and movies.  And other than “Swiss Family Robinson“, i never found a childhood situation i liked better.

In the end, it didn’t matter.  Until my hormones shipped me off to the realm of teen angst, i was a happy kid.

Dad worked, Mom was home.  In the late 1960’s suburbs in the midwestern United States, that was how things were.  Very few working Moms in the neighborhood.  Reading recent discussions on “the mommy wars” over at Anniegirl1138, got me reflecting on my own childhood.

Mom was responsible for all logistics at the homestead, was chauffeur for car-pooling operations, maintained order and was Chief Justice of the Family Supreme Court.  Did she hover?  Help us with homework?  Anguish over our choices of classes at school?  Insert herself into every aspect of our extra-curricular lives?  Not exactly…

Summer mornings were all pretty much the same.  My sister and i would wake up and forage in the kitchen for breakfast*, scratch our bits in front of the television for maybe a half hour, and were then expected to get our sorry asses outside.  For the entire day.  Mom had work to do**. Fortunately, there were dozens of children our age – the golden years were between 7 and 12 for me – so there was always someone to tag up with for adventures.

What did we do?  Nothing and everything.  No structured sports, summer camps or organized activities.  We filled the days with pick-up games of wiffle ball, kick ball, football, pickle or just random shit we’d make up.  Climbed trees.  Construction materials were stolen from building sites and turned into tree houses and forts.  Pylons (also stolen) set up in the largest driveways for bike rodeos.  We put on summer carnivals***.  We played “Capture the Flag” in the soybean field behind our house, against the older boys down the street….

Did our mothers have any fucking idea what we were doing?  Nope.  We’d stumble home around lunch time, grab something to eat, then it was back outside again.  We played Army.  We were spies, keeping notes on the activities of people in the neighborhood.  We’d become characters from TV shows… Brady Bunch, Gilligan’s Island, F-Troop****, Partridge Family, Lost In Space – and my personal favorite, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. 

Barbies?  Absolutely!  Intricate societal games with the collective Barbie Arsenal – trundled to someone’s garage in an armada of busted American Tourister suitcases that doubled as our Barbie houses.  These games would last an entire day… we’d build cities, create “soap opera” situations, work through adult problems as only children can do… At the end of the day, we’d often retrieve the Ken dolls from a corner of the garage, tied up with dirty shoelaces and abandoned.  On occasion, there were Barbie mutilations and sacrifice. 

Were there Moms watching this?  Nope.  Sometimes they’d wander by and offer Kool-Aid, but in general, we were on our own until dinner time.  Oh, we could run home mid-afternoon, but we had to make damn sure we didn’t wake up Mom, as she snored in front of “The Guiding Light”.  Much like awakening a hibernating grizzly, we knew better…

So long as we were home for dinner?  No one really gave a shit what we’d been doing all afternoon.  My first beer, my first cigarette, and my fist look at the soft-focus porn in Playboy magazines all happened before 5:00 pm on sunny summer days.

After dinner, and washing dishes, it was back outside.  Sometimes the older brothers and sisters in the neighborhood would join up for pick-up sports, set off fireworks or – joy of joys – to take us for rides on motorcycles and dirt bikes.  Helmets?  Huh?

One of my fondest memories is of something we christened “Twilight Call”.  Summer nights, dusk.   The parents would call their children home… Voices wafting through the warm summer air.  Each voice distinct, not just by the name being called… “Taaaaaaaa-meeeeeeee!  TAAAAAAAAAA-meeeeee!” came the tiny bird-like voice of Tammy’s mom.  If Tammy ignored it?  We all knew that it would be followed in a few minutes by the gruff, angry voice of her father – who scared the collective crap out of us.  “TAMMY!  TAMMY!”  At the first staccato burst transmission, we’d generally get Tammy’s ass moving on her way before he came out looking for her…

We knew our boundaries.  We worked within them.  We had to stay within vocal range.  Simple, and universally understood by parents and children alike.  

Were there injuries?  Of course… Every summer one of us broke an extremity on the cable swing down by the pond.  Salt-pellet buckshot in the ass for stealing apples.  Walking barefoot through a construction site, scavenging plywood for the walls of a fort-in-progress, i managed to step on a nail in a 2″x4″, which went through my foot.  Tetanus shot and a pressure bandage and i was on my way…

Given such happy memories of my childhood, did i afford my own children the same latitude?  Not entirely, but we attempted to preserve elements of it for them.  We chose our family home partly because it was in a landlocked neighborhood, with low traffic, allowing kids to ride bikes in the street.  Oh, and there was a creek running through it.  Crawdads.  Frogs.  Turtles.  Oh, hell yeah!  

My son was fortunate enough to have a pack of boys to run with, but the girl situation was limited – so there were lots of ‘girl parties’ and sleepovers with school friends.  Since both of us worked, the kids were in after school care until The Girl was eleven and The Boy was nine.  After that they had fairly strict operational constraints as latch key kids. 

For three summers, i took a month off – without pay – and was damn lucky my profession/employer allowed the option.  Just to let them hang out and be bored.  Not to have to get them up early every morning and bundle them off to ‘day camp’.  They at least had a taste of it…

It was a balance that worked well for our family.  Perfect?  Hardly.  But allowing children a chance to live a little “Lord of the Flies” style may be the best way to prepare them for the big bad world…

Much nicer than anything we ever constructed - and probably a few less rusty nails sticking out at face level...

Much nicer than anything we ever constructed - and probably a few less rusty nails sticking out at face level...

* Quisp and Quake were favorites — WITH SPOONFULS OF SUGAR ON TOP.  Seriously. We put sugar on top of cereal.  Pop Tarts were another staple… Fruit?  Whazzat?

** And she worked her ass off.  Three loads of laundry a day.  She ironed sheets, shirts and Dad’s damn handkerchiefs.  Ironed. Handkerchiefs.  Yeah.  That’s what i said, even as a kid.  “But he’s just gonna blow his nose on them?!?!”  Food, cleaning, basic home maintenance. 

*** This is a topic for a future post, but basically, our gang of kids put on a successful summer carnival — autonomously — every summer for five years.  Raised money for charity.  Virtually NO parental involvement.

**** Which turned out to be fine training for my future stint as a supervisor…