When we baby-boomer’s woke up to that first day of summer vacation, we had two options. Either go outside to play or just go outside. “If you don’t find something to do out there, I’ll find something for you to do in here.” the phrase was a resounding echo down both sides of the street. Short of a family trip or a week of summer camp, there were no reprieves, 8 long hot weeks of home living.
I was a yard girl though, you didn’t have to tell me to go out twice. Or to go to bed for that matter. My mattress was a magic carpet, top bunk suspended Zen. I’d conjure up new adventures while lying as close to the screened window as I could on those sultry nights. A trickle of breeze would be both the universe’s confirmation of tomorrow’s plan and permission to close my eyes.
My toes started turning to the front door the moment daylight crept into the window. I submissively performed whatever chore or ate any horrific gruel set before me just to get outside quicker. I would peer out of the window every few minutes, the sight of one child in the street was the promise of ten in the next half hour.
We all looked the same, dusty feet, play clothes, scraped knees and bare feet. Sidewalks and yards were littered with colorful flip lops, names scrawled across the bottom.
Yesterday’s hopscotch grid was still etched out on the sidewalk, one smooth pebble in a square, hastily left when the call for lunch or dinner rang out.
Our snacks didn’t have little straws that poked into them or paper that peeled back to reveal velvety cheese and pretzels or pepperoni. Nope, we had wild plums, blackberries, green apples (belly ache), peaches and wild muscadine grapes. If nothing else was available we would suck Honeysuckle and chew sour grass (sheep’s sorrel.)
Dinner time was predictable for most of us. It seemed every mother on the street had the same recipe book. There was spaghetti night, casserole this or that night, fish night and then clean out the frig night. Anything that could be squashed into a concoction was baked in the newfangled Bundt pan. Dessert was fruit cocktail sunk to the bottom of a bowl of jiggling Jello.
Then there was that dinner. The one that kept us from clamoring “What’s for dinner?” all
livelong day — meatloaf Tuesday. An icky ketchup, bread and hamburger menagerie that
to this day has to be described with the apology “Not your mother’s meatloaf.”
Our morning’s started with the parading of Huffy bikes and scooters. Some of the rebel’s would hop a curve onto the pavement with a watchful eye out for “the parents.”
The girls sat on steps quietly until other’s joined them, or sat cross legged in the grass (if they could, I couldn’t) for hours while talking, braiding each other’s hair, weaving flower chain necklaces from clover or folding chewing gum wrappers into bracelets.
On adventurous days we’d explore or start secret password clubs. One way for the older kids to rid themselves of the younger.
One of my favorites activities were the scavenger hunts. One of the kids had a Red Ryder wagon which we filled with dirt and traipsed through the woods on a mushroom hunt, quite possibly creating the first variegated succulent planting. The same wagon was used to scour the roadside and ditches for discarded glass soda bottles, at 3 to 5 cents a pieces they were worth their weight in candy cigarettes and fireballs.
We spent the day doing things that would have parents locked up for child neglect today. Mostly un-supervised and half-naked we were tree climbing, throwing lawn darts, crawling through ditches for craw-daddies, rolling down hills inside cable wheels, swinging on willow branches, riding pines and drinking water from old brass house faucets. And yes, gasp — I do remember hiding in a rusty old refrigerator while playing hide and seek.
We’d wander off in all directions during the day but always seemed to coral back together at some point. Things that brought us running were bike wrecks, someone getting a “whoopin” or a parent hollering “Watermelon” with no more fuss than laying it out on a picnic table and whacking it into chunks on newspaper. I hate watermelon but I love how it made everyone happy.
Animals were a big part of our outdoor experience. No one spayed and neutered cats or dogs back then (not a good thing) and ALL pets were outside pets. Even as kids we knew this wasn’t humane. But we, the kids were their saviors as much as we could be. Our eyes and ears were tuned to the swollen bellies and quiet mews of kittens and puppies. We’d find them quickly, in barns and shed rafters or under houses. Turtles were the boy’s favorites, they’d sneak them into the house inside their pants or under a dirty shirt.
We had team sports, no uniforms required. Badminton, dodge ball (with a deflated ball) because the only kid that had a bike pump was spending the summer with his grandma, four square, softball (without gloves) and old tires for bases, leap frog, king of the mountain.
Small team ground sports were pick up sticks, marbles, checkers, tiddly winks, Chinese jump rope, Twister, cowboys and Indians and the girls played clap clap.
The days whittled by long and slow until late in the evening when the parents would start calling us for dinner. One by one the gang dispersed. No one really wanted to be the last one outside so when the crew was down to 2 or 3 of us, everyone went. Scooters and bikes lay strewn in the yards while dinner was consumed, some trickled back out at dusk to retrieve their stuff at the command of their parents. And then the day was done. Except for the Whippoorwill or the occasional slap of a screen door, the clinking dishes in dim lit kitchen’s were the last sounds we’d hear. Fireflies became nightlights as the curtains drew on another summer day.
It wasn’t always pretty on those side walked streets, but I choose to remember the good. Mostly it was the stuff inside the house that scared us. The daddy that drank too much, the mama that was too fond of the belt, the hungry ones, the d-i-v-o-r-c-e, the sister that went to live with aunty for 9 months. It was all real in the yard, nothing was sugar coated except for our Kool-Aid stained bellies. But — when we were together outside, this mish mash of kids of all ethnicity, we took care of each other.
I’ve thought of our ragtime crew often;
Cricket who heard that if we put lemon juice in our hair and brushed it in the sun for an hour it would turn blonde. Now that I think back on it, I realize it was a blonde joke.
Debbie, whose dad was the sheriff and whose mother provided the best summer snacks.
Andrew, a wayward young fella who stole peaches from a neighbors freezer and gave them to us all. I still feel guilty about that, but they were the best damn peaches I ever ate.
We weren’t normal, we weren’t abnormal, none of us. We were children, which may possibly be the last remaining word to describe a collective group of people that is unarguably appropriate and politically correct. We appreciated the differences we all had. Not everyone’s mom had a red Kool -Aid pitcher.
I was transported back to those summer days while on the streets of Charleston a few weeks ago. A friend and I walked out of Fast & French after lunch and were saying our good-byes when we saw a little boy in full Batman regalia, cap, mask the whole shebang lying face down on a street gutter. Was he looking for the joker? Catwoman? It made me want to shout “Holy hideout Batman!”
I thought back on that little boy later, about my summer’s too. His suit transformed him, but his mind transported him. I believe with all my heart that imagination was by far the best toy I ever had.