Freedoms, Large and Small

Long before the advent of The Weather Channel, weather existed. Metal feed-store thermometers dangling next to mops and buckets on the back stoop recorded summer’s rising temperatures, while pools of imaginary water shimmered above the asphalt: swirling, receding, and evaporating mirages that marked the beginning of summer as surely as any column of mercury.

In midsummer, heavy, breathless nights made sleep impossible. Even the heat-laden trees seemed to murmur and complain as we dragged cots from the house to lay beneath the stars, lured toward dreams by the chirring of unseen crickets.

When the feathery blades of grass began to crispen and brown beneath an unbearable sun, sprinklers appeared:  four revolving metal arms whirling ribbons of water across the lawn with a soft, rhythmic susurration.

We delighted in running and sliding through the water, collapsing into giggles when we miscalculated and collided with a friend. As play grew more exuberant, knees began to skin and occasional howls of protest drowned out our delighted screams. At that point, doors flew open and an adult — a mother, a grandparent, a neighbor — would yell, “You kids stop it now! Go find something else to do.”

Always, there was something to do. We might hop on our bikes and pedal to the corner gas station, where the small glass case overflowed with root beer barrels, Walnettos, and soft, pliable circus peanuts. Candy necklaces, candy cigarettes with tiny pink sugar flames, and Necco wafers were favorites; we bargained for our favorite flavors with the sort of savvy, ruthless determination a commodities trader might envy.

Twice each week, the Bookmobile parked in front of our grade school. In June, we attended Vacation Bible School before heading off to camp to enjoy hikes in the woods and evening campfires. Day camps found us transforming  popsicle sticks and plastic laces into mysterious, inexplicable treasures, or replicating famous paintings with dried-bean mosaics.

In short, summer was a time to explore: to try new things. We learned to throw softballs; to roller-skate; to push a lawn mower. Over time, we took on even greater challenges: walking with a friend to an uptown movie; daring the high dive; or navigating the town’s library stacks on our own.

If we hesitated before pushing new limits, it was our own timidity that held us back rather than the over-protectiveness of parents or caretakers. The rules were general, and common sense prevailed. Wear shoes on a bicycle. Be home by dark. Don’t eat all your candy at once. Never swim alone. Don’t fight. When you do fight, don’t hurt each other.

Beyond that, we were on our own.

The same sense of freedom infused our celebration of summer’s High Holy Day: the 4th of July.  After a morning parade, everyone set aside ball-playing and hopscotch to fold napkins, ice watermelons, or help to set the table. The menu itself was traditional, and the grilled hamburgers, sweet corn, thick-sliced tomatoes still warm from the vine, potato salad, baked beans, and pies that the women produced could have fed a threshing crew.  We ate our fill, leaving what remained on the table for late-comers, or anyone who couldn’t resist just one more spoonful.

If there was risk associated with the abandoned potato salad, we didn’t think much about it, and no one seemed to suffer. For that matter, we didn’t give much thought to possible dangers associated with our evening’s entertainment: boxes of red, white, and blue sparklers waiting to be burned on the front lawn before we headed to the park to watch the town’s fireworks display.

With today’s airwaves filled with a new holiday caution — to avoid combining fireworks with potentially explosive hand sanitizer — I began thinking about the pleasures of those childhood fireworks and remembered an earlier caution issued by a representative of a local hospital who said, rather off-handedly, that no child, under any circumstances, ever should be allowed to hold a sparkler.

By the time she finished listing the possible consequences — a blinded eye, a burned hand, a torched neighborhood — it was possible to imagine a child with a sparkler bringing down the whole of Western civilization.

Certainly restrictions on fireworks — even total bans — are reasonable in areas of drought or high population. However accidental, burning down an apartment complex or half a subdivision doesn’t fall into the category of celebration.

But fireworks safety in the absence of rain or the presence of crowds was not her concern. She meant to discourage every parent, in every circumstance, from allowing their child a traditional pleasure of Independence Day celebrations.

Today, her advice seems a precursor of a phenomenon increasingly obvious in our society: the so-called ‘nannie factor’ — the attempt of self-appointed experts or general busy-bodies to control the behavior of people around them. As C.S. Lewis famously wrote:

Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busy-bodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated, but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end: for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.

Lewis’s “omnipotent moral busy-bodies” also appear in Ian Chadwick’s essay on conformity. As Chadwick puts it:

Personal agendas do not benefit liberty: they hinder it. Pretty soon it’s dictatorship by committee – committees peopled with well-meaning, dedicated, but unelected members whose goals are to enforce their own personal vision of utopia. They erect increasingly restrictive rules that slowly squeeze the life out of a community and bleed it until it is colourless.

Such concerns may seem far removed from sparklers, sprinklers, and over-the-hill potato salad. On the other hand, as warnings against products and activities multiply daily, I find myself asking: are we in fact becoming a nation of nannies — Lawrence Durrell’s “old women of both sexes” determined to warn one another away not only from legitimate risk, but even from the richness of life?

The nation I love always has been a nation willing to allow its citizens to celebrate and live as they will: worshipping, parading, remembering, reciting, and above all participating in rituals that sparkle and sting like freedom itself.

 

In a world where sprinklers are allowed, might we slip and fall on the water-slicked grass bending beneath our feet? Of course. Could we over-indulge in tainted foods and suffer the consequences? Certainly. Will the sun or sparklers burn; the bicycle tip; the bone break; the puppy nip? No doubt, for anything can happen in a world where nothing is guaranteed. Given the realities of an unpredictable world, we need to exercise both caution and care on behalf of those who live around us.

But too much of the wrong kind of caring can lead to paralysis and disengagement, particularly when what passes for care is little more than an expression of thinly-disguised fear. For those who live in fear of what ‘might’ happen; for those who hunger to control what cannot be controlled; and especially for those who prefer to deny that brokenness, contingency, and pain always will be a part of life, there never will be enough caring.

“Don’t you care about your children?” ask the experts. “Don’t you care about your health?” “Don’t you care about physical security, or the acceptance and approval of others?” Certainly, we care. But we care even more for life and freedom; for speaking with dignity and demanding truth; for celebrating and enjoying the multitude of gifts freely offered by the world.

In truth, when we choose to worry less and participate more, we often discover even the most dire warnings dissolving beneath the summer’s rising warmth. We run through the sprinkler without slipping. The sparklers light up the night like the stars, and the last bit of warm, wilty potato salad gets eaten, just because it’s there.

As the children fall asleep, we tend to them in the darkness as the world itself sighs everyone home: safe, sound, and free as a bird crying through the deep summer night, careless and carefree at once.

 

Comments always are welcome.

101 thoughts on “Freedoms, Large and Small

  1. What a wonderful word portrait of past childhood summers you’ve created. I can identify with so many things you wrote about in the first part of your essay.

    Growing up, we did have a “sparkler rule” brought on by too many kids having burned their bare feet stepping on hot wires. We had to put our burned out sparklers in a coffee can of water before we could have another.

    1. Now that you mention it, I remember that coffee can filled with water. It’s fun to remember all the things coffee cans were used for: sorting screws and nails, melting wax for candles, storing dried fruits and rice. As convenient as K-cups or bags may be, they’re not good for much else — except tossing in the trash.

      1. We have a campfire going and the kids have to drop their sparkler sticks in there to get another. The sticks this year weren’t metal though, they were wooden.

        1. I kept thinking about this. While getting rid of those old metal sticks probably is a good thing — like getting rid of true tin foil — the thought of wooden sticks seemed problematic. I suppose the answer’s that the heat of a sparkler isn’t enough to set wooden sticks aflame, or perhaps that the wood’s been treated.

          I thought of you the other day when I read that Brazos Bend was listed as one of the best state parks in the country. The other Texas park that made the list was Palo Duro. I have GOT to get out to Brazos Bend one of these days! But first, it has to cool down a bit.

          1. I was expecting the sticks to burn. They didn’t.

            I haven’t been to either and was needing some parks to visit this winter. It *should * be cool enough by January, right?

  2. I recall the days of my youth. How many sparklers run with? How much ancient potato salad scarfed down? How many fights? How many for bidden actions taken? Some had consequences. Some didn’t. Learning the hard way is still learning.

    Nannyism has many consequences not the least of which is the lost opportunity to form sound judgment and a sense of personal responsibility. Falling off a jungle gym at a young age taught me not to clown around too much when doing something potentially dangerous. It also taught me that I could get up and try again. How many kids these days don’t get a chance to learn that? And in not having a chance to learn that, they do not learn how to differentiate between true dangers in life and risks well worth taking.

    As another result, the world has lawyered up. Just yesterday I was paging through the PDF user manual of a product and had to flip through eight pages of “product information“ obviously written not by tech writers but by lawyers. The essential message was, don’t use this product. Let’s make everybody afraid. Very afraid.

    But also let’s make people stupid. Kids – because they’ve never been hurt and never had a chance to learn consequences – think that they are completely invincible. Well, I think all kids think they are invincible but it seems more so with this generation than others. Just yesterday I read a headline that some kids in Alabama are having COVID parties with a prize to the first one who gets sick. But the “prize” may be won by somebody who wasn’t even at the party.

    Freedom to self-determinedly act as individuals for the greatest good is a tremendous freedom, even though the act might be a temporary self-imposed limitation. Many of us do not seem to realize that. These are the ones who with their last dying breath say, “you did it to me. It’s all your fault.“

    The Golden Rule is a responsibility. It is also a tremendous freedom.

    Now pass the potato salad.

    1. “Learning the hard way is still learning” — exactly so. Your memories of the jungle gym highlight the value of children being able to test themselves in outdoor play, refining skills and judgment. The physical world is real, not virtual, and it can bite back or bruise. Children who learn to cope with that in their early years are less likely to crumple as adults when the world pushes back. Adults who have the lesson reinforced in their later years, as I did with sailing, are twice-blessed.

      Beyond that, children cut off from nature often come to fear nature, or lose any sense of care for the natural world. I can’t get over the irony of certain adults calling for increased environmental action while denying their children and youth the opportunity to engage with nature.

      As for getting up and trying again, there’s a saying among sailors: “If you ain’t been aground, you ain’t been anywhere.” That’s truth, right there. I’m convinced that friends my age and older, who tend to be more sanguine about the dreaded virus, aren’t necessarily less concerned or less cautious; they’ve simply seen more. I grew up in the era of rheumatic fever and diphtheria, and before the availability of the Salk polio vaccine. We were accustomed to quarantine notices in windows, and having to wave to classmates from the yard. We had crippled friends, and knew about iron lungs. Between that and all the other life experiences that have come over the decades, we’re in a better place to say, “Well, I survived that… and that… and THAT… so I surely can survive this.”

  3. What lovely memories to be shared with us. My memories of childhood are not much different from yours. We had so much freedom and so much less worry to cloud our summers. Even the long walk home from school was filled with adventures and discoveries.

    It’s a sad state of affairs that many children get collected from school via car in modern times. Not because they live so far away, but mainly because its either not safe to walk home OR the afternoon is filled with so many planned activities, sports and hobbies requiring speedy transport to meet deadlines.

    How many children today use their imagination for play?

    Many of today’s children just don’t know what fun it is to be free and communing with nature any more.

    1. I walked to classes all the way through high school, even after friends began getting cars. Sometimes I’d carpool with friends in poor weather, but we arranged those carpools ourselves — parents didn’t do it for us. In junior high, parents sometimes took pity on us in severely cold weather, but we generally made the hour-long walk both morning and night. It gave us a time to talk, and I suspect all that walking probably helped to keep us fit. Obesity wasn’t an issue in those days.

      You’re right about overscheduled youngsters. I didn’t realize until a few years ago that some activities aren’t a reflection of a kid’s preferences; they’re chosen to look good on college applications. Many of our graduates barely can write a coherent paragraph or double a recipe, but they’re always busy.

  4. Great memories, Linda. I guess it would have worried my parents to know we used to toss cherry bombs and firecrackers at each other. Well, I’m glad nothing bad happened. Excellent essay.

    1. Ah, yes. Cherry bombs. As I recall, those were associated as much with the end of school as July 4th. There was this little tradition that involved the boys’ restroom, and toilets, and a love of big noises. Most of us limited ourselves to those strings of inch-long firecrackers that make Chinese New Year such fun. I’ve done more damage to myself with my heat gun than with any firecracker.

      Happy Independence Day to your whole crew!

      1. Thank you, Linda. We used to take a cherry bomb and pull back hard on a Wham-o slingshot, light the bomb and let her fly. We woud be aiming at the kids in the next block. Funny when the thing went off at about ten feet in the air. All of them hit the dirt. Wet my pants laughing many times at the sight.

        1. I couldn’t imagine doing such a thing, even as a kid. On the other hand, I sure would have been on the edge of the crowd, watching. Now, all these years later, I’m laughing, too.

    1. All of these memories fit nicely with your memories of your car trips, and the treats that ended them. In truth, we have more freedom than we realize to recreate the best aspects of those former times today, just as we can reject the worst aspects of those years, and move on. Sometimes, like Elsa, we need a little help, but it can be done — and then every day is ‘independence day.’

  5. The concern about committee “members whose goals are to enforce their own personal vision of utopia” is especially pertinent this year, as daily transgressions documented in the news keep proving (except in the many outlets that censor what news they report). The 1984-ization and Animal Farm-ization of America have gone further in the last two months than in the past two decades. “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others” was bad enough. The latest version is “All people are equal, but some people must be treated as less equal than others.”

    1. You’re quite right, although there are names other than Orwell’s that have resonated for me in recent months: McCarthy and Mao particularly.

      The Chinese Cultural Revolution, of course, was dedicated to the destruction of the ‘Four Olds’ — Old Customs, Old Culture, Old Habits, and Old Ideas. This excerpt from a 1971 New York Times article seems somehow familiar:

      “In the turbulent years from 1966 to 1968, what remained of old religious practices, old superstitions, old festivals, old social practices such as traditional weddings and funerals, and old ways of dress were violently attacked and suppressed. Visual evidences of old things were destroyed, and there was an orgy of burning of old books and smashing of old art objects.”

      “Young Red Guards invaded homes and shattered family altars that denoted continued Confucian reverence for generations of forbears. The few temples, mosques and churches still used for religious purposes were closed and put to secular use. Even those that had been left open for sightseeing purposes, such as the great Buddhist, Lama and Taoist temples of Peking, were barred and their statues, altars and other furnishings were removed.”

      This papercut poster titled “Eliminating the Four Olds” was unearthed at the University of Michigan’s Center for Chinese Studies. It bears a strange resemblance to a still from our evening news.

      1. Yes, a strange and terrifying resemblance to the nightly news. The people shown there are fanatics, and they’re getting more and more emboldened by the “authorities” who keep giving in to each crazy new demand. Like you, I’ve been reminded many times of Mao’s Anti-Cultural Revolution (I insist on telling the truth and adding the “Anti-“).

    1. I didn’t realize that the Necco wafers are coming back this summer. Several chains close to me, like Walgreens and CVS, may have them already. I’ll trade you my licorice for some lemon or orange!

  6. Brings back memories of my childhood, children these days don’t have comparable freedoms. I used to drive by the NECCO factory in Cambridge, it became the DeHaviland candy factory, but I’m not sure if the building still stands.

    1. I didn’t realize that DeHaviland produced the Haviland Thin Mints that I always liked. They were so much better than the York Peppermint Patties, but they seem to have disappeared. I see they’re still being produced, so I need to look around again. The Necco wafers are back, post-bankruptcy, so a little taste of the past still is possible.

  7. The workings of committees and chairpersons is something close to my heart. My former wife an I were at the mercy of one man and his secateurs. I ended up selling and moving. I went back to the old place last week and the birch tree we planted and nurtured had been cut to ground level. He, the manic slasher, stopped my car and said; “Gerard you don’t understand anything about ‘democracy’, do you”?

    My kids loved billy carts and making cubby-houses. My wife Helvi used to read books holding a burning candle as a child. We used to lay matches on tramlines and hear them go off when a tram passed over them .
    A good article, Linda.

  8. In the Girl Scout camp I went to, our tents were up on platforms because this is rattler country. I remember lazy afternoons when we took our obligatory postprandial liedown, lying on my cot, listening to the ratcheting of the cicadas and the hooting of the doves, making a lanyard for my pocket knife from that flat plastic weaving stuff — pink and black was all the rage at that time, but mine was — you guessed it — blue and white. I rode my bike all over the neighborhood with old playing cards clothes pinned to the front forks for that satisfying sound. The neighbor who kept us while my mom was at work had aluminum glasses, which, when filled with ice cubes, were the best for drinking Kool-Aid — cherry flavor, please! Using a golf ball for jacks (I could get all the way up to 15-sies with a golf ball.) Eating dill pickle halves while sitting on the swing.

    We are in the era of the helicopter parent. The daughter of a friend taught at the college level for a while and she was aghast at how helpless (and clueless) her students were. Because “let mommy/daddy do it for you, baby” was the rule they grew up with, they went off to college with the most appalling lack of self-care skills.

    That said, you know, don’t you, that now I’m going to have to go get some ‘tater salad and thaw the hotdogs out. Good thing I’ve got a can of Wolf Brand hot dog chili in the cupboard. (And you don’t have to worry about the left overs if you don’t leave any!)

    1. I confess to being a bit perplexed by your comment, Derrick. I’m not sure what you mean by “elfin safety” — it’s not a phrase I’ve heard. As for the freedom to carry guns; there was nothing unusual or threatening about that during my childhood and youth. Guns were a tool, not a weapon. They were used for hunting, or to deal with the occasional predator on the farm — just as they are today in rural Texas. The farm boys often would have them in their trucks at school, and none of us thought a thing about it, because they were used responsibly. Of course, that’s not always true today.

      1. Thanks very much, Linda. Nothing can be done here without consideration of Health and Safety. Every company or organisation must have such a policy and a designated person to inspect the premises, the park, or whatever. It is facetiously called “elfin safety”.

        1. Ah. That makes sense of it. Sorting out British English and American English is one thing, but when it comes to sorting idioms and slang, it gets even more difficult. Thanks!

  9. Amen to all that.
    I’ve been living dangerously most of my life it appears and continue to do so. Yet managed to pass three score years…..must be a miracle.

    1. In her book An American Childhood, Annie Dillard writes, ““You can’t test courage cautiously, so I ran hard and waved my arms hard, happy.” That’s how I see you — running hard down that red dirt road, happy. We’re happy to be traveling with you.

    1. It’s one of my favorite holidays, GP, and I know it’s one of yours. I hope your celebrations are great — if you were here, I’d give you some brisket and ribs.

    1. Thanks, Beck! Life wasn’t always rosy then, and it isn’t always rosy now, but I’ve always thought that holding on to the good beats holding on to the bad, and I’d rather remember and honor the good, than not. Happy Independence Day!

  10. We’re cut out of the same cloth. Quick story. I stopped by my son’s house last weekend, to drop something off….within a couple of minutes 3 of the grandchildren spilled out of the house running toward my truck. they wanted to show us their new kittens, their growing garden, their chickens…..it was @ this point, I noticed all three of them were barefoot. I commented to someone, my mom grew up going barefoot in the country too. Sure there were gross things they might step on, etc. etc. but what the heck. let them run around and be kids. the nanny state was not how we raised our kids, and it did my heart good to see, it had not taken root in our sons household either. Take care Linda. DM

    1. I still remember the feel of grass on bare feet. It was better in Iowa than it is down here — Iowa has better lawn grasses! — but that kind of direct contact with the earth has multiple benefits: some mental, some physical. I’m sure I’ve told you about my classmate in grade school who ate spoonsful of dirt for a nickel. We thought it was a little weird, sure. But he didn’t get sick, he had money for candy, and he grew up to be a perfectly respectable guy. He probably has a great immune system.

      Your grandkids’ chickens reminded me: at the farm where I pick fruits and veggies in season, they’ve just gotten in a shipment of baby chicks, and they have some baby goats now. Any kids (of any age) who come out can get a cup of scratch and go feed the chickens while they admire the goats. It’s great fun for the kids and their parents, and I’ve heard rumors that a few kids regularly nag their parents to take them back to “the chicken place.”

  11. A beautiful recollection of your childhood, not too different from my own. You’re correct, of course: life is about living, balancing on that line of knowledge and caution of true danger (it’s still a really great idea to look both ways before crossing any street!) and participation in the art of life.

    Happy, safe but enjoyable Independence Day and everyday, Linda!!

    1. Of course, the freedom we had to roam and explore came only after a good deal of preparation, including that admonition to ‘look both ways.” I finally was allowed to leave our yard on my tricycle at about age three or four, but it didn’t happen until I’d memorized our address and phone number. I still remember that number, too: 1906. Of course, those were the days when we still had phones with no dials and operators who’d ask, “Number, please.”

      Of course, now you’ve reminded me of an old joke:

      “What does the mother squirrel teach her youngster about crossing the street?”
      “Be sure to run both ways.”

  12. This brought back memories of my own childhood. When I thought at times that I suffered so much in my childhood, I now look back realizing I have a lot to be thankful for. We were bare-footed farm kids who knew no end to adventure. My imagination is still a powerful force, and the yearning to get outdoors and hike alone, connecting with nature is still what delights me and brings me joy.

    I hope you enjoy celebrating Independence Day! You’ve prompted me to get some tater salad going for this evening!

    1. No one’s childhood is ‘perfect,’ and mine certainly wasn’t. But I emerged from childhood and youth with certain qualities intact: curiosity, imagination, a willingness to explore the world around me. You did as well, as those are qualities that can serve us for the rest of our lives. I recently read someone’s comment that she was considering “giving in to age, and withdrawing from the world.” I was surprised by her words, and perhaps even a little shocked. Aging may bring various kinds of limitations, particularly physical, but withdrawal from the world? I can’t imagine such a thing.

      I hope your Independence Day was a fine one, and that there’s some potato salad left over. My gathering with friends will be tonight, and the potato salad’s made — along with the pulled pork for sandwiches. Hot dogs and burgers are great, but sometimes a little change is good, too.

  13. This is a thought-provoking essay sparked by your childhood memory of a time when safety rules were not as oppressive as they are now. As a retired teacher, I recall the steady increase in safety regulations, which stifled the creativity and fun of indoor and outdoor activities. Thank you so much for the appropriate article on the American Independence Day, Linda.

    1. Now you’ve reminded me of our favorite playground games, like dodgeball and tag, that no longer are allowed here. Dodgeball was deemed dangerous to kids’ bodies, and the experience of being tagged and called “It” was considered damaging to fragile little psyches. Fewer and fewer people seem to realize that muscles of any sort — physical or mental — have to be used, or they’ll atrophy.

  14. Linda, I wonder if you know how many hearts you’ve touched with this wonderful post?!? I suppose I was several years behind you, so I don’t share in your memories. However, I have a friend who must be about your age, for she regularly tells me enough that I think you two must have been related!

    Isn’t it sad that, in just the blink of an eye, we’ve gone from freedom to oppression? The media and the “experts” prey on our natural fears, leading us to abandon what we logically know in favor of holing up to protect ourselves and those we love from things we cannot even describe. While I don’t envision the lazy, carefree days of your youth to ever return, those of us who missed them are sporting pea-green faces this July Fourth. Happy Independence Day, my friend!

    1. I’ve been reading a few writings from the past, and pondering: is it possible that we’ve been complicit in our own oppression? I know people who’ve been so affected by the constant drumbeat of warnings that they’ve gone beyond reasonable caution and care to paranoia, imprisoning themselves in a cell of their own making. I wonder, too, about the infants who arrive during this time. Everyone knows about imprinting, and how important it is for a baby to learn to recognize and respond to a parent’s face. How will masking affect chidlren who never see their mother or father without a mask in those first, formative weeks? I suspect the law of unintended consequences is lurking.

      The world has changed, for sure. But being carefree? That’s still possible, to one degree or another. Yesterday at my farmers’ market, a guitarist was playing. Most of the song he sang to his own accompaniment were familiar, and people started to sing along. Before long, the whole masked crowd was singing, and grinning like a bunch of naughty children.

      1. You know, I’ve seen children on TV wearing masks (even if their parents aren’t), and it puzzles me. I have no problem with teaching them to think of others’ safety, but shouldn’t the parents do likewise? One can only hope the parents — at least while in their homes — go unmasked and feel free to sing, talk, and smile at the wee ones!

  15. Happy 4th, Linda. what a well-written essay. It was so nice/I read it twice. And a good incantation “Sun or sparklers burn/the bicycle tip/the bone break/the puppy nip” yup, stuff happens, and wash up, slap on a band-aid, calamine, aloe, and rush back out to show off your scabs. Kids need to do some exploring and ingest a certain amount of dirt, some totally blackened hotdogs on a stick, carbonized marshmallows, get a few dings, jump in some freezing water and get a fit of the shivers, because it feels great to dry off and warm up again. I’m totally with you, climbing trees, wading up a creek, scrambling up a few rocks, it was a lot of scrapes and scratches, and all fun – – all except that warm wilty potato salad, man now that’s scary!!

    1. Learning early on that ‘stuff happens’ is important. For one thing, it helps us understand that not everything is a crisis or the end of the world. It’s a lesson that serves me well at work, since every now and then I sit on a scraper, burn myself with a heat gun, drop something overboard, or spill varnish. All of those belong on the warm, wilty potato salad side of life, but slapping on a bandaid or cleaning up the mess beats sitting around and moaning.

      It helps us to understand our own limits, too. I found a hidden hillside covered with a pretty flower called mountain pinks last weekend. That hillside also happened to be quite steep, covered with loose gravel, and overhanging a several hundred foot fall. I wanted a photo of that entire hillside in the worst way, so I put on my hiking boots, tested my footing, and said, “Naw…. We’ll stick with the closeups.”

  16. Happy 4th, Linda! Those were different days back then, wild and carefree. Those were the best of times, and worst of times, for me, if I may borrow the expression from Dickens. My own upbringing was a real mixture of parental paranoia as well as the freedom to be a child, but I have to remember my mother was a nurse, working down in Appalachia, who started her family late in life – she was 47 when I was born – and my father was in the Marines, fighting in the Pacific during WWII. Today I think he would have been diagnosed with PTSD. He had plenty of quite understandable paranoia of his own. It was hard for him to let go of that war experience, which kept playing itself out in his mind. It took a long time to come away with the best of what they taught me, and let the rest of it work its way on down the road. Life is an evolution. The kids will eventually find their own path and survive.

    1. I suspect all of us experienced that mix of influences and experiences: the worst, as well as the best. Your father’s experiences surely shaped him, and his concerns for you, just as my mother’s experiences in the Great Depression shaped her, making her the not-quite-paranoid but certainly over-concerned parent. If I had allowed her anxieties rather than my own judgment to determine my behavior over the years, I would have missed a good bit of life: sailing, travel, career changes.

      I suppose one old-fashioned word for letting go of the past, with all of its ambiguities and unfortunate experiences, is forgiveness. It’s useful for individuals, and it certainly could help our society today.

  17. THIS is summer. We had the tin can for used sparklers, too. And even small we understood “If you don’t watch what you are doing, the sparkler will burn you and it will hurt” – we didn’t have to be told twice because even as little kids we know what “hurt” felt like: skinned knees, falling off too big bikes, rough tree bark slid down, splinters from going barefooted, whacking your hand with a hammer while trying to nail together a hodgepodge fort. As kids, small ouches were allowed – a part of life. “You’ll live, now wash your face and go back outside” “Don’t bother us unless there’s blood and lots of it.” People though best to let kids experience little pains and risks in order to understand what pain was – and best to avoid it – and to never inflict it on others – ’cause it hurt.

    How can we raise brave, strong kids – ones who think and evaluate before actions if they are never allowed little pains, small failures, learning the limits of trust in what others say, – and big smiles when those are overcome and survived? Without learning to manage small risks, dangers, and conflicts on their own without adult intervention, the resulting “adult” will never be strong enough to stand on their convictions even against a crowd – will never be able to make decision or choice without someone guiding/actually choosing their choice – will never be want to explore and try new things- which progress of any sort depends on.
    Dash fully into life or it’s no life at all.
    Great post. Cheers and happy 4th!

    1. My short response is, “Yes.” To all of it. Last Sunday, a friend and I watched a couple of her kittens tussling with one another. You would have thought, by the nips and yips and occasional hiss, that they were trying to kill each other. They weren’t. They were playing: which is to say, they were practicing for life as adult cats, building muscles and developing assertiveness. Kids need the same sort of experiences, and they need to learn that in 99% of the world’s tussles, there’s a winner and a loser. Learning to lose is important, too — it’s the only way someone learns to accept defeat, get back up, get back in the fight, and then win.

      “Dash fully into life or it’s no life at all” is akin to one of my favorite sayings: “The question isn’t whether there’s life after death. The question is, will there be life before death?”

      1. Yep
        The more people closet themselves in buildings and the farther away from nature they get, the more chaos, the more delusional about truth and facts, and the more disfunction in society
        We may have been mentally and physically better before AC – even with dirt and heat (at least you learned early to adapt lifestyle in the heat – and everyone was in the same boat …in multiple meanings HAHA)

  18. If you had asked me to retell my childhood, I doubt I could have remembered all that you have shared. But, upon reading your tale, I did recognize much that was buried in memory unrecalled. I do miss penny candy and ten cent movie admissions. My first date required twenty five cents for our two admissions and a box of popcorn…we were 10 years old.

    As I don’t have kids, it is hard for me to pass judgment on parents for being over protective. OTOH, the lawyering up of society is not of much benefit to society as a whole. I think our best lies somewhere in the middle, beyond the careless time of years gone by and the over concern of today. Common sense should be a part of everyone’s character but that does seem lacking in too many members of our society today. Whether it isn’t being learned at home or through experience in life, that and respect for others needs a brushing up.

    1. The years I most fondly remember certainly weren’t careless; they were carefree, and that carefree feeling was a result of being taught to be careful. Instead of living only by rules imposed from the outside, we were shaped by parents, teachers, and neighbors into children who could be set free in the world because we had learned how to move through it safely.

      There was occasional punishment — my mother’s weapon of choice, used twice, was the balsa wood lid of a Velveeta cheese box — but mostly there was discipline. My own parents followed the advice implied in Alexander Pope’s Epistles to Several Persons (1732): ‘’Tis education forms the common mind; just as the twig is bent, the tree’s inclined.”

      I took a few detours, but today I’m so much like the child I was then, I think the bending must have worked.

      1. I guess careless wasn’t the correct choice of word, but I meant how you used carefree. ABout the only thing I remember as a warning from my folks was not to allow strangers to give me anything and never believe their stories about bringing me home. Aside from that my brother and I roamed free. We always lived in urban locales so not a lot of country to experience until we moved to Springfield, MA and lived near a park and another area we called the “dingle”. My first experience there had me go across the street to meet new friends and then fall through thin ice and submerge, luckily I guess my winter coat trapped air, and I bobbed back up in the same hole. Tried cigarettes until my father had me actually inhale which cured me. But we were allowed to go where and as far as we pleased. I don’t think there were many child abductions back then, at least that we were aware of, so that kind of fear was nonexistent. Spankings were usually with my father’s belt, but once my mother used what was handy…my Davy Crockett rifle which saw the handle snap after a few paddles. We did vacation at my grandparent’s place in the Adirondacks and that is probably where I developed a love of Nature in the woods there. I imagine growing up in a relatively TV-less world made a difference as well.

  19. Your words echo with my own thoughts and how I lived as a boy more than half a century ago. Trouble now is people are afraid to do anything because they are thinking about it too much, because somebody said this or that and it is wrong to do it this way or that way, or at all. People can become so entwined and trapped in the thought processes of today whch is fueled by media. I think that is why I love being so close to nature so much and feel at my happiest there. For I feel free at least in those moments.

    1. I’m drawn to the pleasures of nature myself, and understand why you find your time exploring the world around you to be both satisfying and freeing. I suspect all of us go through a phase of worrying over what people think of us, particularly in adolescence. But there’s a difference between fearing we’ll not be invited to the “popular” table in the lunchroom, and fearing that the mob will show up at our front door, torches in hand. Certainly, the media is playing a large role in all this. A story about a sixteen-year-old overcoming social fears isn’t a made-for-tv story; the latest statue toppling is. Unfortunately, the line between reporting such stories and encouraging such behavior nearly has dissolved.

      What to do? Remember and cherish the past, I suppose, but look to the future, as well — all while being true to ourselves in the present.

      1. Nicely said, Linda. I thought it was just me, but others I have spoken to have seen it too regarding the media, and the power is seems to wield in changing our behaviour. I find it rather disconcerting, and it has put the media in a shady realm for me.

  20. I remember running with sparklers. They seemed such safe, lovely fireworks. Yes, we get warned about so much now, but when I think of my childhood and the freedom I had, I can’t help but think it was good. We went into the world, we explored, we came home. It was idyllic on the surface. And sweet.

    1. Personally, I think the most important word in your comment is ‘home.’ People who have a safe home to return to are more likely to venture out, going a little farther every time. It’s true for kids on bicycles, it’s true for travelers, and it’s true for people who dare to explore new fields of study or different cultures. Just as freedom and responsibility belong together, so do change and stability. We need both, and too much of either can bring unpleasant results.

      Isn’t it ironic that one of the games now banned in certain school districts is Hide and Seek? The whole point of the game was to make it to ‘home’ safely: a metaphor for an experience that’s slowly (or quickly) disappearing.

      1. Yes. lately I’ve been thinking about love and safety and how much we had as children; that unconditional love from family and family friends and the sense of safety and self and home that brings with it.

  21. Very enjoyable read. Life back in the day and never to be lived again by succeeding generations as time marches on. All so sad that kiddos today will never know unbridled freedom- well almost unbridled. You grew in a wonderful atmosphere, seemingly in a small town although I don’t know if this is so. But your childhood was decidedly happy and carefree. Really story book style. I imagine you recall it all with a great deal of nostalgia.

    1. I suppose every generation looks back with a certain degree of nostalgia; most of the individuals I’ve known certainly do. And sometimes it’s not nostalgia as much as amazement; it’s natural as we age to consider all the changes that have come during our lives.

      I have read that more and more people are looking for ways to leave high-density urban environments, with all of the problems common to them, and search out new homes in the suburbs, small towns, or rural areas. When I moved to League City around 1990, the population was 30,000. Today, it’s around 110,000, and growing. It has its problems with infrastructure, as you’d expect, but it’s still a place where you can see kids riding bikes or skate-boarding, and fishing along various bayous. Ten years ago, that was less common. It seems that parents are loosening the reins a bit.

  22. This was beautiful, Linda! And spot on!

    I sometimes wonder if we didn’t grow up in the same place. You described my own childhood very accurately. I suspect it was the time more than the place. I remember being allowed free rein to go off, at a very young age, and make of my own days what I would. My only instruction as I left the house was “Be home before supper!” That usually meant dusk. So, on a typical summer day, my mother would have no clue where I was between about 10 AM and 7 PM. It wasn’t that she didn’t care. She worried and fretted aplenty. I suspect she and the other mothers had a very good pre-internet network in which they all kept each other informed of where we were at any given time.

    I do regret that kids are denied a sense of adventure these days. I think they would be much better off to experience the danger of steel monkey bars and sizzling hot metal slides. Or holding sparklers. Or setting off firecrackers. Or shooting BB guns. Or whittling on a stick with a pocket knife. We are depriving them the joys (and lessons) of a life lived well.

    Thank you for this wonderful, beautiful, and amazing post. I hope you will post it every 4th of July from now on!

    1. I have younger friends who wonder why I so enjoy the film A Christmas Story. They think it’s fiction, not realizing that we lived it all. A few years ago, I came across a tiny, still-in-use parochial schoolhouse. I was astonished to see an old-fashioned steel merry-go-round in its yard, along with monkey bars, rings, and a splintery, wooden teeter-totter with nothing but dirt beneath it. I took photos, and then decided not to post them, since I couldn’t find any other photos online. It occurred to me they might want to keep their little bit of heaven private.

      I laughed at your reference to that pre-internet network. It certainly was alive and well in my neighborhood, and it involved more than mothers. Everyone knew everyone else, and if a neighbor saw any of the kids misbehaving, word would get passed pretty quickly. On the other hand, those same neighbors felt quite free to break up any real fights or drag out the mercurochrome to tend to wounds. That’s another memory, of course; mercurochrome was banned in 1998, seven years after 6-12 insect repellent was taken off the shelves. Sometimes, change is progress!

  23. I couldn’t agree more! Dictatorship by committee, and the accompanying censorship, is not good for any of us. Freedom does have its price, but it is worth it nonetheless. Happy Fourth! And thanks for sharing your memories.

    1. And a Happy July 10th to you! It’s been one of “those” weeks at work, and I just fell behind with everything. Still, it’s worth remembering that what was true on Independence Day is still true today. It’s easy to trot out the patriotic slogans on a holiday, and then forget them soon after. What we need to do is turn them from slogans into daily guides for our civic life.

      I hope your holiday was great, and that things begin to improve for us all.

  24. Thanks for another little glimpse into your childhood! As a child, one of our favorites was to find a nice fresh cow pie, and set a firecracker in the middle of it! We lived with a lot of freedom and have given our daughters a good bit of it as well. There are, of course, needs for limits and invariably there will be disputes about where to draw the line. But an overly structured life with too many rules is life denying on many levels.

    1. I’d forgotten about that little cow pie trick. I never did it, but there always was a report or two in the town newspaper after the holiday; we’d read those reports with eagerness, wondering if anyone we knew had been involved.

      Like Law and Gospel, freedom and responsibility belong together, and deciding which should predominate at any given time isn’t always easy. In this time of Covid, it’s especially interesting to see some people arguing for absolute freedom while others prefer that someone — the government, or public health officials — should lay down rigid laws and enforce them without regard for circumstance. Deciding for either end of the continuum makes the need for personal decision and responsibility unnecessary: easier, perhaps, but not necessarily wise.

  25. I like the C.S. Lewis quote. It rings with truth. We had so much freedom when we were kids. I loved sparklers. I remember my mother telling us, ” Don’t get them near Dad’s fishing nets and burn the whole house down.” It seemed reasonable. This post brought back lots of memories. We had a quiet but nice fourth of July this year. I hope your day was a good one.

    1. I stayed close to home over the holiday. I usually do. As a lot of the sailors and fishermen around here say when the 4th (or Memorial, or Labor Day) rolls around, “It’s amateur hour out there — stay away from the water.” Did you know that sparklers are ‘the thing’ for weddings, now? I certainly didn’t, but there are stores that sell white, gold, and silver sparklers in lengths up to 36″. I’m not sure I’d want to be part of an event like that, especially if I were a bride wearing a thousand dollar dress, but to each her own.

  26. I know I commented on this but poof! great essay and then I went on about how deprived children are now of free play and the loss of learning among peers, getting in and out of trouble on our own, learning to negotiate, honing skills, exploring, etc. it was far longer and better written but I’ll never be able to rewrite it.

    1. I hate when that magic “poof!” happens. Like you, I never can reconstruct what I had to say — it’s always better the first time around, too! In any event, that loss of free play and all of the other experiences you mention are so important for kids. The over-scheduling that’s become increasingly common is a problem, too. There’s nothing wrong with sports, drama, band, cheerleading, and such per se, but when a kid is being shuttled from one practice to another from 5:30 a.m. until late at night, with classes sandwiched into the middle, it’s just not good. For one thing, without a minute to themselves, there’s no time for the daydreaming and ‘just messing around’ that helps to develop creativity.

  27. I really enjoyed this, your childhood sounds just wonderful. I was a feral child growing up and simply couldn’t be constrained. The Nanny State certainly is something!!! Beautifully written, so descriptive and poetical.xxx

    1. Thanks, Dina. I laughed at the thought of you as a feral child; I’d say you still have some of those tendencies, and you certainly allow them in your pets and plants! It’s interesting to ponder those who demonstrate tendencies toward ‘nanniness.’ Sometimes I think it’s a sign of insecurity; people who aren’t secure in their own choices want to impose those choices on others so that they don’t stand out in the crowd.

  28. I can’t even begin to articulate how much I liked your post and agree with it. Your description of summers past and 4th of July celebrations sounded just like those of my childhood. And your assessment of our current state of affairs is so very accurate. The nanny state is outrageous and a detriment to children’s sense of creativity and adventure in my book.

    1. Thanks for being patient with me — work slowed me down a good bit since the 4th; I don’t like being so late in responding!

      It saddens me that so many young people are rejecting older people and their experience without knowing anything about what it really was like during those earlier years. Every generation thinks the ‘old folks’ are dimwits, but not to the degree we’re seeing today. Even when we made fun of our elders, we respected them — partly because we understood they respected us enough to make our own mistakes and learn from them.

      One of the big arguments just now is whether kids schould go back to school in person, or continue to study online. There’s no question the internet is a great learning tool, but I’m on the side of sending students back to the classroom. Anyone who’s watching what happens to adults who are masked and isolated knows how far-reaching the effects can be; it’s even more significant for children.

      1. I agree with you completely on every point you made in that comment. I too think our children should be back in school. The mental detriment to all of this is far more harmful than the small probability of them getting this virus. All the data I’ve seen shows children are not contracting it.

  29. I’ve never heard of the so-called ‘nannie factor’ and yet I know it exists. I remember the relaxed summers you remember. Goofing off was on the schedule every day, even Sunday after church. In retrospect, I’m grateful for the freedom I had to learn to just be, responsible for my own entertainment and safety. That ability has come in handy during this long months of quarantine.

    1. I think one of today’s terms for ‘nannie factor’ would be ‘helicopter parent’ — except that the so-called nannies aren’t necessarily someone’s parent. They just tend to treat everyone as children: inept and not too bright children, at that.

      I can remember some times when my mother would find me moping around the back steps or the front porch. She’d ask what was wrong, and on those occasions when I said, “I’m bored…” she’d say, “Well, then. Go find something to do.” And I would. You’re right. That’s a skill that’s served us well during these days of isolation.

  30. Don’t fight. When you do fight, don’t hurt each other.

    I remember the first time I got punched in the nose. It wasn’t a poke, nor a jab, it was a full force, wind up smack, that left me seeing stars and tasting blood. I would not recommend it – but there is something about coming out of a knock-down dragged-out fight in a ring formed by a schoolyard of howling spectators that transforms you. Hopefully, it doesn’t make you mean or a scrapper, just a person who is less easily intimidated.

    1. When I was relatively young — high school — my dad took me aside for a little father-daughter talk. He said, “Make a fist.” I did. He looked at it and said, “No. You’ll break your thumb with it inside like that. The thumb goes on the outside.” Once I got it right, he said, “Do that every now and then, just because.” Fast forward about eight years. The details don’t really matter, but I knew him, and he wouldn’t leave me along. One night, outside a pizza and beer joint, I let him have it, with a group of friends watching. I didn’t hurt him much, other than breaking his glasses and maybe bruising his nose, but I didn’t hurt my thumb, either. It was immensely satisfying.

  31. Lovely to read about some of your childhood, Linda. Mine wasn’t quite as free as I was overprotected quite badly, which makes me understand the way a lot of people have been brought up and why they are so afraid of everything. However, I had never expected this to actually happen: for people to be so frightened of living that they have to pass their fear on to other people. A nanny state the world over, alas. The UK suffers from it, as well.

    1. I don’t know whether I came up with this, or whether I read it somewhere, but I’ve always found a good bit of wisdom in this maxim: “The question isn’t whether there’s life after death. The question is, can there be life before death.” So much of what’s appearing in the media these days isn’t really news; it’s fear-mongering of the worst sort. I find tuning out that sort of thing very helpful when it comes to maintaining equilibrium. It certainly has been a good thing that we’ve had the internet during all this: not only for factual reporting, but also as a way to maintain contact with well-balanced and supportive people.

  32. I wish I could read everyone’s comments – I’m sure there are many I would relish. I love your descriptions and your exhortation. I know I have subjected to my children and grandchildren to risks that would scandalize many people; in fact, with every child I became more cautious in some ways, as I was made newly aware of certain risks.

    Some of my children are so laissez-faire with the grandchildren it makes me a bit anxious as I watch four-year-olds leap among boulders, for example; and others seem overly protective, which also makes me cringe. I was thinking this morning about how for every thing we eat or do each day there is probably an article on the Internet about an associated danger. I’m sick of it! I want to enjoy the gifts of the world with thanksgiving.

    1. I laughed at your second paragraph. It started me thinking about all of the things that have been pronounced deadly during the span of my life: coffee, carbs, eggs, wine and beer, meat, shellfish, too much sunlight, not enough sunlight, butter, margarine, and so on. As a nutritionist I know once said, every time a post-grad student is looking for a thesis topic, something gets added to the list. I have no doubt there’s a bit of truth to that.

      When young people, particularly those of college age, began clamoring for ‘safe spaces’ and adult kindergartens became a thing on New York’s upper west side, I just sighed. The world itself isn’t a safe space, and maturity comes with learning to cope with its dangers rather than avoiding them. I think Thoreau got it right: “Go confidently in the direction of your dreams! Live the life you’ve imagined. As you simplify your life, the laws of the universe will be simpler.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.