Growing up in the 1980s, we didn’t have play dates or iPads or constant parental supervision/entertainment (at least not the helicopter kind that are so common today). Instead, we roamed: the prairie hillside where we lived in South Dakota, and the city neighborhood where we lived during a stint in Indiana.
The other day I saw some kids roaming in the rural neighborhood I currently call home. Three preteen boys on bikes that were too big for them kept riding back and forth in front of the house of some preteen girls. The sisters would come out near the road, shrieking periodically, and then the boys would ditch their bikes and run into the woods and hide. And so on. The scene nearly shocked me with its unusualness, until I remembered that roaming and coming up with stuff to do outside, not sitting inside and playing games on iPads, is the natural thing for kids to do. Anyway, observing those youth in my neighborhood made me remember some of the things that happened when my brothers and I were kids.
So, some stories.
Moody County, South Dakota, 1983
When I was really little, before any of my brothers came along, Dad would work outside on projects around the yard and I’d play closeby. All the trees they’d planted on the prairie homestead were still tiny, so there was always a clear view of where I was.
Until I wasn’t there.
That day Dad was digging post holes for a new outbuilding. One time he looked up to check on me, I was suddenly nowhere to be found. I’d been right in front of him a minute before. After looking around frantically for a few seconds, he heard a noise coming from the ground. He looked down and there were two little hands waving at him. I’d fallen into a post hole, and my arms were pinned next to my head and sticking up out of the ground. He pulled me out and continued working.
The building that these posts now hold up is standing strong to this day.
Lafayette, Indiana, 1989
We lived in Lafayette for three years while Mom got her PhD at Purdue University. There was an alley out back and a ragtag group of neighborhood kids who roamed it regularly. One day, a cop showed up at the door.
“Excuse me, sir,” he said when Dad opened the door. “Can I speak to -he looked down at his notepad- Alexander, please?”
Dad said, “Uh, sure, yeah, okay.” He turned to yell into the house. “ Zan! Come here please!”
As a tiny tow-headed boy of 3 came trotting over to the door, the cop shook his head, grinning, and said, “This is Alexander?”
The cop, still chuckling, said, “Sorry to bother you folks, have a good day.”
As he turned to leave he said to Alexander with a wink, “Make sure not to hit anyone’s bike if you toss pebbles again.”
Turns out three year old Alexander had been throwing pebbles at the bike of a 9 year old who lived across the back alley earlier that day, and the kid’s parents had called the police to report property damage.
I can’t help but wonder how things would have turned out had we been a Black family, instead of white.
Then there was the time that one of the twins arrived home, breathless from jogging 5 blocks, to exclaim,
“Big Jimmy’s sitting on Zan!”
Big Jimmy was the neighborhood bully, and my antagonistic sprite of a youngest brother had become his latest triumph. The situation was swiftly remedied (Big Jimmy was already gone by the time we arrived to rescue Zan) and the days went on. There were ramshackle forts to build next to the garage, trees to climb and more little snits to get into with the pack of kids that roamed the block.
And there was the time a strange man approached my brothers and I as we rounded the last corner to our house on the walk home from school. He invited us to get into his car, which is all I can remember other than I said a firm no, grabbed my brothers’ hands, and we speed walked the rest of the way home.
Scenes from an Indiana Middle School, 1991
When I was in the 6th grade, our last year in Indiana before moving back to the South Dakota homestead, I had to eat lunch at a different time than usual for some reason. I was excited about that lunch because I got to use money to buy whatever I wanted instead of the reduced lunch tickets I usually had, the ones that could only be used for the ‘hot lunch line.’ I was also nervous because I didn’t know anybody who ate during that lunch period.
I got a chocolate shake and sat down at the table where I usually ate, alone. As I was starting to self consciously sip the shake, somebody poked me in the back.
“Hey, get up. You’re in my seat.”
I felt my face turn beet red and pretended I didn’t hear.
“Hey! I’m talking to you! Move it, or else.”
This time I turned around, and saw a [seeming huge] seventh grader, hand on hip, mouth in a sneer.
By now the cafeteria was pretty full. There weren’t many open seats, so I just stayed put, drank my shake as fast as possible (giving myself a brain freeze) as the girl and her group of friends whispered from down the table.
A few minutes later as I was about to stand up and get out of there, she poked me on the back again.
“You. Me. After school. Bike rack. We’re going to fight.”
I have no memory of what I said to that–probably nothing. I’m sure I just walked away feeling even more embarrassed, thinking that this person was way too upset about where to sit down for 15 minutes.
I didn’t go to the bike rack after school, I just walked home.
I don’t know if the girl and her posse were waiting at the bike rack after school.
That incident remains the one and only time I’ve even been challenged to a fight.
“Speak up, I can’t hear you.”
“Aren’t you going to smile?”
“Oh, you must be shy.”
As a kid, I did this thing my parents called it “swallowing my smile.”
When someone I didn’t know spoke to me, or tried to get me to engage, I’d look down and bite my lips. It was my way of coping with social anxiety.
Looking down and biting my lips seemed safe. Engaging with unfamiliar people, even friendly ones, was scary. What if I said the wrong thing, or worse, couldn’t think of anything to say at all? What if I blushed? What if the other person thought I was strange? What if I had to repeat myself in order to be understood and then couldn’t remember what I said the first time?
At some point in childhood, I had come to the conclusion that being a quiet person wasn’t something to be proud of – that it was something I needed to ‘work on’ or ‘overcome’ to be a successful human being. I thought that being quiet was a defect, a quality that weakened my value as a person.
Enter Miss Binnie. She was my 6th grade English teacher. At 25 she had a full head of prematurely gray hair, and she always wore colorful scarves. She exuded the confidence and ease that always seemed to elude me. I wanted to be her.
One day after class she told me that being a quiet person was okay, and in fact, being quiet was a good thing – that it meant that I was thoughtful and attentive. She told me that she got nervous talking in front of the class sometimes, and that I didn’t have to try to be louder. I don’t remember any of my other 6th grade teachers, but I remember her.
Moody County, South Dakota, 1992
In winter the year after we’d moved back to South Dakota, Mom and Dad got a call that my youngest brother couldn’t do the crab walk in gym class. The teacher was concerned that he had some strength developmental issues that needed to be uncovered, so they took him into the clinic for evaluation.
He didn’t have developmental issues. No, my twin brothers, the week before, had decided to sled off the roof of the woodshed. There was a huge drift on the side with a slant, a perfect launch pad for a cheap plastic sled when you are 8. Of course, they sent my youngest brother down first (age 6) to see how it went. It went fine, except for the fact that he’d landed on his arm and it broke.
One green cast and 6 weeks later, he was crab-walking like a champ.
A few years later, the twins rappelled off the second story deck of the house (and had the rope-burns to show for it). They do not rock climb as adults, and my youngest brother got certified as an Emergency Medical Technician.