In the summertime when I was a kid, we spent most of our days outside. You left after breakfast, came back for lunch, went out again until dinner, and then didn’t come home until the streetlights came on. Sounds a bit, “When I was your age, I walked to school in the snow uphill both ways,” but it’s true. That’s how we lived life. No cellphones, no social media, no playdates. Just you, your friends, and your parents having a vague understanding of where you were and what you were doing.
Growing up in the ’80s and ’90s, parental supervision was still struggling to catch on in places, particularly in my cornfield. The children were like chickens–free range. We were roving bands of dirty hands and skinned knees and our parents liked it that way. Rarely was there ever an issue. On occasion, your parents might not know where you are because you forgot to tell them where you were going before you ran out of the house or you changed locations in a major way without checking in, but it was all part of kidhood. We all got grounded for that at least once (my sister and I twice that I can remember).
My summers back then came with two added bonuses to the usual summertime antics: I grew up in a small town and my mom ran a daycare in the house so even with a neighborhood full of kids, we had even more delivered to us five days of week to get up to shenanigans with.
We were kept on a leash in the mornings. The older kids were kept around to play with the younger kids in the backyard. We had a Slip n Slide and a sprinkler. Later on we acquired a swingset that the big kids couldn’t play on. Once or twice a week, we’d walk to the library for story time.
After lunch, the older kids were turned loose while the younger kids napped (unless it was too hot; then we were kept in the air conditioned living room to watch movies and play board games rather than court heatstroke). Outside, we were encouraged to run amok elsewhere so we wouldn’t wake the napping toddlers with our wild heathen antics. This meant riding bikes up and down the street or going over to one of the neighbor kids’ houses or flinging ourselves even further. So long as we were back by snack time (between 3:30 and 4:30) and checked in if we wanted to change locales, we were given free reign.
Many an afternoon we we ended up in one of three places: the school, Jaycee Park, or Dead Man’s Hill.
The elementary school was just a couple of blocks from my house. It was fenced in, had two sets of swings, a slide, monkey bars, and parallel bars all cushioned by first plain ol’ ground and then later wood chips. It also had a big blacktop where we could play basketball or kickball or ride bikes. They lock up the playground now so no kids can access it outside of school times, but back then, it was basically treated like another park.
One of the actual parks we would go to was Jaycee Park. I don’t know if that’s it’s name, but that’s what we called it. It was over by the waterworks and we’d have to cross a two-lane state highway to get to it. It had a tennis court and swings, but most importantly it had teeter-totters. Quality entertainment right there.
But more entertaining for a bunch of kids raised on The Goonies were the woods on the other side of the park. There was a creek that ran back there and on the other side of the creek was this small, old cemetery. The only hitch was the creek was about eight feet down, so to cross it, we’d walk across a sewer pipe that was about 2 feet in diameter. Nobody thought about falling into that trickle of a creek below. If you did…you just crossed the pipe on your hands and knees. No explorer left behind. And nobody ever fell. We were in and out without a care in the world.
I think every small town claims a Dead Man’s Hill and ours was at the end of my street where it dead-ended into a steepish hill that led to a set of railroad tracks lined with woods on both sides. Yes, we used to play on railroad tracks. We’d either walk a few yards north and duck into the woods on the other side of the tracks where there was a path and a clearing where obvious partying happened (they recently found a mobile meth lab in there and believe me, that’s the not the worst thing that’s been found in those woods) and another path that led to the Kiwanis Park, which at the time was basically a concrete slab and a couple of picnic tables. Now it’s got a whole water park thing going on. Needless to say, back then we hung out in the woods more than in the park.
Our other option was to walk south, across the trestle over the two-lane highway and down the tracks about a quarter of a mile, if not more. There was another creek, just a trickle of a thing, back in those woods that we had easier access to and we’d play in it. It was the only spot we’d go off the tracks down there because we were certain that Devil worshipers were doing Satanic rituals in those woods. Ah yes, life in the ’80s.
I can only remember one time that my mother ever came looking for us down on Dead Man’s Hill and it was extenuating circumstances. The rest of the time, we were left to play on the railroad tracks as we pleased.
Am I saying that parents should let their children roam free in the summer months with minimal supervision? Of course not. They’re your livestock. Fence them as you please.
I’m just saying that I lucked out with a pretty fun, adventurous kidhood, and that we consistently made it home alive, not escorted by cops, and mostly unharmed is pretty neat.