There are three big differences in what we children experienced outdoors. First, I can not remember my growing up years without connecting them to an alley that ran the length of our city block behind the houses. Alleys had a multitude of uses. One was that we got to watch our neighbors decapitate chickens for their dinner – one neighbor using a swift swing of the axe, and the other neighbor providing a more dramatic scenario of wringing the chicken’s neck. The alley was also for carrying on sneak attacks of water bombs on the kids from the “other side” of the alley. We called ourselves the “allies” and them the “axis” and from that one can read that this all took place during the WWII. But the best use of the alley was to “trash dig,” although my mother constantly admonished my sister and I not to do it because we would get a horrible disease from the trash cans. We did it anyway and never got a disease; nor did we ever find anything disgusting, but we did find lots of treasures – old pots and pans, broken figurines, books and sometimes old decks of cards).
The second difference from then and now is that there were still vacant lots in neighborhoods and mostly we used those vacant lots to build forts on. We could scrounge up old 2x4s, leftover Christmas trees and the like, which we placed around the outside of a good sized hole we would dig. We didn’t use the fort for anything in particular, but the fun was in the building. And after a good rain, the weeds and grass in the vacant lot would grow tall and we could pull out fistfuls of weeds with big dirt clods hanging on the bottom. We then would have one major dirt-clod fight. Oh how mother hated us to do this, but it was what kids did in vacant lots after a rain, and she just had to grin and bear it and wash our hair and clothes when we got through and tell us not to do that again..
The last thing that was different from now is that it was safe to play outside in vacant lots and alleys and out of sight of our house and our parents. Society was safer and kinder then, and kids could run free, improvise, create and enjoy in a way that at least in cities today is no longer possible. Outside we had palm tree limbs to swing from, sprinklers to run though in the summer, tricycles, bicycles, scooters and roller-skates, home make stilts or cans with ropes to use for walking “high” above the sidewalk, trees and roofs to climb on, and big lawns for us to put our croquet courts on.
Besides reading, which definitely was my sister and my very most favorite thing to do, was to play with paper dolls. We had dozens of them, mostly of women and children. We loved to design clothing for them. I had paper dolls probably until I was 12 but in those days 12 was still a child, not a Lolita-like nymphet. We played jacks a lot, both at home and at school. I don’t remember playing them after the age of 10, though. And although we always had marbles, we didn’t shoot them, we just counted and admired and traded. We played with a jump rope, played hopscotch and blind-man’s bluff.
Daddy had a rock collection and we spent a lot of time looking at all the different types of rocks, learning about them and later on acquiring some of our own from a nearby rock store, although Ginnie Lou was certainly more serious about this than I was.
Mother always made sure we had a Walter Foster drawing book so we could practice our drawing. Neither Ginnie nor I could draw worth a darn but we tried our hand at everything Mother gave us. I recall feeling that surely I could master cartooning if I just followed the steps in Walter Foster’s cartooning book but it just never happened. Art escaped us, as attested by the various greeting cards that we made for our parents and that were memorialized in a scrapbook that mother kept. Our poetry was only slightly better than our art. If those scrapbooks are accurate, there would seem to have been a time in our lives that we thought in rhymes. And wrote them down for posterity. Doggerel, they were, for sure.
We didn’t listen to the radio until about 4:45 in the afternoon, which is when the serials came on. There was nothing of interest to a kid on the radio in the daytime. But at 4:45 each day we plopped ourselves down in front of the radio and listened to Jack Armstrong, The Lone Ranger, Red Ryder and a few other 15-minute serials. Once dinner was over the adult programs started again and we were back to our playing.
By the time my kids were born, there was television to entertain them. Yes, they had toys and yes, they played outside with them. But their lives were shaped by television and I believe they learned by example much more than we did. Ginnie and I made up our own fun, but my kids had their entertainment available to them at the flick of a switch. For better or worse.
As 2009 begins, it is good to look back at so many good things in our lives – things that shaped us and help make us who we are. And of course it is good to look ahead and see all the good things we have in life now that make our lives so much easier than our folks had it. How lucky we are to live in America and to have a bold new President taking us into the future. I guess it all gets down to Counting our Blessings, doesn’t it?