Every time I visit my hometown I begin to wax nostalgic. Even when my nostalgia doesn’t need waxing. I can stop my car on Lawrence Avenue and see ghosts of my prior life before me.
Once upon a time, we kids thought we ruled the neighborhood. At ten years old we exaggerated our influence. We were like The Brady Bunch meets the Hardy Boys. Kids at that age are so damn cocky. What we had to be cocky about is beyond me. Youthful exuberance with one toe stuck in the grownup world.
Since the statute of limitations has passed, stories can be told.
Get in the wayback machine, Sherman, and travel back with me to the 1960’s, when life in America was vastly different than the stranger-danger of today. Kids could run the neighborhood unattended, even at dark. My group took great advantage of the freedom.
The neighborhood I lived in had a minimum of fenced-in backyards so kids could run free and it made travel, and escape, easy. This was back in the time that most kids had stay-at-home mothers, so we weren’t completely unsupervised, but mothers were happy to let their kids go outside and out from under foot.
The first time I ever heard the phrase, “Get off my lawn,” I was asked to leave a neighbor’s backyard. We were just walking through the yard to get to somewhere else. We weren’t being disruptive, just taking a short-cut. He was probably punishing us for something we had already done. A while after that the man put up a fence. Over the next few years, several other neighbors put up backyard fences, not for dogs or privacy, just to keep kids out.
Little by little, the neighborhood changed, perhaps in part because of the rambunctious kids who used every yard as our playground. We weren’t intentionally destructive or disrespectful, but we claimed this as our territory. I wouldn’t say we were a troublesome lot, more of a club, with constantly changing alliances. Several of us remained close friends but other kids moved in and out of the group.
Back in those days, firecrackers were legal to be sold and shot-off in city limits. They were relatively cheap, and even illegal ones were easy to get. Next door in Missouri, you could practically purchase nuclear weapons, so cherry bombs and M-80s were plentiful. Bottle rockets were legal and made good artillery in firefights. Aiming them at the opposing army took a bit of skill but amazingly, no one lost any fingers. Yes, we did use actual bottles as launchers. No houses burned down, at least none we will admit to.
We were influenced by the times we lived in, the television shows and movies we watched, so weaponry was required. We all owned BB guns, but we took those to the woods to shoot. However, neighborhood warfare consisted of peashooters, slingshots, mud balls and of course, snowballs. Many cars felt our artillery of snowballs in winter. More than once we got chanced by an angry motorist but we knew the backyards. There was a fearlessness or ignorance that kept us just on the edge of trouble. Constantly.
We built tree houses and forts, places we could call our own, and defend from other kids if needed. Fistfights were uncommon, it was generally war from a distance.
In our neighborhood was a drive-in theater and one day, a violent storm toppled it over. Constructed out of sheets of wood, the pieces were stacked up for disposal. This wood was perfect for building our three-story clubhouse, we called “the fort.” It was indestructible and quite an eyesore but Wayne’s parents felt it was a trade-off to having us in the house. And during the summers, we got permission to sleep in the fort. It was urban camping.
I’d like to say we were always behaved, but that would be untrue. We tested the limits, even as second graders. For example, James (yes, his real name) and I wondered over to a lot near his house where a home was being constructed. There sat a bulldozer and James said let’s push the starter button. We did and the machine rumbled but that’s all it did. That was exciting, we we tried it again, but this time it started. Two scared kids ran like hell, each to our own homes. Terrified, I hid in the closet. It didn’t take long before a police car pulled into the driveway. My mother answered the door and got quite the surprise. Of course she yelled at me, and my dad did as well when he got home. I wish Clint Eastwood would have yelled at us to keep off the construction lot.
Usually, when we slept in the fort, we wait for the parents to come out to check on us, then after waiting awhile longer, we slipped out to explore the neighborhood.
After midnight it was quiet. We stayed away from streetlights, preferring the shadows, but staying away from backyards where you’d find barking dogs.
There was something eerily exciting about prowling the neighborhood. We didn’t window peek or anything like that. There was some thrill in avoiding the occasional car. It was like being on a mission, like we had often seen on television. Sometimes we sneaked into the drive-in, which was easy because we knew where the gaps in the fences were. You had to avoid the pesky staff who sometimes walked the grounds looking for people exactly like us. We would visit the snack bar and purchase some goodies before we headed back to the fort.
In the summer, we had a routine. We met in the morning after breakfast and before it got hot outside. The mornings were good for planning the rest of the day. Were we going to hike in the woods, go up to Hillcrest Shopping Center, go to the area pool, or engage in war games of some sort? Such possibilities. Since each of our families bought a summer membership, going to the pool whenever we wanted was a backup plan. The pool was literally one block from my house. I wish I’d worn more sunscreen then.
Older kids usually didn’t hang around much, but it was nice when they did. If one of them had a car, we’d hang around as it got washed or some accessory was added, even help if we could talk them into it. Age 16 and driving seemed so far away. Occasionally, they gave us all a ride somewhere, like up to the school grounds or to the shopping center. On a really good day we could talk them into burning rubber from a stop. Now that was high living.
Music began to get our attention. Sometimes one of the high school kids would play some of their 45 rpm records, something new by The Beatles, Paul Revere and the Raiders, The Monkees or a tune with a great guitar riff. That was an opportunity to soak up some coolness just by proximity. One night each summer, the pool had “teen night” where the pool was closed early so teens could hear a band and not have to be around kids or parents. Down the street, there were a couple of teens who were members of bands and it was possible to hear them rehearse by standing near the basement window. Such simple thrills. We loved being kids but when we got a glimpse of being a teenager, we saw the genie in the bottle.
It’s amazing to think how smart we thought we were then with our limited life experience. The world was simple and linear. When we gathered in the mornings we talked about TV shows from the night before, the latest Hot Wheels car or G.I. Joe accessory. Going on around us were civil rights, war, assassinations and other events would confuse our small worlds.
So what would move someone to spend the money to fence-in their yard? Did they want the privacy? A chain-link fence doesn’t screen anything. Rarely, did a dog ever show up to prowl the fence line. There were no swimming pools or grandiose gardens to protect. This might have been an act of reclaiming territory and pushing back against the Hardy Boys, their war games and nighttime patrols. But it was a temporary inconvenience.