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Stories of A Simpler Time
Welcome to our blog, a place to share your memories and stories from A Simpler Time.
by David Haulman
The name doesn't sound like much---the platform. But, to my two brothers and I, growing up in New Orleans in the 50s and early 60s, it still brings to mind our happiest childhood Christmas memories. The platform was a large horizontal plywood surface, about eight feet square, that Dad would erect about two feet off the floor in the corner of our living room. Upon this surface, we'd lay a covering of white sheets, to simulate snow, then assemble and position a lighted "Plasticville" miniature town that included two train stations, a church, a school, a fire station, a gas station, a motel, several homes, and even a water tower. Surrounding this we laid parallel tracks for two large-scale electric train sets---a freight train on the outside, and a passenger train on the inside. At the center of this display, we'd position a real Christmas tree, about four feet high, adorned with ornaments and big colored Christmas lights---the kind that were popular in the 50s. At the base of this "giant" tree, we'd place our nativity scene. Finishing touches included a sprinkling of glitter upon the "snow," and the tacking of a brick-patterned cardboard border to close the gap between the platform and the floor.
The sight of this sparkling miniature town, with running trains around the perimeter, was a joy to behold. Neighbors would ask to see it. We couldn't wait to get home from school each day to "run the trains." Dad was from Altoona, Pennsylvania, so trains and snow were typical of his Christmas memories, and now, of ours.
Boating in "A Simpler Time"
by Jeff King
Got a great deal recently when one of our favorite vendors contacted us to buy a number of cool, hand carved wooden speedboat models for half price. While they aren't cheap (even 50% off they run nearly $250), they are incredibly detailed, with real leather seats and "plank on plank" wood construction. And at over 2 feet long, they make a real statement on a fireplace mantel, bookshelf or desk---looking like one-of-a-kind models that sell for over $1000.
I grew up in the 60's (and 70's) when a few of these rumbling dinosaurs still prowled the water. But the boats that I, my five brothers and my father favored were---to put it mildly---somewhat more modest. While racing across the Mediterranean with Hollywood starlets in an Italian-made Riva wood speed boat may get anyone's heartbeat going, for sheer excitement (and terror) I would take a flimsy 14-foot aluminum boat---filled with five young boys and a dad who could barely swim---as an approaching storm whips up whitecaps on a frigid northern Minnesota lake. The gentle "putt-putt-putt" of the tiny 3-horsepower outboard, relaxing in any other setting, could barely be heard above Dad's loud yells to quit rocking the boat and make sure our life jackets were tied tightly.
Before the era of hand held cell phones and weather radar updates, my slightly paranoid father had to rely on good old fashioned weather "instincts" to get our little rental bathtub on and off the water. My brothers and I all loved to fish, and once in a while through serious negotiating (and maybe a dash of whining with a pinch of crying thrown in) could get Dad to take us out of the little lake bay and into...THE BIG LAKE!
"The Big Lake" was the area around the point, where it was rumored huge fish lived, and windswept waves could swamp even the biggest fishing boats if one were unlucky enough to be caught in a storm. Of course, with those boats boasting huge engines that could get them up to speeds approaching 40 mph, and our rust bucket's outboard motor having less power than Mom's new vacuum cleaner, their margin of error was a lot greater.
At the time, I can remember being exasperated at how cautious my father was. If he saw a cloud peaking above the trees in the western horizon---a distance that could be twenty miles or more---our fishing trip could be called off. Now that I'm a parent myself, I wonder why the hell he even contemplated risking his family on such suicide missions!
One at a time he would tie us tightly into the bright orange, Coast Guard approved life jackets---the ones that were guaranteed to keep your little head out of the water if you were unlucky enough to fall in, but made it impossible to look behind you without turning your entire body 90 degrees. Then he'd grab each of us off the dock, stacking us neatly along the flat wood bench seats in some degree of order (oldest brother near the anchor, youngest near Dad) until we were packed in like an old world Irish immigrant sailing ship. Then he'd tell us to "sit still, shut up, don't touch anything, and, oh, by the way...have fun!"
It usually got pretty warm as we sat like cordwood in our life jackets, long sleeves and windbreaker in the calm 80-degree northern Minnesota sun ("It's a lot colder on the Big Lake," he'd inform us). Eventually, after checking the gas tank a half dozen times, looking off into the distance for a cloud and making sure the wooden oars were on board as a backup, Dad would start...or rather attempt to start...the tiny outboard engine. As if the poor man didn't have enough to worry about, it often took dozens of pulls, checking gas lines, etc. to get the old rental outboards started. And that was in perfect weather, with no waves...at the dock! Columbus himself may not have ventured into the Atlantic with such a worthless crew and no reliable method of getting home.
We'd eventually (and I use the term "we" very loosely) get the motor sputtering and push off into the dock into the great beyond. I can remember being extremely sweaty (the cool breeze of the Big Lake not yet having hit us), with a sore rear end from the unpadded wood benches and almost asphyxiated from clouds of burning oil and gasoline. But I, like each of my brothers, would be grinning from ear to ear as we started what promised to be a great adventure.
Our many rows of crooked teeth could have served as traps for the clouds of mosquitoes and horseflies in the calm bay, that is, if our little engine would have propelled us fast enough to catch up to them. As we rounded the peninsula that led to the open waters of the Big Lake, the welcome cool breeze (if it was a wind, Dad would do a u-turn) would hit us and Dad would look nervously as the formerly mirror-like water started to develop "ripples" that could have topped, say, six inches or more.
Our fishing excursions usually didn't last more than an hour or so. And I'm sure it was the longest sixty minutes of Dad's life. We'd surprisingly catch quite a few fish, mostly small, but extremely aggressive northern pike that would attack virtually any colorful, outlandish jig that we tied on our cheap, beat up little Zebco rods and reels.
The boat would drift above weed beds in 15 feet of water while each of us let our jigs down near the weeds, then moved them up and down rhythmically in hopes of driving the fish into a feeding frenzy. From a distance our boat probably looked like six human oil derricks methodically rising and falling, but with so many lures in the water, it usually wasn't long before one of us had something on their line. Then there would be a frenzy of yells, tangled lines and cries to "get the net!"
If a cloud would suddenly appear over the horizon, even if it seemed to be skirting way around our lake, Dad would say something like "you don't want to be caught on a lake during a lightning storm" and broach the subject of going back to the dock. A vote would be taken, and despite the final tally usually being 5-1 to stay on the water, surprisingly the one vote seemed to have the power of half a dozen.
More than once our outboard failed to start, which resulted in a long row with our clunky wood emergency oars, or if we were lucky, a tow from a faster, more powerful boat. Such engine failures only served to further dampen my dad's enthusiasm for "Big Lake" fishing trips.
On the days when the boat did start, we'd smile a little less on the way home. Sunburned, smelling like fish, with cuts from wayward hooks and chafing on our neck from the stiff orange life jackets, we probably looked more like refugees off the coast of Cuba than the successful fishermen we were. But it's a memory that will still make me smile when I'm sitting on my bed in the nursing home, and one that is every bit as sweet as an expensive, fancy wood speedboat.
by Jeff King
One of the necessary evils of growing up, even in "A Simpler Time," is the fact that (by law, I think) a boy has to have parents. Parents are to a young boy what a throttle is to an engine, they regulate the amount of fun you can have, the amount of sweets you can eat and the time you have to go to bed.
As an adult, I'm now aware that I was pretty lucky in this department. I had two fairly non-psychotic adults who I'm pretty sure loved me and, despite my feelings at the time, probably had my best interests in mind. They were there when I needed them (car rides, food and applying band-aids) and for the most part stayed out of my way as soon as I left the house each summer morning.
But as a child, I thought that the two adults in my life could be...well, pretty unfair! We boys loved to use the term unfair, as in "The other boys get to ride their bikes to the quarry and we can't...that's unfair!
So what that the quarry was a deep body of water surrounded by high, crumbling limestone cliffs and claimed a drowning victim every few years? And who cared that it could only be reached by biking a few miles along a busy highway with no shoulders? Oh, and that it had signs surrounding its perimeter that said "No Trespassing"? Our parents obviously didn't want us to have fun and were just unfair!
Like all dads (I think they take a class or something) mine was well prepared for the unfair line. "Life," he'd say as if it were a recording "is not fair." Once I was spectating during a fight in the living room between two of my five brothers. My Dad heard the noise and came on the run to break it up and spread a little of his "tough love." Unfortunately for me, the guilty culprits heard him coming and split, while I was caught and given a few whacks over the rear end, which didn't so much hurt physically as it did mentally, because it was so unfair!
"What did you hit me for?" I squeaked between sobs, "I was just watching!"
My father, the anger gone now and realizing he might have been a little rash in his rush to judgment, thought a moment and replied (as only a dad could do), "Well, you probably got away with something before, so this just evens it up." And so he reinforced the idea...that life is not always fair (but it does apparently even out in the long run).
Whereas my dad believed in "spare the rod, spoil the child"---which seems like child abuse to most modern parents even though it was a required course in the parenting manual 40 years ago---my mother worked more on threats and psychological warfare.
Just as Dad had read the male parenting handbook of the 60's, Mom had obviously absorbed some lessons from the pink covered "How to Tame Young Boys" (Mom version). Instead of physical punishment---which she had pretty much stopped after breaking a blood vessel whacking one of us---she often used the tried and true, "Just wait until I tell your Dad when he gets home!"
While this statement was rarely good for stopping a full blown argument or fight, it did give us a slight pause at least. If she really did tell Dad hours later, there would be hell to pay! Fortunately, my Mom was not a big fan of conflict, so by the time six o'clock rolled around and Dad was rolling into the garage in his big LTD station wagon, the 2-3 hours of relative peace and tranquility was far too valuable to lose by ratting out her children to the family enforcer.
My mom's personality was much more conducive to raising a large family. When I tell people today that I'm one of ten children, inevitably they say, "Oh, your poor Mom!" But to anyone who knows my parents, the one who was in over his head was my father. My mom was much calmer, able to examine a child's potentially broken finger while stirring dinner on the stove and talking to the next door neighbor on the phone about a potential Avon visit.
My father was a worrier, with constant visions of house fires with trapped family members and horrible car wrecks with multiple fatalities (although ironically, like most people of the era not concerned enough to make us wear seat belts). The clash in styles made for some interesting disagreements at times about parenting. As the saying goes, "Opposites attract...and then they spend the rest of their lives pissing each other off."
Like most young boys, we mistook our mom's easy going nature for her being less clever than we were. When we used the "Mrs. Nelson said it's OK to have her sons stay overnight if it's OK with you" line (even though we had not broached the subject with Mrs. Nelson yet), we thought no other ten year old had ever been so conniving. As a parent now myself, I'm going to go out on a limb and admit that after raising seven older children, it probably wasn't my mom's first ride in this rodeo.
If my father could be a tad unpredictable in his temperament, my mom was "Old Faithful." On long summer days she watched us slam the screen door (an act that would have completely set Dad off) each morning without a comment and then cheerfully called out "come home when the noon whistle blows." When the town whistle blew (all small towns seemed to have them in that era), we would show up to a fully prepared meal of "sloppy Joes" or grilled cheese sandwiches, often with a half dozen neighborhood boys in tow. And Mom would feed each and every one of them without a second thought.
Mom had secret weapons in the parental/child wars: Disappointment and Guilt. As hard as it is to admit, even a creature as seemingly self-centered as a 10-year-old boy, has a natural impulse to want to please his mom. It's not something we would have admitted to anyone, and our friends would have ridiculed us if they knew, but the impulse was there just the same.
Here's how it works: Two boys fighting over whose turn it is to do dishes (let's just say for example's sake, me and my then evil, self-centered younger brother Kevin). As we verbally argue for fifteen minutes over a chore that would have taken ten, Mom quietly starts doing the dishes. The hypothetical Kevin walks off feeling he won, while I wander over and tell Mom quietly I will do them and take over. An amateur psychologist might say I'm still bitter about this hypothetical episode, but it does point out that a even a callous boy can feel guilt.
In general though, in my ten-year-old eyes my parents seemed to relish limiting our fun. Just because a few boys suffered concussions and broken arms playing tackle football running into the concrete basement foundation on our narrow side yard, they banned tackle football in that location!! How unfair! And while other neighborhood boys had dads who bought cool M-80 firecrackers, powerful enough to blow apart rotting tree stumps (and possibly a hand), ours would only let us play with the lame Black Cat fire crackers!
See what I mean? Parents are really people whose job is to take the fun out of a carefree boy's daily life. "Fun suckers" we would probably have called them.
When I was young, I dreamed about the day when these adults wouldn't be able to tell me what (or how much) of something to eat and where I could go. Unfortunately, as my wife is only too quick to point out, perhaps I could still use a little of this evil parenting.
My tendency to eat the whole box of sweet cherries, even though I know I'll eventually get sick from them. And even though I could go pretty much anywhere and do anything, now that I'm legally (if not actually) mature, I usually choose to stay at home each weekend, doing yard work, watching TV and just hanging out. Oh, and doing one more thing: telling my own children they're too young for whatever plans they've concocted for the weekend.
You see, I, too, have become a parent.
by Jeff King
If you were a child growing up in southern Minnesota in the 60s and your parents had vacation time, it was assumed you would go "Up North."
The boundaries of "Up North" were never defined, as far as I could tell. Once or twice each summer in regular daily visits to our little local lake---a shallow mud hole of a damned up river---we'd even find campers with Iowa license plates in the parking lot. To them, even though our town was only about 20 miles above their border, our tiny park and man-made pond might have constituted "Up North."
But to pre-teen, adventurous Minnesota-born-and-bred boys, "Up North" meant at least north of the Twin Cities of St. Paul and Minneapolis. And the further north the better! Up where the lakes were crystal clear and ringed by tall pines; where the call of loons could be heard over the crackling of a campfire...or at least where you could whine until Dad let you try to putt a golf ball into a clown's mouth, feed corn to mangy looking tame deer, or put a quarter in an arcade machine to watch trained chickens playing the piano. A boy could only take so much serene wilderness before he had to have a little fun!
I remember my parents taking various parts of our large family on trips to different lakes and campgrounds each summer in the annual quest to find the "perfect" summer vacation spot. I'm assuming they were looking for a tranquil place where they could sit by the shore in lawn chairs, sipping a beer and reading books while listening to the waves and the birds. And my guess is they might have eventually found it, if they hadn't had anywhere from 6 to all 10 of their constantly bickering children in tow.
Our week long vacation was usually taken smack dab in the middle of a Minnesota summer, just when the novelty of being out of school all day had started to run its course. While adults may romanticize the era before video games and all day cartoon channels, in actuality it was pretty much impossible to play in the hot, muggy outdoors all day without getting a tad bit bored.
Most years, my father rented one of those magical little "pop-up" camper trailers that served as a u-haul for the 6-hour trip to the lake of his choice, and then cranked open to reveal a mini Holiday Inn once we arrived. The "Trip Up North Eve," when he would drive up with this year's rented model, was almost as much fun as the actual trip, as he could be easily convinced by a gang of watching kids to show us all the incredible features. We "oohed" and "ahhed" at cool things like working faucets, a refrigerator and a kitchen table that folded down to become another bed.
Once the trailer arrived, it was pretty hard to sleep, as the trip "Up North" was less than 24 hours away. Dad wisely---despite constant pleadings---wouldn't let us sleep in the opened camper trailer, knowing that starting on a long trip with sleep deprived children was suicidal at best. But he left the trailer open to "air out" and for us to play in until bedtime.
One year, just a day before the second biggest day of the year in the 11-year-old boy calendar (Christmas being the biggest), there was a little accident that threatened our highly anticipated trip. My younger brother somehow fell on his head while coming down from a neighbor's tree fort and was knocked unconscious. And to this day I feel somewhat guilty that as I stared at his motionless body for a few moments, thinking he might be dead, my overriding thought was, "Oh great, there goes our vacation!" After some consideration on how I might be able to hide his condition (or perhaps his body) from my parents, some tiny vestige of brotherly concern took over, and I raced off to get Mom.
Eventually he must have turned out to be alive and at least semi-OK. Our kind, elderly, right-out-of-Hollywood small town doctor stopped by the house to take a look at him, shined a light in his eyes, gave him a few aspirin and decided that---even if he may have a mild concussion---a little fresh air and sunshine might do him good. The fact that the fresh air was mostly going to be coming in 60 mph gusts through my chain smoking Mom's window in a crowded, un-air conditioned station wagon for say...maybe eight hours, didn't seem to concern him too much.
These days when I take my own family on vacation, the kids have video games and movies to play on computers and cell phones with which to text friends and surf the Internet. My dad's huge station wagon with the wood sides had none of those modern conveniences, but it did have something that must have been thought up by a masochistic car designer with no children. I'm talking two seats in the rear that faced each other!! I'm guessing that my parents hope that same car designer has been designated for the hottest part of hell.
Imagine up to six children, all related and usually boys, who pretty much don't like each other much on a good day. Now put them in two cramped bench seats, facing together, with so little leg room that each boy had to sit with legs touching in alternating fashion with the body across from them. Now add a little 90-degree plus, humid summer weather and no air conditioning. Toss in a few suitcases that didn't quite fit in the tent/trailer. And top with a six-hour drive that might become as much as eight hours because of traffic, or Dad's determination to double check the trailer hitch, brake lights and ropes holding the rest of our luggage to the roof every 30 miles or so.
Nowadays, I find myself upset when my children's trip entertainment is interrupted by their bickering. But when I grew up, the bickering was the entertainment. Jostling for leg space by kicking, elbowing the brother sitting next to you, or arguing who was taking up too much room occupied almost the entire trip. Threats to stop the car and commence beating children were so common from the front seat that we had to do our best to stifle yawns between "Lord of the Flies" physical negotiating sessions for more space with our seat partners.
The highlight of the trip "Up North," and one that was usually used as a bargaining chip by Dad ("If you don't fight on the way up, we may even stop at...") was Paul Bunyan Land! We pretty much knew that, no matter how much trouble we were on the way up, we liked Paul Bunyan Land way too much for our Dad to pass by. Not stopping might have resulted in a pint-sized mutiny. And since he was usually looking for another excuse to stop and check the trailer, ropes, etc., stop we did.
I know now that Paul Bunyan Land, which has been replaced by a huge car dealership and a home center on the busiest road taking wealthy Minnesotans to their northern weekend retreats, was what might kindly be called a "tourist trap." But no group of excitement starved small town tourist kids were ever happier to be "trapped" than our family.
The most impressive thing about this roadside amusement park was a towering statue of Paul himself just inside the entrance, sitting on a giant chair in what can best be described as a cave made of tree trunks. At the time, we thought he was at least 300 feet tall, but looking back on it I'm pretty sure we exaggerated by just a little (maybe tenfold?). Outside the front gate was another, smaller statue of his Blue Ox. I'm guessing he was relegated to the outside because he wasn't housebroken.
What happened as we walked through the front ticket gate towards the huge Paul Bunyan altar never ceased to cause a mixture of wonder, amazement and...though I'm a little embarrassed to admit it...yes, fear. Because without fail, when we walked towards Paul, he would look at us with those huge, basketball-sized glass eyes and say in a deep, booming voice, "Welcome to the King family." Then he would proceed to welcome other families, by names, which were walking in behind us.
The first time I heard him say this, when I was probably just out of kindergarten, I was frightened enough to seek refuge behind my dad's legs. Eventually I acted tough to impress my older brothers, but the thought that a giant plastic sculpture somehow knew who we were made me feel more than a little uncomfortable...yet thrilled at the same time.
Years later---older and wiser---we peaked through a crack in a small hut at the base of the statue and solved the riddle. A man with a microphone huddled inside, talking in a deep "Paul Bunyan" voice one minute and listening to the ticket takers giving him inside information on new arrivals through a speaker the next.
It was a real-life imposter unveiling worthy of the scene from the Wizard of OZ! We should have been relieved and excited, but all I can remember is feeling mostly disappointed, like the moment you knew for sure that the overweight, bearded guy with the jolly laugh really didn't bring the Christmas presents. So we handled our feeling of disappointment the only way we knew how---by showing every little boy within earshot what we had found and spoiling the whole spectacle for them as well!
Paul Bunyan Land had the requisite rides that most small amusement parks had, like a roller coaster, Tilt-A-Whirl and a small train that circled the park at a speed so slow women with baby strollers passed you by. But what I remember most were the super cool, trained animal arcade vending machines! Okay, they probably weren't technically vending machines, because while you did have to put a quarter in the machine, you didn't really get a chicken or a rabbit---even though there was one in every metal and glass contraption.
The animals in the glass boxes had been trained to do simple (for us, probably not for them) tricks, whenever a coin was inserted. After completing the trick---pecking on a piano, knocking a floating ping pong ball into a mini-basket, etc.---the animal (usually a chicken) would get a small reward of food.
On busy days, the animals got so many "rewards" that they sat lazily in their glass cages and sometimes even refused to perform for a quarter. But on slow days, many would peck on the glass as you walked by, acting like miniature carnival barkers trying to lure you and your jingling pocket of quarters.
My brothers and I could never get enough of the animal games---even preferring them to the rides or standard fair contests. Unfortunately, one year (I don't remember when, but it was probably the same year that the yearly batch of "orphaned" bear cubs no longer were displayed at our favorite Indian-themed gift shop) the machines were no longer there!
I'm guessing this happened during the formative years of the animal rights movement. And while I don't want any animal to suffer (makes me now wonder how incredibly fortunate the gift shop was to get "orphaned" cubs without fail each year), it seems to me that if I were a chicken (and I've been called one more than once), I'd probably prefer a life of ping pong basketball and watching gap-toothed ten year olds through glass than sitting in a windowless room laying eggs all day.
Eventually we would reach whatever lake Dad and Mom had deemed worthy of the King family invasion this year. And with over 10,000 in Minnesota, there wasn't too much difficulty finding a new one, although they pretty much all looked the same from the screened in window of my camper bed, as I listened to the buzz of mosquitoes (some inside) and the calls of loons as the sun went down. And at that northern latitude in the beginning of August, the sun barely seemed to set at 10 p.m. before rising way too early the next day.
We loved doing the things kids do at a lake...swimming, looking for frogs, fishing, building camp fires. I was a particularly avid fisherman (almost obsessively so my siblings might say), fishing constantly off the dock for whatever pan fish I could catch for hours at time and even refusing to join my siblings at the weedy patch of "swimming beach" that usually consisted of a dump truck's worth of playground sand.
Years later, after struggling financially to put most of their kids through college, my parents did well enough with my Dad's new business to buy some land from one of the campground owners and build their own, beautiful cedar cabin with two stone fireplaces. My own children loved to go there for many summers, doing many of the same things I did as a child.
For a few years when they were young, we stopped on the way up at Paul Bunyan Land, before it was sold and later demolished. My kids were initially semi-impressed and seemed to enjoy the rides, but by the time they were about eight years old the novelty had worn off. I guess when you're raised on video games that simulate far off galaxies or actual NFL football games, riding a 2 mph miniature choo-choo train around a dying amusement park doesn't quite pass for high entertainment.
My Shrinking Hometown
by Jeff King
I visited my small, Midwestern home town recently and was struck by a catastrophic event happening right before its citizens' very eyes. And the town folk seem to go about their lives every day blissfully ignorant of what's going on.
It seems my home town is shrinking. Not quickly, mind you. In fact, I've gone back to the parents' house many times without noticing it myself, even though I knew something was not quite right.
My first inkling came years ago when I took a short stroll to the local river to check out an old favorite hideout and fishing hole. Even the term "short stroll" should have been a clue. When I was 9, the two block trek to the river was a long journey, requiring a wagon filled with everything needed for the latest adventure. Fishing poles, a battered green metal tackle box, soft drinks (or "pop" as we called it) and even sandwiches were necessary. I don't imagine the pioneers headed west in covered wagons with more supplies than we carried.
Along the way I passed through the playground of my old elementary school. Sometimes when we played baseball on the field tucked in one corner, the biggest, oldest left handed batters (if they really, really connected), could send a ball soaring up the hill in right field and off the red brick wall of the school, narrowly missing a few windows.
But wait a minute! Someone either moved the school closer or the backstop isn't where it used to be. The school doesn't seem to be even 200 feet from home plate! Even girls can hit that far. Can't they?
On the right was the terraced, gravel topped field where we used to play dodge ball (we called it bombardment and willingly went to school early to play). It was bordered on two sides by a towering limestone rock wall that only the bravest, most foolhardy boys would jump from to impress the girls. Or at least it used to be. The puny walls surrounding the field now didn't look to be much more than four feet high! Heck, even a coward like me would have risked jumping off a wall like that---at least if my grade school crush, the new girl who rode her pink bicycle with the flowered basket by my house every day while I "happened" to be in the front yard---was watching."
The school itself had shrunk too. Of course, part of that was because the city had decided to tear down the older part---the part with the cool dome that looked a little like the state capitol if you squinted and imagined enough---because of fire concerns. Even the "new" part of the school looked like someone had thrown it in the dryer on hot and forgot to take it out soon enough.
But it was when I reached our "hangout" (way too quickly I might add---I didn't even recall exerting enough effort to need a sandwich), that I realized something was wrong in "Hooterville."
When I was a boy, "Sucker Valley," as we called the widest part of the Root River located about a quarter mile under the lake dam (a distance that had since shrunk to about 150 yards), was our oasis from the hustle and bustle of city life and parents. From the dirt path winding through the woods lining the river, we had to gingerly ease our way down a bare slope (which could be treacherous when wet), to a muddy knoll standing above the water.
The fact that there was no grass anywhere along the journey attests to how often this area was used by us and occasional interlopers. Dozens of fish bobbers, dangling monofilament line in the breeze, confirmed just one of its uses.
From "Sucker Valley"---so named because the ugly, inedible sucker and its close relative, the carp, were the predominant catch---we could hear the continual hum of tires crossing the bridge on the main northern entrance to town. Otherwise, with the canopy of leaves and birds chirping, we could have been in the boundary waters of northern Minnesota. OK, if we ignored our noses, which was tough to do with the town's sewage treatment plant located just up river.
The river, which ranged from rushing to babbling water under the dam (depending on the season), moved slowly in Sucker Valley, with only foam bubbles floating gently by in the dark water giving a hint of movement.
I suppose this spot appealed to us for many of the reasons above, but maybe because it gave us all a reason to do what we most enjoyed---cast our little Zebco 202 plastic spin cast reels as far as we could! We heaved our night crawler, bobber combos with all our might, trying as hard as we could to get close to the far bank (I wonder if we had been fishing on the other side if we would have been satisfied fishing a few feet into the current?).
Rarely, very rarely, did a lucky cast land in the overhanging tree branches on the far side of the river. Sure, it meant a broken line and a lost hook and bobber, but like a flag planted on Mt. Everest, the swaying bobber bore witness that someone had conquered the unconquerable.
Only the strongest, most athletic boys could hope to attain such a feat. Boys like Leif, who I think won the local punt, pass and kick competition every year and pretty much aced any athletic competition we could think up.
Imagine my horror to find that Sucker Valley is disappearing! Never mind the Polar ice caps or the Amazon, this was way more serious! Nowadays even I could flip a worm weighted bobber across the river...underhand.
I tried telling a few old friends who still lived in town about the problem, but they just smiled and told me to have another drink. I guess ignorance is bliss---at least until they drive up to their shrunken garage some night after work and find a certain car doesn't fit.
Since that day I have seen more proof of the shrinking of my home town. The long, dangerous bicycle trip to the "other side of town" (divided by a busy highway), is a leisurely five minute walk. The huge metal grain elevators (some of the biggest in Minnesota, my dad often bragged), seem like, well, slightly bigger than average grain silos. The immense, lush green football field with the towering stands (at least on the home team side), now appears to be just 100 yards long, with somewhat underwhelming bleachers and spotty grass.
As my hometown has more than twice as many people as when I grew up, perhaps the "newbies" don't realize how big everything in town once was in "the day." Back when the boys in our "hood" roamed these huge, wide open spaces freely on hot summer afternoons, boldly going when no boy had ever gone before.
A Simpler Christmas
by Jeff King
No thoughts about "A Simpler Time" could ever be complete without memories of Christmas as a child. Some of my most vivid, fondest memories are of that day, one that was looked forward to for months and then seemed to pass in the blink of an eye.
With a family of ten children, Christmas was (and still is) a ritual. Each of us expected three gifts---one from Santa, one from our parents, and one from whichever sibling drew our name from a hat. Presents were wrapped upstairs on Christmas Eve (except Santa's, which were usually the largest, hardest to wrap gifts) and brought down to our nine foot Christmas tree---which had been elaborately and painstakingly decorated in antique ornaments and lead tinsel.
When lead tinsel was outlawed, we saved the banned substance by removing it carefully piece by piece for a few years until the pieces fell apart if not handled delicately enough. Eventually we tried the new fangled light, kid-safe stuff, but it was deemed worthless and a decision was made by the powers that be (our oldest sister and Mom), that our tree would hence forth be tinsel-free. After much discussion, it was also decided that Christmas would still go on.
As number eight in the pecking order, my main job was to bring a few presents down to elder sisters, who would painstakingly place the package in the perfect place---known only to them and obviously an art far too subtle to be trusted to a mere boy. Then I would wait around for awhile, gawking at the brightly colored lights and staring wondrously at my distorted reflection in the large shiny glass ornaments until told to "move away from the tree, before you break something." Despite hearing this admonition about 1497 times while growing up, I'm pretty sure no child (or dog) actually ever broke one of them.
Some time after all the tinsel and ornaments had been placed on the tree, my father was expected to remark that we had "the prettiest tree in town." While we were unaware that our small Midwestern town had conducted a contest, no one ever thought to question him and to our wondering eyes, he had to be right.
Our stockings, all handmade out of felt with our names in glittery script, were arranged by birth order on the fireplace mantel. By the time I arrived, the mantel wasn't long enough for all 10 of us, so Mom and Dad's stockings had been moved around the corner. Eventually, my two youngest interloping brothers arrived and bumped a few elder siblings' stockings around the mantel to Mom and Dad's stocking purgatory.
We always tried to go to bed early on Christmas Eve, because the "big show" of opening presents was always on Christmas morning, and we couldn't wait for it to happen. But putting young, very excited boys to bed an hour early (we shared a room in our younger years so we wouldn't keep every one else awake) was usually a recipe for disaster.
With no one tired, we would talk until late into the night about what we hoped to get. Every minor noise outside or downstairs would lead to momentary wide-eyed silence or a fast dash to the window to catch a glimpse of a fat, jolly old man, or maybe some reindeer. Occasionally one of the older brothers, perhaps not quite as into the whole St. Nick thing, would tell us to shut up before he killed us, so he could get some sleep.
In the morning, we were not allowed to go downstairs and look at the presents until everyone was up. Dad would usually tell us what time that would be in a heavy negotiating session the night before. We'd lead with 6 a.m., he'd counter with 8 (a few party pooping older sisters would whine for nine) and eventually a compromise of about 7:30 would be reached to a background of disappointment from all involved.
By about 5 a.m., usually at least one of the brothers was up and whispering, "Jeff, you up yet?" Within seconds, all except the oldest in the room was wide awake, wondering what time it was and whether it was OK to wake everyone else up yet. That hour or two wait was to a normal hour what a human year is to dogs. By the time 7:15 a.m. rolled around (parents generally accepted a 15-minute grace period on Christmas morning when surrounded by a bunch of gap-toothed grinning boys at the foot of their bed), we were so excited we were having seizures.
With Dad's approval, we were given permission to wake up the older siblings, never an easy job, but one we all accepted with glee. We never could understand why they weren't as giddy as we were. Then all of us waited at the top of the stairs for everyone to get out of bed, while Dad went downstairs to get his trusty Super-8 movie maker ready for the big event.
In a decision made before I was born, someone had the bright idea of coming down the stairs Christmas morning in birth order (something you never escape in a large family) while Dad filmed the procession. In retrospect it was a great move, because when our holiday films are spliced together you can see everyone growing up in a minute or so before your very eyes. Smiling young girls in flannel pajamas with glasses on and hair sticking out in seven directions are seen just one or two years later as fully dressed sullen teenagers, makeup on, hair combed and holding their hands up to ward off the camera lens.
When Dad turned on the blinding light of his Super 8, the only other object beside the sun that could cause blindness if stared into, it was our cue to move down the stairs! The first few boys (although in older movies sometimes an elder sister was carrying an infant or toddler) would come bounding down 2-3 stairs at a time while being admonished to slow down. There was usually a slight break before the teenagers would appear, all holding up their hands to shield the harsh light and begging Dad not to film them.
We would immediately run to the presents---especially the ones delivered by Santa that were usually too large to do anything more than put a bow on. Then we'd sprint to our stockings to check on the candy and small present (usually a comic book) inside.
Even the "official present opening" was run like the German train system in our family. Or at least for the first ten minutes. We all sat around the tree (oldest children and Mom and Dad got the chairs, as if we would have sat in them), and waited for one of the Gestapo---I mean, older sisters---to give each of us a present to open.
The idea behind this fiasco was grand; enjoy Christmas, let everyone see what the other person gets, share the fun and wonderment, and let Dad film the moment. The reality was at least one crying child, or usually two or three as they waited impatiently to open a gift. To keep the youngest happy, they were each given a present quickly and as each child up the ladder grew more impatient, the parceling out of presents grew more fast paced until pretty soon the sound of ripping paper and delighted screams filled every corner of two rooms, with Dad's camera light whipping crazily from kid to kid and Mom yelling at him to slow down or we'd have poor film like last year.
And Mom was right. Whether it was Dad's thrifty side showing up again (film was very expensive) or his impatient side, our Christmas films look a little like a cross between the Zapgruder Kennedy assassination video and a Bigfoot film, with flashes of grinning teeth, wrapping paper, flannel pajamas, and confused dogs.
When every present was opened (about half an hour tops), and two large rooms were piled deep in discarded wrapping paper, boxes and ribbons, it was time to make the big decision. Which present would we play with first? No matter how much I liked my favorite, it always seemed like one of my brothers had a more interesting gift, and I'm sure they felt the same about mine.
For about five years, starting when I was seven or so, I received the "new improved" version of my favorite gift...electric football. Every year the TV ads showed excited boys setting up the tiny players---neatly painted in the colors of the previous year's best NFL teams---on a field surrounded by realistic looking fans and press boxes. In the ads, the players blocked and ran much like the real thing.
In reality, each game (despite its promises), was a lot like the previous year's version. The tiny players, which had looked so cool in their miniature Packer and Viking uniforms on the box, turned out to be plain green or red plastic. Fine print said something about having the option of painting your own. At an age where staying in the lines on a coloring book was a major feat, painting thread thin stripes on a two inch high man was not going to happen.
The fancy stands with realistic looking fans and press boxes? Flimsy pieces of cardboard that fell apart as you leaned over them to set up your team. Even so, my brother Kevin and I would spend fifteen minutes setting up our new teams for the first play with eager anticipation. Sure, last year's version turned into a field of crazily dancing, bouncing figures mostly going in circles when the "on" button was pushed. But this year...well, this year, things would be different! I'd seen the ads many times, and they promised the game was so much better.
After finally getting our respective teams set up, with a magnetic "ball" stuck firmly on the "quarterback's" base, and after arguing hotly over which team got to set up the last person, we were ready to turn on the game! With eager anticipation I would hit the switch and...the light plastic players started jumping madly, with half of them heading back in the direction of their own goal and most of the others hooked into another player, spinning in circles and looking more like a square dance than a football game. If the "quarterback" did manage to head in the general direction of the correct goal post, he usually would do an inexplicable 180 degree turn, to screams of "NO, NO!"
It was about then, a half hour before church with the admonition of Mom to go upstairs and get dressed, that fatigue and reality set in. Christmas was over. After all the anticipation, the dozens of lists that were tore up, re-done and tore up again when a new TV ad stoked our fancy, there was nothing more to look forward to. As happy as we were with our new toys (unless we got "yuck," clothes), the reality of playing with our long awaited gifts never quite lived up to the hype.
Traces of "A Simpler Time"
by Jeff King
Sometimes as adults I think we're so busy reminiscing about our own childhood, and focusing on what we consider negative, modern influences on today's children, that we fail to see some things haven't really changed that much.
Recently I read where Plato (or Socrates or some other Greek guy I probably should have studied more closely) lamented way back then how bad children were becoming. It's a common theme running through society for as long as humans have wrestled with that evil nemesis called puberty.
Our current neighborhood is filled with children-most of them ranging from infants to teens-and as far as I can tell, there's not a budding Jeffrey Dahmer among them. In fact, take away the XBox 360's, the I-Pods, and the cell phones, and these strange, short people seem....well, a lot like us when we were little!
Take "Ben and Henry" for instance. I've never even met "Ben and Henry," but I've heard about their entrepreneurial spirit second hand a lot lately. First, there was the "Ben and Henry" cucumber stand, proudly selling fresh produce to the Highcroft neighborhood since July. I attempted to glimpse the 5 and 7-year-old brothers, but by the time my wife dragged me down the street to buy some cucumbers, the stand was closed, all the product was sold, and "Ben and Henry" were presumably at the bank turning the proceeds into a high rate CD (or "disc" as my daughter calls them).
Recently, bright neon flyers have appeared around the neighborhood advertising "Ben and Henry's Skateboard lessons." I'm just guessing, but after their first business venture---one that involved sitting behind a table selling a product that is not easily or quickly replenished---the brothers were looking for something a little more exciting with no supply chain issues.
Our neighborhood is filled with girls playing "four-square" on the driveways and boys roaming in small packs up and down the sidewalks doing all the things boys do (catch bugs, sharpen sticks, etc...).
A favorite game of the younger boys is to look for "aliens" in the small woods behind our house. They strap on backpacks, tote anything that looks like a gun (make that "ray" gun), and carry small bottles to take alien samples. Occasionally they emerge screaming out of the woods shouting "Aliens!!" so convincingly I look for a closet to hide inside.
My twin daughters and their friends thought this game was so silly they took it upon themselves to argue with the boys over the very existence of aliens. Getting nowhere, they proceeded to use Dad's computer to fashion a very slanted, one page opinion poll asking people whether they believe in aliens, which was then deposited in every mailbox up and down the street (with a deadline and a return address). Results were almost even and did nothing to resolve the issue.
Here are a few of the other games we've witnessed that reassure me kids really haven't changed that much:
Ant cruises. To the average adult, a small, foot-deep "baby" pool in the back yard is a mosquito breeding ground waiting to happen. To the neighbor boy and his friends, it's the Atlantic Ocean, the piece of scrap lumber is the Love Boat, and a few lucky, hand picked ants get the pleasure of riding it.
Frog Races. Who can forget the stubborn determination of one of our favorite neighbor girls, insisting that her well-trained frog---obviously showing the visible signs of being hugged a little too tightly---was just resting?
Dueling Forts. Not to be outdone by the efforts of the boys who had built a "fort" in the woods using pieces of lumber and junk they "claim" the local farmer had discarded, the girls decided to build their own fort. With the whole rest of the woods to build their new castle---including areas totally invisible to the competition---where do you think they chose for a location? That's right! Within spitting distance. Coincidentally, as the girls ventured forth for building materials and their own fort grew larger, the boy's fort shrunk.
Before A Simpler Time
by Jeff King
"Dad, I'm bored." I heard those words from one of my ten-year-old twin girls early in the second half of an exciting women's basketball game we were attending between the home team Duke Blue Devils and the Virginia Cavaliers.
Never mind that we were in Cameron Indoor Stadium---a historical venue that Sports Illustrated named one of the five best in the world---for the first time. Or that the crowd was going crazy, the band was loud, the score was close, and the action on the court was end to end. My daughter was, well...bored.
To her credit, Ellie is an action girl. She loves basketball---when she's playing it---and is not as obsessed with video games as most of her generation (such as her brother). Normally I would have taken this moment to go on one of my famous ten minute "rants," filled with phrases such as "when I was your age...," "kids nowadays...," "I would have killed...," etc. But just days earlier, I had read my 85-year-old father's memoirs of growing up on a small farm during the depression, and quite frankly, I was feeling a little guilty about how interesting my childhood had been by comparison.
Unlike Ellie's 200 TV channel, YouTube, homework on every night youth, mine was a lot slower. And while we weren't poor, with ten children in the family anything beyond food and clothing was considered a luxury we could probably live without.
In comparison with my father's youth, though, I lived a fast-paced, care-free existence. His memoirs---written in a factual timeline from his youth in the 20s up through his service during WWII---brought that home to me for the first time.
My parents grew up fairly close to each other in a rural part of Minnesota just northeast of St. Paul, Minnesota, on small farms. One of the highlights of my father's youth was the monthly visit from the local pig buyer, since the kindly man---besides being one of the few visitors they ever saw --- also brought Dad and his siblings candy. My dad didn't know the gentleman's granddaughter at that time, but he would marry her (my mom) one day.
Dad's father was strict, not prone to the rants I'm famous for, but rather for carrying a big "stick" and being willing to use it if not obeyed right away. When the whoosh of the kerosene lighting the corncobs on the kitchen stove woke them up at 6 a.m., the children were expected to immediately crawl out from under their heavy buffalo fur blanket (they slept in an unheated upstairs room) and get ready to start the day's chores.
The farm had no electricity, no running water, an outdoor outhouse and 50 acres of land made barely tillable by the extensive drought of the 1930s. So between plowing, planting, milking cows and harvesting crops, there was not nearly as much emphasis on "play" as there is today.
When a pig was butchered, the tough bladder was saved to use as a ball (I'm guessing that's where the word "pigskin" for football came from). Frozen cow droppings were functional in a game of pond hockey, and the large water trough the farm animals used was good for hours of good clean (or maybe not so clean) fun.
Children had no supervised, sponsored teams to belong to, and were mostly on their own for entertainment. This might explain Dad's ill conceived lighting of the hay pile in the hog pen on his sixth birthday---a feat which almost resulted in the barn burning down and amazingly didn't result in a whipping (it was his birthday).
Excitement was rare, visitors were scarce and many people (such as my mom's hog buying, candy giving dad) were born, raised and died in the same house.
To his credit, my father has seen a drastic change in how children are raised, and for the most part, has changed too. "Spare the rod, spoil the child," and "children are to be seen and not heard," are not phrases uttered by many teachers or parents these days.
He's noticed that his children have raised his grandchildren differently than he did, just as he was more lenient than his dad. When the first of his ten children rarely (if ever) struck their children in anger, I'm sure he expected there to be hell to pay in the future. But as all have grown to be respectful, intelligent, college-educated adults, he's grudgingly admitted that perhaps the newfangled "hug your child" and explain method might be OK (although as he says, with 10 children it would have taken way too long).
This brings me back to my daughter being bored, in a loud, colorful, famous sporting venue on a Sunday afternoon.After reading just days before about one of my father's most exciting moments of his youth: when they bought fresh peaches and were able to use the soft tissue the fruit came wrapped in to replace torn pages from the Sears catalog in the outhouse. And I thought I lived through...A Simpler Time.
by Jeff King
One aspect of having stores that sell nostalgia in high traffic areas is that we get to hear a lot of comments about how children have changed so much over the years. Usually the person making the comment is not talking about for the better.
I may be a little naive, and the suburban middle class neighborhoods I've raised my children in may not be an accurate cross section of Americana, but I'd be willing to put the vast majority of youngsters I encounter up against my own youthful gang of "hooligans" any day.
Say what you want about computer games and 24-hour cartoon channels and the Internet, but hypnotized children who have highly developed "gamer thumbs" are fairly impossible to wrench from their favorite speaker chair, much less have enough time or energy to get in trouble. When they do venture outside, it's either to a scheduled "play date" (a word that is never used in our household without visible scorn), where anxious moms form a protective wagon train around their bubble wrapped bodies, or to venture three whole houses to visit a friend (while mom watches from the porch to make sure no one kidnaps them during the 10 second trek).
I'm guessing my own children could get into some of the same mischief my "gang" got into when I was young. If they ever got bored. At least I hope so.
Most of the time, the trouble we caused was not because we were mean or poorly parented, but because we were "boys being boys" who ran out the door each summer in the AM, returning only for meals. On Saturday morning we were glued to the TV set for the 3-4 hours of cartoons that showed various animals wreaking mayhem on each other. After that, all bets were off.
I'm not sure what girls our age did back then because we lived on a block that was blissfully free of the annoying little creatures (at least that's what we thought in elementary school-our opinions of them changed drastically a few years later). My own sisters were all older, and other than being Mom's eyes and ears, were not much good for anything else.
We lived in a small world of grand plans that didn't always come to fruition. Tree forts that were drawn up to be three stories tall with secret passages and trap doors became rickety scrap wood platforms that gave way under the weight of two 60 pound bodies. "Official" inter-neighborhood football games complete with full football uniforms became backyard argumentative brawls between rival teams sporting mismatched helmets and rags stuffed strategically to resemble real pads.
Once in awhile, though, the actual events came close to living up to the hype, even if I'm relatively sure our blissfully ignorant parents might not have agreed.
I'm not even sure how one of our favorite games started (I'm relatively certain it wasn't on a play date). The game never had a name that I'm aware of, but for now I'll call it "bike wars."
In retrospect, it was something that might have evolved if children from one of Mel Gibson's early apocalyptic movies were crossed with "Lord of the Flies," with just enough Mayberry RFD thrown in to keep it from getting totally out of hand.
We lived in the "older" part of a town of about 3,000 people, on a block that had about 20 boys within 4-5 years of each other. Since all we did was play sports (and cause minor trouble) many of the best athletes in town lived on our block. About three blocks away was group of about 15 boys who lived in the "horseshoe," so called because the local river bent around their houses. In our youthful innocence (or perhaps just youth), we hardly knew the boys from the "horseshoe" even existed. When you're banned from crossing the street, three blocks was the equivalent of from New York to Los Angeles now.
As we reached the middle years of elementary school and gained the sweet freedom of our Coast to Coast "sting-ray" bikes (the only kind you could buy in our town unless you were a dork) with the cool banana seats, a whole new world opened up to us. I imagine Columbus would have felt much like us the first time we laid eyes on the strange boys from the horseshoe. (Okay, we went to school with most of them, but up to that time were unaware they actually lived somewhere in real houses and everything). Our original bike forays into each other's "territory" started peacefully enough, with curious stares as we pedaled furiously by each other in opposite directions. I don't even recall which group fired the first salvo, although as we had the same devious minds that thought to put smoke bombs in the air intake of the one couple on the block who wouldn't let us cross their yard, I'm guessing we were the guilty party.
Initially, if we saw "horseshoe boys" on bikes near our block, we would pedal furiously to intercept and head straight for them at full speed. As we came close enough to see the look of fear in their eyes (or at least we liked to think it was fear), we would brake hard with our feet (no sissy hand brakes on those babies) and come screeching to a halt within feet (or inches) of their bikes. After a few back and forth insults, each side pedaled away. No harm, no foul.
One day, while out "scouting" for intruders (a game that could get pretty tedious if the horseshoe boys had other plans), myself, one of my older brothers and another older "gang" member spotted two unsuspecting bikers pedaling on a street that intersected the one we were on. To this day, one of my biggest weaknesses is that I'll do anything to get a laugh, no matter how silly it makes me look. So to impress my two older partners in crime, I immediately pedaled as fast as I could on a solo "attack." Like World War I ace fighter pilots I had read about, I came racing down a steep hill and out of the sun (OK, maybe I made up the part about the sun, but it was a steep hill), straight towards my clueless victims with my older, stronger wingmen struggling to catch up.
Just about five yards from the horseshoe biker boys, I heard my wingmen start to lock brakes as totally startled faces consisting of about 80 percent eyeballs swung my way. I waited until the last possible moment to impress my compadres, and then.pushed my foot hard against the brake...nothing! Oh Sh..KA BOOM!!! I went flying over my handlebars and ended up upside down on a thick carpet of (thankfully) unmowed grass. As I tentatively did an inventory to check for broken bones and bruises, I raised my head and noticed my beloved Stingray imbedded in what had been a new bike, but was now a metal pretzel.
Thankfully I had missed the seemingly uninjured pilot of the t-boned bike, but he looked as stunned as I felt. Meanwhile, my brother and other fellow gang member were laughing hysterically. My mission was accomplished!
I never did tell anyone that my brakes had failed (or I had not hit them correctly in the excitement). Word of my suicide mission spread, and the story made me look too good to let a little truth stand in the way.
In a weird way, my little "accident" became the Reese's Peanut Butter cup moment of a popular new game. I had combined two things all boys loved to do---ride bikes and smash metal things together. I was the Abner Doubleday, the James Naismith, of the neighborhood. After that, both armies continually were out scouting for the "enemy" to attack. Bikes were rammed together until one side or the other would flee (usually the outnumbered side). Surprisingly there was very little boy-on-boy violence, as both sides seemed content to avoid injury while crashing two-wheelers together. Scouts were always being sent out to find the enemy and reported back with their whereabouts.
Even the younger kids---the ones we deemed too likely to get hurt or, worse yet, blab to Mom---were enlisted as "mechanics" in our family garage. When a bike was too mangled to ride any more, it was brought to the "mechanics" in the garage to fix. The younger boys were ecstatic that they got to play with Mr. King's metal tools (which were generally off limits...when he was home) and hardly noticed that we "borrowed" their bikes while ours were being worked on.
I don't recall how many summers our favorite game lasted and what exactly made it end. It's probably not a stretch to think that even our parents could not remain clueless to the mismatched rims, broken spokes and occasional crying five year old.
If my own children played the same game today---which they wouldn't because their new bikes purchased each year so that they perfectly fit and have handbrakes and water bottles are far too precious---we'd probably have a quick meeting with a child psychologist. "Mr. King, your child has been involved in a very dangerous game that is likely to turn him into a violent psychopath if we don't intervene," I can imagine the doctor saying, before adding that "at least he was wearing his bike helmet."
by Jeff King
I used to think my parents (particularly my father) were entirely too uptight about our safety as I was growing up. Now that I have my own children, I wonder why they were so lackadaisical about our well being, and how we ever survived to adulthood!
Perhaps that's why families were larger "back then." Just like fish that lay millions of eggs in the hopes that a few will survive countless predators, famine, and disease to repeat the cycle, my parents had ten children. They raised us similarly to how they were raised, which means we were turned loose on the world every morning during summer vacation and expected to return for meals when the noon whistle blew and at 6 p.m. (when Dad's top blew).
Up to a certain age---basically until we could ride a real bike---we were limited to our city block consisting of twelve houses and an alleyway. But once we had the sweet freedom that a new Coast King banana-seated bike could bring, our world expanded all the way to...the lake.
To call Lake Florence a lake is probably a little like calling my blog literature. It was actually a slight widening in a lazy river that meandered through the farm fields of southeastern Minnesota. Caused by a sixty-year-old limestone dam that rumor had it once powered a flour mill, the lake had, in prehistoric times, been a popular gathering place for local swimmers and boaters.
Over the years, farmers tilled closer to the river's banks and floods carried the rich, black topsoil downstream, where it was deposited in the still waters of the lake. By the time my gang and I first started our daily visits, the once proud vacation destination filled with northern pike and bass had become a shallow muddy pond that was the home of only rough fish like carp and suckers. But it was our muddy pond.
The dam had a spillway about 200 feet wide and fifteen feet high, over which excess water would flow in varying amounts. In the spring, when the snow melted, the river could turn dangerous with water so high it only dipped a few feet into whitewater below the dam. Most of the year, though, the water topping the spillway and flowing over the moss-covered 45-degree concrete spillway was only inches deep.
To an adult, the gently flowing water over a limestone dam made for a Kodak moment. To a kid, though, it was the ultimate waterslide. I don't recall any adult ever saying we couldn't slide down a slippery, slimy hard concrete dam into boulder-strewn pools filled with snapping turtles and broken beer bottles. But then again, I don't recall any one ever asking them.
Through trial and error, we became smart enough to not slide down in our shorts or pants. The green algae growing on the dam left matching colored stains that were hard to explain to parents. We learned to slide down in our white underwear instead. Our undies could be left at the scene of the crime, and we could wear our dry clean shorts home, sneak upstairs and replace them --- leaving Mom none the wiser.
The "lake" was the center of our idyllic summers. We fished almost every morning for the easy-to-catch, hard-fighting carp---a rough fish that was mostly responsible for keeping the lake vegetation-free. Although carp were considered inedible by most adults, we loved to keep our catch on wire stringers and drag them home to show mom.
Mom acted excited and pleased every time, commenting on how large they were and how they would make such good fertilizer for her garden. Looking back on her acting ability, some of what she said (and we believed) might have been good fertilizer as well.
My hometown for years discussed dredging the once-proud lake and the local newspaper ran many stories of feasible ways to do so. Benefits, bake sales, and other fundraisers were held annually for the "Lake Florence project" until, one day after many years, the newspaper proudly announced that our town had enough money to purchase a used dredge costing many thousands of dollars!
That spring, the town's populace waited anxiously for the lake to thaw and the inevitable spring flooding that would occur. Dredging could start after the lake level returned to normal. Soon our lake would once again be a deep, clear body of water befitting its status of one of the 10,000 lakes bragged about on our state's license plates.
Then, in the middle of the night, with ice flows pushed up against the aging dam, the unthinkable happened. The dam burst. Fortunately no one was injured down stream, but the end result was a small town with a hole in an aging dam too expensive to fix and a big, used lake dredging machine for sale.
My hometown did a good job of turning the missing lake into a park, featuring a (clean) rushing stream flowing through a grassy park---with a nice safe fishing pond that boasts a wood fishing dock. Except during the annual 4th of July celebration, it doesn't seem like either the river or the pond gets a lot of kid traffic these days. The river---while not deep---has fast flowing water, and the pond---although it has a handicapped accessible dock---is of unknown depth.
Modern parents, what with their much smaller families of 2.5 children, can ill afford to lose even their most obnoxious child to the pond, the river, or the occasional car on the sleepy side streets surrounding the park. A new pool is being built in town, complete with large, state of the art slides made of plastic, with rounded edges to prevent cuts and teenage lifeguards to prevent drowning.
As a father myself, I'm sure what most young boys would choose between the giant plastic waterslides and the moss covered dam of my youth. And I'm sure they would learn the underwear trick almost as quickly.
by Jeff King
Growing up in a small Minnesota farm town, sports played a huge part in my daily life. Before the age of Xbox and Nintendo (I got a Pong video game in high school for Christmas, but the novelty of watching a ball of light go back and forth on a TV screen waned by that evening), a boy had to entertain himself.
Fortunately, I had five brothers and lived on a block that had a huge surplus of boys near my age. Somewhere around first grade, my younger brother Kevin and I made the acquaintance of three brothers newly arrived to the "hood" who shared our somewhat fanatical love for sports. A limestone gravel alleyway ran behind our house, and while idly flipping rocks at whichever of God's small creatures hopped or flew by, we noticed three strange boys about our size walking towards us down the alley.
We proceeded to do what any self respecting boy would do in a similar situation---we changed our direction of fire and started lobbing rocks at the new boys. Minutes, and a few minor cuts and bruises later, we had learned a few things:
The new boys (the Nelsons) had really good arms. All other things being equal, three arms would eventually beat two. And finally, we might have found our new "bestest" friends.
Along with a few of my brothers, we formed the core of a loosely knit "gang" of about 15-20 boys who played whatever sport was in season, in whoever's yard had any grass left on it. In summer, it sometimes took an hour to round up enough boys for a decent game of baseball.
Just getting a game together took negotiating skills worthy of Henry Kissinger. One mom, whose son owned the only decent uncracked baseball bat in the neighborhood, had to be convinced that her son was not going to be an NC this time. NC stood for "no count," meaning the boy was either too young or too poor of a player to actually saddle either team with. They got to bat and run, but their out (and run) didn't count. We thought the letters were an early PC way of letting these boys play without hurting their feelings, but eventually everyone knew what the letters stood for, and even four year olds refused to be labeled with them.
We'd have to promise another set of parents that their kids would come home this time when the noon factory whistle blew (even though we'd probably ridicule them if it happened in the middle of a game) and our own parents that we'd hit away from the house this time to prevent any window breakage. Sometimes we were so hard up for players that we'd even stoop so low as to ask my big sister Nan to play, which hurt in a couple of ways. She was a girl, and quite frankly, she had a better arm and could put most of us to shame in the field.
Usually the games were a lot of fun, with plenty of timeouts to argue out calls and the score. Sometimes, though, the actual game lasted about half as long as the organizing did. Someone would get his feelings hurt when we picked teams (you have to remember in this pre-PC world teams were picked by tiny dictators based purely on talent) and threaten to take his bat (or ball) home. Or a hard hit ground ball would take a bad hop when it hit the one island of grass left on the infield and bloody a boy's nose (leading to pleas to "don't go home until the bleeding stops, or they'll never let us play again!"). I don't remember any set number of innings we played, and I don't recall anyone ever actually winning a game. Games either were severely shortened by the aforementioned problems, or seemed to last to infinity, with calls to come home to dinner only serving to pause, not end, them.
We loved baseball and could imitate all our favorite players. We batted in the crouched, weight back stance of Minnesota Twins batting champion Rod Carew, waving our tiny little bat while waiting for the pitch and chewing a big wad of gum (Carew used tobacco). The pitcher would turn away from the plate (like Louis Tiant) and look skyward during his motion before turning to hurl a pitch towards the plate (or more often, the batter).
We longed for a real field-one made of grass with perfectly manicured dirt infields and real chalk lines. Once in awhile we'd take Dad's lawn mower and a bag of Mom's flour to our back yard, mowing the base paths as short as possible and dropping small handfuls of flour in what would pass for a straight base line if viewed from say, the Moon.
For about six weeks each summer, we got to play in a real, honest-to-goodness baseball league! We got Super Value hats and colored t-shirts with feared team names, like Ace Hardware and Berg Snyder Drug. We were bad. From the moment we got our first schedule we had it memorized, and boy, were their some anxious moments if the sky started to cloud over on those precious nights when team 2 played team 4.
My Dad, for his part, liked baseball. He could be begged to hit fly balls every night after supper in huge games of "500," where 15 boys yelled "I got it" even before the ball hit his bat. He sort of knew what teams we were on---and I'm pretty sure if you would have asked him where his boys had disappeared to on a Tuesday evening, he would have guessed it had something to do with baseball. But he had ten children, and besides, the ball fields could easily be bicycled to by any of them without his help. To this day, I wonder what his response would have been if I had asked to be driven to practice.
Things are a little different with my children. Though blessed with no more athletic talent than their middle-aged father (Secretariat's father wasn't a plow horse), they have the best that middle class America can offer. Immaculate ball fields with scoreboards and lights (which are for some reason locked during non-practice times in case a child dares play without an adult). Soccer fields with grass like putting greens, and volunteer coaches trained to say things like "Good kick, Megan," even though Megan is afraid of the ball and it hit her by accident when she was dodging it. And well-lit indoor basketball courts with real leather balls that don't have to be re-inflated every time they play.
They love to play sports too....with an adult supervising, in an organized league-one that costs lots of money, and has fancy uniforms that they manage to outgrow in six months. But organize a game in the neighborhood, by themselves, between scheduled practices or games? Not so much.
I'm continually amazed, as my ten-year-old twin girls carpool back from soccer practice with other neighborhood girls, why they don't organize their own games at home. They can't wait for practice, love to play, have a school yard just across the street and plenty of kids in the neighborhood. I've even (in their words) "ranted" on the subject at length a few times.
But the field at the park lies vacant 24/7 even while kids complain of boredom.
I'll be going out to our driveway basketball hoop---the one that sees little use---in a few minutes to "shoot some hoops" and prepare for our twice weekly old man games at a local park. And within minutes of the sound of my basketball bouncing off the pavement, you can be sure I'll have children filtering over from across the neighborhood. First to watch, then to say, "Can I play too?"
by Jeff King
The other day I actually read (I usually delete them) a chain email about the difference between the way "we" (people over 40) grew up and how we're raising our own children. In particular, how we survived chain smoking, beer drinking pregnant moms; stood on car seats with no seat belts, and rode bikes with no helmets. And I'm guessing that if you're reading this---you survived a similar childhood.
I couldn't have been 10 years old when I "inherited" my first newspaper route from a brother who had graduated into the world of real jobs. And back then, part of running a newspaper route was having to collect payment each Saturday morning.
So there I was at 9 a.m. on a Saturday, casually holding my blue bank bag---a bag that could swell to over $100 by the time lunch rolled around---and strolling along the edge of a busy highway that bisected my small Minnesota town. My barely 70 pound body was shook by the rush of air as large semi-trucks carrying goods to and from the huge Twin Cities metropolis over an hour away hurtled close by.
No one, not my parents (who I've been told loved me) or even the crabby adult who supervised the paper carriers (who I'm sure didn't), ever mentioned that carrying a bank bag bulging in cash along a busy highway might not be a good idea. And I sure never gave it a second thought.
Any one of the hundreds of cars or trucks that passed me each morning could have screeched to a halt, pulled me inside, taken my money and sold me to a child brothel in Thailand. And they would have been long gone before my parents or any of my nine brothers and sisters would have figured out who belonged to the extra plate that went unclaimed at dinner.
Yet it hindsight it wasn't in tramping along the highway that I faced mortal danger. No, it was when I was invited into the more than 70 homes, apartments and businesses along the way. Most of my route consisted of harmless looking enough people---like Mr. Larson, who used to carry huge cans of milk on a rural milk route and was unafraid of dogs, which he told me after I was chased into his yard by a yapping dachshund. Now at an age approaching 90, he wasn't even able to get out of his porch chair to get the newspaper.
My collection route also included a series of four apartments located above stores in aging brick buildings on Main Street. The people who lived there were a transient lot, often moving without notifying me or anyone else, and I'd keep on delivering papers until I noticed a huge pile of them in front of the door, or until I knocked on the door one Saturday morning to find a new tenant.
I'd clutch my bank bag and payment ticket book, open the sagging door leading from the alleyway, and stomp my way up wooden stairs lit by a single bare light bulb two stories up. Often, my hard knocks on each of the four doors would yield no response. I noticed that people who lived in dilapidated apartments slept in later than most home owners. Occasionally I'd hit the jackpot and a fat, middle-aged man in a tank top t-shirt and three days of facial hair, smoking a cigarette and smelling of alcohol, would slowly open a door and ask me what I wanted.
Whereas most of my route customers knew me by name, and I knew them by where they wanted their papers delivered, the people who came and went in this building and a few like it on my route didn't seem to remember me from week to week. Most didn't remember that they even got a newspaper, and as I look back on those days, I wonder why they got them myself. But it was before cable TV and the Internet.
I never experienced anything I considered threatening, although in retrospect more than once I was called "a cute kid," which to anyone who knew me as a buzz cut, big eared, buck toothed youth is proof enough that some of these people may have been still under the influence. In fact, the man in the t-shirt was one of my biggest (only) tippers.
I have three children now who are either at, or approaching, the age in which I got my first paper route. My wife and I are a little apprehensive about letting our children walk by themselves a few blocks to a friend's house. And we live in an upper-middle class neighborhood with little outside traffic.
But I'm not convinced that the world I grew up in was that much safer. We grew up in a world before cable, 24 hour news channels and the Internet. Nowadays, we all know the names of Polly Klass and Joan Benet Ramsey, even though most of us lived nowhere near them. I'm afraid if the t-shirted man had turned out to be the stereotypical pedophile he resembled---instead of a nice, harmless, big tipper with an alcohol problem---the people in the next town 12 miles away would have been none the wiser.