I did most of my growing up in the 1970s, which means I had a lot more autonomy in my day-to-day activities than kids in 2020. Outside of seasonal youth sports and scouting, there was, until high school, very little structured activity. Parents basically told us to find something to do and threw us out the backdoor, so we spent most of our free time running around the neighborhood or woods, doing whatever was fun that day. Summers lasted forever, weekends seemed endless, and as long as you showed up for lunch and dinner, your folks didn’t ask a lot of questions. It was glorious. I spent a few minutes thinking about all the stuff we did and here’s a partial list: play army (with toy guns, no less), go fishing, have all-day baseball or tackle football games, camp in the backyard, dig for dinosaur bones, catch frogs, raise our own night crawlers, and build forts in the woods. On long summer evenings, we’d enjoy “spotlight,” which is basically hide and seek using flashlights. When it rained, we retreated to someone’s basement and built model airplanes, played ping pong, or engaged in life-and-death poker games using pennies (you could still buy something for five cents or less back then.) As an added bonus, my parents NEVER got involved in my homework. If someone was not doing assignments or misbehaving in school, the teacher sent a note home, mom or dad had a talk with the kid, and, for the most part, that was the end of that.
Now, before I continue with my idyllic memories of small-town America, I’d like to divert a little bit. I chose the title for this column, “Free-Range Boys,” because I was, well, a boy. I can’t speak for the female side of the equation. Although there were occasions when we all played together in a coed fashion, more often than not, the neighborhood was segregated by gender, at least until we hit puberty. I suspect, though, that most girls experienced the same sense of freedom.
Anyways, back to my point. As I reminisce, I’m reminded of the many times we did things that should have resulted in serious injury, illness, or even death. While I’m pretty sure I could write an entire book using all the examples, here’s a few that really stuck out (to paraphrase the great Dave Barry, I swear I am not making any of this up):
Stick Fights: There’s no way to sugarcoat what this was all about. A bunch of us went into the woods, separated into two teams, found sticks that were roughly a foot long and two to three inches in diameter, and threw them at each other. We did this for hours. While I can’t remember how a winner was determined, I do recall that, at the end of each battle, a victor was declared. There was even, on one memorable day, a dramatic acceleration in the arms race, when one team switched to rocks and, in response, the other team started shooting back with a BB gun. Alas, the stick fight era ended when one of us got hit just above his left eye, opening a gash that was beyond our rudimentary first-aid skills, and we brought him home. As a result, the moms shut down the activity.
Hunting: Me and one of my buddies each had a bow and arrow set that we shot at paper targets in the backyard. One Saturday, we decided to hunt for squirrels and birds in the woods behind my house. So, we walked around on a cold November morning trying to kill anything that moved. While we were generally careful about not shooting in the other’s direction, I can remember once or twice when an arrow flew without, to put it delicately, confirming exact locations. One arrow actually zipped past me about five feet to my right and lodged in a tree, dramatically illustrating the consequences of an errant shot.
The Tinfoil Incident: One time a friend and I were fishing in the state park near our neighborhood. Upon catching a few good-sized yellow perch, we cleaned them using our jackknives (all boys carried a jackknife back then) and lit a fire at a nearby campsite (I guess we carried matches too.) The problem was we didn’t have anything to cook them in. After scouting around a bit, we found a piece of tinfoil that a camper had left behind. This foil had clearly been used to cook something else; it held remnants of hardened butter and burnt food. Without washing it or even trying to scrape the prior meal from the foil, we wrapped up our perch and dropped them on top of the fire. This was, admittedly, a risky proposition. Kind of like drinking from the garden hose on steroids. For the record, no one got sick and the fish tasted terrific.
Breaking Bottles: In the areas around our neighborhood, there were always a few secluded spots where the high school kids would go and drink beer, leaving the bottles behind. One of our favorite things to do was find these spots and throw the empties against rocks. Watching the glass explode, I used to pretend it was grenade shrapnel. Then, we rooted around on the broken glass to find more empties or bottles that hadn’t completely shattered and repeat the process. The risk here was threefold: (1) we were always in danger of being hit by flying shards of glass, (2) we could, and did, slip onto the broken glass beneath our feet, and (3) there was the risk of cuts from the half-broken bottles we’d salvage. Truth be told, there were a few bloody cuts. Fortunately, we always fabricated a story that had nothing to do with the real cause of injury, allowing us to continue our fun.
As perilous as all this sounds, I look back and realize how much we learned from these experiences. It taught us how to solve problems on our own and resolve conflict without the involvement of authority figures. For example, when the stick fight got out of hand, the two teams circled up and made rules for going forward, a treaty of sorts that excluded the use of weapons not made from wood. When that arrow whizzed by me during our hunting excursion, my companion and I instituted some safety measures. And, once, during a bottle breaking fest, a friend threw one while my dog was standing on top of the rock he was aiming for. While my dog wasn’t hurt, I was pretty mad and we came to blows over his carelessness (this was before every fight resulted in inter-family counseling and/or neighborhood soul searching.) After our pugilistic encounter, our friendship quickly returned to normal. I even think he slept over my house the next night. I’m reasonably confident the incident helped me begin learning about perspective and that some things just aren’t as serious as they first appear. As an aside, I should confess that, other than the fact that yellow perch are mighty tasty, I learned nothing from The Tinfoil Incident.
Regardless, maybe a little freedom, with its elevated risk levels, placed me on the road to independence and self-reliance. Perhaps I learned to deal with smaller levels of stress as a kid, helping me handle more severe situations as an adult. Maybe my brain started learning about the relationship between risk and reward. Nevertheless, one fact is abundantly clear. It’s somewhat amazing that I survived past the age of thirteen. Either way, I’d still opt for the way things were back then. My God, it was fun.