I just finished reading about Laura Ingalls Wilder and her story of life as a pioneer and farmer in the last last thirty years of the nineteenth century and the first thirty years of the twentieth century. She chronicled a world that was gone by the end of her life but she loved to share her stories and even commented that now and again she felt an itch to write down one more tale about all that she had seen. I thought of my own grandfather who was a master of oral history with his folksy way of describing the world of his youth and years as a young adult. Like Ms. Wilder he had witnessed dramatic changes that would have been unimaginable when he was a boy growing up with his grandmother in an isolated area of Virginia from 1878 until he was thirteen and she had died. In a fashion typical of the era he launched his adulthood far sooner than is common today mostly because of economic necessity. He traveled all over the United States finding work and never settled down until he met my grandmother around 1919 while doing a job in Oklahoma. The journey he described with vivid details and a wry sense of humor sounded very much like the one that Laura made famous in her series of books for young readers.
I suppose that Grandpa influenced me with his fascinating memories that were filled with details and insights into an era that seemed so different than my own. I was a bonafide Baby Boomer, born only three years after World War II had ended. The United States was booming in more than just births with great promise for a future that seemed limitless. I was part of the great migration to the suburbs and a recipient of the strong interest in education. My world was one of communities of tract homes quickly built to satisfy the demands of young men and women ready to put the war years behind them and build lives in a modern era.
Things changed a bit when my father died so unexpectedly when I was eight but my mother was an independent soul who quickly adapted to her new role as a single parent at a time when few women held such responsibilities. She took me and my brothers to a little community in southeast Houston called Overbrook where we had every convenience that we needed right near our home. Our whole world revolved around church and school and enjoying life with our neighbors and extended family. It was an almost idyllic existence for me and my brothers even as we took our mother’s ability to provide for us for granted.
Summers were the very best back then. While I enjoyed learning and excelled in my studies like any kid I looked forward to the free time when my days were not ruled by schedules and assignments. When June rolled around I knew that the next three months would be the most fun of the entire year as I conspired with friends who lived on our block to fill our hours with adventure. All we needed was a bit of imagination to find excitement in our neighborhood which was teeming with other Boomers all looking for some fun.
I don’t recall wearing shoes very much in the summer unless we were going to a store or church. The heels of my bare feet became tough enough to walk on hot concrete and were usually as black as tar by the end of each day. I had a few pairs of shorts and sleeveless tops that I wore without thinking too much about whether or not they matched. Staying cool was the rule in hot and humid Houston. Very few people had air conditioning and we kids went outside early in the morning and stayed there until it became dark at night. The water hose kept us hydrated and we needed little more than our bicycles to convey us from place to place and shade trees to cool us down in the most brutal parts of the day.
I owned a blue Schwinn that was a gift from my parents on my seventh birthday. It was my ticket to freedom and adventure. I’d ride it to Garden Villas Park where there was always some kid centered event or entertainment. I’d use it to catch up with the bookmobile where I probably checked out every title they ever had over time. I’d take my bike to Hartman Junior High to go swimming on days when they opened the pool to the public. I’d ride to visit friends from school who lived many blocks away. Sometimes I just rode up and down my street doing tricks like letting go of the handlebars while pedaling at warp speed or standing on the seat with one leg in the air.
We kids built forts out of sheets and blankets carefully hung on a clothesline or with scraps of lumber and tree limbs. One year a man down the street created a kind of sod house for us to use. it was quite fabulous but the moms became concerned that it might cave in and trap us under piles of dirt so he reluctantly tore it down. Our attempts to build treehouses never succeeded but now and again someone created a nifty platform on which we might perch and gaze down at the world below us like birds. Best of all my brothers and I were masters of the roof where we skittered back and forth like squirrels after finding a way to use our fence and ladder to ascend to the heights.
There were woods and a bayou not far from where we lived and of course children congregated there everyday. Our mother taught us how to watch for poisonous snakes after a girl was bitten by a water moccasin but I never encountered one of those creatures in all the times that I played there and imagined myself as a modern day Huckleberry Finn. For me the biggest draw was a swing that someone had constructed on a huge tree that grew right near the banks of the bayou. We would climb up on boards nailed to the trunk and then seat ourselves on a slab of wood tied to the bottom of a long heavy rope. With a little courage and a jump away from the tree we would swing back and forth over the water with the wind blowing on our faces and the kind of exhilaration that belies any concerns about safety.
Each summer we created shows, newspapers, card and game tournaments. We shared stories and jokes and sometimes even played school which was way more fun than the real thing. We pitted one end of our long street against the other in ballgames and serious competitions of Red Rover, Swing the Statue, and Tug of War. One of the moms helped us to create crafts that we always thought verged on high art. The girls played with dolls pretending that we were grownups living in the future. When it was unbearably hot we found shade and lay in the cool grass to read our books. If we were very lucky our parents would take us to see a movie at the drive-in theater on a night when it only cost a few dollars for a carload. On Saturday mornings we all went to the Fun Club at the Santa Rosa Theater where we basked in the air conditioning and watched old films and cartoons while our mothers went shopping. Of course there were also the “boys of summer” who played baseball all suited up like the professionals.
I still think of those days with great pleasure. In some ways it was the end of an era. Few children spend an entire summers creating their own fun anymore. There are planned activities and play dates, exotic vacations and learning experiences. Kids don’t range freely much anymore and the heat keeps them indoors and out of the heat. I suppose that they are still having fun and have little idea of what they are missing. The world moves on and the old ways disappear. I suspect that today’s children will one day be recounting their adventures just as Laura Ingalls Wilder and my grandfather and I have done. Our stories will have the common theme of kids finding ways to have fun.