Catching Air

The days reached across spring into the hot long interludes of summer, burning sidewalks and sweat down the back. The little girls, their skate keys on shoestrings tied around their necks, cruised down the street imagining the future of Olympics and Ice Capades. The boys buzzed by on banana-seated sting-rays until someone’s parent yelled down the street, “Supper!” Then the day came when someone took their sister’s skate apart and nailed the wheels to a 2 x 4 and what seemed like destructive mischief was but a bigger thrill, staying up on that wobbly 2 x 4 while riding down the steepest hill they could find.

“Those goddamned things are dangerous. You aren’t riding that. OK we’ll buy one that’s safer, but it belongs to your mom. If she says you can borrow hers, you can. Otherwise? Ride your bikes.”

Then sometime in August the thrill was gone and school couldn’t start soon enough. All this is true — except the banana seat-sting ray. “That’s no goddamned bike. That’s a toy. You’re getting a 3 speed.” My dad had his non-negotiable beliefs, just like everyone else.

The other evening, with the kids and their parents and a friend of theirs, some of these images wafted through my mind. As kids, my brother and I were absolutely free. These kids aren’t. Around the table, there was much staring at phones (not me, of course, obviously because…) The kids were just the same as my brother and me. Virtually interchangeable beings with the little beings I was and with whom I grew up.

I don’t know how things are supposed to be any more. The trap of nostalgia tells all us old people, “Those were the good old days. Kids today….yada yada yada” but I don’t know. I don’t know what world they will grow up to.

One of the Boys on Bikes is sharing his love of BMX with his son and daughter. They’ve joined a very organized BMX club with uniforms and a schedule of races. I think that is awesomely cool. He rides for the team, too. A former pro-trick rider, he’s now racing. The photos of him, the kids, their uniforms and gigantic trophies are wonderful. I’m proud of him and grateful to have had a role in his life during a pivotal few years. I’m glad I had a truck and was willing and able to take him and his pals to the BMX jumps that, sometime in the 70s, kids dug into the hills of same wilderness park where I hiked. I look back on our years of weekends as some of the best times in my life. But the Boys on Bikes didn’t have helmets or uniforms or adult supervision or anything to protect their little bodies from injury. If there was any organization, it came from them and the occasional times when I was there and they asked me. Their sport was dangerous, but so were their lives.

Do I think his kids should be riding helmet-less and hell-bent like he was? No…but. Should kids run wild and free on the summer streets? I guess that depends a little where those streets are.

The other evening, after the cookout, I had to beg permission from the kids’ mom to let them ride their bikes all the way down the alley to my house and back. She was worried someone would pull out of their alley driveway and hit the kids. Since almost no one lives here any more, the chances are slim. Then, I thought, “I think the kids can learn to watch for cars.” So their mom stood by their house and watched as they rode home with me.

I’m not criticizing the mom or anyone else. And I didn’t have kids of my own and the kids in whose lives I was involved are today’s parents. I can’t possibly know what it was like raising kids in the 80s and 90s — or now. All I did with kids was be the nice person down the street they could talk to and a decent stepmom. Is the world dangerous? Yes, but judging from the news one of the most dangerous places for kids is school.

I offered to take the kids for bike rides at the high school. The mom said. “No. The park.” What’s the difference? The high school is a huge parking lot where kids will ride all over the place in every direction. There’s a track kids can ride around and race. There are sidewalks and small hills and lips from which to catch a tiny bit of air. The park is a 3/4 mile track where old people walk off their heart attacks. Lots of kids ride at the high school. I’ve seen them have wonderful times. Little kids with their parents. Older kids without. Oh well. Not my kids. Not my rules. Will I take them? Probably not.

It led me to think about memories of childhood and the sweetness of those recollections of first freedom. ❤

25 thoughts on “Catching Air

  1. Back in the 50s and early 60s, my bike and I were one. Nowadays, kids would call it a tractor. But I loved it. I’m still benefiting from all the riding I did.

        • When nobody was looking, we’d see how many times we could spin the tractor on the frozen pond. You had to hook your leg in tight so you wouldn’t fly off.

          • As I was writing this morning I thought of my dad who, when he was 10, would hop a freight train in the Billings MT train yard and go to Livingston to see his aunt and uncle.

              • Yep. I remember watching my peers raise their kids — soccer moms etc. play dates, ballet date, swimming lessons, this really structured reality, and now THOSE kids have kids. I watch the way my step-grandkids are growing up and they are NEVER completely on their own and there are easily thousands of photos of them. I’m not judging good vs. bad as much as dumbfounded by the difference.

  2. Questions you raise, or at least hint at: Are we living in more dangerous times, or times of greater awareness? Are parents now overprotective, or more responsible? Can those “ors” be “ands”?
    When we were kids, news meant a morning and an evening newspaper, ½ hour of national TV news, and ½ hour of local TV news. News is now every minute and a vehicle for bringing eyeballs in front of advertisers more than anything else. An axiom in the news biz is “If it bleeds, it leads”. If we have to have a new lead more than a couple of times/day, do we have to find new sources of blood? (i.e. do stories make the news now that wouldn’t have made it 50 years ago? Does a certain type of story draw eyes and dollars, so more of the same get promoted?)
    The “back in my day” stories tend to be stories of greater freedom and greater hardship. Back in my day I endured abuses that I hope my kids didn’t experience. I also hope that, if those things had happened to them, they would have come to me to talk about it. I hope my parents would be horrified if they knew what happened to me as a child that I was afraid to tell them.

    • I agree with you about the news. It’s played (relentlessly) for ratings now and we also have “infotainment” I know childhood is a very vulnerable time — but what are the real dangers? That’s the big question and I don’ have answers. Really awful things can happen to kids in the “safety” of their homes.

  3. I have read somewhere that any child who has not broken a bone by the get to adulthood is probably being overprotected. An important part of my childhood was doing insane things that if my parents found out, I’d have been grounded forever.

    The only way one learns to handle risk is to take risks and suffer a few consequences. I’m not in favor of helmetless kids – that just makes the consequences less likely to be fatal. But broken bones, twisted ankles, cuts and bruises, road rash, are an important part of growing up. We may be seeing the first generation in all of humanity’s million years on Earth who didn’t have such important (IMHO) schooling.

    And kids who grow up in uber-clean homes, who don’t breath pet dander and pollen and common environmental germs and don’t eat things that aren’t sterile as toddlers grow up with much higher levels of asthma and environmental allergies. And if you don’t let them eat peanut butter as a baby they are far more likely to develop a lethal allergy to it.

    There is a price to be paid for a risk free society.

  4. I love your musings on the way things are vs. the way things were. I went outside at sunrise and didn’t come home until dinner. We did everything, went everywhere, and tempted fate on a daily basis. My sons were more restricted but still had plenty of freedom to learn from the consequences of their actions…. I do think that today’s parents are much more restrictive in determining the boundaries for their child(ren). Probably to the detriment on the child!

  5. I was a feral child, I ran loose all day, all summer. I lived.
    My sisters children have lots of rules and little zest.
    My brother is raising a feral child.

    • It’s just strange to me. I guess I partly regard children as an alien life form that has to learn to live in a world they never made and they can learn that best by having the chance to experience it first hand. Carefully, with guidance and some rules, but…

  6. It is a different world, but is it really? There were dangers to navigate in our childhoods. Research has shown that kids who have the freedom to engage in risky play develop resilience, better decision making skills (especially around risk taking), and self confidence. There are benefits to the changes from my childhood such as bike helmets and protective equipment. But, that lack of freedom to navigate the world, right down to figuring out childhood disagreements (and I’m not talking about bullying here), may be doing more harm than good. I’m not saying it should be a free for all, but too much scheduling and putting our adult fears onto our kids is not a good thing. Just my opinion.

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