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. ❤
I’ve always written and for a long long time my writing was just transcribing my daily life. That would have been during the late eighties and early nineties. I thought my life pretty strange, often incomprehensible, and also because I just HAD to write. I didn’t have a story. Among the stuff I wrote were narratives of the time I spent with the boys on bikes, a bunch of neighborhood boys who piled their BMX bikes and selves into the back of my truck and went with me to Mission Trails Regional Park in San Diego where I hiked and they rode. I also wrote a screen play for the video we were making. I knew that the boys were incredible and that their sport was beautiful. Most of all, we were all having fun.
I’ve recently been in contact with one of the boys on bikes, well, one that I never lost contact with. He’s now a dad in his 40s and he’s teaching his kids to ride BMX. They are all on a team together in Phoenix, AZ. I see his posts on Facebook, and I feel a warm little thrill inside. I know how hard it was for him to get past the chasm of the teen years. He didn’t have a dad, and he’s being the dad to his kids that he never had. He and the other boys — and maybe the lady driving the truck (that would have been me) — were all square pegs, so to speak, and all of us were on the verge of being hit by some major life shit.
I asked him sometime last week if he’d like the stories I wrote about us back then. I was so happy that he does. So, I put the stories I still have together in a little book with some of the few photos that still exist. We took a lot of video, but few still pictures and of them? I’ve moved house twice… It’s a pity because, as he told me, they are the only photos of his childhood that he has. The same with the stories. I don’t have that many. I’ve gone through my notebooks of writing practice (there is some really BAD writing in there) and a lot of it (besides being bad writing) is only marginally about the boys and mostly about my deteriorating marriage. As if the 26 journals comprising The Examined Life weren’t enough!
Yesterday I wasn’t too enthusiastic about going to teach art to the kids. I felt like they were losing their focus, and I’m not the goddess of construction, paper, glue and cute crafts. I’m an artist, dammit! But I went. The kids were waiting in the alley,. The little boy was on his bike. Regular readers of my blog know that a period of my life was spent with a group of boys and their BMX bikes. It was a strange time (but really, how would I know?) and our little group of a lady with a truck and boys on bikes was the best part. And there I was yesterday, looking at C, a little boy who was eager to show me how fast he could ride and the great stop he’d learned.
My heart went back to those Boys on Bikes, now in their 40s, some dead already. The one to whom I was closest is raising his own kids now and is teaching his little boy — who’s about the age of C — to ride BMX.
Mark Twain said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” Personal history too, it seems.
C’s parents are more protective of him than the Boys on Bikes’ parents were of their boys. He’s only allowed to ride in the alley when I’m out there, otherwise he has to ride in his yard and driveway. Knowing this, I walked down the alley very, very slowly. He showed me how fast he can ride and he showed me his skidding stop. He fell, took it “like a man,” and I said, “Good for you. The only way to learn is to fall.”
The Boys on Bikes — until they met me — rode their bikes ten miles from our neighborhood up to the BMX jumps. My Ford Ranger and I, and the fact that almost daily I drove up to where the jumps were, were a big boon to their lives.
It’s just a different world today in so many ways, but I liked our old world. I admired the reckless courage of those boys so long ago and the way they took shovels up there to perfect, adjust and repair the dirt jumps. They were amazing.
Little boys are an interesting species. Much derring-do and showing off of prowess; they are all medieval knights.
Yesterday I ran the art “class” a little differently. I had two activities planned and made them go run around the yard for 5 minutes in between. They’d also done their homework. The little girl, M, had drawn me pictures of animals and C had three nice pictures of trucks. He showed me one and asked if I could read the writing on it. “It’s Morse Code,” he said. “Can you read Morse Code?”
I said no and he told me it said, “Hi Miss Martha.”
When they came in from “recess” we made tissue paper sun catchers. They loved the project, which was incredibly messy, and Mom even joined it.
“Isolation…exposed the deep sense of connection I took for granted within my relationships with friends and family. Don’t forget to express gratitude for those connections.” From today’s Washington Post newsletter on coping with COVID-19
When I was in my late 30s and early 40s I found myself surrounded by a bunch of boys who were the right age to have been my kids. They ranged in age from 10 to 15. They were ALWAYS at my house except to sleep. They went hiking with me. I took them to the BMX jumps. We went out for pizza together. We talked about life. We went to the mountains. We made a movie about BMXing. They had free run of my fridge. The youngest one, Mikey, was 10 and soon learned that I loved to see a hawk and that I called them, “My love.” He would point at them high in the sky and say, “Martha! There’s your love!”
Most often I’d hike for several hours and then walk back a 2 mile road to my truck which was parked near the BMX jumps. In the cool of a late summer afternoon, sweat drying on my back, my dogs beside me, tired and happy, I’d look up at a particular rock and see a kid watching for me. Then I’d hear, “She’s here!” By the time I’d reach them, usually their stuff would be packed up and they had loaded it into the truck. I remember one day feeling, “Wow. I always wanted to be part of a group of friends. Who knew they’d be adolescent boys and I’d be 40?”
Today I loaded Bear into the car to go to the Refuge, but when I got to the end of the alley, I noticed the golf course was pretty empty. The little boy came running to the fence. I rolled down the car window. “Miss Martha! Miss Martha!” His mom followed. I asked if I could park there, thinking I’d just take Bear to her happiest of happy places — the golf course. Then, deciding it was probably illegal, I decided just to drive back up the alley and park in my driveway.
“Can I go with Miss Martha?” he asked his mom.
“If it’s OK with her.” It was. He ran out of his yard like this was the GREATEST THING EVER TO HAPPEN, hopped up in Bella and fastened the seat belt.
We drove a ways up toward the golf course so I could turn around legally. There was a HUGE crane truck there with an IMMENSE boom.
“That’s the biggest boom I’ve ever seen,” he said.
“Do you remember the first thing you said to me?” I asked him. “You said, ‘There’s a crane!'”
“Well I never saw one that close before.” That was two years ago and he was five. A crane was lifting the roof from the pump house belonging to the golf course, and he was in his yard, in the snow, watching it.
We took Bella home and walked back with Bear. He got permission to go with me. His mom said, “Maybe I should go get his sister,” but I said no, that the little boy and Bear were all I could handle. Maybe that wasn’t completely true, but his sister has a much larger personality, and the little guy needs his chance, too, an adventure all his own.
We walked across the golf course, I took his picture by the crane truck, I explained why there are “sand holes” and what kind of club you use to get the ball out. He exclaimed over the REALLY tall cottonwood trees that would “…take all day to climb.” I answered his questions about how a golf course works. He’s lived across the street from it for 2 years and never saw it before, except the hole beside his house. He worried that his mom couldn’t see him, but he wanted to keep going. She’d prepared him with a hat and a full water bottle.
We headed back and I noticed a beautiful aspen leaf. I said something. He picked it up and found a couple more pretty leaves on his own to go with the golf ball and tee he’d picked up. We stopped and listened to the wind blowing the leaves of an aspen tree.
When we got back to his house he ran up to his sister and said, “I got to ride in Miss Martha’s car and go to the golf course!” like all that was Disneyland. He gave the leaves to his sister and showed her his golf ball and tee. I chatted a bit and headed home. Then I heard, “Miss Martha! Wait!” I stopped. He caught up and said, “Here’s a cookie for you.”
I thought about this when I got home. It’s true that us old people have more time for meanderings of a childlike nature than does the generation currently holding up the sky, but my values have always been these. Maybe that’s why my first group of friends was a bunch of teenage boys. 🙂
Lifetimes ago, I went to the beach often. I liked it best in the off season (obviously) when there weren’t a lot of tourists. My favorite San Diego beaches were Coronado — where you could walk forever and which had a dog beach at the north end, and Ocean Beach because of the town and because of Dog Beach. For taking kids to the beach for a swim and dinner cooked on a hibachi, La Jolla Shores was best.
At the south end of San Diego beaches is Imperial Beach which has the misfortune of being at the mouth of the polluted Tijuana River. The estuary down there is a wonderful wetlands, and Imperial Beach is (was?) the only beach town not gentrified out of normal reality. Ordinary people live(d?) there. IB is also the beach where I surfed that one time.
Yes ladies and germs, I surfed. No, I didn’t stand up on the board.
It was an incredibly hot early September afternoon. The Boys on Bikes had come up to my hood which was 10 miles away from where they lived — Imperial Beach — to go ride BMX at Mission Trails, but it was just too hot. “Let’s just go home and go to the beach.” So, we did. They piled themselves and their bikes into the back of my truck and we headed back down the coast. Then, “Martha, you want to surf?”
“I can get a board,” said Greg.
We got to IB and commenced driving up and down the streets ostensibly looking for Greg’s friend’s house. Finally we reached a house with an open garage door. “This is it,” said Greg. I stopped the truck. Greg and Jason got out of the truck and went to the garage where they untied a surfboard from some ropes that held it hanging from the ceiling.
“My friend won’t mind,” said Greg, loading the board in the back of my truck. We were off to the beach.
The waves were about 2 feet and breaking cleanly. Not bad for a person surfing for the first time.
They immediately began telling me what to do, but I pretty much knew from watching guys surf for the previous 17 years. I’d also boogie-boarded (sort of fun) and body-surfed (a lot of fun) a lot so I had a little understanding of how to catch a wave. Those things are not surfing, but they are still informative.
Jason and I went out with the surfboard. Jason demonstrated and then it was my turn. The wave came up behind me — I saw it — and I was on the board on four legs. The wave came under me and took me in to shore. I rode a couple of other waves in the same way, but by then it was even too hot to stay at the beach and we didn’t have anything to eat or drink. Jason had been buried up to his neck in sand, which was funny until it got hot in the sand. The vibe was all “Let’s take back the surfboard and go to Mickey D’s.”
We washed the board at the end of the beach where there was a faucet, loaded it back into the truck and went back to Greg’s friend’s house. He and Jason took the board into the garage and hung it up.
It was then I realized we’d “borrowed” that surfboard and we hadn’t been looking for Greg’s friend’s house at all. We’d been looking for a board we could “use” for a little while.
For months and months and months after he’d seen the old ice-cream freezer in my house, Mikey wanted to make ice cream. I always put him off because I didn’t really KNOW how to make ice cream. Finally I read a recipe in the cook book my Aunt Martha had given me so I knew. It was just — as I always believed — frozen milk with other stuff added in. Then came a day, one of the best days of my life and maybe one of the best days of the boys’ lives. On the way home from the BMX jumps, we stopped by the store where I bought salt and everything we needed to grill burgers and roast marshmallows — and make ice-cream. Mikey was over the moon, plus I was letting him sit in the middle front seat of the Ford Ranger so he could shift. Really, when is life better than THAT???
I know not every late-30s/early-40’s woman hangs out with a half a dozen kids, but we were friends.
Mikey and his brother lived about a block from me, up the alley. Their friends from school hung around on weekends. I had a truck. The BMX jumps were at the urban wilderness park where I hiked. The rest is history.
We got home from our hot afternoon — August 15, 1992 — and I set Mikey up with the ice cream freezer. I gave Jason a can of WD40 so he could see what was up with the old Ford in the back of my back yard. Jimmy disappeared and I found him in my room writing a story on my Macintosh (old school, black and white screen, etc.). Mike Smith — the tragedy of the long story that was our lives — was still around and he just helped out generally. Mike Smith was a natural athlete and a charismatic character with a prescient home tattoo of flames on his ankle.
I was still making the video of the boys at the jumps, so I hauled out the camera and video taped that late afternoon as part of the film we were making. It’s all on videotape in my “studio” play room, whatever. I also took still pictures that evening and I”m happy I did. It turned out to be a very important day for everyone in that yard.
And the ice cream was good. We put strawberries on top and Mikey didn’t even mind being pretty much the only guy turning the crank.
My theory of life and maturation is that we have to go through all the stages of life sooner or later. I missed out on my adolescence, so I had to make up for it. This happened in my early 40s. I was floundering around trying to figure out where to go next with life and this transition — the one I’d missed — was necessary if I was going to move forward. Since I don’t want to write a true confessions here (fascinating though the story is!) suffice it to say that when I think of the music I grew up with, I think of bands like Primus, Alice In Chains, Nine Inch Nails, and Ministry, not The Beatles. I was a huge fan of industrial punk music (still am). It was a natural transition from loving hardcore in the 80s.
I have a clear and happy memory of going to a movie with some friends and sitting in the back seat on the way to a bar, singing “Jesus Built my Hotrod” with Gavin. “Jesus built my hotrod. It’s a love affair, mainly Jesus and my hotrod.”
So, Gen X? Thank you for the music.
What was it like being 19 at age 41? For one thing, I wasn’t underage, but I might have had to buy a six-pack at a 7-11 for friends (from Europe, truth). The people I hung around with were mostly in their 20s. I was pretty well-preserved (at that point) and the only giveaway (according to one of my friends) was my “old lady hands.”
Music. The Boys on Bikes (with whom I hung out more than anyone else, the kids in my neighborhood) were at the age when people define themselves by the stuff they listen to. My truck had a tape deck (88 Ford Ranger) and out of that thing blared Metallica (often) Pearl Jam (not for long) and then the day came when Jimmy (age 16) said, “You’ll like this,” and plopped a Sex Pistols tape in. Of course I liked it. I’d always liked it. That was followed by Dead Kennedy’s (“Holiday in Cambodia” was their favorite but it’s profoundly truthful so why not?) Then there was Fart No More.
That whole moment of my life was filled with hiking, mountain bike riding, concerts, friends and music. Teaching? I was earning a living. I remembered thinking that the whole idea of a midlife crisis was stupid but I was having one.
As I write this blog, I listen to a radio station in Kansas City that plays this music every morning between 9 and 10 (their time). It’s great. Brings back my youth.
(featured photo: Hallowe’en costume. It made people scream because they didn’t see it until they got close enough)