While watching the NFL Playoff games I noticed a commercial. It was about “NFL Play 60.” This is an organized attempt to inspire kids to go out and play for at least 60 minutes every day. Huh? You have to encourage kids to go out and play? Wow! Things certainly have changed. They used to have to drag us off the baseball diamond or shoot us off our bicycles.
This is not a rant about “Those kids today,” or, “What’s wrong with the younger generation.” This is a warm remembrance of how much fun we used to have when we were boys, before the certainties of the real world forced us to leave the nest, go to college, get jobs or enlist in the service, before bills and a mortgage would initiate us into adulthood. Until then there was baseball and kick-the-can and hunting frogs with BB guns, riding bicycles and other inventions that kept a boy entertained until he had to be home for dinner.
Starting in the fifth grade the teachers thought it was bad for the digestion if we ate and played at the same time. As a result we were required to eat our peanut butter sandwiches in a locked lunchtime cafeteria. For the first 10 minutes of the period we chowed down but on the 11th minute the doors flew open and a stampede of boys raced to the backstop to tag-up for baseball.
Being 10 years old was perfect. If you were nine you were still a baby tied to momma with little or no mobility. Later when you were 12 or 13 there were girls and algebra, getting beat up by 16-year-olds with cars and the invention of teenage angst. But when you were 10, there were no bills to worry about, girls were something you were not supposed to hit, and your major anxieties were about oiling a baseball mitt, keeping bicycle tires pumped up, not getting bit by pet black widow spiders and not being late for dinner.
Some mothers announced dinner by yelling loudly out the back door. Thinking that screaming at the top of her lungs was unladylike, my mother had a police whistle that she gave one mighty blow. It meant that I had five minutes to get home, wash up and sit at the table.
“If you want to be fed and part of this family, you can be home on time. Your mother is not running a boarding house. When she puts food on the table that’s it. There will be no second servings. Be home or starve; makes no difference to us.” That was my father’s quote. He said it once. I tested him once. I went hungry and made sure I was home on time from then on.
Mow the lawn, rake the leaves, feed the animals, finish your chores and the rest of any summer day was mine. My friends and I rode our bicycles everywhere and yes we put cards in the spokes to imitate the sounds of motorcycles and, no, we didn’t use baseball trading cards like I’ve seen in the movies. Trading cards were much too valuable. We used playing cards and when they got saggy we doubled or tripled them up. Two or three bicycles with cards in the spokes sounds like motorcycles traveling and occasionally after a long ride we sat and talked about riding real motorcycles around the world.
Late-afternoon hunger forced us to circle back to a place close to home where we could hear mothers yelling and my mother’s whistle. We played work-up, or over-the-line and, if we had enough for teams, a vicious game of kick-the-can or capture-the-flag was in order.
Being farsighted, we invented equal rights for women. It all started when a new family moved into the neighborhood and the oldest girl could outrun any of us boys. Because we all wanted her on our team, we overlooked the fact that she was a girl. However, problems come with civil rights. Her sisters ran like girls and to get the fast one you had to take all three.
And then there were forts. Give a boy a vacant lot and a shovel and he would dig a fort. We had the best strongholds known to man; several even got deep enough to be covered with wood and brush, becoming top-secret underground garrisons with the diggers inventing covert passwords and confidential handshakes. It was common for military raids and dirt-clod fights to erupt from one barracks to another. As I remember, because of the digging and the hiding in the brush, that’s when I started collecting black widow spiders.
My prize spider was a huge widow with two egg cases. It was captured at the end of the summer, put in a fruit jar, set on the table next to my bed and, so as not to asphyxiate her, a few pinholes were added to the lid. For weeks I watched her nurse the eggs.
One night as I was doing my multiplication table homework, I noticed pencil points on my workbook. Then I noticed the pencil points move. What? There were dozens … no … hundreds of pencil points moving. Uh-oh!
Following a line of pencil points back to the edge of the jar, I checked; and yes, the eggs had hatched. Using the air holes for their breakout, the baby spiders had escaped making their getaway from the table to my bed, and then to the freedom of the corners of my room.
I didn’t want to; I had to do it, I had to smash them with my finger. If my mother found out that I had a nursery for black widow spiders and they had eluded capture in her house I would never make 11.
When an excess of webs showed up in the corners of the ceiling and at the edge of the doorway, questions were asked. “Spiders? Who me? No, not me. I am not now nor have I ever been an arachnologist.”
Yep, the summer when a boy is 10 is the best summer there is. All he has to do is finish his chores, put cards in the spokes of his bicycle so it sounds like a motorcycle, play baseball, capture-the-flag and be home in time for dinner. Oh, and make sure spiders don’t attack his mother.