I grew up a tomboy. I may have looked like a tow-headed, blue-eyed angel, but in my heart I was a fierce Amazon warrior. I climbed any and every tree I could find. My favorite was the giant Magnolia tree in our backyard. The temptation to reach the top was so strong that I frequently became stuck and unable to climb back down. Mom soon tired of calling the Fire Department, but she couldn’t just leave me up there each time until Dad got home. So, her solution was to have Dad cut all the limbs I could reach. Not to be thwarted, I moved my goal to a large tree down the street from my best friend’s house. Susan never once ratted me out. A good friend indeed.
As I grew into an older tomboy, my Dad taught me and my sister to shoot a bow and arrow, a Daisy pellet rifle, a .22 rifle and a muzzle loader. I think one of his proudest moments was when I shot on a team with the local National Guard and made their bulletin. Those events lead me to take an automatic weapons class for an elective at Western Kentucky University one summer during high school. Fortunately, I never shot my eye out, despite the many warnings of A Christmas Story. As I write this, I realize that it’s been way too long since I shot anything other than whiskey, so I may need to revisit this part of my youth. But, I digress.
Back to my friend Susan Roberts. She lived across the street from our stomping grounds, Ortega Elementary. I frequently rode my blue, banana seated Schwinn to her house on weekends. The trip was through old established neighborhoods with tree lined streets, little traffic, and numerous park areas. I passed three parks alone just to reach her house. They were beautiful circular realms with concrete benches surrounded by large azaleas and moss covered trees. There were several places I could stop along the way to pick kumquats from the bushes and eat them right on the spot, dirty hands and all. It was a mystical ride and I don’t remember ever feeling unsafe. Nor do I remember wearing a helmet.
We met up at the school playground and cavorted for hours on monkey bars covered with lead based paint and rusty chained swings. We tried to go as high as we could on the swings with one goal – to swing a full circle over the top bar. I never achieved that goal as I’d always stop when the chains became lax and jarred me from my seat. We tempted fate running in the giant barrel cage, waiting to see who fell first or who got the largest splinter. Scraped hands and knees were a common occurrence. We drank from the outside sulfur water fountains which were corroded by the salt air and covered in germs.
If we had spare change and felt adventurous, we rode our bikes to Ortega Drugstore to visit the soda fountain. Everybody knew you there, and you could ask for vanilla syrup to be poured over your crushed ice before they added the Coke. Who knew it would become a sensation? Sometimes, on a wild hair, we rode one more block to the 7-Eleven to stock up on red hot gumballs and banana BB bats. This was not always approved of by our parents as the store faced a busy road . . . and heathens smoked there. When it was time to head home, I called Mom from Susan’s land line to let her know I was headed back, knowing she’d keep vigil by the living room window. She feared for my safe travel, not my consumption of high fructose corn syrup and red dye #2.
Other afternoons or weekends, I visited my friend Elizabeth Helfrich. She lived in the newer section of our neighborhood, just a few blocks away. We had a lot in common in that we both had unruly natural curls, wild imaginations, and a love for Greek mythology. We shared our books from the school library for fear that if we turned them in someone else would check them out. Looking back, that fear was totally unfounded. Our names were the only ones frequently found on the inside flap check-out cards. She and I built our own world with forts on her side yard from fallen bamboo. We took old Coke bottles and filled them with sugar water and food coloring, preferably blue, then made mud pies from the darkened sandy Florida soil. We sat for hours pretending to have a feast and made up wild stories and crazy songs that we shared with no one. Well, we did share them with her pet turtle. I don’t remember ever falling ill from the food coloring or from petting the salmonella ridden turtle. I do remember coming home dirty and happy, and quite frequently with a blue tongue.
I also remember being part of a carpool for school and other outings. Mom drove a lot of the time since we had a large white Oldsmobile station wagon. I vividly remember the red interior and the signature FPD license plate. For the longest time, I thought those initials stood for Fire and Police Department due to the colors of the car. You can imagine my disappointment when I discovered it was only the initials for Frank Patterson Dearing, my dad. But the best part of the wagon was the rear facing jump seat in the back. We’d fight over who got to ride there regardless of the car sickness that would inevitably follow. We felt daring, and since Mom couldn’t see us we could make faces at the drivers behind the car. I don’t remember any seat belts back there either, but I could be forgetting. Sadly, those jump seats no longer exist.
Today, children are raised a little differently. I must confess that I was a guilty parent. When I let my daughter ride her bike, it was only within a three block radius of my home. She had a helmet, a two-way radio in case of emergency, and a mom quietly stalking her from behind the trees. I watched her like a hawk on the swing-set and sent bottled water with her when she went to play. The thought of letting her ride her bike to school or to a store was mortifying. If we went to a park, we were laden down with hand sanitizer and wet wipes. I refused to start the car until all seat belts were properly buckled and I had full sight of her in the rearview mirror.
Society changed and we had to adjust with it. Some of the changes were for the safety of our children, others were to assuage the fears of parents. Many of the freedoms we were able to experience while growing up are no longer an option for today’s children. But I feel the true loss is in the adventure. We grew strong and fearless as we learned to cope on our own. Our imaginations soared as we had to make up our own games and friendship rituals. We learned to think about our actions and their consequences, and suffered when we failed to heed to common sense. And I wish we lived in a world where our children and grandchildren could feel as we felt — strong, independent and fearless explorers.