Thursday, June 29, 2017

Yes, We Played in the Street

Donis here, trying to avoid sunstroke. It's been warmish in my town lately. In fact it's horrible. In the afternoons the a/c never cuts off. It's very hard to describe what it's like to step out the door into 118º heat. The hottest we've reached this month here in Tempe, Arizona, was 119º last Tuesday. We're finally below 110º today (108º on Wednesday, June 28). At this point, below 110º is sweet relief.

Every day we denizens of the Phoenix metro area receive multiple warnings about staying outside too long. Drink lots of water, even if you’re not thirsty. Wear sunscreen even if you’re just going outside to pick up the newspaper. NEVER leave a kid or dog in the car for even a minute. Watch your children around water. Excellent advice. It’s nice to know that the city is looking out for us.

And are they ever! The city of Tempe does not want us to harm ourselves or others. The city recently made it illegal to smoke in the car when there is a child on board. It is also illegal to drive in town without wearing a seat belt. I applaud the sentiment. However, when I read about the smoking ordinance, I immediately remembered the road trip my family made from Tulsa, Oklahoma, to Miami, Florida, to visit my aunt in 1962. My parents smoked in the car, you’d better believe it. They smoked everywhere. We made the trip to Miami enveloped in a miasma of second-hand carcinogens.

My two-year-old sister spent most of the trip lying on the shelf between the back seat and the rear window, watching the scenery go by. My parents thought that was dandy, since it kept her quiet and amused. The rest of the time she rode on my mother’s lap or played around on the floor of the back seat. There were six of us in car*: My parents, three kids, and my grandmother. Nobody wore a seat belt. There were no seat belts in cars at the time, unless you were an Indy driver. And forget about child restraint seats.

Of course the car was built of industrial-strength steel and probably could have survived being stepped on by Godzilla. There is a scene in the movie “The Aviator” in which Howard Hughes’s sedan is broadsided by another car driven by his teenage paramour, Faith Domergue. Then she backs up and rams him again, several times. His car isn't even scratched. Up until the 1970s cars were tougher, even if they did only get 7 miles to a gallon of gas and leave a yellow haze in the air wherever they went.

I don’t want to sound like one of those old farts who reminisces about how much better it was when kids walked ten miles in the snow to school. It’s just that childhood was much different once-upon-a-time. It would have been better if I had been wearing a helmet and pads when I crashed my bike into our mailbox at ninety miles an hour and ended up with my skin half scraped off and bruises all over my body. I do wonder if it would not be better for children to have a bit more unsupervised freedom to roam, to have the opportunity to figure out life-problems on their own. The recent brouhaha about the parents in New York who were threatened with arrest because they let their kids go to the park alone strikes me as overkill.

And yet, if I had young children right now, would I let them wander about on their own? Probably not. But what delicious freedom it was to be shooed out of the house after school to play in the street or in a vacant lot with your siblings and friends. I particularly enjoyed playing in a drainage culvert one street over from my house. Then at about six o’clock, my mother—and every other mother in the neighborhood—would come out onto the front porch and holler out our names one by one and we’d run home for supper.

I’m not saying it was better. I’m just saying.
A 1962* Chevrolet sedan. My dad bought a new car every two years. It was as big as one of those tiny houses and had plenty of room for all of us.


Barbara Fradkin said...

I'm of your vintage, Donis, and remember those road trips. My little brother also slept on the rear shelf of the car. I also agree that children need more freedom to roam, create their own fun, and solve their own problems. Mastering small life challenges gives them more skills and resilience to face the bigger ones of adult life. We risk raising a generation of children who are anxious, dependent, and easily overwhelmed. I think we're already there.

Sybil Johnson said...

This reminds me a bit of my childhood. No seat belts in cars, road trips with my dad smoking. When I was in grade school, we lived away from the downtown area, once on a farm, so our play area was a massive yard or the farm. I remember playing among the hazelnut trees. Great fun.

I understand why parents are concerned about their kids and want to keep them close, but I also agree with Barbara that letting them have some freedom is also important. Figuring out how to walk to school by themselves (once they're old enough), etc.

The city I live in (Manhattan Beach) now has a no smoking ban everywhere. The only place you can smoke is inside a private residence or in a car when it's moving. The car can't be stopped.

Charlotte Hinger said...

Boy did this post hit home. I used to drive at weird hours of the night with my three kids to join Don when he hauling cattle. Mary Beth slept on the rear shelf because she was the littlest. Michele stretched out on the back seat. Cherie was draped over the hump on the floor. Once there, the kids happily piled into the sleeper on back of the cab and we sang and sang. Don had a great voice and the insurance companies didn't care who rode along.