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Summer in the New Century
Will we ever be able to really live again?

by Rita Ayers
July 25, 2007

I'm sure every generation has experienced the same sense of loss I feel this evening. I spent a bit of time this morning at my school at registration – already – for the coming school year. We have less than two weeks left, and it's still July. I remember when August was considered a summer month, but no longer.
There are so many things that seemed so summery sweet once upon a time. Summer was longer – you could count on all of June, July, and August, and even a couple of weeks in May and one or two days in September. Even with those additional weeks, I don't ever remember being bored one single time in my childhood years. Yet, my kids are bored to tears at home this summer; they'd rather stay up late in the evening playing video games or watching TV, then sleep through the majority of the day. We aren't too pleased with that plan, of course, and so we've punctuated their days with short jaunts to play putt putt golf or to swim at the beach. Even special outings to see the Blue Angels or an exciting new movie at the theater does little to alleviate their doldrums.
The little one has had all sorts of activities to keep her busy, including softball practices and tournaments, basketball conditioning classes, and flute lessons (all under the watchful eyes of adults, of course).  The second the activity is over, she puts her chin in her hand, looks at me and says "I'm bored." Aaarghh!!
Maybe it's that we just have too much these days. And maybe we're too afraid to let them live.
The very first thing I remember about every summer of my childhood is – it was time to swim! I had season tickets to the city pool and I don't even know if such a concept exists any longer. Now, we have a "membership" to our city pool. While our city pool is very nice, it doesn't contain one key feature that was all important in marking a certain level of achievement and status at the pool. Have you seen a high diving board lately? Nah, me either. Where did they go? Simple: the liability is too great. Someone may get hurt, so let's not risk it. I see the point, but what a thrill today's kids are missing. It simply has to be better than pushing a button with your thumb to make one guy shoot another on a video game, doesn't it?  The first time I worked up the nerve to dive - not jump - off and emerged alive, I thought my heart would burst with pride and exhilaration.
We also swam in the county lake, probably amidst moccasins for all I know, and fast-flowing creeks with freezing waters and tempting waterfalls. I can't even find a site like these any longer. No tire swings dangling from oak branches to entice gangly boys to show off for the crowd on the bank; no docks with little concession stands selling sno-cones or coke floats to cool the effects of the blazing sun. I guess this is all too quaint for today's kids; they are far more sophisticated. The mall is a much better place to hang out.
I was trying to remember some of the other things we did, just hanging around the house, so that I could give the kids some ideas to pass the time. But, immediately, I realized that they simply cannot do many of the things we did. We thought prank calls were hilarious; caller ID has put a big crimp in that activity. We would sneak out at night to meet in tree houses in the woods. I didn't mention this one to them – I certainly don't want the local police dragging my kids home at midnight and hauling me to jail for parental neglect.
We didn't even have to sneak out to do this next one. With our parents' knowledge and approval, all the kids in my neighborhood (about twenty in all, ranging from 5 to 15 or so) would sit on the curb under the streetlight long after dark telling ghost stories. Eventually, one by one and usually from youngest to oldest, we'd hear our names called from three or five doors away and would reluctantly leave the group to head home, knowing that we were missing stories that were growing scarier by the minute. The storyteller would sometimes enlist the aid of a cohort to sneak up behind us and go "Boo!" at the exact moment the story was at its climax. It was great!
We left the house after breakfast, hopped on our bikes, and didn't show up again until our stomachs told us it was time for a lunchtime sandwich. This did not call for filing a flight plan or reporting in from our cell phones every half-hour. No one had ever heard of a child being taken and killed at that time; we were blissful in our ignorance, as I'm sure that must have occurred. Yet, the nightly news did not pick up on each of these stories and play them endlessly, scaring us to death and destroying our innocence. 
Lunch was eaten hurriedly before the platoon left for the afternoon tour, when the exploration by bike would continue. I knew every road in that little town, be it asphalt, dirt, gravel, or barely wide enough to squeeze the bike tires through. There were all sorts of hidden little paradises in the woods, with clearings under big tall pines and clear running water to wade in. Some featured patches of blackberries, picked and eaten on the spot and without fear of ingesting some toxic chemical. 
Until we were too tall, we traveled in cars with our parents by standing up on the seat in between the two of them. We had a great view of everything, unlike today's kids who have to look at the leather of the child's car seat blocking their view and limiting their movements. Our safety mechanism was our mother's arm flung across our midsection every time she braked the car. I still do this to this day, no matter if the middle seat is empty or contains an adult. Old habits die hard, I suppose.
One of my favorite things to do about dusk every day was pile into my dad's pickup truck, along with half the other neighborhood kids, and ride through bumpy country roads, our hair flying and tangling as we faced the wind and held on to the top of the cab for stability. I haven't seen a kid in the back of a pickup since 1972; I'm sure they would be embarrassed now. That liability issue raises its ugly head here again as well. 
We would wind up at a farm, where dad would give the farmer a bit of change for a watermelon. We would take that one home and put it in the bottom of the refrigerator for the next evening, pulling out the one from the journey of the day before. The cold one would be taken outside to a piece of plywood stretched across two sawhorses, where everyone waited to see the cutting of the watermelon to determine how much seed-spitting would need to occur. I don't quite know what prevents us from still enjoying those ice-cold watermelons, sliced into big smiles and held in dirty hands, munched without aid of utensils or napkins. I haven't heard of a watermelon scare or recall. Maybe I'll buy one tomorrow and make the kids eat it outside and just deal with the complaints of "It's too hot out here!"
It would have never occurred to us to stay inside all day. Even if it rained, we played board games outside under the protection of a carport roof or one of those weird patio green squiggly roof things that made outdoor life cool in the shade. No one on my block had a garage. Inside, TV sported only two channels, both of which ran soap operas all day; we would have rather died than watched that stuff. If we desired music, we settled for the scratchy kind from a transistor radio so we could stay outside.
If, by chance, we were so very fortunate to have a family who took a summer vacation, we packed light clothing and heavy food. Thick brown paper bags safely protected loaves of bread and all the other makings of a sandwich except cold cuts. Those went in the back with the soft drinks packed in an ice chest in the rear of the station wagon (along with the smallest child). We would stop at roadside parks along the way and put out the full spread. My kids would scoff at this notion, as there are McDonald's or Wendy's every ten feet. I also can remember that we didn't seem to be in a hurry to get back on the road too quickly, so we would play tag or hide and seek amongst the trees. Maybe this was my father's way of wearing us out so we would just sleep the remainder of the trip. Now, we seem to be so rushed that we just run through the drive-through window, where we already know we want two #1's, a #4, and a #8 with barbecue sauce. Think of the time saved!
As I said, I'm sure every generation laments the loss of the ways of their youth. My grandmother has told me many times of the infrequent trips to the store because they made or grew nearly everything themselves.
I think what I'm lamenting is more than just that. I'm mourning the loss of creativity brought on by the opportunity to explore. And maybe, just maybe, the technological advances are directly related to the growing (and I do mean "growing") problem of obesity in our country. Maybe a few kids need to get out and dig some holes and plant a vegetable or two. Could we do that safely in our back yards, or are we too afraid of what lurks even there?

About the Author:
Rita Ayers salutes her fellow baby-boomers who remember childhoods like hers.

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