My youngest daughter and her family moved into a new house a few months ago. There are no sidewalks, but it’s a Leave It To Beaver kind of neighborhood. Lots of houses lining both sides of the streets. Plenty of young moms and dads with kids. Bicycles and tricycles scattered across smooth concrete driveways. Minivans and SUVs that look tired.
I saw a familiar bumper sticker. The kind that breeds suspicion. “My kid’s an honor student.” It’s like taunting. Like asking, “My kid is going places, what you got?”
The best thing about a neighborhood is that kids find each other. They are like magnets. And even though they are divided up by age at school, they end up all together in endless games of tag and chase and hide and seek. They roam the streets in packs looking for adventure.
I hear a lot of regrets about kids spending all their time on video screens. Bulging eyeballs. Never interacting with other kids. Bored to death. No idea how to go outside and make up a game of out of thin air.
This neighborhood, though, gives me hope that childhood is not lost. It sounds like Zelda is outside a lot. The two kids from across the street have been watching.
“You see the new kid across the street?”
“Maybe she wants to play?”
“She looks normal.”
“She’s got a scooter. I’d like to ride a scooter.”
And the next thing you know, one kid takes a risk. She waves from her front yard. Then, from across the street, the other one shades her eyes with one hand, squints and waves back.
“Hey. Wha’cha doing?”
“Nothing much. Just riding my scooter.”
“Can we try it out?”
And so, it begins. The moms are oblivious to this transaction until the front door opens and in walks one kid with two extra in tow. “We’re thirsty. Can we have something to eat?” Names are exchanged. “Does your mom know you’re here?” Just like a parent to worry.
The moms meet. The kids knock on each other’s door every chance they get. The yard is full of screams and laughter. The wooded area next to the house has become a land destined for exploration.
Based on the excited report I got, this new dynamic trio has built, not one, but two forts in the woods.
I am taken back to the very core of my own childhood. The earliest forts were just secret places. The base of a hollow tree. The cutout in the creek bank. A clean spot in the middle of a pine thicket.
A buddy of mine and I spent most of a Saturday building a fort out of pine saplings. The woods behind the lake were thick with them. A small hand saw that we borrowed out of the smokehouse. A half-used ball of baling twine. We had us a regular Daniel Boone hut. The next day, he came home with me from church to eat lunch and play in the fort. Overnight the cows had trampled it to the ground. We laughed and just moved on to the creek for more adventures.
The most complicated fort I ever built was made from field stones. My buddy, Blake, and I spent most of a Saturday dragging, toting, and stacking rocks on the hill above the lake to make a machine gun nest like the ones on our favorite TV show, Combat. We loaded the lake up with pinecones and shot at them with our BB guns for hours from behind enemy lines.
Steve and I learned to build forts in the hay barn. Everybody had square bales back then. Not these round bales the size of a VW bug. They were heavy for a kid, but we moved them around. We’d restack them the way we wanted them. We built tunnels up through the barn that came out in a hidden fort on top of the haystack.
My dad’s only warning. “You can move them as long as you don’t bust ‘em up. I find a bunch of loose baling twine and that’ll be the end of it.”
Every kid needs a place to build a fort. Forts are where imaginations soar and the creative juices flow. Backyards and small woods are the hundred acre dreams where kids can be kids on warm spring days when the air is still cool.
I didn’t grow up in a neighborhood, but I visited one frequently. Eight or ten of us playing some of the most serious games on the planet. Rules? We made them up and changed them as needed. Competition? We were always trying to see who could ride their bike the farthest with no hands. Cuts and scrapes? Yep, every day. When the moms shouted for kids to come home for supper, I took off on my bike for the long ride home.
Neighborhood moms were the best. I don’t know how they did it, but they always seemed to be ready and willing to feed an army of sweaty, dirty, and unwashed kids.
Miss Margie did it with fried bologna sandwiches. Colonial white bread and mustard. Her house was the only place I’d ever eaten fried bologna. I didn’t get it at home, and I liked it. So, no matter who’s yard we were in, when we got hungry I went to her house and knocked on the door.
There was a knock on my daughter’s door the other day. Two little faces.
“Can Zelda come out and play?”
Before long, the world outside was filled with the sound of little girls hard at it.
At some point, they all came inside. “Can we jump on the trampoline?” Emily stares them down for a second. “If it’s okay with your mom, then it’s okay with me.” A quick phone call, and the kid-crew was headed for the back yard.
Trampolines can be a lot of fun. They can also brake legs and bust heads. The potential for both are present at any given time.
The screams and shouts are deafening. I’m sure the neighbors three blocks away think that some poor child is being tortured on the rack in a dark garage. But, in truth, there is nothing happening but wild and unhinged jumping.
Emily came into the kitchen to check on them from the window. Heads are bobbing. Knees are flailing. One of them is laying on the trampoline and laughing so hard she can’t quit. It looks like there are extra kids now.
Emily says to me, “It felt weird to think that I’m responsible for these kids in my back yard. Somebody could get hurt out there. I don’t know all their names. I’m not sure if I’m ready for this.”
I’m thinking, this is the best news of my life. Nothing could be better than a yard full of kids playing outside. No blue screens, just blue sky. Sun. Grass. Breeze. Dirt. All the elements that make a childhood completely unforgettable.
“Should I be worried?” she asks me.
“Naw. Leave ‘em alone.” I say this, of course, because they’re not in my yard.
I just hope she has plenty of bologna on hand.