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Monday, July 19, 2004

Ode to a Broken Urn: Childhood Entertainments

In a previous essay I wrote about dogs.  I defended them over cats because I said a dog would go get help if you got trapped while playing in an abandoned mine shaft.  I have never played in an abandoned mine shaft,  have never been trapped in one,  and I have never actually sent a dog to get help, but I got this information from a good source.*  What now comes to my attention is that kids, when given the opportunity, will choose to play with unspeakably dangerous objects over benign sorts of toys.
If you let them choose their own entertainments, kids would pick a book of matches over anything on the shelves of Toy-R-Us.  One of mom’s vases breaks, no problem.  We’ll just use one of the razor-like shards to make a shiv (just like in those great prison movies).  “I’ll bet you can’t jump from here and not break anything.”  How many childhood trips to the hospital emergency room do you think started out like that?         
It’s not like I didn’t want to play in an abandoned mine shaft when I was a kid.  I looked everywhere for one, but to no avail.  What we did find, when we were looking for an extremely unwholesome place to play, was an abandoned boat yard on an estuary of the great Mississippi River.  The old boat yard was practically oozing with tetanus; it was all rusty nails, rotten planks, and ship ropes hanging from dizzying heights; which meant that it was better than  Disneyland and Six Flags rolled together for a group of juvenile delinquents like me and the rest of the kids in my neighborhood.
Finding that boat yard was like having Christmas in July.  The fact that it was ringed by a chain-link fence topped with razor-wire was better than a printed invitation to our gang.  If someone had thought to put a “No Trespassing” sign on our school we would have showed up an hour early every day.  Our boat yard was definitely one of those “what they don’t know can’t hurt them” occasions as far as our parents were concerned.  Had they any inkling as to our new-found play paradise, they would have died of fright and put it in their wills that we were to be grounded until our 18th birthdays.
I don’t think our parents were aware that we had dug a Viet Cong-type series of tunnels in the park across the street from our house (When we played army everyone wanted to be the VC).  I know for a fact that the our parents and the legal authorities didn’t know we took an axe and chopped down a huge oak tree in that same park because it was screwing up a really good sledding run.  We were eight years old at the time, and it took us about a week of chopping before we were able to yell “Timber.” 
The parents in our neighborhood banded together and decided that we couldn’t have BB guns.  We found a loophole in their ban and surreptitiously bought bows and arrows.   Luckily we couldn’t hit anything with them—not even each other—so this episode passed without tragedy through no lack of trying on our part. 
I am not bragging, or confessing the sins of my childhood, I am merely looking back in wonder as to how we survived.  Granted, I have more stitches than a bag of baseballs, but I still have all of my major appendages.  Escaping our childhoods without permanent injury seems, in retrospect, like quite an accomplishment.  I guess this is why we were never very impressed with any of those sticky wickets in which James Bond found himself:  What is getting cut in half by Goldfinger’s laser beam as compared to falling 40 feet into a ravine from a Tarzan swing?  
I have pursued a lot of dangerous pastimes as an adult, but I would like to think that I am taking calculated risks.  We didn’t spend a lot of time calculating risks when I was a kid.  Calculation takes too long and he who hesitates probably won’t jump off a 70 foot cliff into a rock quarry.  We knew the pond was deep enough, we just didn’t know if we would clear the rocks down at the bottom.  You can sit there and calculate all day or just take a running jump.  If you're lucky you'll clear the rocks and make it beyond your perilous childhood.    
 *Lassie episodes #134, 137, 281, 282, 284, 287and 421
From the comments.  I wish I had written this:

It's too bad that nowadays kids don't need a pet dog to come rescue them from abandoned mine shafts, since kids don't play outside anymore, let alone venture off to secluded/dangerous areas. But I suppose that a Virtual Cyber-Lassie would come in handy to save kids from falling into digitally-enhanced Nintendo mine shafts, but don't we already have the video-game-character played by Angelina Jolie for that? Oh wait, maybe an actual dog WOULD be good to have around to perform the Heimlich maneuver on little grubby obese kids choking on their Cocoa Puffs in front of Ren & Stimpy marathons everyday after school at latchkey. 

From Bess 

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