A Free Range Kid
In 60’s and 70’s suburban Los Angeles, each planned community was a perfect grid of magnolia and palm tree lined streets with green carpets of manicured lawns stretching for entire blocks, interrupted only by cement driveways which served as primitive lines of demarcation for the packs of children that would roam their environs looking for field to play. In our town at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains, everyone knew the neighbors and the neighbors knew you. It was difficult to engage in any form of civil disobedience – – blowing up anything with an M80s (1/8 stick of dynamite) purchased in Tijuana, BB gun wars, or heaving water balloons at passing motorists – – without someone id’ing you and reporting you swiftly to your parents, sometimes before you even made it home from the caper. In my case, the fear of parental retribution would cause me to entertain wild thoughts of running away – – “I will sneak in, grab my clothes (and a few Hostess Fruit Pies) and shack up in Charlie’s tree house until I can get a job and then I will hitchhike to Montana.” It did not matter that I was nine, uncertain of where Montana actually was or that Charlie’s tree house was a four by six spider colony. This was secondary to avoiding the belt that was certain to find my adolescent behind for crimes against humanity.
When we moved into our new home in the summer of 1968, we quickly got to know our neighbors who lived behind our red tiled, stucco Mediterranean. The backyard was still under construction and while my parents conducted their final walk through, we discovered a cachet of dirt clods that were unlike any organic material we had ever seen. These massive dirt blocks, forged together from drought and construction digging, became weapons of mass destruction as my brothers and I squared off in primitive slit trenches and behind ivy fences. As the battle raged, an errant clod flew over the redwood fence and resulted in a “splash”. Like the old EF Hutton commercial, we froze, intrigued by the sudden sound of water. My brother tossed another dirt clod over the fence testing the radius of the hidden water – – splash! We took a third clod the size of Delaware and pushed it over the barrier- – “ker-plunk” followed by a geyser spiking higher than Old Faithful. The barrage lasted for the next hour. As my father and mother toasted their new home and expanding social circle, the phone rang. It was their new neighbors…their angry, new neighbors. A reign of terror began that would last fifteen years.
Despite these and many other transgressions, we were absorbed into this melting pot of young and old . Our neighborhood was a microcosm of every suburban community in America. We had Howard, next door, who had possessed every conceivable power tool known to man and would voluntarily assist my father in fixing anything that broke, chipped or even looked like it might break. Years later, my youngest brother, home from college, got a hysterical call from Mildred, Howard’s wife, that he was gravely ill and needed to be lifted into the car so she could take him to the hospital. The strapping do-it-yourselfer had been reduced to less than 100lbs from cancer but his sense of humor stayed in tact. “Tell your Dad, he can have the band-saw if I don’t make it back home.”
We were all odd passengers lashed to the mast of a massive ship of streets and yards. We had one neighbor who liked to make himself martinis, sit in a lawn chair and light off fireworks. The problem was – – it usually around 12 at night and year round. We sort of got used to the roman candles surging like a distant firefight and became indifferent to the Piccolo Petes that would shrill like incoming artillery fire. We had your token grouchy old man who would threaten us with bodily harm ‘lest we venture on to his carefully manicured lawn to retrieve a baseball. We named him “Groucho” and as we got older, we found increasingly ingenious ways to torment him including one night, lighting smoke bombs, donning dark bed sheets and circling the smoke, repeatedly chanting“ pagan sacrifice “. I wasn’t sure what “peg and sacrifice “ meant but my older brother told me to say it. Groucho called the police. He reported hooded dwarves were committing ritual sacrifices on his dichondra and he had just reseeded. There was Mr. Brown who loved to sunbathe naked in his back yard which horrified Mrs. Cunningham next door, but the police would do nothing about it. “Don’t look” they told her. I recall lighting a fire in the bushes in front of another neighbor’s home but was so intent on my pyromania, I did not realize the fire was also in full view of their living room window where they sat and watched me. Imagine my surprise as I exited the bushes with my friend, and noticed the police and fire truck car in front of our house. I balled my eyes out when the fire chief said that they sent arsonists to reform school. I was not sure what reform school was but I was sure they did not serve dessert there.
Diagonally to the north, we had the large Italian family with 12 kids. They had their groceries delivered by The Helms Man Grocery Service – a luxury unheard of in the 70’s. The Helms Man truck driver was not the sharpest tool in the shed and while other kids would distract him, we would empty his change dispenser and then buy candy from him with his money. It worked for months until to our chagrin, a new driver showed up. Like all communities, we lived with illnesses, divorces, aging neighbors and people troubled by demons and dysfunction – – a bonanza of mania and mayhem. There was the neighbor that snapped one day at work and came home to hold off the police for four hours with his son’s BB gun. There was a suicide. There was a murder. There were robberies. Life did not bypass this bucolic oasis. It drove in like an ill wind every couple of years to remind us that we needed to look out for one another. Through it all, every neighbor always was there for every other neighbor. Every adult felt they had proxy authority to discipline other people’s kids and enforce a community standard. We were free range kids – – roaming miles away on foot or by bicycle, making mistakes and learning coping skills that would serve us throughout life.
Times have changed. Geography and social boundaries have made it harder to be a free range kid. The requirements have not changed nor the have the dividends. Free range kids need a little extra rope, independence, trust, support from their community and the ability to make mistakes. Captive kids have “high bottoms” because parents love them to the point of not wanting them to fail, at anything. Captive kids are tightly managed and live life within a set of guardrails built of myriad commitments and shielded with a two parent safety net. When a free range kid gets into trouble sometimes he/she has to figure out how to get out of it. Free range kids make bad choices but they learn, grow and some even believe these kids cope better when eventually introduced into “the wild”.