Arson and Old Laces
As a child, I was a backyard arsonist. In the era of Vietnam and hidden enemies, my friends and I would spend hours, away from the watchful eye of my Mother, presiding over conflagrations of epic proportions. It usually involved carefully laid Airfix 54 mm plastic soldiers advancing through a dense jungle of ferns and ivy toward a defenseless Marine firebase, and it was our job to “lay down that protective cover of napalm.” Napalm took the shape of anything flammable. As curious, red-blooded American boys in the ‘60s, we had never heard of things such as travel sports, electronic games or TVs with more than 13 channels. We had more than enough time to discover the inflammatory properties of every liquid in our medicine cabinet, bathroom, cleaning closet and garage.
We quickly determined anything with alcohol content worked well to protect our besieged soldiers. As the VC crept in, we showered them with a horrific ordinance of paint thinner, gasoline, model airplane glue, English Leather cologne, canned hairspray and Old Spice spray deodorant. The air was a bittersweet miasma of odors and excitement. The final barrage was intense. We watched with great satisfaction as the enemy soldiers turned molten black and collapsed in utter defeat, melting literally back into the dirt, just yards in front of the protective wire of the grateful Marines. The black eddies of thick toxic smoke would swirl and flicker with fire and, like Westmoreland, we would be satisfied. As kids, we fashioned every conceivable homemade weapon and waged war on one another, building forts and digging ditches (the 20-foot tunnel we dug under the garage that almost caused it to collapse into a sinkhole during a rainstorm is another story…)
Our arsenal included firecrackers, crossbows that shot sharpened, green gardening stakes, slingshots made from surgical tubing, smoke bombs of salt peter and a healthy dose of imagination. We had time and tools at our disposal. We would leave the house every morning like pets being let outside, returning only for food or medical attention. We floated like leaves blown from season to season. If it was spring it was baseball or soccer. Football in the fall. Basketball in the winter and of course summers – a blur of day camps, sports, and long bicycle rides in search of a pool, creek, mischief or anything that could work up or relieve a good sweat. Sport seasons were a maximum of 10 to 15 games followed by an all-star team that was usually thrown into a single elimination tourney against local towns. There was really no such thing as travel or year-round sports. I rode my bike to and from school. A car ride to a friend’s house was an indulgence and walking home when the bike had a flat tire was standard.
My arson is now limited to my fireplace and my soldiers are arranged in neat rows in a display case, wishing a small child would break them out of their glass prison to wage war once again. My bike has been replaced by a Lifecycle in the New Canaan Fitness Club. My children have no interest in following in my footsteps. They are too preoccupied and too in need of immediate gratification to meticulously build dirt bunkers, stick forts or rock bulwarks. In addition to rarely playing in the dirt, their feet rarely touch the pavement – with muscles developed around soccer, not pedaling a single speed bike up a steep hill. They are driven everywhere like dignitaries; the concept of walking is met with a martyred moan. Couple this with society’s increasing trepidation that walking anywhere is unsafe…that the ubiquitous van full of pedophiles is out there, touring our neighborhoods looking for unescorted children.
I’m not sure if I am an anachronism complaining how society has gone to hell or whether there is legitimate cause for concern. One of my peeves: is it really necessary to “declare your major” by the fifth grade when it comes to sports? The pressure to specialize earlier and earlier has second graders in a 10-game soccer season and parents getting wound up over playing time and worried over nascent motor skills. Meanwhile little Johnny is still pooping in his pants. The beauty of trying everything is you gain different experiences and become more balanced. Generalizing perhaps reduces your chance to become a multi-sport Varsity starter or a shoe-in to Yale, but you end up decent at inter-mural sports, passable at tennis, par at Frisbee golf and a great Trivial Pursuit partner. Less organized activities sometimes brings a bonus of time – minutes of margin to innovate, imagine, experiment and, yes, occasionally get into trouble.
It seems that most kids literally have very little time for mischief. And when they do, it becomes the great headline in our local newspapers. Is it a sign of the decline of western civilization if kids occasionally go off “the reservation”? Is it worrisome if they sit around the house, complain about being bored, and then get the ultimatum to go outside or start folding laundry? Perhaps, one of them will wander over to the stream next to the house and dam it up until it overflows on to the Murphys’ property, getting me a late evening call from Charlie about the newly re-routed stream jutting across his driveway. My Dad got those calls once a week. Wilson tennis ball cans will be converted into a makeshift mortar that launches flaming number three balls into the twilight, triggering UFO calls from residents on West Road. Perhaps a son or daughter might see a can of spray paint, then spy the hammer, nails and old wood, then build something – a catapult? A crossbow? Do I sound like Dr. Evil?
Given their schedules and our watchful eyes, it’s highly unlikely many kids will ever smell the acrid smoke of a burning battlefield of plastic soldiers. Some would say that is a very good thing. But I wonder…