I remember the first time I heard the term playdate. I had to ask my twenty-something niece what she was talking about. When she explained it to me, I was in shock. So, your kid wants to play with another kid. You have to make an appointment with that kid’s parent and escort her over there? We had playdates. I’ll meet you by the creek.
When I was about six, we moved into the home where I would grow up. My dad put a chain-link fence around the backyard. He said it was to keep our new dog, Toby, in. I think it was to keep us in, my brother and me. And for years, it did. But one day, I looked over the fence.
And wondered what was out there.
So one day, I went over the fence. I felt like Steve McQueen in The Great Escape. I discovered a large tract of woods that led down to a creek, complete with a fallen tree to cross it on. Until I found the vine, I could use to swing across the creek screaming like Tarzan. Except Tarzan didn’t fall into the stream. And his vine wasn’t poison ivy.
But after that day, I escaped captivity, especially during the summer. I would yell to my mom; I’m going outside. That’s as definite a location as I needed to give. Then, a few hours later, I would show up for lunch before escaping once more. Those woods were my domain.
Until we got bicycles.
Then, the world, as they say, was my oyster. I have no clue what that means, but my world expanded to a five-mile radius. I would put on my helmet, knee and elbow pads, and walk my bike over to the bike trail.
Wait a minute; this was 1965. I put on shorts and took off. Barefoot and shirtless.
Was it safe? Hard to say. I scraped up knees, elbows, and shoulders. But I lived. In a stunt that rivals Evel Knievel, I nearly severed my big toe when it got stuck in the front wheel. Don’t ask. But I lived. On weekends, I was up by dawn and out the door. My parents slept late on weekends, so I had a good four or five hours before breakfast to roam my new world.
I remember the first time we saw a kid wearing a helmet. “What’s wrong with him?” we wondered.
I can’t remember the last time I saw a kid in a tree. I lived in trees. Any tree with a limb low enough for me to reach was fair game. My favorite was one of the two hickory trees in our backyard. I climbed so high, it would begin swaying. And there I would sit for hours reading a book, swaying in the wind. My mom would come out and beg me to climb lower as if a twenty-five-foot drop would end better than a thirty-foot drop.
Creeks and streams were another source of curiosity for me. I would wonder, where does that creek go. And then I would attempt to find out. So barefoot as always, I would wade up or downstream for hours. At some point, I would realize I wasn’t going to discover the Amazon and turn around. Then, it would occur to me that, however long it took me to get here, it would take just as long to get back. I hoped I could make it by dark.
There was a former cow pasture a few blocks from my home. Eminent domain had shut it down so they could build an interstate through it. At the low end of that pasture was a swamp. Today, they would call it wetlands, but then, it was a swamp. Full of swampy things. I would try to find ways to cross it that wouldn’t end up with me getting mired in the muck. Of course, from watching TV back then, I knew that quicksand was a very real and imminent danger.
Then one day, the interstate got under construction. Wow. A whole new playground. Of course, I could only play there on Sundays when the building came to a halt. At one point, huge mounds of gravel were dumped to begin the paving process. I’m sure they were no taller than the raised bed of a dump trunk, but in my memory, they were mountains.
And what do you do with a mountain?
So, climb them, I did. It’s not easy climbing a mountain of gravel. Gravel moves. It rolls. Gravel and gravity are a tricky combination. I don’t remember the story I came up with to explain why my pants were ripped to shreds, but I bet it was a good one.
I don’t know if the world is a more dangerous place now or parents are more protective. A combination of the two, I assume. And I’m sure my little niece has fun on her playdates. But something is missing from her life. Something she will never know so that she won’t know to miss it. A sense of exploration, of discovering the world on her own. I’m glad she is safe, and I hope she is having fun.
But boy, Uncle Darryl could tell her some stories.