BEFORE THE STREETLIGHTS COME ON

When I was growing up … and even when my son was growing up in the 1970s, kids went out to play. Alone. Unsupervised. Unstructured. Disorganized with not a single adult to keep an eye on us. We built “forts” and “clubhouses” out of crates and old boxes and anything we could find that mom wouldn’t miss. We played stickball with old, pink Spalding balls that were often long bast bouncing or even being “round.” You didn’t go and buy a “stickball set.” You found an old broomstick and someone had a ball, or what used to be a ball, or you all chipped in and bought one in the local (!) toy store.

Remember toy stores? Not “Toys R’ Us.” Local shops where you could buy a ball or a bat or a Ginny doll for anything from a few cents to a few dollars and take it home to play. The shopkeepers were always grumpy old guys (probably a lot younger than we are now), but they had a gleam in their eye. If you don’t like kids, you don’t run a toy store.

We ran around a lot. Tag was one of the basics. Even dogs play tag. “Catch me if you can,” you shouted and off you went. If you got tagged, you were O-U-T. But if you could run fast enough, you could grab whatever was “home” and one shouted “Home free all!” and everyone was back in the game.

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There was Hide and Seek, another classic. Someone hid, everyone hunted. You had to be careful. If you hid too well, your friends might get bored looking for you and go do something else. But no one’s mother came to complain that you were being bullied. This was stuff you dealt with because there will always be bullies. Unless you were in real danger, it was better (then and now) to cope on your own. Much better than waiting for rescue. In the real world, rescue is rare, but bullying is not.

Jump rope. There was always an old piece of laundry line somewhere. They actually call it skipping rope in other parts of the country. In the cities, the Black girls played a variation called “double Dutch” using two ropes. We all knew how to do the double Dutch ropes turning, but none of us ever mastered the technique of actually jumping. More like an intricate dance — and I also wasn’t ever much of a dancer.

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Klutz that I was and am, I was barely competent on a single line, much less two. I remain in awe of how incredibly graceful, athletic, and coördinated those girls were … and are. There was a feature about them on the news a couple of weeks ago and I am no less awestruck now than I was more than 60 years ago.

Along with jumping rope came chanting. All those weird little ditties we sang as we jumped. They mostly were alphabetic and involved names and places.

“I call my girlfriend … in …” when we were playing in a group. You could gauge your popularity by when and who “called you in” to jump in tandem. Looking back, I think the problem was not unpopularity, but being a washout as an athlete. I was a slow runner, an indifferent jumper, and a terrified tree climber. On the other hand, when it came to derring-do, I was a champ. I could organize games of pretend –pirates and cowboys and outlaws and cat burglars. We burgled, but we never stole. We weren’t thieves, just little girls trying to prove we could do it.

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I don’t see kids playing outdoors these days. Almost never, except as organized groups with one or more adults supervising. Calling the plays with whistles and shouts. Children are not allowed to “go out and play” anymore. Everyone is afraid of something. Bullying, kidnappers, traffic, skinned knees. Unlike we kids who were always covered with scabs from a thousand times falling down on the sidewalk or street. Come home with a bloody knee today and they’ll call an ambulance. Growing up, unless you appeared to have broken something, a bath was the remedy of choice and usually, beneath the dirt, was an unbroken kid.

It makes me wistful, thinking about it. I had a horrible home life, but I could escape by going out to play. “Bye, Ma, I’m going out to play,” and off you went. It was the best part of being a child. Those months between school and school contained what seemed unlimited hours of freedom. That was the most free I would ever be in this life.

Once you were out of the house and too far away to hear your mother calling, you could do whatever you liked. You could be whoever you imagined. There was nothing you had to do, no place you needed to be. Until the streetlights came on.

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You had to be home when the streetlights came on. It was a fundamental law, the bottom line. Do what you will, but be home when the streetlights come on. In those warm summers of childhood, the days flowed in an endless stream.

Darkness fell late. There was  more than enough time.

46 thoughts on “BEFORE THE STREETLIGHTS COME ON

  1. I remember those days nad those games…and it seems such a shame that children are no longer allowed that kind of freedom to explore and grow. I don’t know if the world is a more dangerous place now or if we have just become more careful. Or, perhaps, there are just too many easy options for passing time at home these days.

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    • Sue, I also remember those days. It seems perhaps a cliche to call them our days of innocence but that’s what they were. There was crime. We just weren’t peppered with it by our radio, newspapers and 15 minute local TV newscasts.
      Some kids had backyards, some played on the streets. The streets had cars but there was still room to play. Sometimes there was even an empty field to play games.
      Most of us were well versed about the do’s and don’ts. It seemed, through the prism of time, a bit easier to be a kid.
      I recall there just didn’t seem to be enough to play before the dreaded, “Garry, your Mother is calling you”.
      Gee Whiz!!

      Liked by 1 person

    • I think we are more fearful than careful. Especially in places like this where the biggest danger is cars, not people. AND there are too many easy options for playing at home alone. I’m glad I’m not a kid now. It was a lot more fun when I was young.

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  2. Well…. it keeps the little hooligans out of my yard! I’m the grumpy old man who used to yell at us as kids now…

    Skinned knees and a bump on the head? Oh my God! That’s a good way to get the Division of Family Services called on you by a so-called vigilant neighbor or teacher now! Abuse (like bullying) is a real problem, but its one we seem to believe requires a zero tolerance “better safe than sorry” attitude to combat, and the problem is that it makes the horrendous assumption that children are fragile and should never be allowed to do anything that might put them in harm’s way. Good Lord, how many of us would be here today if our rough and tumble childhoods would have killed us?

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    • I understand the problems that teachers and other people face when they are responsible for keeping kids safe. But there has got to be some kind of sensible middle road in there somewhere. Surely wrapping every kid in physical and emotional bubble wrap is not a healthy response? All we are doing is teaching our kids that it’s a terrifying world out there and they should run away as quickly as their little legs can carry them.

      It was actually a comment you made on your blog and a comment I wrote in response that was the basis of this post. You inspired me. But I don’t remember the original post or my initial answer.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Now you make me nostalgic for those days, Marilyn. Like your son I also grew up in the 70s, and although my mom had to know (vaguely) where I was when away from home, I totally forgot about her and every other adult as soon as I was outside. I often met with classmates (I went to a small elementary school where we all knew each other) and we would bike on a backroad that had no traffic at all. A paradise for kids. We biked and also climbed trees. I was very good at climbing trees. My sister got in a bike accident once. Quite graphic since she opened her forehead as she braked with the wrong brake and fell headfirst on a rock. I thought it was her eye that she injured and panicked. But I still considered our bikes and managed to brought my younger sister and our bikes home. My mom was hanging the laundry outside and although she was concerned for my sister she took the time to clean the wound before deciding that a visit to our doctor was probably a good idea. Our family doctor sent my sister to the hospital to get several stiches. She would keep a small scar for the rest of her life. Recently my sister and I told the story to our kids and my mom couldn’t remember where I was that day. I said that I was the one who took care of my sister when she fell and also of the bikes and that I followed to the doctor and hospital. My mom said that she shouldn’t have taken me with them because it was not necessary to waste my time there. She was a caring mom but definitely all of the other moms back then were much more casual than I was when I took care of my own four kids. I was still more relaxed that most my American friends. But definitely less laid back than my mom who had also played on her own a lot when she was a kid.
    I still wish that my kids had enjoyed my freedom and I’m sure that it is getting worse with younger kids now.
    We need this lack of supervision to grow up, I think. To dream. To be anyone we want to be, like you write, even if only for a day.
    Lovely post and great pics, too.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I agree. We need some freedom to try our wings and find out who we are. How else can we know what we are good at or what we want to be? Isn’t is ironic that middle class parents are not essentially duplicating the way English “nobility” brought up their kids — with no freedom because it was predestined from birth what each kid would be. We seem to think that if we let them out of our sight for a minute, they’ll slip away. Of course, they are SUPPOSED to slip away. That’s what parenting is about: teaching kids how to be grownups. Hopefully happy, productive, independent grownups.

      Thank you. This one was one of those “it just came to me” posts. I’m glad I put it into words before IT slipped away 🙂

      Liked by 3 people

  4. Children seem to need adults to organise them these days or they have little idea what to do other than play with phones. I think it is a shame that it is considered too dangerous for them to go places alone.They don’t have the freedom that our generation had even if they do have more material goods.

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  5. Yes those were the days, we thought they’d never end. We used to play double dutch too. Skipping is a great exercise. I wonder what all this supervision is going to do to the children’s health later on in life? (mentally and physically)
    Leslie

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    • From what I have seen so far, nothing good. Some kids do better than others, but many seem to suffer from a sense of helplessness. But what do you expect when you impress a kid with the dangers of everything that are lurking out there? They are taught to come running to mother … and what happens when mother isn’t there?

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  6. I remember those days. I was ushered out of the house right after breakfast and didn’t come back till my dad whistled for me to come home for dinner. Most days I’d be allowed to go back out after dinner for an hour or so. On weekends I could watch Saturday cartoons, but only for a limited hour or two. Then it was “go out and play”. I also remember “were you raised in a barn”? when we forgot to close the screen door behind you.

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  7. We had sidewalks back then that we would chalk up and ride our bikes on. Nowadays, I am amazed that I am amazed when I see construction and it is because some street is getting sidewalks! The bike paths are on the street, but can you imagine some little kid riding his bike in traffic–alone?! Unless they are wearing helmets and adults are riding in front of/behind them–that ain’t gonna’ happen. This post was great…we had so much fun as kids!

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  8. Yeah, as for those pink rubber Spalding balls, known as “Spaldeens” among the street crowd I knew as a kid. Forget Toys-R-Us or toy stores it was the local genera/candy/news/magazine/comic book store that we bought balls, marbles, jax, tops and other items mostly important to the small set. If you think Baseball was hard, try hitting one of them Spaldeens with a little skinny mop or broom handle converted for league use. We also used the little pink orbs for games such as “stoop ball”, “box ball” and “handball.” I grew up in Brooklyn so I’m talking about city games we made up using the items we had at hand, on the sidewalks and in the streets. Point being made; we we’re outside moving around, using our not yet fully developed muscles and brains, all activities being essential to our overall physical and mental development. If you’d like to get a glimpse of our future sitting on our collective asses.., get a copy of the animated movie “Wall-E”.

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    • It really was the best part of growing up. I was actually shocked to discover that you can buy “stick ball” sets. This totally defeats the whole concept of making the game using things you have. Stoop ball was definitely a New York thing. Amazing what a bunch of kids can do on a hot summer day with a pink rubber ball and free time.

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      • That time wasn’t free for long.., we played! — any game that came up or we could invent on the spot. If not we were on our bikes, roller skates and orange crate scooters made from.., well, an orange crate, a 2 x 4 and one skate of an old pair no longer skateable. Funny, I remember having really good fun back then and often wish we really could go back in time every so often just for a few hours of childish abandon.

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  9. We live on a small farm so the kiddos still get to play outside whenever they want and sometimes when they don’t want to but Mom needs a break or the baby needs to nap. It is such an important part of childhood. I would hate to rob them if that!

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