BE HOME BEFORE THE LIGHTS COME ON – Marilyn Armstrong

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 past 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.

The dock at River Bend

Remember toy stores? Not “Toys R’ Us.”

Local shops where you could buy a ball or a bat or a Ginny doll for a few cents or a few dollars. 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. Playing tag was basic. 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.

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.

1953 -I’m in the middle

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.

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.

Photo: Garry Armstrong

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 pretending –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.

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.

Photo: Garry Armstrong

It makes me wistful, thinking about it. My family was dysfunctional, but I could escape by going out to play.

“Bye, Ma, I’m going out,” and off you went. It was the best part of being a child. Those months between school and hours after school (much less homework and we still learned more!) contained what seemed unlimited freedom. That was the freest 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.

Streetlight is on. Time to go home!

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.

Author: Marilyn Armstrong

Opinionated writer with hopes for a better future for all of us!

44 thoughts on “BE HOME BEFORE THE LIGHTS COME ON – Marilyn Armstrong”

  1. How things have changed. You wouldn’t dare let your kid out to play all day and tell them to get back when the streetlights come on. I don’t know whether the world is a more dangerous place now with more predators out there, or whether it’s just that child abduction and such cases get much wider coverage in the media these days. Either way, it’s nurtured a generation of paranoid parents wanting to wrap their kids in cotton wool. Whatever has caused it, I can see both sides, but it’s sad for the kids that they don’t have the freedom to explore the world in their own way, in their own time, that was enjoyed by generations past.

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    1. Alli, I echo a lot of what Marilyn’s said.
      I grew up in the late 40’s and early 50’s. Playing on the streets of Brooklyn, Manhattan, the Bronx and Queens. City Streets with cars lining both side of the streets. We played punch ball with that pink spaulding rubber job that could go a distance if you whacked it with enough force. We played stoop ball on the streets lined with apartment buildings. Sometimes a dozen steps from street to the entrance. Lots of bounces. We played stick ball with an old mop stick one of us had acquired when Mom wasn’t looking. Our “teams” matched up by where you lived. Each street had a league of its own. As previously noted, I wasn’t much of an athlete. In those street games, I wasn’t even a contender. But — if I had dibs on ball and stick, I played. DEEP right field where the ball was rarely hit. Sometimes — actually once or twice, maybe three times (when they didn’t know me) I hit lead-off in stick ball. Once, I actually HIT the ball on 177th Street in Queens where we lived from ’47 to ’54. The rubber ball sailed down the street and bounced into the front yard where they had a ferocious dog. Game called — Dog fear!
      We weren’t worried about traffic or bad hombres from another neighborhood. Inside the houses, Moms kept a discreet eye on us. We played til twilight — or someone’s mother was heard. I got my word via a tag team of “Garry, you’re Mom’s calling. Ya gotta go in……Garry your Mom’s calling. She’s mad. You BETTER go now!”. What a bummer! I usually slouched . Sullenly, I slowly trotted home. I could see Mom faces in houses along the street, making sure I was headed straight home. It was a world of innocence.

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      1. Sounds wonderful, Garry. Innocemt fun and freedom that our kids don’t get today. It’s a shame, because in a way they’re missing out on a kind oc rite of passage

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        1. Alli, yes it was fun. I think about those days a lot — especially when I see the news reports about innocent kids caught in gang drive- by shootings. Collateral damage! I did lots of those stories in my working days. I used to have flashbacks to my youth in my reports, covering the change in our society. So many neighbors said the “It’s shocking-shocking –something like this happening in OUR neighborhood…you expect it in the urban communities but not here”. That usually was racial code for –“crime expected in minority neighborhood but not in predominatly White neighborhoods where everybody was nice”. I usually danced around the code in my reports but it constantly annoyed me. Nowadays — the gang shootings, the school shootings, etc — are happening in upscale neighoods with people still “..shocked it could happen here”. We’ve had a societal loss of innocence, perpetuated by the slacker in the Oval Office.

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          1. Indeed, Garry, he’s got a lot to answer for. And you’re absolutely right, I think these shootings – and over here it’s stabbings and knife crime which are grabbing the headlines now – are happening everywhere and at all levels of society. It’s chilling to think about.

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      1. Marilyn, I believe the social media very frequently is pulling the news media’s trigger on breaking news. In fairness, news media suits are dispatching crews in RESPONSE to social media accounts before checking the validity of those reports. We used to fact check with our sources before rushing to the scene and rushing to judgement. Often, TV news will flash the “Breaking News” graphic with breathless reports of dire happenings BEFORE their crews reach the scene. I laugh at one weekend network anchor who delivers his top of the show news headlines in a harried rush of words that anticipate the end of the world in the newscast. A little over-the-top. Needs to be dialed back. Again, it’s not the fault of the news anchor but the suits who’ve ordered him to give “the hard sell” to keep viewers in their seats. It’s about the ratings and revenue that comes with hyped viewership.

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  2. It was internatioal. I grew up in one of the roughest parts of London. Rough? No-one told me it was rough, that is what I read today. We chased, we hid, we roller skated, we played kiss chase with the boys. Imagine a grubby 8 year old catching you and you got the sloppy wet kiss as his trophy. Of course we girls caught the boys as well and gave them sloppy wet kisses. Today we would probably be confronted with juvenile crime forces.But who had problems, we didn’t and our parents were just glad when we came home when it got dark, and of course we did.

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    1. There were all the same problems we have today, but we were free to figure out how to deal with them. If there were bullies, we usually formed a gang of kids and beat him up. We did all the same stuff you did, although all the boys were older or much younger so we were pretty much all girls. I don’t think the world has changed nearly as much as parents have.

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  3. I loved this, Marilyn–words and photos..Yes, and the swell of nostalgia that fills my chest even as I type this. This is a lovely piece. If you’d like to publish it I can suggest two places.Chicken Soup for the Soul pays pretty well or the Ojo del Lago doesn’t but has a good readership. You can find the present topics for Chicken Soup online and if you want to try Ojo del Lago, I can send you the editor’s email address. It’s one of the two the largest English language publications in Mexico and is available both in print and online.. J

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  4. Those were the fun times, for sure. Even now, if I hear a child’s voice outside (I love in an older neighborhood so not too many small children), there are always parents with them. And if you do see a child alone, you wonder ‘what are they doing by themselves?!’ Such a shame. We did have fun being kids. Nowadays, I’m not so sure.

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  5. I never mastered double-dutch, either. I could bare manage regular jump rope. It was certainly a simpler, perhaps safer time. My town was small enough that you could walk the entire length in 15 minutes or less, so my mother’s rule was – “Once the streetlights come on, you have 15 minutes to get home.” At which point, I assume, she would come looking, but that was never spelled out. We just always hoped for a broken streetlight so we could stay out longer without getting into too much trouble. (Never occurred to us to break a light – we were the “good” kids).

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    1. We all knew when it was time to go home. It was a quiet street so a mother calling could be heard across the entire street and for all I know, a couple of streets over. I’m not sure the world IS safer. We are just so obsessed about imminent danger.

      It was always there. Kids got snatched back then and before then. Without social media to drive us nuts, everyone worried sick about it. I do understand the danger, but kids need their freedom or they don’t grow up to be fully functional adults.

      Free playtime is important … without a parent, teacher, coach, or babysitter shadowing every movement.

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            1. It’s critical. It’s where children learn to think ON THEIR OWN without depending on adults. It’s where they learn to establish their individuality, fight back when needed. It’s how we learn to choose friends — and how we learn how to stand alone. You don’t do that with mom on your shoulder all the time.

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  6. We’d get on our bike and be off for the day. Sometimes we’d go to the local rec center, other times we’d play street football or baseball. If someone’s parents had a big enough backyard we might play a few rounds of hot box there. Or we’d just go exploring. No video games, no helicopter parents, no indoor distractions. Just, “Hey, Ma, I’m going to go out and play.” Followed by “Just be home in time for dinner. Have fun.” Great post, Marilyn.

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    1. Yup. And you know, we never worried about the dangers. Sure you could fall off your bike — or fly down the hill on you sled and hit a pole (I did, and I did, and I did) or step on a rusty nail (ouch, tetanus shot to follow). But we WERE free. We played stickball which was vaguely baseball-like, but instead of commercials, we had to get out of the way for occasional cars passing through and our bases were more than a little oddly placed. We built things, tore them down, burgled attics then left notes saying “the cat burglars were here” — in crayon. The hard part was climbing the side of the house to GET to the attic. We were proud of that.

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  7. When I think back to what I was allowed to do when I was ten to twelve years old, it would be unthinkable for parents today to let their kids do the same. For those years, I lived on a ranch that covered over a thousand acres, and every day my girlfriend and I would ride our horses, followed by a few of the ranch dogs, into that country until it was time for dinner. In the summer time, our families rented a house together on Balboa Island, and we rode our bikes all over the place for hours. No one knew where we were. No one worried.

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    1. I know. We didn’t have cell phones or any phones and we often were many miles away. Okay, bicycles not horses, but we would ride from Queens out to Garden City (about 25 miles) and still make it home in time for dinner. We started using maps so we’d know which were the safer (less traffic) roads. No one knew where we were going. No one ASKED where we were going.

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  8. Makes me wistful too. I can remember the sun setting, its glow behind me as I skateboarded down my block, my mother calling me to come in, and the rest of my friends heading home too.

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    1. Tired and grubby from a long day outside. But that was the way we were supposed to feel. And we were a lot healthier. All of us could run, jump, climb … not equally well, but we were able to do it. How many kids these days could jump rope you think?

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  9. I do agree Marilyn, kids don’t seem to play on their own now, they play with their parents’ friends kids or they have organised get-togethers with school friends with parents supervising, at least as far as I can see. I remember my primary school where there were rows of bike racks because most kids either rode bikes or walked to school. I am not sure if the local school even has bike racks. I remember playing in the street sometimes, hopscotch or chasey or made up adventures, kids rode bikes, roller skates or skateboards. We could go to the park by ourselves. I was badly uncoordinated and terrible at skipping, and French skipping, we called it French Elastic or usually just elastic. I liked roaming around the neighbourhood exploring. I collected pine cones in parks and brought them home for mum to put on the fire. I walked to different neighbourhoods looking at houses and gardens and different shops. I could go to the local newsagent to buy a comic, a book or paper dolls. I went to school and church fetes. I sometimes took a camera. Often I went alone, but as long as I showed up again by teatime mum didn’t worry. Well, she probably did but she trusted me and she knew that kids need time to be kids.

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    1. It’s the constant organization and overseeing by adults that bothers me. One of the ways you grow up is getting to do your own thing on your own terms … even if you make mistakes, fall off your bike, or get whacked with a bat. You learn to deal with the hazards that are a part of everyone’s life, but if you are constantly protected, you get fearful. I remember my mother taking the book out of my hands and more or less PUSHING me out the door!

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    1. But Maine is still the country. Ginny dolls are collectibles, but you’ve still got open country and when you live in the country, you can still be a kid. I think country living is in its final gasp.

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  10. Growing up in country Australia in the 1950’s we were let loose and told to be home for tea at 5. We rode horses, plodded through mangrove swamps, caught poisonous fish and left them to die in the hot sun, taught ourselves to drive on tractors and in ‘paddock bombs’ and the only warning was “watch out for those sailors” (there was a naval base nearby). Last week I was lucky enough to have a long lunch with two of my little cohorts, two girls who attended my fifth birthday party. Now almost seventy, we seem to be in better shape than our lifestyle. The farms have been swallowed by a steel mill, the nearby country town is now a suburb, our swamp is a marine park, our fishing attempts would probably equate to animal cruelty, we still drive thankfully, but sin of all sins, one of the girls married one of those sailors…and she’s still smiling after fifty years of marriage. Thanks for a wonderful post Marilyn.

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    1. I’m pretty sure the places Garry and I grew up are very different now. I did a “google search” of that area a while ago and all those big open areas are crowded with houses and all the empty lots are full of stores and houses. Lucky us, we moved to the country — likely to stay country because we are too far out of Boston to be considered “commutable.” You can still be a kid if you live in the country — but there’s not much country left.

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