When I was a boy I could roam the streets where I grew up all day and not come home for hours. One could do that in the ’60s and ’70s. It was a part of growing up.
I could leave my house in the morning and not return until it was time for supper, choosing to skip lunch, filling my hunger with a soda and an unhealthy snack wrapped in cellophane from a vending machine. Occasionally my friends and I would end up at a house and a home alone. This was in the summer, of course, when the days seemed long, and there were endless hours of time to play baseball, ride bikes, and find ways to get in and out of trouble.
Those days are long gone. My own daughter never experienced such freedom. It seems to me that children for generations now have missed out on something special. What they have missed out on is wonder. And wonder, I think, can most often take place during your pre-teen years.
Take this for instance: I was riding my bike along a country road, my brother and my friends trailing me. The day was warm, the sun directly overhead. I was 11 years old. Our Stingray bicycles – my brother’s and mine orange colored – were headed to Rush Lake. There were five of us. The oldest, a girl named Brenda, had brought along a sleeping bag and a tent because we all wanted to pretend we’re going camping. All the boys, though we wouldn’t admit it, were secretly in love with her.
Rush Lake was a small lake used mostly for fishing. It was full of weeds, and our parents had told us never to swim there. We had been told children had died swimming in the lake because of the mud and underwater vegetation, be we never believed it. The section we were visiting was off the road a bit and surrounded by cattails and tall grasses and couldn’t be seen by passing cars.
Upon arrival we dislodged ourselves from our bikes in a hurry and the boys immediately disrobed their T-shirts. At the water’s edge our tennis shoes began filling with water and mud, and we took them off and that’s when we noticed the sign: NO SWIMMING in black, all-capital letters, sticking up from a wooden post perhaps 30 feet from the shore.
We looked at each other. We didn’t hesitate.
The water was cool and felt good. The bottom, thick with mud, clung to our feet, rising ankle deep after only a few steps. But we kept going.
“It’s like quick sand,” one boy said, and he suddenly went under, staying below so long that we began to wonder if he’d ever come up. “Help,” he said, and he flailed his arms in the water.
“That’s not funny,” Brenda said.
But he laughed while we all inched forward.
After about 10 feet, we began to sink halfway to our knees. The water was chest high. We looked about for water snakes.
I could not swim and I was sure none of the others could as well. Still, we dared each other to continue, wondering if the next step would be the one that would plunge us under water, or sink us so we couldn’t extricate ourselves.
When the water reached our necks, we stopped. My brother, who was smaller and younger, stopped a few feet behind us. Still, the water reached his neck too. We stood there, trying to bounce up and down, and not being able to, giggling as the water would sometimes reach our mouths, and we would spit the water out, and we’d laugh, and we were all frightened, and we didn’t care.
Somehow we found our way back to shore; except my brother.
When we got on land, we scraped the mud off our legs, leaving patches of dark gray matter.
“You stink, Bobby,” one boy said.
I slung a dab of mud at him and it slammed into his forehead, sticking like glue. The others laughed.
“Help,” my brother said.
My brother still stood in the water up to his neck.
“Come on, Gary,” one boy said.
“I can’t,” Gary said.
Gary went under a bit and came back up. “Help,” he said again.
There was a stick, and I grabbed it, and I went back in the water. “Grab the stick,” I said, reaching the stick toward him.
My brother was able to secure a hold with two hands, so that I could pull him out of the mud. When he got on shore, he started to cry, and snot began bubbling out of his nose. He began to shake.
“Bring him here,” Brenda said.
She unzipped the sleeping bag and Gary got in. To our surprise, Brenda got in with him, the sleeping bag being just wide enough for the both of them.
“Shhh,” Brenda said, and the rest of us boys stood there marveling at how she comforted him.
Robert Wallace can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org