When I was a child, we roamed the neighborhood in packs comprised of kids ranging in age from ten to two. “Whatever you do, don’t let Stevie get run over!” a mother would advise as she assigned a toddler still in diapers to our insouciant care.
There were boundaries beyond which we were forbidden to venture, but our geographical range was surprisingly large and fraught with possible danger, bounded as it was on one side by a raging river in which we could quite easily have drowned and dotted with ravines in which dangerous strangers might lurk, their pockets bursting with candy. That this latter danger was not idle speculation was attested to by the occasional disappearance of a child, sometimes without a trace, sometimes with – famously all that was found of one little girl were severed fingers under the bridge.
Notwithstanding all this, we were left more or less to our own recognizance for most of the time we weren’t in school — constructing rickety tree houses out of scrap lumber bristling with rusty nails, playing in discarded refrigerators and narrowly avoiding falling into empty, abandoned cisterns. None of these things were deemed scary. You know what was? The plastic your Dad’s dry cleaning came home in. That stuff could kill you.
Of course, all this was possible because the neighborhood was chock full of stay-at-home Moms – depressed, pill-popping women struggling with the “problem that has no name” . . . and probably some gals who were happy to tend to their roses and do their vacuuming in a shirtwaist and pearls. The fact of the matter was, no matter where you were within the assigned boundaries, some Mom was close at hand and more or less ready to rise to the occasion of saving your sorry ass bacon, provided that was still an option. The assumption was that childhood was not without risk.
The same was true of dogs. When I was growing up, dogs roamed freely. They chased cars. They ran away. They bit people – frequently children. Sometimes they got rabies – always exciting. My childhood is replete with dire narratives about children getting rabies shots every day for upwards of three weeks – in their stomachs!
Dogs also got run over at a great clip. Our next door neighbor had a serial Schipperke named Queenie. When Queenie I got run over, she purchased Queenie II. When Queenie II was hit by a car, she acquired Queenie III. When Queenie III lost her brief battle with a Mustang convertible, Queenie IV appeared on the scene. And so on. By the time we moved away, we were eight Queenies down and counting. Years later we learned with sadness that the poor woman had committed suicide. Certainly she had reason to be discouraged. How many Queenies did it take to convince her to end it all?
Now children are closely guarded, their ‘free’ time free in word only, and dogs are kept inside or on leash. Certainly there is less carnage in the streets than there used to be; fewer scenes of rifle-toting fathers putting the foaming family pet out of its misery. And that is good. But there was something about roaming free that makes me happy to have been born when I was.