Kids Running Amok
Warning: Helicopter parents may need smelling salts. Growing up on the East End in the fifties could be considered child abuse by today’s standards, the prevailing mantra being: Get out of the house and don’t come back under supper.
Of course, we kids didn’t always think this was ideal, especially when it was raining. We had a lot of hurricanes in the fifties, too. Imagine spending the whole day playing in the dark root basement with the wind howling outside because that was kind of “out of the house.” And while down there, we imagined our city friends sitting comfortably in their living rooms watching cartoons all day because their electric wires were underground and they didn’t ever lose electricity.
No, not always ideal. While we were out on the sunny days, our city friends binged on indoor activities. The result of that being now we spend every waking hour at the dermatologist having our faces exorcized of skin anomalies and they get to enjoy a lily white proboscis, free of plastic surgeons’ derring-do.
My brothers and I were in a particular category, somewhere between city kid and local kid. We lived in the city most of the winter, but spent summers in Southold where our dad’s parents and brothers had settled year-round in the late nineteen thirties. We had city clothes but rode country bicycles.
City dads wore suits and went to offices. Our uncles on the East End had interesting jobs: one hauled fish on a bunker boat, one worked a farm and another chased ten-foot chickens around Plum Island. (Well, that was such a secret place, we weren’t sure what he really did). Grandpa was a retired cop which came in handy when we learned to drive and got stopped by the long arm of the law. Everyone knew everyone else, except we didn’t know too many city kids. They were pale, fell off their bikes, wore nerdy beach shoes and went home for lunch. Why bother.
We could barely walk when Mom decided we should have swimming lessons. A woman ahead of her time? No, just a practical one – the sooner we learned to swim, the sooner she could send us off to the beach by ourselves for the day. We didn’t have a security blanket like normal kids, we had a beach blanket. And we kept it for life. It never got washed either. By the end of the summer it could stand by itself to dry out.
I wonder if we got washed? I remember hosing off the sand after a day at the beach. The bathing suit was dry by then so we just stuck it in a drawer, where it eventually got stiff with salt just like the beach blanket. A bathing suit was all we wore all summer except for church on Sunday, after which we changed right back into our salty duds for the rest of the day. Mom had this idea, from the Irish side, that there was a cure in salt, so it should never be washed off. I remember stiff, salty hair too. A look that swimsuit models nowadays spend hours with stylists to achieve.
Another thing you got for life was a bike. You started with the seat as far down as it would go and your toes stretched en pointe to reach the pedals and you ended up about fifteen years later in what looked like a circus act, with the bike seat now wobbling on its tallest setting, knees almost touching your face, and those misshapen toes pointed upward to avoid being scraped on the pavement.
A bike meant freedom. It made it easy to get out of the house for the day. We’d take our accouterments: a sandwich (no one bothered with water), a fishing rod, a box with tackle, bait, and, of course, a knife. We had access to knives. They were sheathed and kept in the garage. Mom meant them for cleaning the fish we caught. Number one rule after get out of the house… was don’t bring back fish unless they’re cleaned. We chopped and slobbered fish guts all over wooden Goose Bay Bridge until the town fathers eventually replaced it with a material more impervious to kids with knives.
We loved knives. We knew the knives would serve us well when those Indians we were sure lived in the woods across the street would invite us to go hunting with them. They only hid out because they were afraid of Mom.
Some kids knew how to skin squirrels and field dress pheasants, skills that could come in handy when you were confined to the root cellar during a hurricane and needed to sneak out for something to eat. Animal activists would only emerge later, along with plastic water bottles.
Once we were above ten years old, we got the ultimate symbol of child abuse – a boat we could take out by ourselves. It was a fourteen-foot lapstrake Barbour with an eighteen horsepower engine. When we showed some skills, probably whining and nagging, we got a thirty-five horsepower engine which, in 1957, made us the fastest boat on Southold Bay. We knew lots of coves where we would bring the boat, tie it to a stump with a haphazard shoelace knot and swing from the vines on the trees from one side of the cove to the other like Tarzan and Cheeta. No one wanted to be Jane. OH, phones, life vests, and oars were not on our radar. There was no radar, either.
Despite being gone all day, we always felt Mom would have liked to get in touch with some Rent-a-Kid group – to rent us out. She strongly hinted at it. On those rainy, windy, no-electricity days we even envisioned the happy city kids snug on a couch watching TV and not-having to eat cold squirrel in the basement. We wanted to be rented to a place like that. Only later did we learn those kids were the ones who actually finished the dreadful summer home-work that teachers love to torture kids with.
On that first day back at school, when we had to give in those assignments, we had the best excuses: they blew away on the boat, the Indians stole them, my brother wrapped his fish in them… but I especially liked to stand up in front of class and say, “I’m sorry teacher, a squirrel ate my homework.”