I had a great childhood. Not that it was all kittens and rainbows all of the time or anything, but I was a pretty lucky kid. I had two sets of grandparents who were amazing and parents who loved me. We didn’t have that much money, but we got by. I think that’s one of the reasons I still have such a great imagination. Who needs expensive toys when the two trees in your grandmother’s front yard can morph into a forest full of trolls and wolves? What’s the point in the latest and greatest game system when a defunct learning game your mom picked up a yard sale can become a master computer that lets you take over the world (or Penny’s book from “Inspector Gadget”)?
Even more lucky for me is that I got to spend some of the best years of my life in a place that was like a greenhouse for the imagination. From the age of nine until I moved away to college, my parents rented a house outside the city limits (what some may call the country). Fifteen or twenty minutes from town, it was like the best of both worlds. Close enough to the city, but quiet and large. Our neighbors, the Macs (the McFarlands but we called them the Macs) were our landlords, and were like a third set of grandparents to me. The Macs owned at least fifty or sixy acres (perhaps more, I don’t know exactly where their property stretched to) on which sat our house and theirs, each on a large lot, as well as a greenhouse, a cabin, and an old barn. Behind it all was a small garden of strawberries, green beans, butterbeans, tomatoes, corn, and okra, a flower garden, a bamboo grove, muscadine vines, and then the woods. Mr. Mac and I were great friends and I had full reign of the property with only two rules. 1. I couldn’t go in the woods by myself. 2. I had to be within shouting distance. If my parents yelled, I better come running.
Oh the games I played! I’d hop on my bike and tear off across the field to the cabin where I’d pretend I was on the lam for stealing secrets with my master computer. The back barn held an old 1920s car with suicide doors, I don’t know the make or model or anything, but I’d jump on the rails and transform into a gangster. In the loft was a wealth of old magazines and treasures. When I got tired of playing there, I’d take off to my “secret place”, a small copse that wasn’t technically part of the woods. I’d take an armload of books (or the magazines) and relax, feasting on the wild blackberries that grew around it or figs from the tree behind the house (only the ones down low. I came face to face with a Rough Green Snake while climbing that tree one day and was done with the higher branches!).
When I wasn’t playing, I was working. I cut the grass for both houses, first with a push mower, then eventually with Mr. Mac’s John Deere tractor. I loved that tractor. I started out riding on it with Mr. Mac. When I’d see him plowing a field or bush-hogging something, I’d run out and he’d slow down enough for me to hop on top of the wheel well. He’d show me how the tractor worked and explain why he was doing what he did. Eventually he let me drive and before long I was doing the plowing and mowing for him. He gave me my own stretch of earth in front of the muscadine vines to plant my own garden (too small for the tractor, I plowed it with a small gas powered hand plow. That thing was the dickens to keep straight!). I’d stay out working in the dirt until the sun faded behind the bamboo, then I’d pick whatever veggies were ready to go and spend the evening shucking corn or shelling peas on the back porch.
I helped him lay a brick patio, I watered the plants in the greenhouse, blew the leaves off their driveway, raked and trimmed the yard, and was rewarded with fresh lemonade and the occasional use of Mr. Mac’s hat while I worked (an absolutely fantastic hat! It had a built in battery operated fan in the front). After work, there was always plenty of time for play. It was like something out of a book, a fact I knew well since I was an avid reader, and appreciated greatly. I’d pretend I was Huck Finn rafting down the river (the short cinderblock wall that separated our house from the Macs) or Caddie Woodlawn taming the wild frontier (the field beside the house).
Lately I’ve been wondering how/if my childhood would have been different if I’d had all of the technology kids today have. Would I have been able to go in the woods alone? Sure there were snakes and ticks and hunters, but I would have been just a call away. Would I still have had to be in shouting distance? Would I have even wanted to be outside playing as much? Kids these days don’t seem to appreciate the simple joys of riding a bike and pretending anymore. Of course that could just be my jaded view of things. My sister is thirteen (I’m currently 28, yeah I know, big gap), around the age I got to drive the tractor by myself, and she seems to care more about texting her friends than pretending outside and playing games on her iPod rather than reading a book. I’d like to say that I would have been the same kid, even with the technology, but who really wants to admit they’d have succumbed to it too? Truth is, I don’t know what would have been different, but I’m glad I had the childhood I did. It made me a hard worker, taught me to love the outdoors, fostered my imagination, and fed me with things I grew myself. If I ever have kids (I’d love to adopt some day), I hope I can get them to put down the technology and open their eyes to the world around them. I hope I can give them a childhood they will look back on as fondly as I do mine.