The Mind of James Donahue

Born Free

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Tom Sawyer

How Did We Survive
Our Reckless Childhood?
Someone recently e-mailed me a brief humorous muse that takes a serious shot at present social rules and laws controlling the raising of children.
"As children we would ride in cars with no seat belts or air bags," the unsigned article said. "Riding in the back of a pickup truck on a warm day was always a special treat. Our baby cribs were painted with bright colored lead-based paint. We had no child proof lids on medicine bottles, doors, or cabinets, and when we rode our bikes we had no helmets. We drank water from the garden hose and not from a bottle."
How I remember the days of our reckless childhood. I played in a neighborhood filled with children. In those days, just following World War II, there was a severe shortage of new cars so my parents were forced to continue driving a 1936 Chevrolet four-door sedan. I remember that the back doors had hinges near the rear of the car, so they opened from front to back instead of the other way around.
I have a vivid recollection of the rear compartment of that car being filled with children, on a trip down a bumpy dirt road. One of the doors flew open and a neighbor boy, probably no more than five or six years of age, tumbled out of it. Fortunately we were not moving very fast. While jolted and bruised, the boy escaped unhurt. We picked him up and went on down the road.
Today we would have had to have the police involved in an incident like that. And an ambulance. A round of X-rays, blood tests and a medical check up costing hundreds of dollars would be the standard fare. And the driver, who was probably my father, would have been ticketed for something, although I can't imagine any law that was really broken at the time. Seat belts in cars were unheard of in those days.
In my years as a news reporter I saw social conditions far worse than anything I saw in that old neighborhood. And there we had intense poverty. One family with 12 children was living in a dilapidated two-bedroom house. I remember covering house fires where children stood in diapers in the snow as fire fighters battled to snuff flames caused by a poorly attached chimney at a wood burning stove.
The article goes on:
"We would spend hours building our go-carts out of scraps and then ride down the hill, only to find out we forgot the brakes."
Hills were always a part of my life as a child. We had a good smooth sidewalk on a grade along Redman Street where it was great sport to ride our tricycles, two-wheeled foot scooters, Red Ryder wagons and a few go-cart type vehicles, at full speed until we hit the bottom of the hill. We always stopped just a few feet from a state highway.
Then there was Mendowski's Hill. That was a narrow slice of mowed grass that ran beside the home of an elderly woman known only to us as Mrs. Mendowski. That strip of grass continued down a steep graded hill that made a wonderful winter raceway for sleds. It was more like a toboggan run. The thrill in that ride was that there was a forest of big trees on both sides of the lawn. One error on the ride down that hill and we just knew it was skull fracture city. Yet I don't remember any kid in the neighborhood ever getting seriously hurt there.
"We would leave home in the morning and play all day, as long as we were back when the streetlights came on. No one was able to reach us all day. We ate cupcakes, bread and butter, and drank sugar soda, but we were never overweight; we were always outside playing," the article said.
The games in my neighborhood included hide-and-seek, Anti-I-Over (throwing a ball over the roofs of two-story houses to someone on the other side), cowboys and Indians, and "Your It." We did, indeed, play free through the neighborhood, although I do believe my parents kept closer track of me than the writer of the short piece I quote from seems to believe. My father had a way of sending out a shrill whistle through his teeth that was a signal for all of the children in our family to report in. That whistle could be heard for at least a mile.
We had radio in those days, but there was no television, no computers or electronic games. We had toys, but those were often thrown aside for imaginary objects from our world of make-believe. I remember how a tree branch could be cut and fashioned to look something like a gun, or a piece of plaster lath might serve as a perfect sword. We made forts out of snow and cardboard boxes. Our most important stuff . . . jack knives, cats-eye marbles, yo-yos, and Captain Midnight secret decoding rings . . . was stored in old wooden cigar boxes under our beds.
What fun to climb a young tree on a windy day and ride its twisting branches. Or jump the ice floes along the Lake Huron shoreline in winter.
Now when I listen to all of the government rules for child safety....the recall of toys that might be dangerous....the police crackdown on child safety seats in cars.....the laws mandating helmets for bicyclists, I have to shake my head.
How glad I am to have been reared in the time I have been free to be a child unfettered. Children today are trapped like animals in a cage.
The anonymous writer concludes:
"That generation produced some of the greatest risk-takers and problem solvers. We had the freedom, failure, success and responsibility, and we learned how to deal with it all."
Makes you shudder to think that the next generation will be comprised of coddled children who were forced to wear crash helmets just to ride their bikes.

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