It all started so innocently…
Growing up in a drab, suburban Northern California town in the 1970s, there wasn’t a whole lot to get excited about in our flat streets and ugly schools and uglier cracker box homes. While the local liquor store was the best place to get a 32-cent bottle of Coca Cola, no one dared visit after dusk because robberies were frequent. Even the bowling alley was off-limits at night, unless you were an alcoholic or looking for a fight or, most likely, both.
But there was one thing available for kids of my generation: an amazingly fun time!
The youngest of five, my older sisters and I first had street fun by drawing hopscotch squares on the street and holding jump-rope tournaments when we weren’t sharpening our Hula Hoop skills or playing Jokari—that darn string always broke. I was so bad at jump rope (or my sisters were so evil) that I was named “steady holder” while others did their Double Dutch best. Cars would slow down and honk if they noticed us, in the same way they’d slow down if our black Lab decided to take a snooze mid-avenue. Leashes? On pets? Balderdash!
When we were introduced to Click Clacks, those soon-to-be-banned earth-shattering (literally) balls of brilliance, innocence went the way of badminton and jumping off the roof into a pile of raked leaves. Decadence and daring reigned. Even the world of explode-in-your-mouth Pop Rocks (literally, we were told) was a thing of the past. I was growing up and so were my thrills. Except for tee-pee-ing a house—that never grew old, and being the recipient of toilet-papered trees was a badge of honor. Ouija Boards, in contrast, were passé and only used by idiot children who believed you could conjure up the dead with a silly board game. Anyone with common sense knew you had to hold a legitimate séance to chat with gramps.
My elder brothers found a giant rope from a nearby shipyard and built a rope swing in the creek behind our house. This was far more fun than sniffing model-airplane glue. The creek had paths and pools and pollywogs and crawdads, and my best friend and I would often spend a day traversing the terrain all the way to the next town. We’d stop at the “cattails garden” to pick a few and bring them home for Moms.
This was before we hit the local Safeway and stole those dime-shaped tops off of shampoo and home-cleaning products and used them as dimes in the gumball machines. That was an ingenious allowance-saving measure, and I still occasionally pat myself on the back for never getting caught. It would only be a few years till my petty theft led to the more serious crime of swiping Visine, to rid myself of Thai Stick red-eye. It always begins with the gum…
The rope swing attracted so many local kids it might as well have been an amusement park attraction. Although some days we’d actually have to wait in line for our own swing, we at least found new friends to start water balloon wars with, from one creek fence to the other. I did stay locked in the house if my brothers started a mud-rock war or a backyard archery tournament. (We didn’t have Jarts, and I can’t help but feel I missed out on a little fun and a lot of impaling.) Things got a tad ugly when a neighbor girl slipped on an exploded water balloon and slipped into the terrifying waters below. The story went that she didn’t want to get in trouble for wet clothes so she told her parents we pushed her in.
Her older brother came over and punched my brothers’ friends in the faces then cut down the rope swing with a knife the size of a baseball bat. That was shortly before the day a BB gunshot from an unknown sniper almost shattered our unbreakable glass that I was sitting in front of, probably watching Match Game PM and They’re Already Drunk.
Mom wasn’t thrilled (though I never knew if it was over the fact that I was almost shredded by glass or that she had to replace that very expensive window), and that story isn’t related to fun and games, and neither is the tragic death years later of said water-slip girl, who rolled over in her car one late dark night on a far-off deserted highway. But put them together and they remind me that all good things come to an end. Even the Match Game drunks are gone.
On thing led to another tire-slingshot war, and soon our state of the art tree fort was the ideal place to plot strategy and fire nails and build the barrel bombs and bottle rockets that replaced blasé firecrackers as recreation. Besides, we’d heard the story of a neighbor whose fingers were blown off after a pack of firecrackers exploded in his hands, so those things were just plain reckless.
Money wasn’t high on anyone’s list, so the new concept of multiplexes meant hitting one movie at matinee price, then staying all day. You only failed if you didn’t make it into at least one R-rated flick without being caught. I’m a proud survivor of seeing Carrie, The Exorcist, and Kentucky Fried Movie without adult supervision. Getting liquored up and climbing through a hole in the back fence of the local drive-in for semi-porn flicks was nighttime entertainment. The way-back was where the Camaro and Trans Am low-riders parked so you had to have a little faith that they were so busy doing whatever it was that they were doing in their cars that they didn’t care about a couple of kids camped out next to a broken speaker pole wearing fringed fake-leather jackets and binoculars.
For exercise there were the Saturday night trips to Happy Harry’s Mortuary way up on the hill—I never knew the real name—where my friends and I would sneak past the locked gates on our bicycles and throw jackets over the spotlights. This trick would make the main building appear to flicker on and off for any drivers lucky enough to look up and see this eternal place of rest send signals to the living. Many of those nights ended by racing down the twisted road to escape policemen alerted to our shenanigans. Helmets? On Bicycles? Poppycock! We never got caught and, somewhat disappointedly, never did see a ghost crawl out of a grave.
Icing down the local golf course was a stoned-drunk thrill, where you a.) got stoned and drunk, and b.) bought a block of ice and dozens of munchies (for later), and c.) took ice rides down the hills until burnout hit or some fat-ass man from the club came running out threatening to kick your butt while his pouffed-up blond wife stood behind him sipping a martini and smoking a cig. Um, lady, that’s not healthy.
Summer days meant climbing to the top of our backyard pine tree and looking at a view that encompassed the entire city of my childhood. It was the closet I ever got to Charlie’s elevator ride over London. The branches were like seats and the way up and down became “steps” entrenched in my mind. Were that tree still there I’m sure I could make the climb blindfolded. It was cut down years ago after Mom’s next-door neighbors complained that it might topple over and destroy their house. That family has kids and I feel their pain. Can you imagine how fun it would be to have a tree actually fall through your house? Parental neglect!
The absolute best summer night’s memory was swimming at the local pool. We did this after days of breaking into neighbors’ houses and looking at their stuff—just for fun! My bed buds and I would drink a six-pack, then climb over yet another fence, strip down naked (the first time it was a dare; after that it just plain seemed right), and swim laps under the tarps that covered the pool. Oh joy or rapture oh how we didn’t drown is beyond me. After an hour’s so of beer-aided confidence we’d jump off the diving board and glide across the tarps. Trying not to laugh was as crucial as trying not to giggle in the library because if the neighbors heard us we’d have been picked up by the police and dragged off to the station as deflated as our erections. It never did happen, but I think I would have chosen drowning as the lesser embarrassment.
My city is still there, so is my childhood home, but last time I visited the creek was filled with leaves and brush. There is barely any water and there are no more fish or trails. There are no kids on the streets, no lazing dogs, no hopscotch marks. The multiplex is now a sporting goods store, the Drive-In home to Starbucks and other shops that could exist anywhere and nowhere, and the Bowling Alley rebuilt as the “New City Center,” so generic it probably drives people to drink.
I’m sure the parents who live there now are thrilled their kids don’t engage in the reckless behavior we did, but next time I go back I’m gathering my old buddies and heading back to Happy Harry’s—it’s still there because the dead, like many of the people from my hometown, have no place else to go. Should the new residents get too sedate inside their homes and cars and phones, looking up to see a ghost sending flashing signals from my childhood past might be just the thing needed to give their spirits a lift.