The following was originally posted in June of 2007 and appears here thanks to the Wayback Machine. I now have two kids of my own and think about things like this even more often.
If I were to write a memoir of my childhood I would shamelessly ripoff Bill Bryson and title it The Life and Times of the Broadcast Kid. I belong to the last generation to come of age before digital stream of ones and two and cable connections brought tsunamis of pop culture into every American household. I was raised by Mom and Dad, Channel 56, and Top 40 radio and this is what separates my generations from those that followed:the lack of media,be it songs, TV shows or movies, on demand, round-the-clock, whenever you wanted it. If we wanted to be entertained by outside agents we were at the mercy of the broadcast, of network TV and the local DJs. And so we had a lot of time on our hands, and the freedom to go with it; a way of growing up that I think has probably vanished from the United States,or so it seems it me.
I am not a Luddite by any means, nor do I wish to indulge in pointless nostalgia about ‘the good old days.’ I’m very happy to be alive when and where I am today. I love my DVDs and CDs, my iPod, my DSL, Netflix and the endless flow of information and entertainment at my fingertips. But I wouldn’t trade my childhood, and the vanished customs and mores of that world, for anything, and I can’t help thinking, however presumptious it may be, that the children of later generations missed out on a good thing.
I grew up in a sleepy town in southern Massachusetts. Which town is unimportant, save to note that if you went south for a while on Route 24 and then turned west you could find it. Or the remainders of it –the town has changed a great deal in the last 25 years and the remote bedroom community of my youth has evolved into constantly growing cancer of strip malls, developments and McMansions.
But when I was young it really was a sleepy town, cliche aside, the kind of place that a restless kid like the one I was to become couldn’t wait to leave and venture out into the wide wild world. In my earliest memories I can recall walking up the street to sit on a weathered stonewall and look at the grazing cows. Going to McDonalds involved a drive into the next town and as improbable as it may sound (for a New England town) I don’t recall a Dunkin Donuts close by until I was in high school. I lived in a neighborhood where many folks never locked their front doors; it wasn’t until I was a freshman in college that I needed, or owned, a key that allowed me to reach my bed,and as a teenager if my friends were looking for me on a Saturday morning they simply came in the house, went upstairs,and shook me awake. My hometown was a staid mix of Swamp Yankees, Irish,and Swedes, plus a whole lot of rocks and fields.
And of course there was the Woods. As I kid I divided my immediate world into two spheres: streets with houses and such, and the Woods. Obviously the town consisted of much more that, but when you’re seven years old concepts like ‘maps’ and ‘geography’ might as well be quantum physics. You go with what you know, and if what you know is that every kid you’re friends with has the Woods behind their house or within a five minute walk,and that you can cut through the Woods to get to anywhere of note, well, the world must consist of streets –where we lived –and the Woods –where we played.
The Woods was nearly synonymous with ‘outside.’ Outside was where your parents told you to go when they needed you out of their hair or simply decided you’d been reading too long, and when you went outside you went to the Woods. And there you did pretty much whatever you wanted until the sun went down, or the dinner bell rang, and it was time to return. The Big Rock was good for making a fort, and the Castle loomed large in any game, whether it was Cops n’Robbers, Middle Earth, Creatures or any of the other imaginary games we made up in the Woods. The Woods was where you fished in the summer and skated in the winter. The Woods was pocket knives and matches. The Woods was freedom, freedom from rules, school, chores, baths, and anything resembling adult supervision. All together I probably spent as much time running the Woods as I did sitting in class. We disappeared for hours upon hours into the Woods and our parents were probably happy for the peace and quiet this gave them.