America was still mired in the Depression when my family moved into the south Los Angeles neighborhood of 61st Street, just east of Main Street, which was characterized by peaceful stillness, interrupted in the afternoons and on weekends by the shouts of children at play. My brother Raul and I were 5 and 7 when we moved into that house, oblivious to the difficulties facing the nation.
On the contrary, we felt blessed by the abundant opportunities to explore nature in our new home, even as it stood in the middle of the big city. A bedraggled yucca plant stood in the middle of our front yard, besieged by crabgrass. Even there we found things to study up close and wonder at — the grasshoppers that hopped in during the summer months and the bright yellow dandelions that grew there in profusion. When the dents-de-lion went to seed, they became translucent globes that we held up and blew at to watch their tiny filaments fly off into the air and disappear.
Our summers provided endless opportunities for exploration, as well as a challenge for us to entertain ourselves on days that languidly stretched themselves ever longer.
In the heat of summer nights, as we sat in the front room, we heard loud pinging at the front door — hard-shelled June bugs that, attracted by the house lights, came crashing against the screen. We learned to coddle ladybugs and recite to them the verse that urged them to fly away home because their house was on fire.
Once in a great while, we saw turtles that we suspected were brought in from the desert and had wandered away from their keepers’ homes. We fed them lettuce leaves and looked on as they munched on them. Many were the times, especially when intense summer heat made staying indoors intolerable, when we played outside well into the night, our child sounds competing with the chirping of the crickets.
Nights in Los Angeles were very dark then, and the stars shone brightly. The sight of shooting stars was not uncommon in the era before we became a megalopolis. Occasionally, the darkness was pierced by enormous shafts of light that moved dramatically across the sky, from searchlights placed in front of a market or a carpet store announcing a grand opening. Or a movie premiere.
When the war came, I was in fifth grade. The nights became even darker, as blackouts were ordered to hide us from marauding Japanese planes. Several times, we heard the nighttime wailing of sirens that announced a practice air raid drill and alerted residents to prepare their windows with blackout curtains.
But for the most part, the real world didn’t intrude much in this realm where we were free to be children, even older siblings like me who were genetically programmed toward seriousness. Raul and I did a lot of digging and playing with dirt in our backyard. We spent many days on our knees, inspecting the legions of red ants that entered and exited holes they had dug in the ground. I’m not proud to confess that, like boys before and after us, we indulged in macabre experiments on the poor ants, involving a magnifying glass and concentrated sunrays. Enough said on that.
Digging in dirt was great fun. We flooded an area with water from the garden hose and ran it through little ditches we had dug, damming the water up at intervals with pieces of wood we half buried in the muck. We made little paper boats and sailed them down our boy-made rivers.
But the best way we used our dirt paradise was as a spot for playing a game at which we spent countless hours — marbles. Ernie, my friend from across the street, often joined us. Playing in dirt got us very dirty. We tried to avoid kneeling in the dirt by squatting, which didn’t work at all. We wore overalls, like the ones worn by farmers and garage mechanics, and canvas tennis shoes.
With a stick, we traced a large circle in the dirt and, in its center, placed several marbles that formed the pot we would play for. That is, assuming we were playing “for keeps.”
The boy whose marble stopped closest to a line drawn in the dirt played first. The shooter selected a spot on the circle and, forming a fist with his shooting hand, he knuckled down to play. With his thumb, he propelled a marble toward the pot with the aim of knocking one or more of the marbles out of the ring. He pocketed the ones he knocked out and earned another shot. If the shooter was very good, he could continue until all the marbles were knocked out.
We’d play for countless hours, so many that the fingernails of our right, shooting thumbs developed holes from the pressure of the hundreds of marbles they had propelled.
Marbles and other games taught us the importance of playing by the rules. Arguments occurred when a player insisted on not conforming to them. Ernie’s father, an otherwise extremely mild-mannered man, came over to our house one evening demanding of our parents, for Pete’s sake! the return of his son’s marbles. Losing one’s marbles was not a good thing, then or now.
In summertime, we’d also play a lot of tag with other neighborhood kids, as well as hide-and-seek. The cry of “olly olly oxen free” rang out, signaling the all clear when hiders could emerge from their hiding places. After Frankenstein became a cinematic sensation, the child who was “it” became the monster. The mere thought that a monster was on the hunt for us was chilling, even though we knew it was only a boy or a girl.
On hot summer days, the iceman from Kirker Ice Company made his customary rounds. While he was out of sight, lugging a block of ice into our house for the ice box, children clustered around the back of his truck, packed floor-to-ceiling with ice, and engaged in a harmless but refreshing bit of thievery, helping ourselves to shards of ice that remained on the damp truck bed.
We had roller skates that we fitted over our shoes and tightened against the leather sole. A neat little metal key did the tightening. We skated only on the sidewalk. I never got the hang of braking so I just headed onto the grass until I stopped moving.
Police radio dramas and cowboy movies were popular at the time, and boys liked to wear badges. We made our own. The metal caps of soft drink bottles were lined with cork that we pried out. Then we held the metal cap on the outside of our shirts and pushed the cork into the cap from the inside. The cap stayed put. We became walking advertisements for soft drinks, including that new drink, Dr. Pepper. We wore holster sets that handled two pistols — the large, silver-colored ones being the most popular. Some boys had BB guns that actually shot steel or lead pellets. We didn’t. Mother considered them dangerous and beyond the pale.
Flying kites was fun, too. Raul was much better than I at maneuvering a kite, running to get it airborne and flying like a good kite should. Mine had a maddening tendency to fly in frustrating circles. And then crash.
On especially hot days, we made use of the garden hose and sprinkler that we set in the middle of the lawn. Other neighborhood children would join in as we frolicked around in our bathing suits through the fountain of cool water the sprinkler created for us. Loose grass and weeds and little twigs stuck to the bottoms of our feet.
When you’re 10, your summer is one big block of freedom to be a kid. When it’s 4:18 p.m. in the middle of July and you’re scraping those twigs off your feet and laughing with your friends, the life ahead of you is one of infinite possibility. Mostly, all things, starting with your own imagination, just seem wondrously infinite. I worry that kids today aren’t allowed such space.
As we grew older, the summers got shorter, and our playtime scarcer, until it all became a sepia-tinted memory in a life full of purpose, work, and seriousness.
But that’s another story.
Originally published at Zócalo Public Square (zocalopublicsquare.org)
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