Independence Days and Responsibility

(Edited version of a 2019 post)

Playing shadow tag under the light of a full moon on a summer night, self-organized baseball or football games in vacant lots, lying on our backs in somebody’s backyard staring at the shapes of clouds scudding across a blue sky, bike rides that extended miles into the countryside, deciding to stop for a vanilla Coke at a soda fountain on the way home from school, swimming in deep water at a local creek: all of these experiences and so many others from my childhood from the age of eight to thirteen took place with never an adult in sight.

My summers growing up in Cedar Cliff Manor on the West Shore of Harrisburg were idyllic…once I left the house. I do not recall often being asked by my mother, Lois, where I was going as I ran down the six stairs toward the garage of our tiny split-level where my bike was stored, but when asked, my response would have been something like, “Going to Greg’s (or Ray’s or Joel’s),” or “Going to ride my bike,” or “Going down to the creek,” to all of which Lois would reply something to the effect of, “Okay…Just be careful, okay?”

(I can only write from the perspective of a boy because there were no girls who joined us on our adventures. It would be interesting to read accounts from my female contemporaries about what their Independence Days were like in the Fifties. Anyone wishing to share their anecdotes can use the “Leave a Reply” box at the end of this post, or you can consider offering to draft a possible guest post.)

Some mothers asked their boys each day if they were going to be home for lunch; others, like Lois, knew if we got hungry during the day, we were capable of making our own P and J sandwiches, or if the ingredients were in the house (and Lois wasn’t home), I could make my favorite sandwich: peanut butter, sliced bananas and Hershey’s chocolate syrup on fresh Stroehmann’s bread. Yum! I want to acknowledge that I have fond memories of at least two moms who made their sons and their sons’ friends lunch when we showed up out of the blue.

Inside each house, independence was limited, limits that were dependent, obviously, upon what each set of parents deemed important. For instance, when it came to meals in my house, breakfasts, and lunches in the summertime when they did occur, were laissez faire, but dinner was highly-regulated. I remember there being a clear expectation that I was to be home every day in time for dinner. I don’t know about my friends, but I was expected to use “restaurant manners” at the dinner table, which meant I had to hold each utensil properly, put my napkin on my lap, chew with my mouth closed, speak when spoken to, and remember—God forbid—not to reach across the table for anything; ask that it be passed.

Independence inside a house was limited, but the limits of independence inside a school seemed even greater, which was why I loved summer’s three months of Independence Days. I do not recall a sense of worry about all of the bad things that could happen when I was out and about on my bike, and I’m thinking that our parents must not have worried much about it either because if they had, they would have parented like we did (and like our kids do): hovering and worrying and eradicating the opportunities to learn and mature that perhaps prepared us to hit the ground running as young adults.

In the Fifties and Sixties, we were decades from the research that verified the human cortex does not mature until we reach our early twenties, which means our parents’ apparent assumption that we would recognize and apply the relationships between causes and effects was very misguided. It seems remarkable to me that more of us were not arrested, severely injured, or killed as we ventured out into the cold, cruel world. Sadly, a few of us were killed. A schoolmate who lived two blocks away from my home was killed when the side mirror of a garbage truck struck his head while he was riding his bike. I still think of him every time I am on a bike and sharing a road with cars and trucks. More significantly, his death was my first realization that bad things can happen to boys (of any age) who are not wary of possible dangers on Independence Days.

Despite the warning provided by Doug’s death (reference the undeveloped cortex concept), I can think of a few instances when I guess I was just lucky that my childish air-headedness did not get me into trouble or worse. For example, we never got caught when we stole watermelons from a big pile of them in front of a supermarket (Was it an Acme?) during one of our all-night roamings (with sleeping bags in hand after dinner, we would tell our parents we were “sleeping out” in one of our backyards, which was a ruse). And then there was the brush fire we accidentally started along the lane leading back to the Little League fields behind Chatham Road in Highland Park, a fire that required a fire truck and firemen to extinguish it. If I recall, one of our friends did get in trouble with the police over that episode, but he never snitched on the rest of us.

I got a deep cut on my backside from the chain link fence I was trying to shimmy under in order to secretly explore the grounds of the Murray Estate, which overlooked the Yellow Breeches Creek, and I had to throw out a pair of bloody, tighty-whities so I would not have to explain or lie to Lois about what had happened. Then there was the time I was speeding down Allendale Way on my bike after dark, late in the fall, and did not see the black ice; the bike slipped out from beneath me, and the first part of me that hit the street was the back of my head. I don’t think I was unconscious for long, but when I woke up, I just got on the bike, and more than a little dizzy, I pedaled the mile-and-a-half to my house. Until this moment, I have not admitted any of these things to anyone, and I’m sure I could remember more incidents like these if I really put my mind to it (and I may). That said, I’m guessing there are a lot of Boomers out there who have tales much more interesting than my own!

The bicycle is my remembered symbol of freedom for those of us Boomers who grew up in the suburbs and small towns. Boomers who grew up in cities likely have different symbols for freedom, as do Boomers who grew up on farms. I speculate that the latter had far more and greater responsibilities than I did, and those responsibilities were fulfilled with minimal supervision because there was so much that needed to be done on a farm every day. Parents on a working farm had (have) to give each of their children the freedom to be fully responsible for pulling his or her share of the family’s load.

I think it’s likely that I idealize the daily responsibilities met by farm kids. In my musings, I envy the independence required of them to meet those challenges. Despite evidence to the contrary, many (most?) Boomers, and myself specifically, have parented as though we do not appreciate the capacity of children to independently fulfill certain, important tasks normally assigned to adults.

What follows is an actual example of the capacity of children. For the last decades of their lives, my parents lived in Lancaster County. Having befriended a large Amish family that they drove from place to place, Lois, in the course of her travels, met the mother of an Amish family with eight children, the youngest of who was four at the time. The oldest was seventeen and had recently required a liver transplant. The transplant was performed at the University of Pittsburgh, and the parents traveled by train to Pittsburgh to be with their son during the week that bracketed his surgery.

During that week of the parents’ absence from the farm, the family’s herd of forty milk cows was tended to—fed, milked, and pastured—by the fourteen-year-old son. Management of the house and care of the younger children was left to the eldest daughter who was twelve. For a week. And a month later, the parents again traveled to Pittsburgh for another week away from the farm. When the parents returned home, they found the farm, livestock, home and family in the same sound condition as it had been when they had left it. I consider what the fourteen-year-old son and twelve-year-old daughter had experienced during the two weeks of their parents’ absence to be the highest form of independence that can be granted to a child.

In this day-and-age, it is likely that few of us would be comfortable trusting our children and grandchildren with the freedom to experience adult responsibilities that I believe the Amish continue to grant their children, responsibilities I have observed firsthand. One day, I filled in for Lois and drove a young Amish mother and her children—three who were six, four, and two-years-old, and one who was a six-week-old infant—from their farm near Oxford, Pennsylvania, to the grandparents’ farm near Strasburg. The woman asked if I would mind stopping at a local hardware store. I did stop and offered to come with her into the store to help her with the kids. She thanked me and said, “I’ll take the boys, and I’ll leave the baby in the car with Sarah.” Sarah was four-years-old. For the next twenty minutes, I watched Sarah in the rear-view mirror as she held that baby like she was a seasoned mother who knew exactly what to do when the baby started to fuss, and while she was fulfilling this adult task, it was my impression that she was delighted with the independence her mother’s loving trust had bestowed upon her.

I’ve seen the same delight in Amish food stands where young kids are manning the cash register, answering questions, and stocking shelves with no adult supervision. There is the pride I’ve seen on the faces of young boys alone in fields standing on mowers or plows being towed behind massive mules. Perhaps my favorite drive-by memory is of a beaming little Amish girl, who might have been Sarah’s age, hanging children-sized laundry on a clothesline strung at her level between two trees while her mother hung laundry on the regular clothesline. The look of delight on that little girl’s face was not much different from what I imagine was reflected on my ten-year-old face as I zipped about the countryside on my bike.

This leads to a question that continually comes to my mind when I see children deluged with toys or submerged in their devices, their every wish and whim granted or profound apologies offered when they’re not, with every moment of something akin to play outside of the home orchestrated and supervised by adults, and with little or no delegation of responsibility to them because of the wish to protect children from what is apparently perceived by their parents as the unpleasantness associated with household responsibilities. Have our collective parental actions as a generation, which have been adopted and expanded by our own children—strategies that deny opportunities of unimpeded independence to children—created millions of young Americans who exhibit the behaviors of people who do not seem to welcome or appreciate the inevitable and potentially fulfilling challenges that are required by the independence that is adulthood?

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