Full Circle: The Free-Range Kid
Summertime was once quite the adventure

On the mornings when the sun was shining, I had Rice Krispies with a green banana. On the mornings when the carbonized gray clouds made me sad, I had Frosted Flakes with extra sugar. Two teaspoons. Maybe three.

By 8:20, I was out on the street, not to be seen again until dinner, then out again until the street lights went on and the lazy lightning bugs started to flicker.

We played ball all day – stickball, step ball, wire ball, Wiffle ball, box ball and halfball. If we got thirsty in the blazing heat of the August sun, we drank from a green garden hose. The rubber hose with the rusty nozzle. And we didn’t die.

We were free-range kids. We rode bikes with no helmets, we skated with no knee pads. If we fell and got hurt, our mothers put mercurochrome on it. Mercurochrome healed everything from bloody elbows to the time a friend split my head open.

We didn’t go to an emergency room unless we had a finger dangling off a hand. Emergency rooms, like doctors, cost money. If our parents spent money on such frivolous things, there would be none left for food or shelter or the Jack & Jill man.

In those days, in my neighborhood, there weren’t many doctors who were specialists. Certainly no pain doctors. If you had pain, you took a Bayer aspirin. If you had a lot of pain, you took two.

One day, when I was 9 and leaping for home plate in a box ball game, I tore something in my knee. I tore it so badly I could hear it rip. It took 3 kids to pick me up and deliver me to my front step.

“What did you do now?” my mother asked, with all the compassion of a warden at a women’s prison.

“My knee,” I said. “I think I tore something. I can’t put any weight on my leg.”

My mother went inside and got the most versatile item in her first aid kit – a bag of frozen succotash. I hated succotash. Peas I could deal with. But not succotash.

“Here,” she said, “put this on your knee for 10 minutes and you’ll be fine.”

No doctors, no x-rays, no MRIs. Frozen succotash. I limped to school for the next 5 weeks.

Other kids had injuries worse than mine. Vinny Pizziola fell out of a big elm tree one day. He had a cut on his head that wouldn’t stop bleeding. His mother said she knew a nurse from the beauty parlor. She used her best medical intuition and wrapped an old pillowcase around Vinny’s head, like a tourniquet. After an hour or so, the bleeding stopped. She put 2 band-aids on the cut and he was free to go.

For the next couple of weeks, none of us were allowed to climb trees or shimmy up telephone poles or scale ladders to the roof to recover our halfball homers.

So we stayed closer to the ground and did things that wouldn’t kill us, only scar. Exploding caps with our fingers was always a favorite. You would take a red cap, meant for a toy gun, and rub it against the roughest part of the concrete curb. You quickly pulled your finger away when it was about to pop. At least you tried to. I still have two fingers on my right hand that are scarred all these years later.

Now I won’t even mention BB guns or running in the cloud of DDT that followed the mosquito spraying truck, or grabbing the bumper of a moving car. Or reaching our full arms down the sewer to try and save a perfectly good pimple ball.

But don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that anyone should do any of this now. Those were different times. And I’m still walking with a limp.

So if you see your kids or grandkids trying any of this, just do what my mother did. Hit them with a bag of frozen succotash. Game over.

August 2021
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