Growing up in the Bucktown neighborhood of Chicago in the 1960’s was something special. We played Cowboys and Indians, Army, Statues, or other games in the streets without any worries (well, the kids didn’t worry; can’t speak for the parents). We ran up and down the creaky wooden stairways and halls of the corner apartment buildings (usually without the apartment residents yelling at us). We strolled the side streets and hung out in the playgrounds until dusk, oblivious to any concerns of drive-by shootings, child abductions, or pedophilia. In our realm, our reality, the world was pretty much safe, secure, and (for the most part) revolved around us.
The excitement of summer usually involved running after fire trucks to see what was burning (this time) and watch in awe as the firemen raced to extinguish the flames. I remember once one of the junkyards (what is today’s politically correct term for them?)not too far from us had a fire, I think it was a mound of tires that time, and you could see the smoke from miles away. And smell it too. There were apartment buildings that burned sometimes, and the occasional warehouse fire too. If we were walking around the neighborhoods and happened to see smoke off in the distance, we took off in that direction and didn’t stop until we got to the scene.
I mean, what else was there to do that was exciting and adventurous for kids during the summer?
We were city kids. We didn’t know about summer camps or summer enrichment programs. Most of our moms were stay-at-home moms. We didn’t need babysitters or daycare – we had each other. Cousins and neighbors and a few school friends.
There were failed attempts to learn to how swim at Holstein Park. There was a summer dance that the park’s rec facility one summer Saturday (all I remember is “The Age of Aquarius” playing, the black light posters hanging on the walls, bell bottoms, and a lack of kids in attendance).
There were bike rides to Logan Square and very long walks to Downtown Chicago where we’d sometimes ride the subway and el back home.
There were hours spent sitting at the Clybourn station doing nothing but talking with my girlfriends and watching train after train come in and go (okay, I admit that we’d sometimes put those purple and white quartz rocks on the rails to watch them get obliterated when the train’s wheel attacked it).
Shopping for the latest Ray Bradbury (I will miss you) paperback at the downtown bookstore (wasn’t it Cokesbury?). Buying candy and bottles of Pepsi® at Clem’s, the corner candy store. Walking across Damen Avenue to the library to pick up something I hadn’t already read. Falling in love with the mind of Sherlock Holmes and the voices and souls of Elton John; Gordon Lightfoot; Judy Collins; and Peter, Paul & Mary and wishing and wishing for something special to happen if only just one time in my life.
I won’t lie and say I don’t miss those days. Not the running after fire trucks part, but having someone to hang out with day after day. Even when we were simply sitting on the concrete stairs that led from our front yard to the sidewalk, frying ants with magnifying glasses, listening to the FM transistor radio, playing with our Barbie® dolls, or creating masterpieces with our colored pencils and crayons – all of those things meant we were spending time with people who mattered. People, kids actually, who cared about each other and didn’t even realize it. It was a given. These were people we wanted – we chose – to spend time with.
Why does growing up and getting older have to mean that the closeness we had with our childhood friends has to evaporate? Why do relationships and careers steer us so far away from the happiness we knew as kids? I’m sure this isn’t true for everyone, but I’d bet it is for many, many of us. Do we ever look back and wonder what we lost along the way? And is there a way to recapture what we’ve left behind?