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Down on the Farm: Running wild

Man, have times changed in the past 40 years!

While visiting a high school friend and his family in the suburbs a couple of weeks ago, we got to musing how different our childhoods were from what his children are going through.

His fifth grade girl is in her sixth year of hockey. His second grade boy is in sports and other lessons. The family is busy every weekend running to this or that tournament for one or the other child. And the kids aren't even in junior high!

Compare the modern suburban childhood with what we went through forty years ago.

We were left to run wild!

It helped that I was raised on a farm that Grandpa turned into a nursery which by the time I arrived had accumulated over a dozen old buildings, dozens of old tractors, dozens of trails through the woods to dozens of little fields.

The farm had three cellars, six swamps, junk piles in every wooded corner, rock piles hidden in the shadows at the edge of each field, as well as 50 acres of woods.

After a few half-hearted attempts to corral me in first grade, the parents gave up even trying to keep track. They were busy. I was on my own.

My first mission was to help earthworms reproduce. I dug them up, cut them into about 10 pieces and reburied them. I couldn't imagine how they reproduced without me.

My next goal was to strip that ugly bark from all the cottonwood trees in the yard. Don't tree trunks look a lot better all smooth?

Another enterprise involved hauling rocks in from the rock piles around the field and selling them to customers. The bigger the rock, the higher the price.

I made a sign. I built a stand. I organized the rocks by size--and I sold a total of one rock for 25 cents.

I was sure the problem was marketing. If I developed a good enough marketing plan, people would realize the value of field stones and I would get rich.

But marketing is grown-up work. I was more into fun. So I moved on to one of the abandoned old buildings and tore apart two small engines and never put them back together.

The elders pulled me aside when I was seen marching to the woods with a hatchet in second grade, but by third grade my friend Paul and I figured out how to smuggle a hatchet to the woods and cut down a big aspen on the sly.

We also helped liberate mother robins from boring nest duty by putting the nests, eggs and all, under a light inside.

The most fun of all: Burning the dump. The dump was a big pit that filled up for three or four years before it was buried and Butch came with the backhoe to dig a new pit.

The dump had to be burned every month or so. To make the fire more interesting, I stacked up the boxes like sky scrapers and then imagined that Chicago was burning all over.

When burnt out florescent bulbs showed up at the dump, I considered it my duty to break them all by throwing them like a javelin at the pile of clay beside the garbage pit.

When they hit the top of the pile, they'd explode in a cloud of mercury vapor. Beautiful!

Aerosol cans made a good pop when thrown right into the heat of the fire. So did conventional light bulbs. Other containers would hiss and whistle.

In all of this, I never once got hurt or came close to drowning. Sometimes I came inside mud from head to toe, but so did my parents, so no big deal.

In a rare instance of parental oppression, I didn't get a motorcycle until sixth grade.

Adults of the time worked too much to shepherd their elementary children to hockey games at age five. In fact, the adults were too busy to even show up for games until the kid got on varsity.

Today's suburban kids don't have a big farmyard to explore. If they didn't have scripted activities, they would just sit inside and explore the video universe. It is probably good that they play hockey.