Boy, Did We Have Fun...
You could smell the heat in the air along with dust, and the scent of neighboring charcoal simmering in the backyard grill. Peeling out and sliding in the gravel-especially with girls watching-was the only thing to do with our bikes. Cold pop, penny candy, and trophy sunburns were all apart of my ritual growing. Once the thermometer read past 90, those beautiful days were promised to last long into the night. Almost every backyard had a small kiddie pool and a push mower either behind the garage or in it. Clotheslines were as common as telephone lines, and every house had an old screen door with an old rusty spring that yawned a creak whenever it opend.
Once the Kool-Aid was gone, I ran back inside for more; just a pull on that forward handle of the fridge, and I was greeted by a cool suck of air. It felt great. The screen door slammed shut behind me, and all around the neighborhood was activity. A basketball might hit the cyclone fencing, sending a rattling chime as the mesh shook from the force, or girls might be playing hopscotch on the sidewalk. It was summer, and anything was possible.
Under the Apple Tree...
There was nothing better than finding green apples in the yard, hunting through them to see which one might have the least sour taste. It was fun to shake branches of the old apple tree and to hear that hollow thud as apples fell into the dirt. Fruit fresh from the trees and berries fresh from the bushes were always the best because it was what we'd searched for, and found for ourselves. Those days under the apple tree were unforgettable; It was in that old white house off of Southeast 96th and Bush St. where the old tree resided. It was there that I learned to ride a bike. It was in that house that I learned how to make great kazoo sounds by blowing out of empty candy boxes. Here I embarked on many adventures through skinned knees and countless voyages of deliberate and beautiful boyhood. As I recall random events that comprised my youth, each one now seems like a dream vacation that I'd normally save my whole lifetime for.
The Ice Cream Man
"Ding-ding-ding-ding-ding, here comes the Jo-Jo Man!" How the Ice Cream Man and his little Cushman scooter earned the name "Jo-Jo Man" is beyond me. Still, that was the word for him. The Jo-Jo Man's bell could be heard ringing out a steady cadence from blocks away, plenty enough time to go and beg mom or dad for nickels and dimes. There was a little refrigerated box on the back of his scooter-truck, usually with two doors on top. I always felt the frozen vapors drift up to my face whenever he opened those doors to retrieve our favorite frozen treat.
Standing amongst the neighbor kids anxiously awaiting my turn to spend a dime, I can recall the weak, puttering sound of the engine as it idled in neutral. Inside that freezer compartment were chocolate ice cream bars, Sidewalk Sundaes, Rainbow pops, Popsicles, and ice cream sandwiches. My favorites were the chocolate ice cream crunch bars. The Jo-Jo Man had a reputation; one for visiting our neighborhood on a daily basis. Sometimes he was late, sometimes he was early, but all of us kept our ears tweaked from early May to mid-September.
There were days when it was just too hot in the house and mom decided to have dinner outside. Those were more than just dinners, but events where the whole family-and neighbors were invited. Yes, those were days when we were actually friendly with out neighbors. I really looked forward to the hot dog and hamburgers and chips and pop.
There was a certain majesty to dining out on the lawn, or picnic table. I always invited my best friends on the block, and we'd often retreat to the shade of one of our trees. While the men drank beer, we drank anything from Strawberry soda to Tiki Punch and had great feasts of burgers, dogs, pork and beans and chips.
Camping Out in the Backyard
Sleeping outside on blankets on a warm evening was about the best thing I can recall when it came to the bedtime ritual. Even though we agreed to be asleep by a certain time, my brothers and I, or friends, sat up talking far into the early morning hours. There was so much conversation worthy of our time, and nobody to tell us to hush up and get to sleep. Out there in the great veldt of the backyard, in the fresh evening air with a chorus of crickets, near the clothesline and plum tree, life was as grand as it could ever be.
Watching for Flying Saucers was a must. When I was young,and sleeping out under the stars, the sky never looked bigger, blacker, and more mysterious. Above me was a giant velvet tapestry littered with stars. The unlimited possibilities of life beyond, or visitors from outer space cruising our galaxy was on our minds as we lay on our backs staring up at the heavenly mural without end. Monsters lurking in the bushes were another consideration. Fortunately, I had my brothers with me. Everyone knows that monsters cannot attack you when you have other guys with you. Yet, often, they would go back into the house to tease me, and see how long I could take it in the dark of night (which wasn't long). Everyone knows that in the dark of night, when everybody is sleeping is when the monsters come out. The worst monster I could come up with outdoors, in the dark of night, was The Wolfman. I knew The Wolfman was out there waiting for me.
Finally, when the morning sun came up, our blankets were be wet with dew, and smelling musty and dank. By four, or five in the morning, we'd be in our deepest sleep, and the chill of the morning woke us up long before we were ready to rise. Damp blankets and all, I would trade a minute of it.
When The Sun Goes Down
Neighborhood games would get organized once the sun began to dip, and the sky turned dark. "Tag" was always a favorite, but "Hide and Seek" was always the most heralded game to play at night. Neighbors were also out, some on blankets, some on porches, and all waved and shouted greetings whenever we glanced in their directions. In a way, neighbors were a lot like family members. They could be counted on to do things when needed. Watermelon was a favorite for everybody, and it tasted so wet and good-even as the juice dribbled all over my bare chest.
"Olly-Olly Oxen Free!"
Life was safer then; kids could wander on their own a several blocks from the house and be perfectly safe. "Hide and Seek" was so popular with all us kids because hiding places in the dark were so much easier to find. Many times you could move to different hiding spots if you sneak around quietly enough. The most fun was lunging out and scaring someone to death. If you could cause a coronary, you had a good game of hide and seek going. It was also fun to augment the game with a few monster stories just to make the dark hiding places less appealing. Besides being a game, Hide and Seek was pure adventure, and it was never more fun than it was on a hot summer evening. Games of hide-and-seek or flashlight tag were promised once the street lights came on. Covert army operations and daring secret agent missions happened deep in the shadows of night.