Monday, August 14, 2017

What Did We Do in the Summertime

I shifted my bulging school folder to my other arm and got a firmer grip on my Mickey Mouse tin lunch box. The sky was blue, school was behind me, and a voice in my mind was singing, “It’s summer, it’s summer, it’s summer!”

As I walked up the hill toward my house, the days of summer seemed to stretch forward into infinity. Don’t get me wrong—I loved school. I loved the counting cards with dots, I loved the green border along the top of the black board with showing how to print all the letters of the alphabet. I loved reading aloud in our reading groups and I loved standing at the blackboard with chalk to work out arithmetic problems.

But summer! What glorious freedom to do whatever I wanted.

And this is what I would do on a summer day, on Millsview Avenue, Oakland, California, in the mid 1950s.

I would head out of the house every day after breakfast and start finding playmates. Our house was at the crest of a gentle hill, the street sloping down toward the school on one side, and toward MacArthur Blvd on the other. There were lots of kids on the street to play with. I would first go to Betty Jean’s house down the street on the corner, who was just my age, but if she couldn’t play, there was Larry across from her, who was a little older. If neither of them could play I would find the little boy across the street who was quite a bit younger, or some of the others. Often children were just outside on the sidewalk and in the yards and I could just join in with them. I depended on the neighborhood kids for playmates; my sisters were quite a bit older than I--they were busy with their own lives--and my brother was already away at college. My dad was at work and my mother was busy doing mother things, I suppose. I never thought of my parents as playmates. But there were plenty of kids to play with and plenty of things to do.

If some girls were available, we would play with our dolls, put them in wagons or buggies and take them up and down the street. We also loved paper dolls which we would maybe get for a birthday present in a book like a coloring book. The back cover of the book would have the dolls, on heavier cardstock, dressed in their underwear. We would cut them out very carefully. Then the clothes would be on the inside pages. We would also cut out the clothes with scissors. Each item would have little fold-over tabs, so after you placed the paper dress on the paper doll you would fold the tabs over the shoulders so it would stay on while you acted out whatever story the doll was busy with. We also got paper dolls out the McCall’s magazines some of our mothers subscribed to.  Every month Betsy McCall would appear in the pages of the magazine with a story about her adventures and a wardrobe to match.

We all had jump ropes and spent lots of time jumping, alone or in groups. Alone, I would skip up and down the street, counting how many times I could jump without missing. If I could round up two or more friends, we would use a longer rope and have two kids turn the rope while the rest jumped. If someone missed, then she had to take a turn on the rope while that kid came out to jump. We would sing rhymes as we jumped. Here are a couple:

Cinderella, dressed in yellow,
Went upstairs to kiss a fellow.
Made a mistake and kissed a snake.
How many doctors did it take?

1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6

Then we would count until we missed a jump.

Other times I would go down to the basement storage area, and dig out the old steel roller skates. These skates had been passed down through all the children in the family and were probably 20 years old. But that didn’t matter because they never wore out and they always fit. They were made to fit on the bottom of your hard-soled shoes. Along with the skates, on an ancient loop of string, was a metal skate “key,” which was used to adjust slider so the length of the skates would fit the bottom of your shoes. That was the first step. Then you just buckled on the skates with the brown leather straps and you were ready to sail down the sidewalk. I would skate fast down the hill to the school and then work hard to skate uphill to my house, then back again, whirr, kathump, whirr, kathump, over the sidewalk. The hard steel made every sidewalk crack reverberate through my legs. When I took off the skates to go inside for lunch, my legs would still feel like they were vibrating.

We could play for a long time with a red bouncy ball. With a group we would play two-square or four-square, either in someone’s driveway or down at the school playground. If no one could play, I played a bouncing game with the ball by myself, bouncing the ball to this rhyme and throwing my leg over the ball at all the O Leerios.

One, two, three, O’Leerio.
Four, five, six, O’Leerio,
Seven, eight, nine, O’Leerio
Ten, O’Leeri O O!

On the last O, I would bounce the ball as high as I could and then run to get it. I loved playing this. We also played a game that involved bouncing a ball on concrete steps, but I can’t remember that one.

Sometimes a bunch of us would go down to the school playground to play on the tricky bars. These were metal pipes in a simple upside down U shape, set in the concrete. We would swing our legs up high to climb up on them, bend one knee over the pipe and leave one behind, and then throw our bodies over with enough momentum to bring ourselves upright on top again. If you were really good you could do multiple turns. Sometimes you could even do it with both knees on top of the bar. I wonder we didn’t crack our skulls on the asphalt under us, but somehow we didn’t. Then we would jump from one piece of play equipment to another, so we wouldn’t fall in the hot lava.

There were small palm-like trees on the street. We would gather the palm fronds and weave them into mats to use in a playhouse we may have created behind the garage. We picked the neighbors’ fuschias and they became fairies with bright colored skirts. Sometimes a bunch of us made teams and threw dry dirt clods at each other, watching them explode in satisfying clouds of dust. No one was supposed to hide a rock in the dirt clod, but it did happen on occasion. Then great outrage followed and we wouldn’t let that kid play anymore.

We weren’t always playing outside. Sometimes we prepared a show for our parents. We dressed up in old dance recital costumes. We had a portable record player which folded up like a small suitcase with a handle. I had a 45 record that played “Here comes Susie Snowflake.” My friend and I would flit around the basement in our fluffy dance skirts and entertain the parents who had paid a penny each for the privilege of applauding our performance.

One summer we made a neighborhood newspaper. We would find news of the neighborhood. I would check the clouds and make a weather forecast. Thanks to my third-grade science class, I knew that black nimbus clouds meant rain. Of course, in California, the forecast was usually clear and warm. I would type up the edition on my mom’s huge black Underwood typewriter. The big brother of someone had a way to make copies by rolling the original on a pad of some chemical—like a primitive ditto machine. Then we would go up and down the street selling our paper to all the neighbors.

Another money-maker was hot pad production. An uncle made me a loom from a square board with nails stuck all around. We would buy a big bag of knit loops at the corner market and then weave hot pads. I loved making pretty designs with all the colors. Then I would try to sell them to the neighbors.

After dinner on long summer days, all the kids in the neighborhood gathered in the middle of street for night games. We played Red Rover, Mother May I, and the favorite—Hide and Seek. The thrill of waiting in your hiding place, not knowing when you would be found, the joy of hearing Ollie, Ollie, Oxen Free, and know you had escaped detection—that was the best. Then we would hear our mothers calling and look toward home to see that the lights were on in the windows and it had become dark without our noticing.

Toward the end of August, my mom would start making me try on the new dresses she was sewing. They were cotton plaid, with full skirts and sashes that tied in the back. As I stood still on a stool, turning slowly as Mama measured the hem with her wooden yardstick, I knew that soon I would be wearing these new dresses to school and the long summer days would be over.

But that was OK. I was hoping to get Miss Andersen for fourth grade and I knew that she let the kids make bread sometimes, right in school. Who knew what other delights were waiting?

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Lost in the Swamp

“Yuck!” My right foot squelched as I pulled it up out of the mud and tried to take another step. “Yucky, yucky, yucky!” Then I swatted at the mosquitoes buzzing thickly around us.

Carolyn wiped the sweat out of her eyes, leaving a muddy streak on her cheek. “Dang it!” She looked around the swampy field.  “Where are we anyway? Which way is your house?”

The day had started out so great. Carolyn was my church friend. She lived too far away for us to walk or bike to each other’s houses. In fact, at that time in the Minneapolis area there were very few Mormons, none in my neighborhood. One family lived in the same town, but far enough away that we always drove to their house. And they just had very young children.

But yesterday our moms had agreed that Carolyn could come home from church with us. She would sleep over and we could spend the whole summer Monday together. We had great plans.

Right after breakfast of Cheerios and toast, we set off to explore. Mom didn’t mind. After all we were almost 12 and what trouble could we get into in our quiet little suburb? She went down to the basement to sew while we took off outside.

We started by heading down the gully toward the woods. Though houses were built all around, there were big empty spaces that had not been built up yet. I played in the woods with the neighbor kids quite a bit—we had even built a kind of tree house there with scrap lumber and fallen branches, tied together with vines.

The other kids weren’t there that morning, so Carolyn and I played around there for a while, saying we were Robin Hood and Maid Marian and then Tarzan and Jane. Sure, we were getting a little old for playing pretend—but Carolyn and I liked to think that we were creating stories, like authors, not just playing around like kids.

“Let’s see what’s on the other side of woods, Carolyn!”

“Yeah! Maybe we can ambush a rich caravan!” She liked the Robin Hood storyline best.

“Or maybe a man-eating tiger!” I was going for the Tarzan storyline.

We headed off through the woods, using some big sticks to knock aside the thick underbrush. Now we were explorers, hacking our way through the Amazonian jungles. The branches scratched our legs and arms, but that couldn’t slow us down.

At the edge of the woods was a great open field of tall grass, and a tempting ridge on the far side—very much like the ridge we had scrambled down to get to the woods.

“Ah!” Carolyn pointed to the distant ridge. “Yonder lies the castle keep of the dread King John.”

She was back on Robin Hood. No matter. I took up the storyline. “Onward, my merry men! We will approach the castle and sneak in, disguised as wandering minstrels. Soon we will know John’s foul plans.”

So off we started across the field. The tall grass came to our waists, and we whacked our way through with our sticks. The ground began to be wet, and sometimes we had to make our way around big muddy puddles. We had to look down at the grass and our feet rather than at where we were going.

The ground became wetter and wetter, muddier and muddier. The mosquitoes were thick and sweat was running down my armpits. This was no field. It was a swamp.

That’s when we stopped and looked around, ankle deep in mud.

Carolyn shaded her eyes and scanned the horizon, turning slowly in a circle. “Where are we?” she asked again.

I looked all around too. I lived here, but I had never been out in this swamp. It looked the same everywhere I looked—high ridges all around the edges with woods at the bottom and the endless grassy, muddy swamp all around. We had been looking down at our feet and zig zagging all around and now I had no idea of where we had started.

“I don’t know.” I admitted. And I began to feel like neither a brave bandit nor an intrepid explorer. We were hot and muddy and mosquito-bitten and lost.

“I don’t know which way to go.”

“Me neither.” Carolyn sighed. She was looking at her muddy feet and scratching a mosquito bite on her arm.

“What shall we do?” I asked, not so much asking Carolyn as myself, as the universe. I had no idea.

Then Carolyn looked up. She stopped scratching and actually smiled, like, no problem. I’ve got this.

“We need to pray,” she said, very matter-of-fact.

I was startled. I was a church-going girl and came from a church-going family. I said my prayers every night without fail, and as a family we always said a blessing on the food. But somehow I had never thought of prayer as a practical way out of a problem.

Carolyn was confident though. And, looking at her, the heavy scared feeling in my chest began to lighten. Yeah. We would pray!

So there in the middle of that endless muddy field, we two girls folded our arms and prayed. Carolyn spoke the words. I pleaded in my heart. “Please help us, Father. Please. I don’t know how to get home.”

“Amen.” Carolyn lifted her head and looked around again, this time alert and confident. I did too.

“That way!” She pointed with certainty. I looked in the direction she pointed, and felt a warm calmness inside me.

“Yeah.” I said. “Yeah. Let’s go that way.” 

We set off in that direction, noting a tall pine tree at the top of the ridge and using that as our guide. We had to pull our feet out of the sucking mud at each step, but we kept our eyes on the that pine tree and kept moving. We forgot about our story line, but we felt cheerful somehow, squelching along toward that tree. Gradually the ground became firmer.

We reached the wooded edge of the swamp and, with one last look at the tall pine on top of the ridge, we scrambled through the wood and up the hillside.

At the top of the hill, under the tall pine tree, we found smooth green grass and a white house. Someone’s back yard. The lady of the house was outside, watering her daisies. We thought it might as well be heaven. We were saved.

Then she turned around. It was Sister King, our Sunday School teacher! The one other Mormon in the whole town! How did we find her house? How did we end up in this particular backyard? How did we find the one person in the whole town area who knew and loved us? How could this possibly happen?

Sister King dropped the hose and stared. Soon she would hose us down, give us cool drinks and drive us home. But now she hurried to us. “Beth, Carolyn! What in the world! What happened to you?”

We looked up at her, all muddy, scratched, and bitten.  We glanced at each other and grinned.

“Sister King,” I said, “We have just experienced a miracle!”

And we had.