Growing up in a small
town back in the 50’s and 60’s was certainly different
than it is today. Yet I wonder if children really have
all that much. What would today’s children do with a
dusty, cobweb festooned barn loft full of junk – if they were
lucky enough to find one?
It was one of those dangerous “What are we going to do?” kind of summer days – dangerous because I knew that if I didn’t take control of the situation soon the other kids might decide to look elsewhere for a place to play. Every other child in the neighborhood of school age was allowed to roam about like a band of refugees from Never-Never Land but my mother’s attitude, oft voiced, was that “You have a perfectly good yard to play in. You don’t need to be traipsing all over the neighborhood getting in trouble where I can’t see you,” and “You should want to play with your little brothers.” Being toddlers, the little brothers could not have joined the roaming band from Never-Never Land so playing with them meant staying at home in our own yard. Playing with them was euphemism for taking care of them – entertaining them and keeping them out of trouble. It also mean getting the blame if they did anything wrong because “You should have been keeping an eye on them.” This was a system not designed to foster sibling affection and solidarity, but you work with what you’ve got and as toddlers the twins, Ben and Matt were fairly cute in their matching outfits. At this moment those fairly cute twins were napping and I had a window of opportunity to seize. So as a passel of kids lay about on the grass discussing and dismissing various games my mind was going like a hamster on a wheel.
Then, like a gleaming marble castle emerging from morning fog, the barn came into my mind’s view. Some homes had garages but we were one of those with a barn still standing. It was painted white on the outside, stood at the back of the property against the alley and was used downstairs for the car and the workbench. The loft, which was once used for storage by the previous owners, had not been touched since we moved in last winter. That meant two things to me – another place to potentially play and possible treasures.
“We could see what’s up in the loft,” I tossed out casually, as if I really didn’t care one way or another. To put action to words I got up and started walking to the back of the property, steeling myself not to look back and see if anyone was following.
“Might as well” and “What all’s up there?” and “I heard about someone who found a million dollars in an old chest in a barn once” were chorused as the group trailed behind me. We climbed to stairs to the loft and gazed about. Yes, there was potential here.
“We could clean it up and have a clubhouse,” said one girl.
“I bet there are things in those boxes we can use,” said another.
“There’s a little table over there and we might be able to fix this wooden chair,” were observed.
Garland and Rooney could not have eyed this space with more hope and in a moment we were delving into boxes, exclaiming and moaning over the things we found. There was a lot of trash. At least we thought it was trash. Looking back I wonder what we might have had in our hands that was of historical significance, but to us all those notes and receipts and yellowed newspapers and old letters were just things to be disposed of. We started making piles and filling boxes to carry down to the trash burner. Back in the good old days of my childhood everyone we knew burnt paper trash and leaves in a metal drum or a cinderblock firebox which stood at the rear of their property. No fear of air pollution bothered us. We had a cinderblock firebox, just waiting to be the recipient of the loft’s paper refuse. One of the girls went home to borrow a broom and dustpan and the rest of us divided between carrying trash down to the firebox and making piles of the things we thought we could use.
On about my third trip to the firebox my mother appeared on the back porch. “What are you doing?” she called.
I ran to the porch, knowing that how I approached this moment and phrased my answer could determine whether or not we were allowed to continue with our project. “We’re cleaning out the garage for you,” I said.
“Well that’s nice of you,” Mom replied. “You stay away from your dad’s workbench. Keep the others away from it too.”
“We will,” I promised and raced back to the barn.
“What did she say?” I was questioned. “Can we play in the barn?”
“She didn’t say we couldn’t.”
“What DID she say?”
“She said to stay away from the workbench.”
To us that was as good as outright permission to go on with what we were doing. Grown-ups always cautioned you about some unconnected possible way for you to get into trouble when they were willing for you to do something fun.
We labored and explored through the afternoon, getting hot and dusty. Gradually the piles of trash to be carried to the firebox dwindled and our pile of useables grew. We had some old magazines, battered pots and pans, a few pieces of mismatched and chipped china, a couple of chairs and small tables, two framed prints of rural scenes, a throw rug and several wooden crates. There was no chest with a million dollars, disappointingly. There was, however, a stack of letters. The old stamps intrigued me and I decided to become a stamp collector. I shudder to think what fortunes I may have lost cutting the stamps from the envelopes and what those thrown away letters might have revealed about the everyday lives of the people who wrote them and the history of the days they touched upon. No, I do not have any of those stamps ranging from the early 1900’s today. They went in one of my mother’s frequent and aggressively thorough “I’m cleaning out all this junk” purges.
We swept out the floor, brushed down cobwebs, hung the pictures on nails that were already conveniently in place, and discussed exactly how to arrange the furnishings. Several configurations were tried and we finally settled on a grouping. Settling on what kind of club our clubhouse would enshrine was not so easy and there was a bit of heat in the discussion about who should play which roles as officers in the club and whether or not we should let anyone in the club who had not been here for the inauguration clean-out. There was also the matter of dues – should we charge dues and if so, what would they be used for?
As owner of the barn, or at least semi-owner since it was on my parent’s property, it was my perspective that those decisions should be mine by right but that understanding was not shared by the rest of the group. There was no consensus on who should be officers in the group so those positions were left unfilled. We had no focus for the club either or any purpose other than playing in the barn loft. We decided against dues because none of us had any extra money. It was decided that other kids could come to the clubhouse (we were still calling it a clubhouse) but could not boss around the rest of us who had put in the work to transform the loft. By that time it was late afternoon, mothers were calling kids home, mine had had enough of twins and was ready for me to take over. When Dad came home from work I was pushing the boys on the swings.
“We cleaned out the barn upstairs today” I announced as Dad emerged from the barn/garage after parking the car.
Dad returned to the barn and went up to the loft. Nothing he saw triggered any major alarms and he just said “You kids had better not touch anything on my work bench.”
“We didn’t,” I assured him.
“What did you do with all that trash?” he asked.
“We put it in the firebox.”
He checked the firebox to make sure nothing unburnable had been put in there and gave it the ok. Then he said “With a bonfire like that’s going to make you might as well have a weenie roast. I'll burn this on Friday when I get home from work.”
The twins had no idea what a weenie roast was but they were quite willing to share in my enthusiasm for the event.
“Can I invite everybody who helped clean out the loft? Can we have marshmallows?” Might as well strike while the iron is hot, was my motto.
“If your mother says it’s ok, yes.”
Now why do grown-ups do that – insert “if your mother/father says it’s ok” when a simple “Sure you can” would do? I raced in the house and announced that Dad said we could have a weenie roast and invite all the kids who helped with the barn “and have marshmallows and everything!” and it would be on Friday -- all before Dad could get through the little boy gauntlet and set his lunchbox on the kitchen counter.
Mom let Dad know he would be in charge of the event and we were not going to be using her good picnic dishes but she was willing for the weenie roast to take place. I did my part by racing around the neighborhood announcing the upcoming pyromania event.
We had nearly a week to wait – the great clean out had taken place on Tuesday. I don’t know about the other houses, but at ours the threat of “We can just forget about that weenie roast nonsense if you can’t behave yourself” was employed unreasonably. Somehow I got through the week with extra chores, uncontested bedtimes and vegetables consumed at dinner without comment or nose wrinkling.
On Friday the assembled group included a few extra kids who had wandered in, but in a Bradburyesque small town all were welcome. Dad looked at the assemblage and observed that it was a good thing he had bought plenty of hotdogs. Quite a spread was laid out on the picnic table. There were potato chips and baked beans and of course hotdogs and marshmallows to roast and he had even gotten pop for us! Not a vegetable in sight! The hotdogs tended to be burnt on the outside and a bit chill on the inside but we thought they were delicious enough to eat about three each. It was a grand success.
The barn loft became one of the many regular places we played. It was a space of our own, rarely invaded by grown-ups. We invented a rather daring game which involved swinging out on the barn door loft. A rope was tied to a ring on the door, the rider pushed off away from the building and hung in space until they were pulled back to the barn. It was just terrifying enough to make us giddy. This thrill ride continued one day, accompanied by shrieks until the lady who lived across the alley looked out and saw what we were doing and called my mother to warn her that we were about to kill ourselves jumping out of the barn. Not at all true but Mom did not see it from our point of view. Her point was that we didn’t have the sense God gave a flea and we were just deliberately trying to send her to a madhouse with worrying about the next crazy thing we would find to do and we could have killed ourselves if we had fallen and she ought to burn down the barn. The barn stayed and the loft door was kept firmly shut.
I think sometimes about kids today with computer games and organized sports and no chance to search for the million dollars that must be hidden in a chest somewhere and no neighbor lady frantically calling their mothers to warn her they are about to kill themselves. Clotheslines, which are the perfect spot to drape an old sheet and make a tent, are seldom seen anymore. The thrill of swinging on a loft door or climbing a tree or swimming in a quarry or exploring an abandoned and certainly haunted house are in the distant past. Playdates and classes are arranged and adults are determined to probe every moment of a child’s life to be sure it is producing some sort of useful fruit. The idea of running over several city blocks, in and out of people’s yards, spontaneously organizing a clean out of a barn loft or a basement and just thinking up their own fun seems outlandishly unreasonable to people who have either forgotten the glory of claiming something for your own, or maybe never knew it. The idea of knocking on someone’s back door and asking if they are baking cookies today, or if it would be all right if we picked up some of the apples that had fallen from the tree brings visions of a Brother’s Grimm scenario to most parents’ minds these days.
When parents ask “What did you do today” they are really asking “What did you accomplish that could help you get a job in the future?” Productiveness and direction are the goals. Childhood is shortened and fantasy is contained in a computer game with the perimeters carefully drawn. I think we need some summer days waiting to be filled out of imagination. I think getting sweaty and dusty creating a space to share with friends is better than any organized sport in the world. I think that burnt hotdogs with chill centers may be more nourishing than any approved school meal. I think that swinging on a barn loft door at least once in a childhood may be just what is needed.
Emily Hart is creating a social bubble that includes the characters of classics, The Fantastic 4, Magnus – Robot Fighter and Superman with his cohorts, and the intrepid crew of the starship Enterprise – all from the pulp pages of old comic books. If anyone has any clue about the million dollars hidden in a chest in some barn loft she will be available post pandemic to help with the search and may be counted on to supply the marshmallows.
in the subject line of the message
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