It sounds like a bunch of nostalgic crap coming from some old guy, but nostalgia’s never crap and I’m not that damn old, so pay attention.
When I was a kid in the mid 1980s we had a sort of freedom that most kids today don’t enjoy for a variety of reasons. One of the most vivid memories of my childhood illustrates the danger of such freedom. It’s as frightening to me today as it was twenty-seven years ago, but for different reasons.
I spent part of my childhood in Springfield, Illinois. Honest Abe’s stomping grounds. We lived in a protypical eighties neighborhood that was still expanding. If you’ve ever seen The Goldbergs it was just like that.
I lived in a duplex on Austin Drive with my parents and two sisters. There were plenty of other kids in our neighborhood: the O’Sullivans, a brother and sister who were jerky quite often, but who attracted friends with their in-ground swimming pool; a kid from the next street over about whom the only thing I remember is that he had one testicle (kids are horrible); and a Jewish girl who once broke our garage door window while I sat right beneath it, showering glass down upon me.
(Side story: I knew she was Jewish, but had no idea what that meant. I got a better idea of what it meant when I went to her house to try and sell Christmas cards for school. I made my pitch and her dad said, “We’re Jewish.”)
Anyway, I had two close friends. One named Stephen, and one named Sam. This story involves Sam. That’s his real name. I haven’t changed it to protect his identity.
Even though we lived in an established neighborhood there were still a few empty lots on our block, and a whole tract of empty land near the back of the neighborhood. Although I’m sure these houses were being built for families, we believed that they were being built for our entertainment. Hence the variety of shenanigans we enjoyed on these construction sites.
There was the time Sam and I pushed a button on a piece of heavy equipment (a bulldozer or something) and the thing actually tried to start. We high-tailed it out of there, praying that it wouldn’t start and drive itself across the field.
And the time that I took a dirt clod to the forehead and my well-meaning sister convinced me that my parents would never find out. She’d just hide me from their view for the next two months until it healed. How do you think that worked out?
And the jerky construction workers who told a bunch of us that they were building a McDonald’s in the middle of the neighborhood. We had our hopes up for the entire summer while they worked on that McDonald’s. We held out hope until a family moved in. Needless to say, the Golden Arches never appeared.
But the best part of a neighborhood under development was the dirt trails. They seemed miles away back then, but a quick check on mapmyrun.com tells me that they were only about three-quarters of a mile away. Still, far enough.
Sam and I rode our bikes to the dirt trails many times. They were adjacent to a major state route, Illinois 4. There were a couple of different trails, with jumps and turns. It was awesome! And since it was awesome, our parents of course told us not to hang out there. Danger or something. Probably the same reasons they told us not to hang out in houses that were under construction.
Sam and I were badasses though.
So one afternoon we decided to go for a ride. Well, we were already going for a ride. We just decided to extend it.
Sam lived a few blocks away from me. We were playing at my house, and we decided we wanted to go to Sam’s house. So we told my parents we were going to Sam’s. Then on the way we decided to go to the dirt trails.
We took a little detour and rode to the dirt trails. And it was magnificent. In my mind we rode like we’d never ridden before. We made monster jumps, wicked turns, and kicked up more dust than Oklahoma in the 1930s. No doubt we were the kickassing-est eight year olds in the world.
And the great thing about the dirt trails was that no one ever messed with us. Sometimes there were other kids there, but since it was on the edge of the neighborhood, and there weren’t any houses within a quarter mile, we could ride without being hassled by buzzkill adults.
Until that day.
Sam and I were having the time of our lives. Then we heard a car revving its engine off of Lindbergh Boulevard. It was going much too fast, and looked like it might be trying to do its own tricks. Sam and I paused and watched, still not frightened, but more like impressed.
And then the car passed us. And it drove up over the curb and into the grassy field across the street from us, swerving back and forth. The kicker: the driver was dressed like a clown. Colorful shirt, white face, wig. Clown. Scary as hell.
Sam and I looked at each other and probably crapped ourselves. We hopped on our bikes and rode back to his house.
Luckily the clown did not follow.
We made it back to Sam’s house and we were greeted by his older brother, Matt, who said something like, “Where have you idiots been? We’ve been looking everywhere for you. Brett’s parents called looking for him, and we told them you guys never got here. I checked the basement of that house under construction to be sure you guys didn’t fall and die.” Then to me, “You better go home. Everyone’s looking for you.”
The ride back to my house suddenly became much farther and took forever. As I rode down the street it seemed like the entire neighborhood was in its front yard, watching me, and probably thinking, “There’s that little jerk Baker boy. What a doofus.”
My parents and sisters were in the front yard. Our neighbors—three of whom were police officers—watched as I rode up my driveway.
I don’t remember anything after that. I got in trouble. My parents’ worst punishment was always silence, so I'm sure that’s what I got.
Well that, and one of the best memories of my childhood.
I wrote this one as part of ChicagoNow's monthly writing exercise. The challenge: "Write about a favorite memory from your childhood."
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