Growing up in the small town of West Carrollton as free-range wildlings in the 60’s-70’s, it never occurred to me at the time how truly lucky we were to be able to wander around our neighborhood without fear or being subjected to the long parental leash of a cell phone, not to mention the seduction of video games. We weren’t as crazy as the Lord of the Flies, but we were left to our own devices and would be gone the entire day, coming back in time to avoid a spanking for missing supper and then head back out to play hide and seek or catch fireflies.
There were no hovering parents in my family…quite the contrary. Dad was always working and mom preferred us not to be underfoot. On a non-school day when the weather was nice or on summer vacation, we got chased out of the house and were on our own as soon as we woke up.
Breakfast? Get your own bowl, typically a recycled margarine tub and fill it with Trix, Apple Crisp or Cap’n Crunch after rummaging through the box to see if there was a prize.
The prize is how we picked out our cereal, as long as it was sweet we would eat it. Dinosaurs, super balls, glow in the dark stuff, submarines, you name it…prizes ruled! There were even records on the back of the box you could cut out and play on the old Close and Play. The Archies “Sugar Sugar” comes to mind.
Of course, the tooth-rotting amount of sugar already in the cereal was not nearly enough, so we emptied the sugar bowl into our Jethro Bodine size bowls (Beverly Hillbillies reference for y’all young-uns) to the point where it wouldn’t even dissolve, leaving big spoonfuls of milky sugar at the bottom as dessert.
With six kids, food in my family was done on a military scale. The main food groups us kids were in control of, beyond our morning cereal, were milk, bread, peanut butter and jelly and baloney and cheese…and it was always baloney, not bologna. And there was always a big basket of tomatoes for snacks once they started coming in from the garden.
Milk was delivered by an actual Borden milkman in glass bottles and left in a galvanized box on the front porch to keep it cool. 4 gallons of milk were delivered every couple of days, along with butter, cottage cheese, butter milk for dad and other assorted dairy products. Elsie the cow even made the glue we used at school!
When they came out with those 2.5 gallon plastic dispensers there were always at least 2 of them in the fridge. We helped keep dairy farms in business as dad still might have to pick up a gallon or 2 on his way home from work to tide us over.
The bread was typically whatever white bread was on sale the cheapest at Woody’s, but if we got Wonder Bread we thought we were farting through silk and would immediately sacrifice a piece slathered with peanut butter to the dog.
The peanut butter served as the glue to stick to the roof of the dog’s mouth, and the soft Wonder Bread made an almost impermeable barrier once compressed and licked by the dog, who would spend the next 15 minutes trying to lick through the bread shield to the delicious peanut butter hidden beneath. Cheap entertainment.
The peanut butter came in 5 lb plastic buckets, bought at least 2 at a time. These buckets then became cheap utility Tupperware. Arguments over whether the next bucket was going to be smooth or crunchy style were fought with the gusto of an MMA fight. Jellies, jams and preserves were made by mom and in a seemingly endless supply from our cellar pantry.
Apple, grape, strawberry and rhubarb were standard as we had those fruit trees and plants… maybe some peach, plum if dad picked up a few flats at a roadside stand. Wild blackberry, mulberry and raspberry depended on us kids getting out and picking peanut butter tubs full of them…usually paying dearly with days of suffering relentless chigger scratching.
Making a PB&J entailed slathering peanut butter on as thick as possible and dumping jelly out of the jar so it would ooze out of the bread every time you took a bite. You had to eat it like an ice cream sandwich…licking the sides after each bite.
There were no Ziplock bags in those days, you used a sheet of wax paper or foil to wrap it up or if you were lucky mom bought some of those new-fangled sandwich bags that you had to fold a flap back over the sandwich and pull the top of the bag inside out to form a loose seal. Which leaked if you fell in the creek. We ate a lot of soggy sandwiches.
Lunch meat was just baloney, and was named Oscar Mayer. Mom bought it by the cart load in the 1 lb packages and our family could decimate several packages a day like locusts.
Cheese (and I use the term loosely) was a box of Velveeta. Seriously, we thought that’s what cheese was for many years. At some point after Kraft invented the individually wrapped American Cheese slices, they became the standard, as it was not unusual for a kid to cut hunks of Velveeta an inch thick to put on a sandwich. After all, American Cheese is really just Velveeta squeezed thinly into a sheet of plastic, right?
You would slather that with yellow mustard and what we commonly called mayonnaise, but was actually Miracle Whip, a cheaper version of mayonnaise full of fructose, soybean oil, sugar and other nasties. I remember tasting Hellman’s for the first time and feeling cheated all those years…thanks for fooling us again mom!
Thus invigorated with a bowl of sugar fortified cereal and maybe a sandwich crammed in our pocket, we were good for a full day of exploration and adventure.
The first order of business was to try and sneak off without the younger kids noticing or receiving a mandate from mom to “watch you brothers and sisters”. This was not an easy task, the youngsters were on to us and stuck to us like white on rice. Sometimes we employed the “outrun them on our bikes” method until they gave up or simply tried to lull them into boredom, as if we weren’t going to do anything and then creep off. It really depended on how adventurous we felt, creek walking was open to anyone.
One of the first adventures I remember was exploring the new 3 story apartment building going up behind the house. What was formerly just an empty field, suddenly sprouted into a building site, with heavy equipment, excavation, framing and so on. As soon as the workers left for the day we would climb all over the bulldozers and trucks, checking out the construction and playing in the endless mud puddles.
We soon became a little braver and made friends during the work day with one of the construction guys. I can feel moms everywhere shuddering with the notion of “a friendly stranger”, but at least it seemed a bit more innocent in those days and the worker turned out to just be a friendly guy.
He would share bits of his lunch, sugar packets from his coffee breaks and so on. We would climb up and around everywhere in the 3 story building, watching the workers do their thing, fetching boards or tools or just getting in the way. No one seemed to care and OSHA had a low profile in those days.
But more typically, a good day of adventuring started in the nearest creek, which happened to be about 2 houses away if we cut through neighbor’s yards. We always cut through the neighbor’s yards. Fences, dogs and gates were just obstacles to be negotiated like we were on American Ninja.
Once in the creek we were in our natural element. We tried to stay clean and dry for about 5 minutes…until we saw our first crawdad or frog and all bets were off as we splashed right in after our prey. We would then wander up the middle of the creek, stopping to build a dam to make the water deeper and then wandering on, flipping rocks and poking in holes to see what was hidden away.
Down towards the old Kimberly- Clark paper mill, in the creek along Gibbons that ran in-between White Villa, there was a retention pond that settled out some of the solids before being discharged into the creek from a big pipe. You could tell what color paper they were making due to what color the creek water was that day. You could dig into a sand bank and see multiple layers of colors in the sand, like someone made a colorful cake. We thought it was cool at the time but who knows what chemicals we were wading around in.
In that part of Ohio limestone is the dominant geology, and it was so full of fossils that we became immune to the commonplace seafloor fossils, with seashells by the millions. Reading my fossil books, I was always on the prowl for a cool T-Rex tooth or mastodon tusk. It took a while to understand they did not walk around on the ancient seafloor of Ohio.
I really got into collecting rocks and minerals along with fossils. Pardon while I nerd out for a minute…I found brachiopods, crinoids, cephalopods, gastropods, cool horn corrals that I first imagined as dinosaur teeth, and eventually a trilobite or two.
I had boxes and boxes of all these rocks in my closet, many mounted and named on cardboard, in little sectioned boxes and just loose in bags. I still can’t help picking up cool rocks but I try to limit them to one or two per trip as a memento rather than trying to find one of everything possible. When we were selling off mom and dad’s house and cleaning it out, there was still a couple hundred pounds of rocks down in my old bedroom in the basement. I kept a few just for old times’ sake.
We also collected every form of fresh water critter found in southwest Ohio. Mom was into tropical fish for a while and had collected many fish tanks and paraphernalia of varying sizes. As her interest faded, we took control of the tanks and created terrariums and aquatic re-creations of the creeks and ponds, filled with frogs, toads, turtles, mud puppies, snails, tadpoles, crawdads, fresh water clams, hellgrammites and any other unusual insect larvae…everything but snakes. Oh, we caught them alright, but we had to hide them in the garage, as mom drew a hard line at snakes in the house. There may have been a death penalty involved.
As we wandered up the creeks, we often got side tracked by various woodlands around our area, many of which have been developed these days. One that hasn’t, was the woods right next to our elementary school, Harry Russell. I believe it was part of the school property and classes occasionally went up into the woods on field trips to study nature.
There was a house that had a long, private drive just off of Bishop Drive that wound to the top of the hill right next to the Russell woods. I used to remember the name of the folks that lived there, but it seems to elude me at the moment. In any case, as kids we of course placed a sinister reason for them living in their relative seclusion. They had to be rich and evil, as they had their own bridge across the creek and long driveway with acreage. Worst of all, they had no trespassing signs, the nerve!, so who knows what kind of sorcery went on in there and which were as good as a blinking neon sign saying “enter here”.
We would sneak up the drive, cautious for any sign of approaching cars or guards. We knew they had to have guards at such a house. We would dive and roll into the bushes at any indication of danger, which might be noise from a bird or cicada or just a giggle. I don’t think I ever saw any people, cars or activity of any kind from that house.
We would stealthily creep our way past the house, along old animal and kid trails, through what is today called Hintermeister Park (maybe the Hintermeister’s are the ones that owned the property and house?) at the top of Mayrose Drive, to enter the school woods proper. This woods was a playground for kids around the entire area, but we thought of it as our own. After all, when we first moved to our brand new house there were no other houses past the creek bridge on Primrose and they had just opened Harry Russell my first year there in first grade. We obviously had seniority.
It was a wonderful little woods filled with all kinds of possibilities for adventure. It was situated up the side of a hill, so it had gullies and ravines with little water courses to wander up. There were the more or less official trails through the woods, and then there were the “secret” trails…these were the more interesting ones of course.
They might take you to the edge of one of the ravines where kids had trimmed back the undergrowth to clear a path for swinging on a big vine out over the ravine.
There were a lot of wild grape vines in the woods so when one dried up or got ripped down a new one would be created somewhere else.
The trails would also lead to makeshift clubhouses, tree houses and secret clearings in the woods. You could tell the hangouts of the older kids by the stash of playboy’s, beer cans and cigarette butts littering the area.
We knew to tread cautiously in these places so we didn’t get into a turf war. That didn’t stop us from climbing tree houses and ransacking clubhouses for usable booty, that all seemed to be part of the game.
At the very top of the hill, along the property line, there was a fence enclosing a large meadow where the owners kept horses. The horses were always happy to see visitors and would come trotting over to say hi. In a little suburban town, this seemed like we were a world away in the country, in a place where we could call the horses, pet their heads and feed them grass or maybe even a carrot or apple if we had thought to bring them.
A couple of the creeks had steep dirt cliffs, where we became mountain climbers for the day. We had an old army rope of dad’s that we would coil up and use to act like Sir Edmund Hillary. The cliffs were eroding and dangerous as they were just clay and dirt, but that didn’t stop us from scaling them and getting into precarious situations where we were afraid to go up or back down.
This was made all the more exciting by throwing dirt clods at the person already in meltdown mode on the cliff to break them even further. I have no idea why we didn’t have more broken bones and injuries.
We didn’t limit ourselves to above ground either. When they were building out the then new Sherwood Forest development, they had built the sewer infrastructure but hadn’t yet built any houses. I thought this was a great opportunity for becoming cavers and exploring the subterranean.
The storm sewers were still clean and new, so we didn’t need to worry about nasty surprises like dead animals or people dumping nasties down the drains.
We would gather a collection of candles, matches, flashlights and string each time. We accessed them from an outfall pipe in the creek and would walk in as far as possible, then crawl on hands and knees, eventually traveling through even smaller pipes on our bellies with no way to turn around.
Claustrophobia was always in the back of our minds down in the black depths of the pipe, and we inched forward with a hopeful wish that there would be a manhole station at some point ahead where we could gather our courage and continue on or turn around.
I ended up mapping the entire system with drawings of the size of the pipe, where the manhole access points were and which ones made good clubhouses to stash candles and booty.
Occasionally a summer thunder storm would come up and begin flooding the pipes, but this again we didn’t really acknowledge as real danger, just heightening the adventure a bit more.
Over along the now buried creek under Liberty Lane next to White Villa, by a chigger filled raspberry patch, there was an old tree house notable for how high up in the tree it was and how rickety the steps were to climb to the top. When we “acquired” it, the past builders had, by all appearances abandoned it for some time. There was rotten wood, rusty nails, loose boards and so on. Maybe someone fell, or parents got wind of it and banished them from such a dangerous place, or maybe they just got older and pursued other interests, who knows.
In any case, we planted a flag and claimed it as our own. We began the rehabilitation by dragging more building material from dad’s stash of second hand lumber and banging in yet more rusty, bent nails into all of the many loose boards creating a ladder going up the tree trunk. Old school tree house ladders were just boards nailed onto the trunk. They loosened up regularly as the still living tree grew. We figured if 2 nails were good, 10 nails were great.
I recall there were a couple of places that had extended sections where you had to climb the tree, possibly to keep the squeamish from continuing to the top. This thing was easily 50-60 feet up in the tree…any fall would be a broken bone or worse. We continued adding nails, rails and new boards until we eventually lost interest as well, leaving it for other kids to discover.
As we all got older, adventures took us farther afield on our bikes, perhaps fishing at a pond or walking out on the dilapidated spillway on the Miami River. Eventually, I started hanging out more with my school buddies rather than my brothers and sisters and they had to create their own new adventures as I began stretching my teenage wings…but that is a different set of tales.