One in a series of reflections on growing up in small town America in the 1960’s.
A while back, I reminisced about my last summer of innocence, in 1964, when I was still a pre-teen and about to transition from the bliss of my elementary school life to the rat race of junior high (see my prior article, “Summertime and the Living Was Easy”).
Here, I’ll fast forward to the summer of 1969, a time of great social and political upheaval, and my last true summer of fun with my neighborhood buddies (the next summer was more serious and somber as I said goodbye to everyone and prepared to leave town for college).
In that summer of ’69, one of the “top of the pop” songs was Sly and the Family Stone’s “Hot Fun in the Summertime”. It was certainly a hot and humid summer, filled with violent protests in the city streets. But it was also filled with a lot of fun, most exemplified by the wild partying at a farm in Woodstock. For us neighborhood boys (“hoods”), most of whom were around age 17, it was more like Hot Mischief in the Summertime! We had grown bored of the usual summer activities in our small, South Jersey town (from basketball at the YMCA, fishing trips at the local lake and streams, and golfing at nearby course for $1 between 5pm and sunset, to basement dart throwing and card playing at night). We wanted some action - - and, unfortunately, we found it!
Now, before I get into some of the details, let me point out that, once we boys had reached about 15 or so, there wasn’t much summertime parental supervision. Most of our parents had younger kids demanding their attention and our parents were just plain tired of us! But, they did have good reason to trust us. Most of us, including me, worked at real jobs during the day until 3 or 4pm and came home and took a nap before having dinner and running out the door to meet up with the “hoods”. And we hadn’t gotten into much trouble before (at least none of us had dropped out of high school or gotten arrested!).
What our parents didn’t know about (until we occasionally got caught) were our nefarious nighttime activities, when the weather was a little cooler, but our teenage testosterone was high! (No we weren’t indulging yet in any activities with the girls, but from time to time, we did find much more dangerous pastimes!).
It All Began Innocently
The best place for us to hang out indoors was in one of our basements, where it was nice and cool and our parents didn’t watch or bother us. We had been doing this for years, playing darts and cards and shooting pool. But, with summer job money now in our pockets, gambling made it way more exciting, including when fisticuffs nearly broke out because someone got caught cheating! After a while, we all realized that one of the hoods was a “shark” and constantly won most of the rest of our hard earned money. So, we decided to venture out of the basement to find something more interesting or cool to do.
The Assault Before Dark
Just before it became too pitch black outside and the menacing hordes of mosquitos descended upon anyone outdoors more than a few seconds, we decided to quench our thirst by conducting a raid on a nearby farmer’s watermelon patch! The fastest among us snuck behind the fence and ran back with the spoils while the rest of us stood guard. What a juicy reward!
We did this almost every night for a week or so, until the farmer got hip. One night, when there was no moon and the guards (including me) couldn’t’ see his porch too well, a fuselage of gunfire spewed at us from that direction. No, he didn’t fire live ammo at us, just rock salt - - enough to teach us a stinging lesson and we never came back!
We had to up our game, elsewhere.
Bats Aren’t Just for Baseball
Outside our basements, in the still savage heat and humidity of the night, watermelon did help us cool off. So, the next best thing we could think of was a pool dip. The problem was, the pool at the Y closed early and almost no one had a pool in their backyard. And the lake was too far to bike back and forth to at night.
That’s when we canvased the town on our bikes and discovered a few, private, hard to find, hedged or fenced in pool “clubs”. But, we had the same problem with them, they were all closed and locked at night. So, we decided to improve our trespassing skills.
We formed a human pyramid right next to the fence of one of the pools, with the biggest boys on their hands and knees at the bottom and successively smaller and lighter guys at the top. Fortunately for me, I was a skinny kid (of barely over 120lbs) yet stood tall (at over 6’ in height). So, I got placed at the top of the pyramid, then pulled and flipped up the smallest guy over the fence. He jumped down, ran to the gate, and let us all in (it was an unanticipated easy break-in, with no automatic lights or security cameras back in those days!).
We quickly stripped down to our underpants, dove in and had a blast! A big, cool pool all to ourselves with plenty of balls and other floating objects to play with (plus, pool cleaning tools to weaponize each “team” as circumstances warranted).
Although no one from outside the enclosed pool area could see or hear us, we soon found out there was someone or something which did. All of a sudden, we heard high-pitched screams and loud, unusual buzzing noises. Then, a swarm of bats, one after another, dove toward the heads of everyone in the water, skimming the surface, then circled back up and returned down again. We got out of that pool so fast that, as my Dad would have said, we ran like “bats out of hell”!
Clearly, our outdoor pursuits weren’t working out very well, so next we turned our attention to indoor targets.
Off to the “Civic Center”
The center of daytime and early evening family fun in our small rural town was the local Y. It was great for gym activities, pool parties and barbecues. But we hoods grew antsy to stir things up. About the most juvenile mischief we could get into there was diving into the indoor pool with all of our clothes on and running away from the lifeguards. Besides, the Y closed around 7pm, just when we were ready for adventure.
Fortunately, one of us had an older sister with a car - - a souped-up Pontiac GTO (my, did I love her set of wheels!). So one evening she crammed us all in and introduced us to the adult, evening civic center - - the local bowling alley! It was heaven! Air-conditioned, huge, with lots of places to move around, hangout and enjoy. Lots of bowling lanes, pool tables, pinball machines, and arcade games, and a soda fountain bar (which also served booze, but not to us!). This was a teenager free-for-all hideout with few parents supervising (the ones there were mostly focused on bowling and nothing else!). Most of the guys gravitated to the pinball machines and pool tables, but I wanted to bowl. I wasn’t well equipped to be a serious bowler. I was such a scrawny kid, not very athletic, with A width feet, such that I had to wear 3 pairs of socks to keep my bowling shoes from falling off (because they only came in D width for my size 12 feet). I wasn’t particularly strong and powerful, but I was precise, which worked in my favor. The bowlers needed someone to keep score. There were no automatic machines, pocket calculators or iPhones back in those days. It took someone good at math to do it by hand quickly and accurately, because it was projected onto a big board for everyone to see (a cause of sure ire and embarrassment if the score was wrong!). Although no one wanted me to bowl with them, I was finally positively recognized for being a “nerd brainiac”! The perfect scorekeeper! As compensation, I enjoyed lots of free popcorn, pizza, hot dogs, and sodas. And one day, when a bowler on a team didn’t show up, I got pressed into action and demonstrated my precision in a different way, by bowling over 200 (which was a really good score among these amateurs)!
However, it was hard for us hoods to get the bowling alley very often and, except for the occasional naughty betting on pool, there just wasn’t enough mischievous action at Landis Lanes. So we decided to create it right on our own block.
The Attack on Pearl Harbor (Reenacted)
We boys in the hood all had an obsession about fireworks. This wasn’t a coincidence. You see, on the outskirts of my hometown there was a large fireworks factory. It was so well-known that people came from Philly and North Jersey to buy fireworks (legally or not), particularly around the 4th of July. Fireworks huts sprouted up all along the country roads, making it easy to buy them and speed off! The annual 4th of July celebration, held in the town’s sizeable stadium or wide open acres of land, was spectacular to watch and draw huge crowds.
Well, a few weeks after Independence Day, we boys had a few firecrackers leftover and decided to hold our own fireworks festival. It sort of evolved, out of boredom (or what we called “boration”). It rains a lot during the humid South Jersey summer and a large puddle (which we nicknamed “Lake Nemarrow” for one of the guys) formed naturally at the end of our street, where it curved to become another street. As I’ve mentioned, I was very precise, and I loved building model ships, airplanes and rockets. So, I was curious whether some of my WWII battleships would float on the lake and they miraculously did. That’s when a number of other guys got the incredibly stupid idea of pouring some lawn mower gasoline into the lake. Then I brought out a few of my WWII fighter plane models, we placed a firecracker in each one, and lit and tossed them at the ships. You can imagine what happened when they hit the water! A huge, fiery explosion erupted, with flames leaping skyward and a gigantic cloud of smoke obscuring the road and the turn. Just about that moment, a car came screeching by and the shocked and panicked driver suddenly veered over the curb and side swiped a corner fire hydrant! Luckily, we thought, it didn’t start spraying water everywhere. But, it actually turned out to be unlucky, because the fire raged on and fire trucks were called in to put it out, with everyone else in the neighborhood standing around and watching (while we did too, forgetting to hide!).
There was no way this goofy and dangerous stunt went undetected (or unpunished) by our parents! Some of us got grounded for a while. I not only got grounded, not allowed out of the yard for about a month, but my parents made a public example out of me. They assigned me the harshest punishment of all the boys, forcing me to do yardwork every day for over a month so everyone could see and at times mock me, increasing my humiliation. I had to scrape off my house years of old paint, while on a ladder so I could reach the eaves, then I had to paint the entire exterior of the house!
When we hoods all finally returned to our “usual business” in the last days of summer, the mischief, if any, was way more low key. Activities like going to the movie complex (where thankfully it was very cool) and enjoying “double” or “triple” features by hiding out in another theatre until the next movie started!
So, What’s the Point of All This?
Well, first off, I hope that the statute of limitations has run on all these now admitted transgressions. (After all, I don’t want to lose my law license!)
Looking back at these memories, they’re funnier to me now than they were then. I am grateful that I didn’t get into more mischief than I did during that summer of ‘69. We kids in the hood weren’t bad, we were just bored and rambunctious. My run-ins with wild bats, angry farmers, and the fire department were enough for me to get the “fun” out of my system before going off to college the following summer. I realized that I was now becoming an adult and that my actions mattered and had real-life consequences.
When looked at now, most of these teenage boy misdeeds were tame as compared to what goes on today. We didn’t graffiti walls or destroy or steal property or carry around or shoot guns or do drugs. We also didn’t have today’s computers, cell phones and the internet, which have come with their own sets of temptations and potential mischief for children - - as well as challenges for parents trying to monitor their activities and steer them in the right direction.
The independence we were given throughout that summer allowed us to figure out things for ourselves and utilize our own skills to gauge right from wrong. These were much needed skills as we went off into the real world and became adults.
It serves as a reminder to parents (and also grandparents), we can only do our best to teach kids while they are young the difference between right and wrong, how to learn and grow from their mistakes, and become responsible, capable adults (and maybe give them a little latitude to learn these things on their own, but not too much!). That’s the best legacy we can leave them.