Childhood memories – those seminal, bittersweet moments of our youth burned indelibly into our consciousness.
Few things in the running timeline that is our ‘life’ burn with the intensity of our early memories. I grew up in the 1960’s and 70’s in a typical Northern Virginia suburb on the outskirts of Washington, D.C. In those days, you got your entertainment wherever you could find it. For the grown-ups, there was Redskins football (if you were lucky enough to be a season ticket holder or, pre-Ebay, know enough of the right people to get tickets). There were a wealth of bars and restaurants, and a handful of museums and cultural tourist attractions. Born in a fiscally conservative household, we settled for Washington Diplomats season tickets. The Diplomats were an NASL (North American Soccer League) soccer franchise who played at RFK Stadium, whenever the Redskins weren’t using it that is, and when no major swap meets needed the space. It was a poor substitute for Sonny, Billy, and George Allen, but we enjoyed the likes of Alan Green, Sonny Askew, and Johan Cruyff all the same. If you were a kid in D.C. in those days, the options were less exotic, although for the imaginative, nearly limitless.
In the Winter, most of our days and nights were spent praying for snow. It rarely came, but even an inch or two was enough to gleefully paralyze the Fairfax County Public School System for days, and create a bread and milk shortage of epic proportions. Few things rivaled the excitement of expectantly listening to local radio stations for the announcement that school had been cancelled. When it did snow, there were life threatening rides down steep ice-covered hills in ‘saucers’ or ‘flexible flyers’, which continued until frostbite set in, or someone hit a tree, whichever came first. It was the pre-acid rain era, so we’d run out in the front yard at night, scoop up a bowl of the white stuff (we hoped it was white anyway), and adding vanilla and milk, make ‘snow-cream’, which to an 8-10 year old, was the nectar of the Gods.
In the Summer, we caught insects. None of us really knew why. It just seemed like the most entertaining option. In fact, catching bugs was such a popular activity among 1960-1970’s era kids, you could actually buy bug-catching kits at Toys-R-Us. We didn’t mess with beetles, potato bugs, or other ‘boring’ bugs. Bee’s were what we were after, because, lets face it – we were growing up on the mean streets of Alexandria – danger was our middle name. My personal favorites were bumblebees. They were black and green, looked like space aliens, and got really pissed off when you trapped them in your empty mayonnaise jar (or if you were a lucky little bastard, a Toys-R-Us official bugcatcher!). But really, any bee would do. I don’t really remember what we did after catching bees, but it was a thrill we never tired of. The pinnacle of bee-catching achievement was to catch multiple bees in the same container, increasing exponentially, the odds that either you or an innocent bystander, would be stung. Heady stuff. I even remember the strange alien smell of insects, something I wonder whether today’s kids would even recognize? When the bees weren’t buzzing, there was the less politically correct alternative – roasting insects alive with your magnifying glass.
Occupying that special strata between actually having disposable income, and not having it, my parents were the proud and fortunate owners of an above ground pool. Constructed with aluminum siding and paperclips, this miracle of 1970’s engineering seemed always on the verge of collapsing. Water in our pool mysteriously defied the first law of thermodynamics, its temperature staying at a near constant -20 degrees Fahrenheit, even smack dab in the middle of the infamously hot and humid DC Summers. When our lips had achieved maximum blueness and we had lost feeling in our extremities, we would escape our arctic refuge, and lay ourselves down, with a satisfying sizzle, on the concrete and metal sewer lid in front of our house. This alternating freezing and frying cycle killed a lot of time in my youth, and likely most of my neuroreceptors. As an adult, I generally no longer perceive temperature.
Once in awhile, when the Gods of Summer and good fortune shined upon us, we heard a noise that sent us into fits of anticipatory glee. The jingle of the ‘Good Humor’ truck could be heard by our young finely tuned ears at least 8 miles away, and sent us into a frenzy like no other (comparable, perhaps, only to the reaction of teenage boys at the beach to the news that an adult female had lost her top in the surf). Depending on how much change you could beg, borrow, or stealthily abscond with, you might enjoy any number of delicacies: a red-white-and-blue rocket pop, creamsicle (the flavor of which still cannot be explained nor replicated by modern science), or if you were especially lucky, the pinnacle of Good Humor offerings, the chocolate eclair or strawberry shortcake.
The rest of the year was less exciting. We built forts in the woods in the most politically incorrect manner possible. Sometimes we just dug giant holes in the ground. Sometimes we built lean-to’s with rotting logs and squatted in them. Good times. But the most favored form of fort-building involved climbing to perilous heights while nailing 2×4’s and plywood onto beautiful and previously unmarred trees, thus creating the secret sanctums of our youth. The building of forts wasn’t just about material conquest, but required the creation of secret organizations, passwords, secret signs and handshakes, and sacred alliances. The building of a fort was naturally and inevitably followed by the tearing down of said fort by other would-be fort builders, usually for no apparent reason whatsoever. This cycle of creation and destruction taught us perhaps the most important life lesson of them all. No matter how beautiful the things you create in life, there will always be some asshole that won’t be happy until they find a way to mess it all up. Life is fort-building.
When we tired of building forts, and when all other seasonally appropriate forms of recreation were exhausted, we threw **** at each other. Apples, homemade spears, rocks. It didn’t much matter. Throwing **** at each other was fun. The most desirable and auspicious form of ‘throwing stuff’ was unquestionably the ‘dirt clod battle’. As an aged and wise philosopher once scrawled with his last dying word ‘dirt clods are God’s way of telling us he wants us to pelt each other with ****’. Okay – I’ll confess I made that up (although I believe Ben Franklin may have said something approximate) – but there was no denying, a dirt clod battle was good old-fashioned epic battle fun.
Northern Virginia, experiencing a home construction explosion during that time, may well have been the dirt clod battle mecca of the Universe. The rules were clear and universal. Find a construction site. Find an enemy (i.e…anyone else you either didn’t know or didn’t like who happened to be a kid and there at the time). Commence throwing dirt clods. The objective was clear – create drama at any cost. Sometimes this could be achieved by making a particularly spectacular throw, sometimes by managing to gain control of the precious high ground, from which to dominate your opponent and pummel him into submission. The battles never ended until it got dark, or someone ran off bleeding and screaming. If the supply of dirt clods was exhausted, the fun could continue, as clod battles could morph into equally stimulating sessions of ‘King of the Mountain’ and ‘Smear the Queer’ (it was the 60’s and 70’s – there was no such thing as ‘politically correct’ – sorry!). The opportunities for good old American fun were endless. No doubt our best military leaders of the period honed their skills on the field of dirt clod battle.
I’m not exactly sure what our parents were doing while these healthy childhood activities were going on. Mostly, they seemed to smoke, drink, argue, cookout, and do yard work. Despite a seeming lack of responsible parental supervision, we somehow grew into relatively normal (*cough*) functioning adults despite our rather adventuresome recreational activities. Today I wonder if perhaps the sometimes rough and tumble exercises of our youth weren’t the perfect training grounds for the challenges of the adult workplace. I can still dodge a good dirt-clod and deliver a well-aimed strike when one is sorely needed. 🙂
But in the 1960’s and 70’s, America’s youth yearned for nourishment, not just of the flesh, but of the mind, and I was no exception. Fortunately, Washington DC had 5 channels of television to satisfy our burgeoning intellectual curiosity. I was a big fan of Channel 20 (you had to turn to that particular channel using a separate UHF dial, a clear indicator that it was ‘special’). My parents dug Channels 4, 5, and 9. No one I knew watched Channel 45. Channel 20 offered a veritable treasure chest of offerings. Where else could you see Will Robinson and Robot traverse the dangers of the galaxy and the diabolical Dr. Smith? What other source of knowledge and wisdom could provide the life lessons encapsulated in the adventures of Ultraman and Speed Racer? Channel 20 was a portal to unlimited information and experience, where I met and fell in love with Herman Munster, Marine Boy, Kimba the White Lion, and countless other important world influences. And Channel 20 was the only television station that had its very own spiritual leader, Dick Dyszel, who taught kids everything they needed to know as Bozo the Clown, Count Gore De Vol, and ‘Captain 20’.
It was at night however, during the witching hours, that the TV of my childhood shared its darkest and most meaningful secrets. 11:30pm was a magical moment. Either with parental knowledge, or without it, huddled around the 15″ black and white television with its directional telescoping antenna extended and pointed for maximum reception clarity, we were ready to be thrilled. And thrilled we were. I spent a good portion of my youthful weekend nights transfixed by the horror classics as presented by the previously mentioned Count, or by another of my childhood favorites, all the way from Detroit, Sir Graves Ghastly.
Both wonderful and horrible, the classic movies of my childhood still dominate my childhood memories: Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Invisible Man, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, The Thing, The Night of the Living Dead, The Incredible Shrinking Man, The Leech Woman, The Little Shop of Horrors, The Wasp Woman, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, The Haunting, Black Sabbath, The Gorgon, Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte, and countless others…So enthralled with late night fare was I, that my parents began fondly to call me ‘old weird John’. What they didn’t see were the valuable life-lessons I learned while they slept. Bad things happen to good people. Sometimes it’s smart to run. When you hear voices in your house, get out! Never hitchhike. If it’s dark, and you’re in a lightning storm, something bad’s about to happen. Nothings more scary than the everyday. Monsters are real – its just that grownups are too stupid to see them. And old people are creepy.
Some might look on my childhood in the DC suburbs as strange, warped, or dysfunctional. But to me, it was magical, memorable, an utterly amazing chapter of my life. Whether endangering my own or someone else’s life in an epic dirt clod fight, defending a newly established fort in the woods as our code of honor required, or staring transfixed at this week’s horror beaming to me live from the Channel 20 studios, my childhood was one to remember. Some say they learned everything they needed to know in kindergarten. But not me. I learned everything I needed to learn when my parents weren’t watching. And I enjoyed every second of it.