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“Dad, I’ll Check In at 4:00…”

“Dad, I’ll Check In at 4:00…”

“That’s an old car horn. Want to hear it?”

I was 9 years old, I think, which would make it 1980. My friend David and I had just come from exploring a new-to-us area of woods in which we’d found a rotting Chevrolet from the late ‘40s, and an Oldsmobile from maybe five years later. They’d obviously been there for much longer than we’d been alive. The growth was uniform in all directions from them.

I had come home with my prize to find my father under the hood of my mom’s station wagon, so he was especially well-equipped to make such an offer. Taking the horn from me, he touched the ancient terminals to an easily accessible bit of the wiring harness. After a few tentative clicks and chirps—the decades-old horn clearing its throat?—we got a good, solid HONK! from it. We smiled, he handed it back to me, and we each went about our business.

Where did you get that? How did you remove it? Who does it belong to? These were some of six or seven reasonable questions Dad never asked.

When I think back to the autonomy I had starting from about age 8, I’m amazed. My dad was a bit looser than my mom was, but basically, the rule was check in at the time I tell you to (which was every two to four hours). A telephone check-in was acceptable unless specifically vetoed. Other than that, have fun, kid.

The area in which I played was a square mile, at least. (That’s my house marked.)

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I was almost never within earshot. Look at that area and tell me: how could I have been? One or two people deliberately searching for me might not have found me in an entire day.

I did a lot of growing there, though. Learned to ride a bike, got my first real kiss, saw my first snake, built my first snowman, rolled my first yard, had my first bottle-rocket war—all within that square mile.

Gee, I cut myself getting that horn out. First aid? Lick it a few times until it stops bleeding, and go on. Tetanus? E. coli? Pish-tosh. It’ll be fine. And it almost always was.

There were those rotting cars. Two streets over, there was a graveyard of major appliances in a red clay pit. Dude, don’t waste that rock splashing it in the creek. Let’s see how big a wound we can put in the side of that old washing machine. There was a long-abandoned treehouse, probably tended to by a kid who moved away years ago. Let’s climb in it! I’m sure the wood isn’t too rotted.

My boys, standing at the bottom of my childhood driveway.

I learned a lot about life in that square mile and in that few years. Part of me is concerned that my sons won’t get the same kinds of make-do opportunities.

But a slightly larger part of me says, are you crazy? There are psychopaths out there. What kinds of infections are you risking? Is your child paying attention in traffic on those 45 mph roads?

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I can’t really tell whether the world is more dangerous now than when I was a boy. Doubtless we have much more, and much timelier, reporting now than we did then. Does that mean there are more bad guys? Or that we have more dangers to public health?

Or does that simply mean that we know more about the risks that have always been there than we did before? I can’t be sure. Probably, you can’t either. That’s going to translate on the ground as neither of us risking it.

I don’t know how to give that level of freedom to my boys. They’re allowed to ride around our neighborhood on their bicycles, but that’s it. It’s an area perhaps 5% the size of mine growing up. I could scour the whole thing by myself in three minutes.

I think people try to recapture some of it with gated subdivisions, planned communities, and so forth. But it’s not the same, is it?

I hope, somewhere, kids still run around like I did.


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