By Tony Hooker
In the dim, dusty halls of my memory, the river city was the absolute best place to grow up in the 70’s and 80’s.
There always seemed to be something happening, somewhere. Our parents were too busy making ends meet to take us to 60 travel softball or baseball games or myriad dance, cheer or tumbling competitions, so we had to entertain ourselves. The river provided fishing opportunities, and area creeks were full of crawdads for the catching. Those who are just a bit older than I am remember the rope swing and swimming hole at the Res, which now carries the name of our revered former mayor, John Leon. Apparently there was enough broken glass and tile in the old pond that our elders deemed it unsafe, and I was never able to swing, Tarzan-like, over the water for the dismount. In retrospect, that’s probably a good thing, as I’m never been known as a gazelle for my grace and athletic prowess. I can probably give you a run for your money in euchre, bowling or darts, but that’s about it. In football, I might have been small, but I sure was slow. Basketball? Fuhgeddaboudit! I guess I was a decent enough baseball player, but the first time I saw a good curveball, I knew the big leagues weren’t going to be a career option for me.
To me, the greatest thing about growing up in our little town, and I suppose, all little towns, was the freedom we were afforded. It’s been recited so much that it’s become cliché but it’s true that the street lights coming on were our curfew. Other than that, our parents put very few other restrictions on us.
Without electronics to occupy us, we often gathered for baseball or football games at various sites around town. For those of us growing up in Old Town, Gene “Slick” Williams’ vacant lot was the spot. It was only years later, as an adult that the secret of the lot was revealed. It seems that the older kids always took the high ground, making us younger brats run uphill in every contest. Sneaky. Effective, but sneaky. The McCoy kids had the school grounds to play on, and the battles that took place near the baseball diamond, where folks park for football games, are legend. The West side folks had Harrison Park to call their own, and the kids on the south side had what is now known as Coddington Park at their disposal. Finally, the “rich” kids living in Henson or Country Club subdivisions had the vacant lot next the Schmidt’s’ house for staging epic struggles. Of course, we ‘cross-pollinated’ these competitions and kids from each neighborhood got together and played at each site. Though we often spoke of competing ‘hood versus ‘hood, I don’t remember the games actually happening. If anyone does remember something like this occurring, feel free to share it and I’ll include it in a future column.
Our outdoor activities weren’t limited to summer only, to be sure. As I recall, we used to get significant snow fall on the regular, and that led to some great sledding action on the ‘slopes’ along the river. I do remember hitting a tree and scraping the side of my face off when I was in fourth grade, another testament to my total lack of coordination, I suppose. I went home and my mom gave me a peanut butter sammich and sent me on my way. No afternoon on the couch being catered to in Bennettville.
At any rate, that was our childhood. We grew up competing in just about everything you can imagine, rock skipping, fishing, and tree climbing were just a few of our activities, in addition to all the stick and ball sports. One thing that stands out, even today, forty-five plus years later, is that we competed against kids that were sometimes four or five years older than us, and they showed no mercy. I believe that these experiences shaped our later achievements. Nothing was given to us, and it made us pretty tough.
Battles were fought. Reputations were earned, and nicknames (Hey, Moose!) were given. I see kids playing hoops on the ‘tennis courts’, and it gives me hope that kids still gather for those sorts of neighborhood contests. Informal contests like the ones we had, without adult oversite, taught us mediation skills, fairness and the consequences of our words and actions. It truly was an exceptional time to grow up, at least in my memory.