There were lots of entertaining things to do during the summers when I was a kid, and I don’t mean the obvious ones such as watching television or going to the movies. Nor do I mean the many baseball games that would take up entire days when I was a bit older. No, I’m talking about when I was five or six, before sports became a passion, and I’m also talking about the sorts of things that I can’t imagine city kids doing these days, either because it would bore them to death or because the people involved just plain don’t exist now.
For instance, in the category of things that don’t exist, the milkman would make deliveries and we’d beg him for a piece of the ice he utilized to keep the milk, butter, cream, and eggs cold on a hot summer day. If he had given every kid along his route a piece of ice, the truck would have had to have been twice as large to carry it all, but he occasionally took pity on us (and, when he didn’t, we’d sneak a piece from the truck, anyway, while he was at one of our houses making a delivery.) We could have gone in the house and had an ice cube any time we wanted, of course, but where was the fun in that?
Likewise, the baker (who wasn’t really a baker, but just the deliveryman) also came in a truck, bringing breads and rolls (and cakes, which our mothers almost never bought but which we hoped they would.) Or the ice cream man might show up with his little white truck, sending us scrambling for nickels and dimes so that he’d open the hatch in the side of the truck, revealing a frozen wonderland of treats that, no matter which one we bought, we wished we had bought a different one. The mailman came at the same time every day, and we knew him and he knew us and we’d save him a few steps by asking him if he had anything for our house, which he almost always did and we felt like big shots when he trusted us to make the delivery.
(Mothers were almost always home, by the way. Dads were the only ones who worked. Moms watched TV while they did laundry, made beds, ironed, vacuumed – or, if not rich enough to own a vacuum cleaner, swept - and cooked. About the only time they left the house was to do some shopping. One income was generally enough in those days, and those mothers who did work usually did so at night or on a part-time basis. In any case, each family had only one car, if they had a car at all, so unless a mom took the bus or trolley, where was she going to go?)
The most interesting of the semi-regular visitors were the Fuller Brush Man and the Avon Lady, who would actually come into the house and sit down, opening display cases to show off interesting and odd assortments of goods, and the ragman, who would round the corner in a horse-driven cart, yelling out “Any old rags?” and that was the signal for us kids to dash inside and see if our mothers had any to give him.
(I don’t know what was in it for the mothers, nor did I have any idea what the ragman did with our old hole-filled stuff, but I usually managed to get something for him. If enough kids had stuff to put in his cart, he’d stop long enough to give us opportunity to pet his old gray horse. That was what we got out of it, and great payment it was, too.)
(Interesting side note: We kids knew by sound which person was coming, and we knew it a couple of blocks before they got there. The milkman’s truck had a sound distinct from the baker’s truck, and the ice cream man’s bell was different from the bell that the ragman sometimes clanged. We also could tell when our fathers were two blocks away and headed home, just by the sound of his motor. Nowadays, it wouldn’t really be possible. There was so little street traffic, even on our streets in the city, that we could distinguish those noises.)
When the delivery people and salesmen weren’t there, we found other things to do. Games took up many hours, of course, with tag or hide-and-seek being the predominant forms of entertainment. Tag came in many varieties, some of which included freeze tag and monster tag. Freeze tag involved touching the victim, who became “it”, but who was also obliged to stay stock still, frozen in the position he had been in when tagged, for a count of ten, before he could seek out the next victim. In monster tag, the person who was “it” had to move stiffly, like Frankenstein’s monster, which made it incredibly hard to catch anyone else, so it usually wasn’t too long before he got tired of it and the game ended. Hide-and-seek was a more cerebral pursuit. If you were the seeker, you had to consider the psychology of your friends. You had to know that the kid who was scared of heights probably wouldn’t be up a tree, and the kid who didn’t like enclosed spaces wouldn’t be hiding under someone’s porch. If you were a hider, and you found a good enough hiding place – for instance, the most excellent lilac bush in a yard on Monson Street, which a kid could climb inside of - you might not even be aware that everybody else had tired of looking for you twenty minutes ago and had started playing ring-a-leevio (which, to show you how old I am, I can’t even remember how it was played, although the name of the game came readily to mind.)
Other significant pursuits included peering down a sewer to see if anything valuable was there; laying on your back and describing what a cloud looked like to you; and going to an old overgrown field and digging for buried treasure.
(There was never anything valuable down the sewer, but the smells were instructive. As it turned out, the clouds usually looked like clouds. And none of us really thought pirates might have chosen a field behind a real estate office to store their loot, but every so often we found an old pop bottle full of dirt that we’d clean out and bring to the store to get the two cents deposit, so it was worth it.)
When all else failed, the surest form of entertainment was to look under a rock.
I’m serious. There was always something interesting happening under a rock. If you don’t believe me, go look under a rock right now. You’ll see.
OK, I guess you didn’t actually go look under a rock just now, so I’ll tell you what was under there. What was happening under the rocks was bugs. Of course, when I say “bugs,” I mean it in a general sort of way. To us kids, everything under a rock was a bug. And there certainly were lots of bugs under rocks, in many interesting sizes, shapes, colors, and states of grossness. Some rocks had worms under them, others had beetles, still others had ants or God only knows what. It was always a surprise. You never knew what was under there until you looked, and look we did. If the first rock we looked under didn’t have something gruesome – maybe there was just a slug – then we went to the next rock. The idea was to keep looking under rocks until you found something so loathsome and disgusting you knew you couldn’t possibly lift another rock and find anything better.
There were other places to look for bugs, but you pretty much knew what you were going to find in those places. For example, each of our backyards had a garbage pail built into the ground, and the city would come and collect those pails full of refuse once a week (which I’m fairly certain doesn’t happen now, health laws being what they are.) If you looked in there, you knew you’d find maggots. They were somewhat interesting, in a pale and squirmy sort of way, but there was no surprise. Any time you felt the overwhelming urge to see maggots – which wasn’t often, I grant you - you knew where to find them. Looking under a rock, on the other hand, was an adventure. You might discover something you’d never seen before (and might never want to see again, for that matter, but I think that’s mostly in retrospect. At that time, if somebody saw a truly hideous sight under a rock, he wasted no time in telling everybody else to come over and take a gander at it. There was a certain cachet attached to discovering something so repulsive that it might cause nightmares. I recall, with stunning clarity, the lifting of one particular rock in my backyard. We had these flagstones, flat slate rocks, and they were the absolute best for finding things under.
Maybe bugs liked them because they were thin enough to hold heat or something. Anyway, Stephen Murphy and I were lifting up these flagstones and looking under them, mostly finding only worms, but I lifted this one and saw literally hundreds of little steely-gray round bugs slimily skittering back and forth. It was such a startling sight that I quickly dropped the rock back into its place, which wasn’t good news for whatever they were as it promptly diminished the living among them by about a tenth. It was such a great find, however, that I shouted for Stephen to come over and take a look. He lifted the rock and also promptly destroyed a bunch of them by dropping it as quickly as I had. It was a truly repulsive sight and later we both had nightmares. Best rock ever!)
Insects were a source of fascination for us, but our mothers weren’t quite so enamored. They tried their damnedest to wipe the neighborhood clean of any vestige of them. The afore-mentioned garbage pails would periodically be attacked with bleach, and whenever an anthill was discovered, there seemed to be a positive feminine joy attached to boiling a pot of water and then pouring it over the same. When we kids found a silverfish in the bathtub, it was interesting to watch it fail in an attempt to scale the side and get out, but when a mom found you watching the creature, it was immediately and unceremoniously washed back down the drain from whence it had come.
Some moms (but not mine, I hasten to add) also saw it as their duty to give us a sense of full-on paranoid dread concerning some insects. A persistent tale told in our neighborhood was that a thing called a darning needle - a very large and pointy flying bug (which was really a dragonfly, I think) - would sew your lips shut if it got the chance. I don’t think any of us really believed such nonsense, but we didn’t let the things get too close to us, either, just in case.
The mom battalion squished spiders, stomped on beetles, swatted flies, and (excuse the expression) balled moths. The only insects immune to a mother’s deadly hand were ladybugs. They were spared because, apparently, mothers enjoyed reciting the ladybug poem…
Ladybug, ladybug, fly away home
Your house is on fire and your children are burning
… which doesn’t rhyme, but after the recitation, the mom would blow the ladybug off of her hand, sending it on its way to check out the conflagration in question.
That was all well and good, but we kids knew better ways to get our jollies from insects.
One day, we discovered a huge spider web in one of the cellar windows. We all decided to stage a battle and see who would win – the spider or whatever nasty bug we threw onto its web.
We had a discussion beforehand about what sort of bug might be able to give the spider a good fight. Obvious choices were a scorpion or a wasp. However, scorpions didn’t inhabit our neighborhood of Boston, and we had no clue how to catch a wasp. After lengthy deliberation, we decided that a pincher was the best bet.
(I don’t know if that’s the scientific name for that bug. Probably not. It’s that thing with a rear end made up of two sharp pincers.
Ugh. I haven’t seen one of those in a while, and I was just as happy as I would have been had I seen one more recently, I think.)
Anyway, we now had to find a pincher. Where did we look? Under a rock, of course!
After a short search, we found one and carried it to the web. We tossed it onto the web and waited for the spider to engage it in battle. We then found out that spiders are extremely patient and that webs are a distinct disadvantage for all bugs except spiders. The pincher, in trying to extricate itself from the predicament, just became more firmly entangled. Meanwhile, the spider sat there. Eventually, the pincher stopped moving. We learned a valuable lesson from this exercise: Even if you have a pair of scissors for an ass, it won’t do you any good if some kids from Dorchester decide to feed you to a spider.
(Well, OK, maybe it’s not that valuable a lesson. It would be if you were a pincher, though.)
So, that’s that (whatever it was.) I knew going into this that it wouldn’t have any point, but you had no clue and I apologize for that. Just goes to show you that every time I don’t write about softball it isn’t necessarily going to be more fun than when I do.
Soon, with more better stuff.