Free Range

What in the hell is a “free range” kid?

I have a feeling it is what was called in my day, “a kid.”

Here’s me at three: Pearl the telephone operator for our party line (we called her Central) calls my mother. small_Old-phone.jpg “Your daughter is outside in the street, in a mud puddle. She’s naked.” This was in Badger, a little town of 300 Norwegian farmers, and my mother had no idea I had even gotten out. Well, she came right down the street and scooped me up, but I wasn’t locked in the apartment. Until I was in second grade, we lived above the grocery store my dad owned, and there’s a lot I remember about Badger, most of it happening outside where my mother didn’t know exactly where I was. Looking at horror comics in Johnny and Martha’s basement? Exploring weird places around the grain elevators across the street? One of my early childhood horror stories was hearing of children falling into them and drowning in the grain. Playing doctor with the other children under blanket tents in the minister’s back yard. Running behind the only bar in town to yell “Blow the whistle” at the caboose of the train that had just come through. Upside down in the date barrel in the store. Sneaking a peak at the buffalo hanging in the freezer locker that our butcher Frank brought back from his yearly hunting trip in the Dakotas.

Here’s me in my grade school years: Walking alone to school down a long winding street and crossing a busy one (don’t remember a crossing guard) because I had missed the bus. Running off to play in the “pasture,” a wooded pasture land where somebody (never knew who, never met them) let a couple of horses run. There was a creek and a bridge and we kids spent a lot of time trying to get on the horses. I never succeeded, but some did. I was jealous. We played cowboys and Indians. I always wanted to be an Indian. When I wasn’t off on my bicycle, I was somewhere up a tree. Usually with a book. Sometimes, when we were lucky, there was a new house going up, which meant whole new opportunities for play and make believe, whether it was a great muddy hole of an excavation or a hide and seek forest of framing. small_new-home-construction-site-at-foundation-stage-in-suburbs-seen-from-C30F7M.jpg I had a very religious girlfriend who believed with all her heart that God meant her to fly, and we spent a lot of time looking for places for her to jump off so she could practice.

Nobody was abducted, killed, or suffered much more than a skinned knee or small bloody gashes acquired when squirming through the barbed wire fence into the “pasture.”

We were, in a way, the first “free range” kids. We didn’t have to work on farms or in factories. After school or in summer, if we could manage it, we escaped to the streets and back yards, wood lots and pastures. We came home when we were hungry. We were sent to bed at a reasonable hour, but even that was avoidable if you had a flashlight and a book to read under the covers and if you could get your little sister not to tell. Because we didn’t tell, either.

“What were you kids up to?” our mothers might ask. “Oh, nuthin’. Just playin’.” We didn’t tell our parents about the great new house excavation three blocks over or how Bobby fell off a horse into the creek out in the “pasture,” or how I tried to climb a tree that was too big for me and managed to get onto the lowest branch only to fall off when I couldn’t find a way to get to the next one. Probably about five or six feet. I don’t remember. I was just glad nobody was around to see it. Very shameful for a proud tree climber.

Maybe it was because by that time there were five going on six kids in my family. If there’s one thing to be said for big families, it’s that it is easy to get lost. So long as all of us were home for supper, ambulatory, and not bleeding on the plastic table cloth, it’s all good.

I still drive very carefully down residential streets, expecting any minute that a kid will run out after a ball. But they don’t. There aren’t any. Kids. I don’t know if they’re in the house with video games (full disclosure: I love video games) or if their parents have all arranged supervised play dates or what? I do know that if my neighbors here in Madison spot a kid sneaking through a back yard, they call the police.

Well, that’s what the kid gets, for not being able to sneak through a back yard without getting caught, I suppose. Then again, there aren’t any “free range” kids anymore. They’re either on play dates or up to no good. You should probably call the cops.