I grew up in an area where I had free reign of about 30 square miles of forest, pasture, streams, gardens and open areas. There were perhaps sixty houses on our "street", but most of the lots were huge. Ours was three acres - a hundred sixty feet wide, and almost a half mile deep. My dad's parents lived next door. My dad's youngest brother's mother-in-law lived across the street from us. A dozen other relatives lived within ten houses, one way or another. It was a quarter-mile to the school, and I went to the same school for twelve years (mine was the last class to do that, and only half of us actually stayed in the same buildings for twelve years). I started first grade the same year my dad's youngest sister started junior high, and there were always a dozen or more cousins in school with me at the same time. Of the 133 people in my graduating class, two were first cousins and one was a fourth cousin. There may have been more, but the family tree is so tangled only a forensics expert working full-time for a hundred years would be able to tell. To my knowledge, none of my children every went to school with a known relative. Never.
We had animals as far back as I can remember. There was always a cow or two, and for many years there were turkeys, chickens, and rabbits. I raised pigs as a 4-H project for four years. My grandfather had a small gray donkey for a few years, and a few relatives had horses. I learned to milk cows at ten, and by high school it was one of my full-time chores. There were always dogs and cats around as well. Quite often, I would bring home other animals to care for, ranging from a six-foot green snake to frogs, lizards, tadpoles, crawfish, snails, birds of all types (including a barn owl once), and small rodents. At least here our children have shared some of those experiences. We've always had at least a cat, and frequently both cat and dog. My youngest daughter loves hamsters, and has had several.
My dad always planted a garden. In fact, for several years our garden took up almost an acre of ground. We grew everything that would grow in the south, from beans and corn to squash and cucumbers, tomatoes, carrots, lettuce, cabbage, eggplant, peas, okra, and watermelon. We had plums, figs, pecans and pears. We picked wild blackberries and huckleberries (similar to blueberries), gathered mayhaws (something close to crabapples) for jelly, and canned and froze enough to last all winter, not only for us but for a dozen relatives. We hunted and fished, and even did a little trapping. I've tried to teach my children to garden and to fish, with very poor results.
I was free to run our "neighborhood" - an area that extended from one major highway a mile to the east to another major highway a mile or more to the west, from the Dairy Queen three miles to the south to the church I attended and the friends that lived behind it a mile to the north. I sold the "Grit" newspaper as a teen. My paper route covered 26 miles, covered each weekend on a bicycle I bought for $2 when I was twelve. A friend of mine and I used to walk miles at a time, just for fun, when we were in high school. We've given our children as much freedom as we could, and encouraged them to work. Our oldest delivered the Stars and Stripes newpaper in Germany for a year, and ran the city of Wiesbaden with her other teenage friends. Today it's not safe for our youngest to do the same kinds of things in Colorado Springs.
I was a naughty child in many, many ways. I began by being gone from daylight to dark, running the forests, living on wild blackberries and other good things I could find, and driving my mother to screaming fits - at age five. I climbed trees (and fell out of several of them, but never getting seriously hurt), scraped knees, was bitten by all manner of insects and spiders, stung by bees and wasps, played with poison oak and poison ivy, stomped through muddy streams in knee-deep water, caught frogs and lizards and crawfish by the dozens, and just plain had FUN! I was hardly ever alone, but the leader of a group of a dozen or so children, half of them cousins of one degree or another. We had china-berry wars, slingshot wars (with dried clay balls - almost as hard as rocks), played cowboys and indians, and had a great time. We had pick-up baseball games in the summer, basketball and football games in the winter, went swimming in the creek or a nearby lake (with someone always on watch for snakes and alligators), had weiner and marshmallow roasts over an open fire in the back yard, stayed out all night in the back pasture, and did a thousand other things my children never got to enjoy.
We would go to the drive-in on Dollar-a-car night with twelve or more people piled into whatever car someone had at the time, skated at the local roller rink (without pads or safety equipment), went to school functions and church functions and just plain parties, usually with adult supervision, but without danger. Friends stayed over frequently, relatives visited and all the kids slept on pallets on the floor. Relatives were a big thing in my youth. My parents both came from large families, and we visited back and forth. My own children have visited my brother with us several times, and my wife's brother and sister now and then, but it's never been quite the same as those childhood visits of my early years. I was luckier than my brother, who's five years younger than I am. I knew two of my great-grandparents, and all four of my grandparents, well enough to remember them now, forty years or more after their deaths.
My parent's first home was heated by a propane heater in the kitchen, and a woodburning stove in the bedroom. One of my clearest childhood memories is helping my dad cut wood with a cross-cut saw. I was maybe six or seven at the time, and we cut a dead oak into foot-long sections and hauled them home through the snow in my red wagon. It doesn't snow often in Louisiana, and each one is deeply impressed in my memory. One of my jobs as a young child was cutting the kindling needed to start those wood fires. I had my own hatchet to perform this simple task, and I thought I was 'in tall cotton', as my parents would say.
Another early childhood chore was gathering eggs. I didn't dare break one - eggs were important. Unless you've ever eaten an angel-food cake made from scratch using turkey eggs, you've led a deprived existence. That's another thing my children have never experienced. My wife's made angel-food cake, and even one from scratch, but never using turkey eggs. Chicken eggs just don't compare.
It's impossible to remember in a few thousand words all the experiences of my childhood. I'm not sure a 500-page book would be enough. There are so many things - riding bareback on a mule - driving a tractor for the first time - cutting our own Christmas tree on 'the back forty' - riding in the cab of a steam locomotive at age seven, or just plain riding across a third of this nation in a railroad dome car - making snow ice cream - shooting snakes on the river at sunset - watching a momma bobcat feed her young - catching fireflies in the summertime - fighting a brush fire caused by some careless smoker. Growing up was full of wonder, and surprises, and the chance to learn about life and living.
Life wasn't all fun and games, or work. There were hard times, and childhood accidents. I've fallen out of trees, cut my foot on broken glass, carved my own fingers while whittling, and even once jammed a piece of barbed wire completely through my bare foot. I've been stung by scorpions and just about every kind of bee and wasp that lives in Louisiana. I stepped into a yellow jacket nest when I was sixteen, and was stung so many times my parents were afraid I'd go into shock from them. My mother became a practical nurse when I was twelve. One of the reasons she did so was so she could take care of all the scrapes, cuts, bruises, burns, bites, stings and sprains my brother and I would come home with.
Through all the wildness, the craziness, the escape from adult supervision, and 'learning the hard way', I lived, and lived well, as a child. I learned how to deal with a large part of the world by doing it. At fifty-eight, I look back and marvel that I survived. Yet I know that I've done things, experienced things, and enjoyed things that my children never can, and their lives are poorer as a result.