Friday, June 7, 2013

“School’s Out, School’s Out! Teacher Let the Mules Out!”

The words “Tag, you’re it,” or “You push first,” carry on breezes floating to my patio from a nearby playground. Laughter and repetitive sounds of metal chains swaying back and forth accompany high-pitched voices enjoying sunshine and freedom from desks and fluorescent lighting. It’s like hearing echoes of me in those first heady days after a school term ended fifty some years ago. Vacation meant exploring or testing our wheels. The essence of simpler times hasn’t changed in little towns dotting Kansas maps.

In those intoxicating weeks after class ended, my friends and I re-explored our neighborhood. Another year older, we tested how much higher we could climb a nearby tree. Once we reached our limits, we’d either play Tarzan and swing down the branches or investigate bird nests to see whether they held any eggs.

After challenging our fear of heights, we’d tromp to the nearest creek. This required rationalizing because our moms told us not to go near water. If we stopped at the mud on the creek bank that couldn’t be considered near water, right? I suspect our parents would’ve interpreted that rule differently than we did. Anyway, we’d try to guess what tracks belonged to what animal or gross one another out by picking up and extending stinky fish or crawdad carcasses toward our squalling buddies. 

A good stick made any creek side exploration better. We tested mud’s depth by shoving our stick in until it hit solid ground. Sometimes we already knew how deep it was because we’d sunk up to our knees into it. We’d see who could throw the farthest or have imaginary sword fights. Once our gooey adventure ended, we used our handy tools to scrape off evidence of trespassing in forbidden territory.

As the sun rose higher throughout the day, we needed a change. Out came adjustable silver skates or bicycles. Toys were simpler then, so putting on skates meant latching four wheels to a shoe with a key worn on a shoestring around the neck. Once we got our sea legs on those primitive transportation devices, it was bumpity bump bump bump down a cracked and uneven sidewalk. We quickly learned to fall without hurting ourselves because we had plenty of tumbles. If I remember right, I think I even tied a pillow on my fanny to soften my landings.

Bicycles weren’t any higher tech than skates except we could push backward on the pedals to brake. It seemed as if every bike I ever saw was big. At six or seven, I had to put all my energy into controlling the handlebars or pushing the pedals. It was one lesson after another about levers and torque. Now days, youngsters go through a series of size-appropriate bicycles so managing them is easier. 

Bikes led to races, daredevil tricks, and parades. It didn’t take long to discover who had the fastest bike or the strongest legs, so contests didn’t occupy much time. However, I loved putting my younger brother either in my bike’s basket or on the bumper over the back wheel and taking off down the highest hill we could find. We’d build up so much speed I had to hold my legs stretched away from the spinning pedals to prevent an injury. Neither of us realized that if we’d crashed, we could’ve killed ourselves.

Bikes weren’t only about adrenalin rushes. Nothing was more fun than planning a parade. We’d weave colorful crepe paper remnants between wheel spokes and tie them in streamers to our handlebars. No one worried about color schemes, so our parades were eye catching for sure. Looking back, I don’t know who watched because we all rode. Apparently, we didn’t care.

Listening to neighborhood kids enjoying their first weeks of summer, I hope they find the joy my friends and I did in those distant, carefree days. May they discover a good tree to climb, some skates to test their balance, and at least one parade to show off a vividly decorated bicycle.

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