Confessions of a misspent youth

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Watching my youngest daughter Tess play soccer on the all-too green synthetic surfaces of Citizens Bank Fields in Lancaster, Mass., a few weeks ago, it occurred to me that I have no idea what it feels like to run on rubber and fall on artificial turf.

I do, however, know exactly what it feels like to leap off a huge pile of soft loam and to be pelted by crab-apples as you run through the woods.

Playing premier league soccer since she was 10, Tess, now 18, has competed on turf fields in tournaments all over New England and the Northeast. Having grown up before the advent of over-organized youth sports, I ran wild through fields and forests, vacant lots, sandpits, quarries, orchards, rail yards, and industrial wastelands all over Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Maine.

Frankly, I’m not sure which childhood is preferable. Certainly, no responsible parent these days would give a 6 or 7 year old the run of a town, but that’s pretty much what we had when, as my mother said to my little brother and me virtually every day of our young lives, “You boys run outside and play.”

Let loose, we and the wild boys we befriended everywhere were like a pack of dogs, not mean or menacing, just foolish and free. In the days before e-mail and text messaging, before kids even used telephones, we found one another by chance or by standing outside a friend’s house and howling his name – “Edd-dieee!”

We may have had a lot less in the way of organized recreation back then, but I have to believe we had a bit more imagination. And the things we thought up were often wonderfully adventurous and irresponsible.

The summer of 1960, a few months after we moved to Westbrook, I joined the Suicide Six Club, the initiation for which was nominally to ride your bike down Suicide Hill, a precipitous slope next to an abandoned quarry. As far as I know, none of the members ever actually did so.

What we did do almost daily that fall was stage neighborhood apple wars, a primitive forerunner of paintball fights. We’d divide into teams, fill our sweatshirts and jackets with fallen apples, and then have at it, chasing and ambushing the enemy and pelting them with rotting fruit. (A bit of strategic advise: never take shelter in an empty boxcar during an apple fight. Crab-apples ricochet wildly and the noise is deafening.)

Basketball, however, was the sport of kings in Westbrook. We played not in leagues, but in pick-up games, in the Cumberland Gym above Welch’s Pharmacy, in Hurd’s barn, on the concrete court next to the Tank (as the municipal swimming pool was known), but mostly in driveways. In winter we’d shovel off snow, chip away ice, and play outside in the cold, banking shots off rickety plywood backboards until our fingertips froze and cracked. After a season on the pavement, old leather basketballs became as wonderfully soft and furry as suede.

In the realm of pure play, there was always “guns.” There was a field at the end of our dead-end street that was full of grassed-over loam piles left behind by contractors building homes on Deer Hill (the gentler slope of Suicide Hill). In this suburban Wild West, we played cowboys, staging epic gun battles that invariably ended with melodramatic (and repeated) plunges off the top of the loam piles into the soft earth and long grass below.

Then one day the girls arrived. Embarrassed at being caught at child’s play, we never played guns again. Boyhood officially ended at 12.

The final wild place of my youth was Tall Pines, a grove of old growth in the midst of the little vestigial woods that separated my house from my girlfriend’s. Jane and I would meet there to “make out,” kissing as passionately as the chaste passion of a pre-teen permits. Then we would lie back on the warm, fragrant bed of pine needles at the base of the great trees, look up into the upper branches, and talk about what it would be like to be grown up, to have a car, a house, money, to be able to go wherever we wanted, to do whatever it was we wanted to do.

What we didn’t realize, of course, is that we would never again be quite so content as we were lying there beneath the tall pines, nor as free as the wild boys at play in the fields and woods of Westbrook.


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beem-edgar-op.jpgThe Universal Notebook is Edgar Allen Beem’s weekly personal look at the world around him. “Backyard Maine,” a collection of his columns, is available now at local bookstores.