Saturday, March 31, 2012

Why I Miss Childhood

When I was seven, we lived in Sulphur Springs, Texas, maybe half a mile or less from my grandparents' house. And because it was the early 1970s, it was okay for my parents to leave me and my nine-year-old brother alone by ourselves for hours at a time. We could be trusted alone by ourselves -- heck, when my dad was that age, he was out hunting in the woods with a .22 on his own, and he hardly ever shot and field-dressed any of the neighbors.

So one time while by ourselves, my brother and I decided to walk to our grandfolks' house. But we didn't want to walk along the road, we wanted to walk along the railroad tracks. We hopped the barbed-wire fence and hiked across whatever pasture or field lay between our yard and the tracks, and we spent what seemed like ages hiking the gravel embankment, jumping from one wood tie to the next, balancing on the iron rails -- having an awesome adventure in the hot Texas sun.

We found railroad spikes.

That's right, we each found some rusty-ass, dirt-encrusted iron railroad spikes lying in the gravel or the weeds by the tracks, and we picked them up and took them with us like they were solid gold.

Naturally, when our parents found out about this, there was hell to pay. We could have gotten hit by a train! (My parents apparently hadn't noticed how flat that part of Texas is and how dead quiet the day had been and how even a daydreaming seven-year-old would have spotted and heard a train from miles off.) We'd taken someone else's property! (Technically true, but it's not like we'd pulled the spikes loose from the joins of the tracks and set in motion a horrific disaster sure to kill everyone on board the next train except for Bruce Willis. They were just going to sit there and rust away to nothing, so who cares that someone else owned them?) We could have been killed and eaten by hobos! (This one we had no answer for. You couldn't grow up in the 1970s watching old black-and-white films on Saturday morning without understanding that hobos were everywhere, and while I'd never seen a movie about a cannibal hobo, I knew that some hobos were clowns or, worse, mimes, and therefore f---ing scary.)

But even though we got in trouble, we came out of it unscathed, and they let us keep the railroad spikes (the least filthy of them, anyway), and for a couple of hours (or maybe half an hour, since time is so much different for a kid), we'd been Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer, on our own with only the wild life of the rails to tell us where to go or what to do.

That's the amazing thing about being a kid. Finding an oxidized chunk of metal that leaves horrible red crap all over your hands is almost as good as chasing along beside a speeding boxcar, grabbing desperately for the door handle so that you can swing yourself up and inside and escape the posse/indians/robber gang pursuing you on horseback. In fact, in your seven-year-old mind, it's exactly the same.

Kids are easily bored. But they are also convinced that there is an escape from boredom, and that it lies within or perhaps just beyond their grasp. As adults, we lose that conviction with frightening ease.

But maybe we ought to go walk the railroad tracks once in a while to find it again.

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