With our heads freshly buzzed and our shirts and shoes nowhere to be found, we would spend our summer days outside, our only parental edict to stay within the sound of my father’s whistle.
There were five of us Goessel neighborhood kids, all close enough to the same age that we hung around together. In addition, we were first cousins, separated for most of our school-age years by an alley and a couple of houses’ distance north and south.
Of course, we three older boys didn’t want to play with the two girls. My younger brother and his cousin/friend didn’t mind so much hanging out with my sister and her female first cousin. The girls were only one year apart in age, and they didn’t bother us much.
My little brother, four years my junior, and his buddy, the youngest neighborhood cousin and a year younger still, wanted to take part in whatever adventure we had planned for the day.
We occasionally took advantage of their eagerness to remain in our company. If we were a block away or so and had forgotten something at home, we could trick the little guys into retrieving what we needed by simply offering to put them on the clock.
“Let’s see how fast you can go,” one of us would say. “We’ll time you.”
Then, of course, we would return to what we were doing and forget all about counting out the seconds. We didn’t wear watches anyway. But, just to keep them available for next time, we would tick off the time as soon as they were within earshot: “…35, 36, 37. Good job, guys.”
The early part of the summer was spent reacquainting ourselves with the area surrounding our houses. We seldom strayed from our home block, except to make a trip to the city park, which was about three blocks away. That journey required permission.
Though only a tiny, shallow body of water, we marveled at what huge fish might lurk under its muddy surface. We had heard rumors of anglers dumping bullheads and channel cats they hadn’t wanted to clean.
If we had given it more thought, we would have realized that by August, the pond was usually bone dry and lunkers were not likely to survive year to year. A group of older boys had left a tire in the water one year, and when they retrieved it onto the shore, there was a huge fish still inside. That story was enough to keep us believing we could catch a keeper.
In spring, the creek that ran nearby often overflowed and sometimes spilled into the pond. We might spot large grass carp making their way up and down the stream following a May frog strangler.
So, in our minds, anything was possible, including our building a raft of inner tubes and plywood. Maybe we would even float down Mosquito Creek, as the glorified ditch was named, just to see where we would end up.
We sometimes went fishing south of town where the water collected and grew deeper and smellier. Our spot was just off the road, only about a quarter mile outside town. I don’t recall ever catching anything besides tadpoles.
We would dangle our legs over the side of the bridge and wonder whether the dilapidated Gordon School, where our fathers attended many years earlier, was really haunted. If there was anything rummaging around the old building it was likely a family of raccoons.
But, we had heard a few rumors of sounds like chains rattling coming from within the windowless rooms. Eventually, the school collapsed, and the remnants were buried and covered by a wheat field.
As the summer wore on and heated up, we continued to make our own adventures. For the weeks leading up to July 4, we would discuss the types of fireworks we were planning to purchase. Using small sticks, we would rehearse our tossing techniques, hoping our fathers would let us light and throw a few when our moms weren’t looking.
In those days, firecrackers packed a much bigger punch, at least it seemed that way. A Black Cat certainly didn’t have any difficulty destroying a small boat we had launched in the ditch, where some water remained from a recent thunderstorm.
As we grew older, we would place firecrackers in pears that had dropped unripened off a neighbor’s tree. We would drill a hole in the green fruit, light the fuse of the explosive we placed inside, then hurl the semi-round projectile as high as we could, usually resulting in a satisfying pop and shower of pear juice.
On warm evenings, as our parents sat in lawn chairs in the driveway, and the junebug population increased exponentially, we would often walk around the neighborhood with a bucket and a Mason jar. The bucket was for toads, and the jar was for fireflies.
Sometimes we would rip the back ends off the beetles of the night and place them on our fingers, pretending they were glowing gemstones in rings. The toads we usually just counted and released. They were so plentiful; the sand streets of Goessel would usually be littered with their flattened carcasses in the morning.
We were also likely to encounter bats, which fluttered around the streetlights competing with purple martins for mosquitoes. We could tell the difference because the birds went away shortly after sunset, and they didn’t swoop down as close to our heads. The girls would scream as they worried about getting bats tangled in their unruly summer hair. The martins also occasionally coasted as they flew.
We once found a flying rodent near our swingset in broad daylight and examined him up close for a while before one of our dads took the creature away on a shovel and buried it in an undisclosed location. No self-respecting bat would be out during the day unless it had a disease like rabies. So, we were instructed never to touch a wild animal, no matter how tame it might look.
I recall once stepping on a freshly killed robin, a victim of a violent thunderstorm. As I stomped the unfortunate bird, it expelled the entire contents of its intestines all over my sister’s leg. She screamed, and I was in big trouble.
Bicycles were our main mode of transportation around the neighborhood. A boy’s bicycle was his most valuable possession. It was a means of conveyance to the post office each morning to get the family’s mail, or the all-important trips to the ball field on Wednesday nights or to re-supply fireworks or candy caches.
Most of us owned single-speed two wheelers during our elementary years. They were decked out with banana seats, high-rise handlebars and, occasionally, sissy bars. A few had horns to honk out warnings, and at some point nearly all sported cardboard and clothespin motors in the spokes. A generator that spun off the wheel was a luxury that allowed us to ride legally at night. Most of us had one as soon as we could afford it.
Though we were not allowed to trade bikes without the deal being blessed by a parent, I once convinced my little brother that my two-wheeler was superior to his in many ways, and I wanted to help him out by swapping with him. To this day I don’t recall why I wanted his bicycle, but I do remember that the trade didn’t stick under adult scrutiny.
We didn’t have a swimming facility in Goessel, and the pond in the park was just too gross by mid-summer even for wading, so running through the sprinkler was the primary way we kept cool. We also had squirt gun battles, and one or two neighbors had small, above ground pools or perhaps stock tanks.
We took swimming lessons at the YMCA in Newton and eventually the new pool in Moundridge, but we never really approached them seriously until Dad bought a boat in our teenage years and told us he would not take us skiing until we could swim well enough to survive. It didn’t take long for us to pass the class.
The summers of my youth were times of exploration, self-education and occasional inspiration. I have an overwhelming number of memories from those formative years. There was the time my three siblings and I went through an entire loaf of bread making a mid-morning snack of buttered toast.
Then, there was the robin I “accidentally” killed with my BB gun. I had been frustrated by trying to shoot sparrows and took casual aim at the plump songbird. I shot from the hip, and he went down.
I was sure my crime would be discovered, and I would be sent to juvenile hall, so I buried the bird in our trash barrel. Even though the evidence was soon burned, I confessed. I wasn’t punished, but I lost my taste for the hunt.
I recall walking around the old tractor tire that surrounded our sandpile and wondering at all the earthworms that came to the surface. I can still see the honeysuckle tree where we dodged bumblebees to suck the sweetness from its flowers.
I remember homemade ice cream on Sunday evenings and Saturday night bottles of Dr. Pepper. There were weekday morning bike rides with Grandpa, “sun sores” on our heads and chigger bites in places we couldn’t scratch in public. Scraped knees and elbows were badges of honor. And, somehow, we survived it all.
How different are the memories of today’s children likely to be? I wonder, as their parents scurry to take them from organized activity to organized activity, if they will ever even know what they are missing.