Because of Hanna Rosin’s new Atlantic article about reversing the trend in overprotecting children, some of the jerky things I did as a kid suddenly seem nobler, or at least less shameful. Not only have parenting styles and social expectations tightened, but the surveillance state has expanded to include schools, such that the new high school in my hometown of Willard, MO, is equipped with 84 surveillance cameras. I learned this on a tour of the school, and immediately began a mental review of all the screwball prankery of old that would be impossible today.
As reported in the article, there are benefits to allowing chaos and even danger into play scenarios. One school, having experimentally relaxed its playground rules to allow things like jumping out of swings (see #1 below) and rolling down a hill, reported a decrease in bullying and cruelty. I thought of when my friend Marcus used to say he wanted a capuchin monkey for a pet, but in order to be well mannered overall, they required about an hour per day of “rage time” where they scramble around the place and wreck things. As usual, we be monkeys. Thus...
Top Ten Most Outlandish Shitass Activities from My Youth (Most of which seem impossible now)
1. Jumping out of playground swings at maximum height (grades 2-3). These were pretty big swings. Maybe they wouldn’t seem that big to us as adults, but I think we were getting 10-15 feet of air before hitting the gravel, preferably on our feet, timed so the teachers would not see us. Of course the dream was always that one could swing “over the top” in a 360 loop, winding the chain around the top bar, but that never happened.
2. Riding halters on the horse walker (grades 1-4). My parents had this machine that turned like a carousel, big enough to walk four horses around in a 30’ circle. It had two speeds. You always wanted the faster one—except for those times when you fell out of the halter, but one or both tangled feet meant you were being dragged around and around in a track of sandy mud. Almost as bad but more frequent: absentmindedly getting whacked on the head by a lead-rope hook, since there were four of them coming around at a kid’s head-level every 20 seconds or so.
4. King of the Big Slide (Fourth grade?) I’m sure it wasn’t allowed, yet it happened: an all-boys power struggle, scrambling to summit the big steel slide that had to be at least 12’ tall. There were grip rails, but they didn’t keep me from falling from the top, hitting my head, being knocked out, going to the nurse, then to the doctor. Thanks, Terry Bledsoe… or whoever pushed me off. For some reason, I can't remember.
5. Various bicycle jumps (grades 4-8). Some kid, often me, was always thinking it would be cool to build a ramp to jump a bike over. Usually no big deal, sometimes it even worked. But once I made one out of split firewood that flipped me onto my back for about 30 seconds of scary near-total paralysis. It’s probably swell that we didn’t have access to motorcycles.
6. I used to follow my parents’ creek well beyond their property (grades 2-9). Within a couple of miles, it didn’t really go anywhere, except through farms where it was pretty easy to evade the landowners. The notion that I would follow it to its source? Never achieved. There were also a couple of different rope swings over the creek so we could swing out over the rocks, fall, get knocked out, and drown. Also never achieved.
7. A few different dead animal pranks (high school)—dead snake, mouse, mole, and cat, mostly deployed revengefully against teachers. Don’t worry, I didn’t kill the animals. Dead stuff = fringe benefit of farm life.
8. Infamous Porno Dub (10th grade). With Brad Jones and Chris Delozier, prank power is magnified exponentially. From a crate of VHS tapes stored in plain view, I swiped one history tape from Mr. Rhoden, an irksome cad. Chris and Brad came to my house, renting a VCR on the way. Chris had a porno tape, rare in those days. We dubbed some XXX scenes strategically into the tape, replaced it, then waited. Months passed. Then, as per our scheme, the tape was played to a history class. Victory in scorched-earth scholastics. I still feel bad, because when Chris and Brad were staying over, I was supposed to be taking care of my 2-year-old brother, but I never changed his diaper. Poor guy’s rump is probably still red.
9. Textbook Discus and Milk Toss (10th/11th grade?) A few of us found that we could pry open certain school lockers and throw the books down the hallway discus-style. We could throw for distance because the hall was empty during lunch. We also found that we could stash little milk cartons outside, let them soften up, then throw them so hard against a brick wall that the carton would burst in a milk shower while leaving the carton stuck to the wall. These, we threw for height.
10. Excavating the brick (11th grade) Around the corner from Milk Toss Wall, we stashed a cafeteria fork under a picnic table. During the lunch-break wind-down we could take cover behind loitering classmates and scrape the mortar around one brick that we thought would come out in time for graduation. Never happened.
If this paints a disturbing picture of miscreant development, keep in mind that at least none of my shenanigans involved drinking/drugs, crazy driving, or both.
And of course, none of this was any more dangerous than feeding horses, hauling hay, cutting wood, or many other farm chores. So, if you really want to immerse your kids in the risky, unsupervised nitty-gritty stimulation of dirtworld, get a farm.