N95: Neighborhood Nostalgia

My childhood neighborhood had almost 30 kids on the block. That’s me dead center, tallest kid at 13. Truth be told, there were 3 older teenagers not present that day for the photo. We kids had abundant freedom and we had parades, parties, softball, adventures and big fights. Our neighborhood was at the edge of our small Iowa town of 7,000. We walked about 17 blocks to elementary school, half that to middle school and a mere 2 blocks to the high school. The grocery store backed up to our back yards off the main drag and I visited it every day one summer for a free lemon from the produce man.

There was a Maid-Rite that sold pork tenderloins twice the size of the bun in the heart of this pork producing country. The beginnings of the fast food monster world to come was a tiny A&W where a car hop brought the heavy glass mugs to our car on a metal tray that fastened to our partially rolled up window. On my very first date, Pat Kelly took me to Sam and Chuck’s for spaghetti with an iceberg lettuce salad on the side. The dressing was a deliciously oily, garlic blend so popular they bottled it to sell.

In the neighborhood photo you can see the town’s Drive-In Theatre directly behind the kid’s head beside me. A new movie was shown every two weeks, like the downtown movie theatre. When I was 9, another boy and I once hiked (1-2 miles?) one Saturday across the newly plowed field to the Drive In and played on the swings. On the way back it started raining and my shoes came off in the mud. We were so tired, cold and frightened that we thought we were in quicksand. That night it snowed and my shoes froze in the mud.

Our imaginations were vivid. It is sad that technology and television have affected children so profoundly today. Back then we moaned and groaned about being bored, but we sought our fun outside. There was no way I wanted to be inside with my Grandma or my parents. There was no ‘interaction’ or ‘play’ with the parental units – ever. Inside was boring. Now, the reverse seems to be true. Plus parents have so much anxiety about child safety that I suspect inside play becomes a default for monitoring reasons.

Within a couple summers of this neighborhood kid photo, I got my first job in the fields. I picked corn out of beans, weeds out of corn depending on the day and the field. I then spent several summers detassling corn. That work was incredibly grueling and I learned about pushing myself from the pre-dawn ride in the cattle truck to the afternoon stinging burn of sweating into razor-like cuts from the leaves. That was a tough way to make 90¢ an hour. Remember though, 90¢ went pretty far:
  • A burger was 15¢
  • Average Cost of new house $12,650.00
  • Average Income per year $5,807.00
  • Gas per Gallon 29¢
  • Average Cost of a new car $3,233.00
  • Loaf of bread 22¢

Late 50’s, early 60’s can seem bucolic compared to now. As kids we had incredible freedom to walk all over town. We went outside in the morning and barely checked back except to use the bathroom or eat lunch. But, the memory isn’t totally accurate. The fields behind our homes were planted with field corn rotated with soy beans. These were the birthing years of Agribusiness, an infant version of the behemoth it has become.

A familiar sight for kids playing was the plane swooping down over the crops and spraying pesticides. There was never any notice, no warnings or precautions that I can recall. I also remember picnics and Bar-B-Q outings when we slathered ourselves with smelly bug repellent and then dug into the food.

I want to be really candid besides being nostalgic. By the time I was old enough to articulate it, I realized it was an all-white, christian neighborhood of middle class privilege and narrow mindedness found all over this country. It is the kind of neighborhood politicians seem to hold aloft as the ubiquitous American dream. I hated the small town I grew up in and was very happy when we moved my senior year. Don’t get me wrong, this wasn’t a landscape of physical trauma and denial. It gave me many happy memories and childhood adventure. But, even as a kid I saw the part we weren’t supposed to talk about even in our own homes. I remember overhearing my father at one of their cocktail parties saying, “We taught our girls to look out for the underdog, but I never thought they’d really do it.” I then heard the big roar of laughter for Doc who was so funny.

For me small town middle America isn’t what it is marketed to be. There was bigotry, small mindedness with deep psychological and emotional poverty and blight, but that should be another post. I am re-thinking all of my assumptions and experiences in light of what I am learning about my nation, myself and sustainability as a way of life.

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