Forty for Forty – #2. This Used to Be My Playground

Editor’s Note: I turn 40 on June 6, 2012. ‘Forty for Forty’ is a recurring series which will run for the next year, as a countdown to the big day. Call this the Beginning of the End. Over the next year, I plan on releasing 40 articles in this series. My aim is to serve up a slice of my life – the pivotal experiences or memories that made me the guy I am today. And where memory escapes me, I’ll simply make it all up. This one is #39. Plenty more to go.

Earlier this year, I picked Super 8 as the movie I absolutely HAD to see in the theaters. After all – I was a young boy during the late 70’s and early 80’s – that fertile slice of time where Steven Spielberg initially sowed his seeds – and it was his feats of wonder that implanted in me a lifelong love for the cinema. Spielberg’s JAWS gave birth to the modern Summer Blockbuster and while so many films have followed his lead – big tent pole productions erected between Memorial Day through Labor Day aiming to get movie fans out of the heat for some escapist fun – so few directors have been able to mix the extraordinary with the ordinary – taking people like you and me on some amazing flights of fancy.

Hell, Spielberg alone seems to have lost that particular mojo; with his directorial-style and subject matter deepening and intensifying the older he got. But back then – he was just a big kid, able to project his imagination on the biggest screen possible. And for a kid who grew up on a sweet little slab of bucolic suburbia, Spielberg made me a lifelong dreamer.

I’m a firm believer that whatever passion a boy falls head over heels for between the age of 9 and 11, he carries with him his entire life. That age is the dawn – the exact moment before we wake from yearning slumber; the only time when dreams are remembered best. Sure, the details are hard to grasp but we remember the concepts best in those waking minutes. And somewhere, they’ll always beat within.

Some boys fall hard for baseball. At least, in my day they did. Chasing down those elusive rookie cards – swapping them with friends – memorizing batting averages and RBIs. I know that’s all changed now, with kids likely to whip out their Android or iOS device and spit out some Sabermetrics at you – the Moneyball Militia in training – but the principal is the same. Or maybe, I grew up at just the right moment – when modern technology was still on the horizon – teasing us with glimpses – but leaving kids to rely upon their imagination to really have a good time.

So, one kid may dream of the winning homerun while another sits spellbound in a theater, watching Spielberg bring magic to the masses. That was me. I didn’t groove to sports until much later in life and while I am now a rabid football and baseball fan – in my formative years, it was purely film that lit my fire. And it was the works of Spielberg that I chased more than anything.

In fact, he was the first director I knew – and from my love affair with his filmography, I began to chase down other favorite films and chart the course of their directors. That brought me into the orbit of John Carpenter. And James Cameron. Sam Raimi and John Woo. And later, Christopher Nolan and JJ Abrams. And yes, I love my Oscar bait – but there is a part of me that thrills at the Summer Movie season even if each year brings forth a depressing series of diminishing returns. That’s why I chased after the whiz-bang entertainments those guys conjured.

And it’s those early Spielberg flicks that I always hold up as pitch-perfect examples of entertainment done so well that it melds to your marrow. These flicks nourish us. They stick to your bones.

I was reminded of this, this past weekend – when despite the fact that my Super 8 sojourn is still somewhere on deck, I decided to settle down with the kids and watch E.T. for their very first time and mine in a very long time. And while Colin and Aria were watching a relic of my past with fresh new eyes, I realized that I too was seeing this film in a whole new light. Watching it from a Dad’s eye view – with a more mature take on the material.

The kids – they loved it. Aria let loose the tears when E.T. was found dying in that river, mere feet away from a ravenous raccoon that I always imagined was feasting on our wayward alien the first time I saw it. Seeing it now, I realize it’s more of an implied threat but it’s funny what a child’s mind can dream – and how it can inform your future memory of the event. While E.T.’s dire health dismayed my little princess, she really lost it when he bid Elliot adieu. She’s a sensitive sort for sure, and knowing he was saying goodbye to one of those amazing once in a lifetime friends just slayed her.

And then I connected the dots.

Watching my kids entertained and effected by a pivotal film from my youth brought forth a flood of memories. I remembered going to the Hanover Mall Cinema  with a group of friends from my neighborhood. Our Moms usually picked one or two movies each summer season as a treat for all the kids in the neighborhood. They’d pack their pocketbooks full with snuck-in snacks, load up a convoy of faux-wood paneled station wagons – and high tail it for a moderately-priced midday matinee. $2.50 a kid was a bargain in those days – robbery and completely unheard of, today.

So, E.T. was one of those movies where all of us – on a warm Summer’s Day – escaped to the cool, cavernous interior of that decaying old multiplex and just slid into the silver screen. Afterwards, all hopped up on Big Gulps and Jujy-Fruits, we’d hit the network of side streets that knotted out neighborhood and reenacted the highlights.

E.T. had us all believing a BMX could fly. So, we spent the next few afternoons leaping off of every sidewalk curb and makeshift ramp – angling for a few more inches of vertical leap. As I watched the scene, where Michael gathers his buddies (including a young C. Thomas Howell) to stage a diversion while he and Elliot free E.T., every second of that day’s screening flooded back into my memory banks.

And on this Saturday morning – 29 years later (almost to the day) – I realized it’s not just the movie I missed, it’s my original home. I come from one of the greatest neighborhoods a boy could mark as his territory. And it’s one I miss something fierce.

Albion in Rockland, MA was a unique slice of street. Ours was L-shaped – with one entrance springing off of the bustling Market Street and the other funneled from the lengthy Concord (a long stretch of road I would one day rue when my paper route forced me to travel its entire 2-mile span day-after-day).

The two roads met in the middle, and while one jutted off slightly to include a few more houses, from the air, it bore the distinctive mark of our 12th letter in the alphabet.

The neighborhood was also blessed with a bounty of kids – all growing up pretty much in the same ballpark. Our target demo was Age 6 – 12 with the majority falling in the middle of that. In 1982, I was 10 – and I had a whole host of friends who straddled either side of that fence. Some a grade above me. Some just a tad below. All of us sharing common interests. We liked Whiffle Ball. Indiana Jones. Magnum P.I. The Atari 2600. Big League Chew. And Bomb Pops.

At the very apex of our street – where the two halves joined as one – resided my buddies Kyle and Steven. Kyle was a year older while Steven a few years behind me. Didn’t matter. Our “clubhouse” was all inclusive. Besides, with a kickass backyard that provided exactly the amount of real estate we needed to field a full game of Whiffle ball, we needed all ages in attendance. It wasn’t until years later that I looked back upon our stomping grounds – Kyle and Steven’s back porch and the grass that grew from there – that I finally put myself in their parents’ shoes. They must have had serious misgivings at buying that particular property when they saw how many rugrats it attracted. Plus those who came from the streets that ran parallel to ours – which is how we got our buddy Shawn to bring his neighborhood over for every pick-up game.

Then again, they always knew where their kids were.

All the parents did.

If we weren’t in the house jockeying for precious Atari time on the one TV each household owned, then we were down at Steven and Kyle’s. Actually, Atari was often saved for early morning or a rainy days. If there was even a hint of UV rays, we were outside – all day – any day. Hell, half the time, we whiled away a rainy day in their garage – converting it into various themed club houses – including those dedicated to tracking down any errant UFOs, ghosts or terrorists that may have taken residence in our neighboring woods. Plus, we’d raid it for raw materials whenever we decided to set up camp in the woods directly behind their house. If Kyle’s Dad brought home fresh plywood for his latest home repair project, he’d  have to get that up quickly. All it took us was a day and then we were in the woods, hard at work on our own prisoner-of-war camp and he was left to troop back out to Grossmans for another slab.

Yeah – we played guns. A lot. In fact, anyone who wielded a gun on TV or in the movies was co-opted into our daily play. So, one day I was arguing to be John Connor or The Terminator and the next I was cast as Rick, the lounge owner, from Magnum P.I. (That’s like demanding to be The Love Boat’s Gopher – BEFORE HE WAS MAYOR!!!) We had full-scale, week long wars that erupted. Depending upon the temperature, sometimes it was all make-believe “air” battles – with our mouths miming the sound effects. Summer time brought epic water fights – with one kid inevitably bringing a pea-shooter and another one unloading with the hose. Then there were times where we couldn’t find our guns and had to make due with Whiffle bats or sticks that were curved in just the right way.

And despite all that creative carnage, not one of us grew up a derelict.

Decades later and we’re all family men – most of us – or on our way there. Any parent taking a look at the herd back then could have sized us up appropriately. “Those are good kids.” At least, looking back now in this adult body, that’s the way I see it. Not a bad apple among us.

Although there was one guy, a troubled sort who shall remain nameless – who always sought to hang out with us. My parents would often say “If he comes around, I want you to come home.” I never did. The dude was harmless, in my eyes – but now that I reflect upon it, and at all the times he would bring us to the store and let us pick out candy or simple toys, I realize differently. No – not a predator (he was only 2 or 3 years older than me) but his bankroll was definitely obtained illicitly. A fact that I had confirmed when on a Senior Year High School field trip to the Plymouth County House of Corrections, my classmates and I were led through a cell block (to the cries of inmates yelling “Fresh Fish” or “Give me those Kicks”) and as we came to the last cell, as each one of my peers hugged the wall, desperate to get out of that glimpse of Hell, I looked to the left and offered the final inmate a cordial “Hey, Norman”. “Hey, Ed. What’s up?”, was the reply. Looks like the law finally caught on to what my parents knew from the very beginning.

So that guy is the exception to the norm, pun intended.

The rest of them – well, there are days I miss them terribly – eclipsed only for my longing for those carefree days when I let cliché become reality and literally stayed out until the street lights came on and beyond. Once the sun dropped, we’d play Hide-and-Go Seek throughout the entire neighborhood. Great, epic bouts involving 20-plus kids that stretched across 20-plus houses. And they went on until 9 or 9:30 p.m. easy – until our numbers dwindled as each Mom came to the doorstep and hollered incessantly for the next of our legion to troop home. When I finally crawled through the door, I’d watch a few minutes of whatever my Dad was watching – and then rest up. Dallas could wait. I always had a big day the next day. Need to get my rest.

Watching E.T., I looked over at Colin and Aria. They’d never know that time and place. Its day has come and gone. While the big wild world could be just as scary back then – as poor Adam Walsh reminded us – our technological limitations somehow sheltered us. The less we knew, the better off we were – it seems. Amber Alerts broadcast across social networks in the blink of an eye are a godsend but they are also a sign of the times. We are constantly, always aware  and somehow – in the last two to three decades – the more our global outlook spans, the more we turtle closer to home.

And those lazy, hazy carefree days of Summer – when Lost Boys and Girls took to the night –fancy free – those days are gone. Guys like me may remember them well but I’d be doomed if I let my kids repeat them.

Yes, I’m as guilty as the next person in depriving my kids of those long, Summer Nights spent chasing childhood fantasy. And it’s a real shame. It’s what I wish most for my kids, to have the kind of childhood I had. To live in such a perfect neighborhood – seemingly forged from the combined might of our imagination. But it’s a fool’s errand. They can never have it. Not quite as good as I did.

I’ve lived 39 years and small change. I moved to that street at the age of 6 and left it before graduating from high school. That’s only a quarter of my current life and if you really fix on the coordinates, the time spent in our heyday was probably five-six years at max. But each day of those short, few years loom large in memory. More than any year in my life, those few fleeting moments made me the man I am today.

That perfect slice of pre-adolescence is what I wish for most in my children’s’ lives.

And it’s the time I miss most in my own.

Comments now closed (4)

  • Ed, I have been reading these for awhile and it was definitely my loss. Great piece and looking forward to the rest. BTW hope Mrs. Flanagan from junior high English is not one of your readers. Think she may be asking you for the Selleck pic to put up next to the others in her classroom closet door.