My father was the ultimate free range kid. He grew up in a Virginia coal mining town called Dante (if you’d like to know how to pronounce it, think less literary history and more along the lines of a word that rhymes with ‘ain’t’), a place nestled so deep in the Appalachian Mountains that you literally have to look straight up to see the sky. Like most of the men in that town and dozens more like it, his father and his father’s father were coal miners, and while his father worked he and his brother spent their childhood summers roaming those tree-covered hills, exploring every holler, every mountain stream, every deer path from where they lived to not so far away that they couldn’t get back by suppertime.
It was a different time, of course, a different era. You get a taste of it portrayed on one of my children’s favorite shows, Leave it to Beaver, where Wally and the Beav spend their days having adventures all over their suburban town, their parents never seeming all that concerned about their whereabouts. My granny never worried about my dad and his brother much unless they missed dinner, of course, in which case they might as well grab a switch off the tree in the front yard on the way in. But all in all, they had the run of not just the front yard, but the entire town. Despite the million things that could have seemingly went wrong, nothing major ever did. These days, Ward and June, or my grandparents, would probably be prosecuted for child neglect, their children carted off to some foster home!
Growing up in the eighties, I had a smaller taste of the open spaces than the generation before me, but thankfully I did have some. We lived in a small town, far enough back in the woods for me, my sister, and our friends to be able to cross the gravel road and explore for a mile or two without anybody making a fuss. If anyone owned the land we didn’t know who they were, so we felt free enough to build tree houses and play cowboys and Indians until Mom called us in for dinner.
I remember spending two weeks every summer at Granny’s house. We never explored the woods quite like Dad did, but we did walk the train tracks to the Dante post office and general store and buy candy and baseball cards for thirty cents a pack. Every so often we’d find Grandpa there with his buddies smoking and drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon on the post office porch. He’d spent the war on two sinking ships, getting his hair burnt off at one point, then pulled submarine duty before coming home to work in the coal mines for over thirty years. (I figured if anyone had ever earned his Pabst Blue Ribbon, it was Grandpa!)
I can only imagine the freedom of the generations before my father’s, in the days where land was plentiful, open, and cheap or even free, where a neighbor a mile down the road was too close. Sadly, it seems my generation was the last hurrah for even the slightest manifestation of the free range kid, for parents not having to know where every child is every second of the day. Oh, there are people trying to bring it back, for admirable reasons, but I just don’t think it’s going to take. The world is just too small these days, too crowded, and seems to be getting more and more evil by the day.
There are certainly good things about this time. I’m not ready to give up my smart phone, much less my indoor plumbing! But I do feel sad that coming generations will rarely experience the freedom that my father, and even I to a lesser extent, had growing up, the freedom to roam, to explore, to just get alone with nature in the woods.
I think it’s important to find ways to give our kids a taste of the open spaces when we can, whether it’s taking them to a park or getting creative in other ways. My parents recently bought a house with eight acres of land, a pond, a stream, and woods all around. While I know they won’t have the same childhood I did, much less my father, I’m thankful that, thanks to them, they can enjoy a few open spaces of their own. When our children spend time there, roaming around, chasing frogs and getting dirty, it makes me smile.