Where Did You Go? Out.

Storm drain

Storm drain (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Where Did You Go? Out. What Did You Do? Nothing” is an ode to a childhood in the 1920s.

Author Robert Paul Smith was born the same year as my father-in-law, 1915. My father was born in 1918.

His book must have been much like their childhoods. My father was surrounded by friends and cousins. His father walked to work at General Electric in Schenectady, New York and walked home for lunch.

When I visited my father’s old neighborhood, I found the hill a couple blocks from his house that was closed to traffic for sledding much of the winter.

Though my grandchildren are now a couple of generations removed from the unstructured childhood Smith describes, even Smith’s own children, in the 1950s, he admits, no longer whiled away uninterrupted summer days with friends the way he had.

Smith wants readers to understand that, though in Little League everyone gets to play and parents enforce the rules, the sheer joy of the game may be lost.

To him, baseball meant yelling at the kid who forgot to keep the label on the bat up because it might split the bat if you held it wrong.

He admits he didn’t know if this were true, that the bat really would split, only that it was enforced.

He remembers fondly the fact that toys were not plastic. He made them himself from pieces of string from the kitchen drawer and buttons from his mother’s button box.

They were made with spools once the thread was gone and nails you stole from a lot where a house was going up, but only after the house was finished so you didn’t keep materials that might yet be needed.

Entertainment was ripping friction tape off the roll in a dark garage to watch the sparks fly.

Or wondering if a cut-up golf ball was filled with poison or explosives.

Or building a tree house in the backyard. Or a hut on a vacant lot.

He describes the hours spent, doing things that he can only describe now, as an adult, looking back, through the lens of a skilled writer, that, at the time, he would have, if asked, claimed were nothing:

“Many, many hours of my childhood were spent in learning how to whistle. In learning how to snap my fingers.

“In hanging from the branch of a tree. In looking at an ants’ nest.

“In digging holes. Making piles. Tearing things down. Throwing rocks at things.”

“Spitting. Breaking sticks in half. Unplugging storm drains, and dropping things down storm drains, and getting dropped things out of storm drains.”

Smith describes learning about the adult world.

“I only got spanked once….I stepped on [my sister’s] hand, and she said ouch.

“My father spanked me, not because I stepped on her hand, but because I wouldn’t apologize.

“I wouldn’t apologize because I had myself convinced that I had not done it on purpose. And maybe I hadn’t.

“Now this was a defense in those days….

“In direct violation of this eternal provision of The Law, my father took me out and spanked me….

“I had very little hesitation in lying from then on…. But he licked me, that once, and I bawled, and I knew who he was from then on.

“He was the one who didn’t obey The Law.”

Having learned that parents could break The Law, Smith later decided it was OK to steal, under some circumstances.

His family could not afford to buy him a Scout knife he dearly wanted.

Then, one day, he was sent to the cloakroom as punishment at school.

And, there, in an empty chalk box, were all the knives that had been confiscated from kids who’d brought them to school, never to be returned. How could he not take one?

Before parents became friends with their children, before Doctor Spock, before the Depression and World War II, before plastic toys and organized play, Smith describes a childhood of simple fun.

“It never occurred to us that there was anything wrong in doing nothing, so long as we kept out of the way of grownups.”

“If you will excuse me, I have an appointment with myself to sit on the front steps and watch some grass growing.”

Click here for instructions on how to build a wooden spool toy, a spool tank, as described in the book.

Click here to order the book described in this post, Where Did You Go? Out. What Did You Do? Nothing.

Do you ever wish your grandchildren could know what it was like when you were growing up?

Do you think your children and grandchildren are over-scheduled?

Do you know how to make a rolling toy with an empty spool?

To you and wishing your grandchildren the simple joys of childhood.

Carol Covin, Granny-Guru

Author, “Who Gets to Name Grandma? The Wisdom of Mothers and Grandmothers”

Click here to order this blog on your Kindle.