Who were the kids on “The Hill”? I have many wonderful memories of my youth. The children who were my friends back then are still in my life today. How many people today can say that? How many people can say that the neighbors next door are the next best thing to your family…or a brother or sister?
Back in the 60’s, families moved into their new homes and planted their roots. Very few moved from the neighborhood, so we never had outsiders or saw an unfamiliar face. We were, in our own way, wrapped in a very tight cocoon defined by the location of the neighborhood. The Hill was set apart from other neighborhoods. It was like being on an isolated island. The fourth block was our haven. We considered ourselves safe from the world around us, so we created our own little world filled with day games, night games, pranks, forts, pony rides, motorcycles, bikes and hanging out with our close knit group of friends. For those of us who were slightly older, we were able to leave the nest for an all day excursion to McDonalds, Irene’s store, or Rocky Glen.
All of the kids, 22 to be exact, were either in the same class or one year older or younger than their best friend. We all came together to play outside, have a communal chat, or participate in a board game. There were no cell phones to chat or text on, so our time was each other’s. Everyone played together with one hundred percent participation, unless someone perceived they were treated unfairly and “took their ball home,” or the dinner bell rang and everyone had to scatter. During the summer, the rules were very simple. Eat, go back outside to play and return home at dark. More importantly, no one was allowed to stay inside unless they were sick, grounded, or it was raining. With the exception of an occasional Little League game, the kids had no schedules to follow. Parents weren’t driving their children all over town to play in different sporting events in anticipation of creating the next famous athlete or getting an athletic scholarship for their child, or feeling like they needed to give their child structure to keep them active.
The fact that each family only had one car made life even simpler. We were left to make up our own games and activities. With a little creativity and ingenuity, willow trees were used to climb as high as we could or used as a “bat pole” to slide about 30 feet to the ground. Games of spud, statue maker, dodge ball, pick up baseball, homerun derby, running bases, and tag were also played until the person who was always “it” decided to quit. During days that were too hot, we were allowed to turn on the oscillating sprinklers to run through, or fill up empty Windex and dish soap bottles with water to use as guns for a water fight. Going inside the house wasn’t an option because most of us didn’t have air conditioners. For those who did, the window air conditioners could only cool two rooms. Big plastic sheets were used to cover up the rest of the house so that the kitchen and living room were comfortable. No one was able to enter through the front door for fear of letting out the precious cool air. Those hot days were also spent under a big tree playing an unending game of Risk or the card game of War. When we heard the jingle of the “ice cream man” a few blocks over, the game was temporarily called. Everyone ran home in hopes of getting money to buy push-ups, fudge bars, or bomb pops.
On other occasions, maps were created along with an itinerary for the adventures on our bikes. Irene’s store was the place to go to get candy and pumpkin seeds. It seemed to take all day to get there and back. As we settled in back on the block, we all ate and shared our spoils. On rare occasions, we were able to travel a little further to McDonalds for a Big Mac or cheeseburger and fries. For dessert, we rode over to Baskin Robins for ice cream. Most of us were thrilled to get ice cream that contained bubble gum. The bikes were also used for playing cops and robbers, car crash, popping wheelies and just getting around. Racing down the back hill was exciting and a little dangerous. There always had to be a look out at the bottom of the hill to watch for cars that couldn’t possibly see a speeding bicycle cross their path. Getting back up the hill was always a challenge. It seemed the last 50-100 feet was always the hardest.
At times, we stayed at the bottom of the hill to play in the creek and look for crawdads, frogs, tadpoles and little fish. Someone always had to run home to get a bucket! It was usually the youngest one in the group who was conned into that job, in hopes of being able to hang out with the big kids. Some wised up and knew that would never happen, so they declined to be the gofer and threatened to “tell mom” if they couldn’t stay. Other activities included going for rides on a pony cart with the next door neighbor’s pony. (Who has a pony in their backyard these days?) The pony was also used as an integral part of the neighborhood annual carnivals. Paths in the woods were used for the pony and the bikes and motorcycles.
At certain times of the year, we prayed the poison ivy would stay clear of a certain family riding through the paths and playing in the woods. If they got it, one third of the play force was out of commission. I was fortunate enough to learn how to ride a motorcycle, drive a stick shift, and drive a snowmobile thanks to a family down the block who shared their toys with all of us. As a natural lefty, I learned to bat and golf righty. I watched the older boys pick their teams, and the game went on….with or without me. I learned quickly that if you want to be picked, you better know how to play! It was survival of the fittest. My children are sometimes amazed at some of my skills, drive and determination. “How did you learn that?” is the most commonly asked question. I told them it was because I played outside when I was growing up. I learned from doing.
On rainy days, we always found something to do. Playing with Barbie, playing house or school in a basement, going to the movies (which consisted of 16 mm films in black and white) at a house on another block, or watching channels 2, 5, 7, 9, 11 and sometimes 32 (if you were lucky enough to get reception) on a black and white TV in a friend’s garage. Bozo’s Circus, All My Children, Night Gallery and Fernwood Tonight were among the favorites.
Nighttime brought other adventures and some mischievousness. While we were all brought up to respect each others’ property, there was the occasional deviation. One of the older boys in the group started a bulldozer near a construction site for a new home being built on the Hill. When that happened, everyone knew about it mostly because we were somewhere nearby egging him on. I can still see this boy’s eyes light up when the machine started. He knew he was in trouble and so did we. Even though we scattered, we all knew we were in for it because we were told not to go near or touch anything that wasn’t ours. It was guilt by association! Ding dong ditch was another activity for those of us who were bored or angry with a neighbor who may have offended us in some way.
Popular night games consisted of flashlight tag, kick the can, ghosts in the graveyard, and hide and seek. And who could forget the séances? What were the odds that ten kids using two fingers could actually lift the lightest group member? We were amazed and scared at the same time, not to mention a little hurt, because the person who was lifted was promptly dropped! As long as our parents could hear us, we were able to stay out until 10:00 PM. There were no cell phones to remind us of our curfew. When we heard the whistle or our names called, it was time to go home. We knew what our parents expected, and for the most part, we were always within earshot of them.
Finally, winter time offered the neighborhood kids lots of opportunities to go outside and play, especially, if the snow was abundant. Everyone put on layers of clothes and braved the cold to make snow castles and forts. These were made to protect us from the impending snow ball fights. Snow angels and snow men also graced the yards. It wouldn’t be winter without dragging toboggans, sleds and saucers through the woods to the sledding hill. Contests were held to see who could slide down the fastest and the farthest. I learned the hard way to go with more than just one other person. As I remember it, my sister did not follow my directions “to lean”. We subsequently went off course and she hit a tree. To this day she blames me that one eye is lower than the other because the impact of hitting the tree forever deformed her face (not true). As with most families that had to deal with cuts and scrapes, she was given a butterfly band-aid and sent to lie down on the couch. A trip to the emergency room was unheard of unless you were on your death bed!
A trip to Sasses Pond was also an option. It seemed like it took forever to walk there. It was a long hike through the woods while carrying skates and a hot chocolate thermos. Before we did anything, someone had to test the ice first. After it was determined the ice was safe - meaning no one fell through - we put on our skates and played games like hockey and crack the whip. When dusk approached, we all took off the skates, rubbed our frozen feet, and began the long journey home.
It is hard to believe that over 40 years have passed since this simpler time. As I relate these stories and precious memories to my children, I am reminded of how fortunate I am to have experienced my childhood during this period. Play time was not interrupted by the ring tones of ACDC on a cell phone, stopping to reply to a text message, or having to leave a pickup game or other neighborhood activity to participate in a club sport. The idea of scheduling a play date with a child down the street is still foreign to me! Everyone played together. That is how we learned to deal with the good and bad, to work together as a team to create something special. As I reflect back, my childhood was a unique and magnificent testament for how life should be for all children. While it had its challenges and ups and downs, I wouldn’t be the person I am today if not for those experiences, the Hill families, and the people who I am privileged to still call my best and closest friends.
Even though we didn’t have much financially, we made the best with what we had. No, we didn’t belong to country clubs, exclusive athletic teams or clubs, have the use of cell phones and computers at our beck and call, and go on expensive vacations. But the values and morals that our parents taught us and the Hill community in which we played, experimented, and thrived, have produced successful doctors, nurses, psychologists, technicians, administrators, cosmetologists, electricians, and business owners. The Hill has bound us by a fine silk thread that only a few of us can weave into the fabric of our lives and memories. I only wish my children could be so lucky.
About the Author:
Terese is a psychologist who lives in Chicago with her husband and children. Her current community is lovely -- but it's not