My brother and I were reminiscing the other day about what it was like being little kids in the seventies. We used to run around in the bush down by the creek with our dog, building forts and climbing on beaver dams, and dodging trains on the train bridge. Man, we were little and brave. Our dad would give a long wailing whistle using both his hands flapping in front of his mouth like wings. The dog’s ears would perk up; our ears would perk up; all three of us would turn our faces towards home and scramble up embankments and over logs as fast as our little legs could move. (Well, the dog’s legs were considerably longer!) It was the seventies: kids could play in the bush by a creek for hours, and nobody was worried.
Out at Uncle Wally’s cabin, the adults would give us some sawed off stubs of two-by-fours, a couple of hammers, and a rusty can of nails. While the grown-ups sat around on the deck drinking beer, my brother and I would bang nails into those hunks of wood for hours, occasionally whacking our own thumbs. We’d never cry about it to the adults, though, for fear that these wonderful marvelous amazing toys would be taken away. It was the seventies: hammers and nails were appropriate toys for kids, and bruised fingers were part of the learning process.
Uncle Wally’s outhouse had a stack of porn. Penthouse and Oui and Hustler and I don’t remember what else. I got a lot of my sex education there, sitting in that outhouse stench on that outhouse bench with my feet dangling above the ground, astonished that grown people had hair in such odd places, and rather disbelieving at the things they got up to. When a grown-up would start calling for me, I would hurriedly stuff the magazine back, secure in the knowledge that they would never ever guess I’d even noticed them. It was the seventies: nobody was worried about how this portrayal of sexuality would affect little kids.
My dad and stepmom would take us to Canmore and we’d stay in some cabins backing onto the mountain. They’d send us out to play in the bear-infested woods. We had a favourite gully to build forts in. We’d try to follow the gully to its source and come back hours later, branch-scratched and hungry. It was the seventies: nobody was worried that we’d been carted off by paedophiles or eaten by bears.
When we had bonfires, my brother and I would play Fireman. We’d dance around the firepit with our long Pokey Sticks and poke at the fire. The flames were twice our height, and the sparks exploded all around us when we smashed the burning ends of the Pokey Sticks onto the stones ringing the firepit. We’d make trails of dry leaves and twigs leading to the bonfire, and when they caught on fire, we’d scream “Fireman! Fireman!” and beat the flames out with our Pokey Sticks and our feet. My stepmom would berate my dad: “They’ll get burnt!” And my dad would reply “Not more’n once.” It was the seventies.
Our mom would send me to the store for milk when I was six years old. The store was five blocks away. I was proud to be entrusted with the money and the errand. It was the seventies. Nobody worried about kids disappearing.
Until my brother did. One day when I had been sent to the store, my little brother (four years old) decided to follow me. My mom didn’t notice him slip out of the house, and I never knew he was following. But he got lost. I don’t remember this at all, but my mom tells the story now, close to forty years later, with strong echoes of the fear and horror and guilt and desperation she felt back then.
The story has a happy ending. My mom’s dad, my Pépère, saw my brother in a parked police car. He didn’t even know yet that my brother was missing, but just saw that familiar little blond head.
I don’t remember what happened afterward, either. But knowing my mom, the aftermath would have involved multiple walks to and from the store so my brother would learn the way, and multiple repetitions of our address and phone number, and so forth.
But it was the seventies. So we played with fire and played with tools and rode the riding mower as soon as we could stretch our toes far enough to hit the pedals. And we ran wild with the dog and fell into the creek and got stuck in the muddy pits of construction sites and jumped off roofs into snowbanks and played outside until we got hungry. In some ways, it was a good childhood.
But nobody looked too closely at families in the seventies. So I guess I would say that my outdoor childhood was actually pretty fabulous, but my indoor childhood was not. I learned to cope with that by trying not to be seen and trying not to be heard. In a way, starting this blog, daring to speak out loud in public, is a way of trying to run around wild again. Sometimes when I post something, even just a little book review, it sure feels like playing with fire.