The back door to our house was unpainted. It was unlike Lewis Carrolls or Frances Burnetts fanciful portals, just an ordinary wooden three panel door with an old metal handle. No key, it hadn’t been locked in anybodies lifetime. Common knowledge held that it was the country custom to never lock a door, seeing it as a a black mark on hospitality. It’s a possibility that we simply had nothing to take. None of this mattered to us. It just was.
The adult world has forgotten the mysteries of childhood or at least recalls them by seeing them through a gauze curtain, looking back through dimly recalled and fragmented memory. We’ve forgotten how real it all was.
My friend Nancy Brown on the old porch in 1947.
Inside our house there were two parents and three boys, usually a dog or two, maybe a kitty, surrounded by all the things a family acquires. A predictable place for us, a warm, comfortable place where you were safe and loved. We found our adventures in books, for like our parents, we were readers. We lived on the cusp of a revolution in which reading was gradually replaced by the ominous eye in the living room. I didn’t realize that it came to kill a child’s imagination. Perhaps I wasn’t particularly aware until I had children of my own and observed how their lives were different than ours. But “Oh My,” outside that old door… was EVERYTHING! A world in which there were no boundaries.
“Go outside and play” was my mother’s frequent refrain, being in our little house with three young children bouncing off the walls was enough to try a saint. Basically, if the sun was out, we were out the door after breakfast. If we were reluctant to stay there she’d simply lock the screen door.
That was never much of a problem because we lived in a wonderland for children. It had few rules as my parents were content to let us find our own way.
No Rule: We could build fires and watch them burn. We learned to set the trash in the burn barrels afire. The barrels were 55 gallon drums with no top and a series of holes chopped in the bottom with cold chisels. Garbage was thrown inside and set on fire every couple of days until the barrels were full of ash and debris. Literally everything was burned with the exception of food scraps which were for the dogs. Every so often the barrels were loaded into the pick-up and hauled to the dump on highway 227. Kids were encouraged to tip the barrels over on the piles of trash there. The dump was always burning and had a sort of flat, ashy odor that was vaguely pleasant. You couldn’t mind odors if you were farm kids. Just think of that, you get to go for a ride with your dad; three little boys scrunched up on the seat where he could reach out and tousle your hair so you knew he loved you, explaing the sights along the way, Your great-grandparents old house, then over the Ice Cream Hills where your grandfather Jack used to peddle his bicycle on his way to San Luis in the 1890’s, right by Patchettland and the Buzzard’s Nest Rock which seemed to loom over the road with its myriad little cave where the birds roosted, and when you arrived you got to dump barrels of garbage over the back of the truck, Six little feet straining and slipping on the pick-up bed’s wooden slats, straining to push the heavy barrel off the back of the tailgate. Oh, and then; with a stop at Kirk’s liquor for the candy bar of your choice, you drove home where the dogs would greet you as if you had been gone forever. Boy!
No Rule: Build a fort. Any kind would do. We were under constant attack from any number of bad men and we needed to have a place to stand and fight. Perhaps a dugout, deep enough to stand in with seats carved around the edges and a narrow passage for entry. Covered with boards from the old tumble down barn, laid across the top and covered with dirt, it could withstand the heaviest of attacks.
There was an old redwood water barrel, a big one, half concealed by the mammoth pepper tree next to the corn crib. I took one of the hatchets used for nailing the lids on lettuce crates and laboriously chopped a hole just big enough to crawl inside. It was the perfect hiding place.
My dad bought different types of crates and boxes from the Arroyo Grande Box Company for use in packing our vegetable crops. Delivered on flat bed sets of doubles, a semi with two flat bed trailers, they were unloaded and stacked in huge piles next to our packing shed where vegetables were sorted and packed, ready for shipping. There were different boxes for different crops. Tomatoes and Chinese peas were packed in flats, small boxes made of fragrant pine, so fresh that the pitch was still leaking from them. There were wire bound crates for string beans which were shipped flat and had to be unfolded in order to be filled. Lug boxes were primarily used to transport vegetables that bruised easily from the fields. They were very sturdy. Celery crates were large, lightweight crates used to pack in the fields. A length of butcher paper with a big blue stripe down the center, was placed down the center of the empty crate and the cut and trimmed heads of celery neatly packed. The excess paper was then folded over the top and the lid nailed on. They weighed close to ninety pounds complete and it was a delight to see with what grace the loaders swung them onto the trucks for shipping. The big crates almost flew up and it seemed as if the loaders used sleight of hand instead of muscle.
We kids used most of the types to build with. Flats boxes were shipped nested. One box laid face up, two placed standing inside and one laid upside down on top. A unit of four, stacked ten high they formed a block of perhaps a thousand. If you can imagine carefully removing sets to form stairs and hollows inside the stack in the same way you play Jenga, then you can imagine a labyrinth for little boys to play in. A very fragrant one too.
Our place knew no age. The house had no foundation, just post set upright in the ground. This gave it a certain elasticity so that it conformed to soil conditions, winter and summer. We had a horse barn but no horses. Horses were long gone from farming in the early fifties. There was an old tool shed with two small rooms attached. Each room had a wooden floor and was littered with old machines, dried out shoes and scraps of clothing lying about. No one knew who had lived and worked there. The roof was partially caved in and the whole structure covered by old pepper trees. Perfect for boys to explore, imagine what had gone on there and learn to avoid Black Widows lurking in dark corners. We had a corn crib too, though no adult could tell you the last time corn was grown on our place. Likely it was built before row crops when the valley was dominated by orchards and stock raised for food. Old ranches and farms are history books, recording the changes in technology, crop science and production and the pace at which people live. For boys, seeking out old abandoned spaces is delicious.
Cars, trucks and tractors littered our yard, always good for a drive. Bouncing up and down on the seats, yanking the wheel to and fro, grinding out motor noise, splattering spit all over the inside of the windshield while doing so, adding in screeching tire sounds while we cornered at hundreds of miles an hour, two wheels only, the dogs barking madly in paroxysms of joy, what could be better.
Hours of kick the can and prisoners base played until too dark to see, madly racing our bikes around and between the buildings, playing catch with baseballs thrown over the roof, bouncing on the tin roof and best of all playing in the irrigation ditches. The great adobe mud you could hold in your fist and squeeze between your fingers like slimy glistening worms.
Children don’t have to be taught how to navigate the dark. When dinner was done, we were shooed outside until bedtime. You soon learned that the dark was the same as daylight, everything was in the same place just hidden from view. You had to develop your other senses to navigate. We used to practice by walking around with our eyes closed, shuffling our feet forward like tentacles and waving our arms trying to feel obstacles in our path. Hide and go seek games could be played by moonlight by careful listening or the sense that something was moving in the shadows. Just us, together.