Tuesday, December 6, 2011

When the Street Lights Come On

I was discussing the state of our country with a bunch of my friends yesterday when one of them asked, "But was it ever altogether good?"

That really got me thinking. Do we look back on earlier times, viewing them through some filter that says, "Things were never this bad"? We've all heard the stories that begin with the phrase, "Back when I was a kid." But were things really better? Did we have a better life? Was the life we lived ever, you know, good?

You know what? It was.

I primarily grew up in a small farming community here in Oregon that had a population of less than 10,000 people. Rather than staying inside all day, watching television or playing video games, we kids went outside and explored. Either on foot or by bike, I covered every inch of that town - the back alleys; the main streets; the empty lots; every nook and cranny. In grade school I'd run off with friends, climbing trees, picking berries, and swimming in rivers - without an adult to supervise us anywhere in sight. Did we get in trouble? Oh, more than once. One of our group would be taken home and parents would call their phone tree, making sure that each guilty child was snared in the net. My pocket knife was finally confiscated the second time I needed stitches and had to walk home, my hand wrapped in a bloody t-shirt. No one was worried about child abduction or lawsuits or what might happen if we weren't watched. Sometimes I'd come home for lunch; sometimes I wouldn't; but I'd always share my day's plans ahead of time. The rule was always the same - "Come home when the street lights come on."

We didn't pick up a phone, send a text, IM, or email our friends to see what they were doing. I'd hop on my bike and ride to their house. If they weren't home, I'd ride to the next friend's house or go off on my own. Before I was even old enough to go to school, I used to walk over to friends' houses or run simple errands to the corner market - even crossing the street on my own after making sure to look both ways.

My family moved to the big city (a suburb of Seattle for a year) when I was in first grade and the same rules applied. It wasn't just in our little town where things were different. Sure there were more people and more cars, but I'd still ride my bike to the closest pizza parlor to play coin-operated arcade games with my friends or down to the convenience store to buy comics and candy. Every store had bins of penny candy and kids would rifle through them, bringing handfuls of sweets up to the counter with pocket full of loose change; no one was ever worried that they might simply steal it. We played ball in vacant lots and dared each other to explore boarded up houses and stayed out late in the summer, coming home when the street lights came on.

Racism was unheard of even in a completely white farming town. A new family moved to our town when I was in grade school, raising the number of African American kids in our school from zero to three. We called them "black" or "brown" just like we were "white." No one told us we were being racist by noticing that we were all different. And to be honest, we thought the "black" kids were really cool. I couldn't wait to make friends with Kenny (the new boy in my grade) and was so excited when he invited me over to his house! I remember feeling like a celebrity, the only white person there, and I wondered if Kenny felt like that all the time since he was the only African American kid in our class. His parents were so nice. I can still remember standing there as his mom made us a snack, trying hard not to stare at the calendar with a painting of naked "black" women for that month. The painted women were beautiful and I thought it was really cool that their skin was colored differently (as in coloring with crayons different) than mine was. It didn't seem wrong to be different; it was so beautiful in a way that was unique in my world.

A few months later, a boy named Achi joined our school. No one was sure what to call him as his skin wasn't really brown like Kenny's but really wasn't any other definable color either. We knew he wasn't Chinese or Japanese, so he was just Achi. And once again, instant celebrity! Everyone wanted to be Achi's friend because he was different than everyone else in our class. Achi moved to the States from very rural Cambodia, spoke very little English, and didn't understand modern plumbing or that our school's bathrooms were segregated by gender. I can't count the times the first week when one of the girls would get a teacher and say, "Achi's in the girls' bathroom again." Everyone was patient. Everyone understood that he was from a different part of the world and wouldn't instinctively know how our culture worked. The boys showed him how to use the facilities and whoever was closest showed him how to work the drinking fountain until he got the hang of it. No one thought it was weird or complained about him. He was just Achi.

My family were very conservative Christians; my father was an extraordinarily conservative Republican. We went to church three times a week (Wednesday night and twice on Sundays) and we weren't allowed to listen to secular music or watch a long list of popular television shows. Everyone at school knew this. Instead of being teased for being different, I was invited over to friends' houses to spend the night - where we'd play all-night sessions of Dungeons and Dragons (gasp!), watch MTV and HBO (gasp! gasp!) and have horror movie marathons. After all, different - whether you were from a different country or a different culture right down the street - meant that others would step in to lend a helping hand.

I was given an allowance of $20 a month and was told that I had to buy my own school lunches with that. (It was just enough to cover hot lunches for a month.) Prices were low enough back then that, by making a budget, clipping coupons, and shopping ads, I could have delicious cold lunches for a month and still have money left over to buy comic books and go out for milk shakes with my best friend. Adjusting for inflation, can you imagine buying a month's worth of groceries for school lunches for $40? There were no giant-size supermarkets so, after clipping my coupons, I'd ride from one grocery store to another, getting the best deals. Everyone did. My grandmother was the master at the process and her pantry was continually stocked with whatever happened to be on hand.

Without microwave ovens I learned to cook. If there wasn't time to cook, I'd eat a sandwich. If there wasn't time for a sandwich, I'd grab some fresh fruit. Each summer, as I left the house early to bike and play with friends, my diet was primarily what I could pick from a tree, a bush, or snag from the refrigerator to eat on the way out the door. I don't know that I ever ate a granola bar until I was an adult. There wasn't a single kid among us who could be considered obese. In fact, I think we had one significantly over-weight boy in our entire grade school. Fresh fruits and vegetables and plenty of exercise has a tendency to erase childhood obesity.

I knew everyone on my grandmother's street by name - and many of the people in a two block radius around her home. I mowed Lena's lawn, the widow who lived across the street from my grandparents, would hang out in the elderly gentleman's garage while he worked on wood projects a block away, and regularly said hello and stopped to talk to people as I walked down the sidewalk. I remember when the couple across the street had their first baby when I was just a little kid - and I remember staring at their house from my grandmother's window, knowing that their family had changed, that a new person lived there now. Years later I'd babysit for them after their one child had been joined by two other siblings.

Could politicians be trusted back then? Not really. Were wars still fought? All the time. I interviewed my grandfather (who had fought in both WWII and Korea) for a school project. My family had a strong history of military service and most of them had seen combat in one war or another. Did crime still happen? Absolutely. It was only a couple of weeks after my eleventh birthday when John Hinckley, Jr. attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan.

But things were different then. They were better then. We've lost something, something that you can't measure, that you can't assign a price tag to. We've lost trust. Trust in ourselves, in our neighbors, and in our communities. We've replaced that trust with fear. Fear erases community. It sets us against each other. It divides us.

When we look around at our world, at the protests that seem to be springing up everywhere, those aren't individuals that are standing there alone shouting "What the hell?" It's people coming together in a common moment. In the moments that we stand, shoulder to shoulder, we're doing more than simply shouting with a single voice. For however long that moment lasts, we're neighbors again. We're a community. We trust each other. While we've lost so much of that, it's not gone. It's who we are. All we have to do is reach out to each other and find it there. We need to stop listening to the talking heads that say, "Be afraid," and start reaching out to one another and saying, "Let me help." The common theme in almost every memory of my childhood involves us reaching out to each other. We didn't call, we stopped by. We said hello to each other and stopped to talk about families. Old men would teach young neighbor boys wood working. New kids would be embraced by their new classmates and shown around the school. Even when we got in trouble, our parents were informed and they called each other.

While the world around us has changed, if we stand together, we can re-forge a connection where trust was the norm, where we helped each other, and where we can confidently tell our kids, "Come home when the street lights come on."

I want to live in that world again. How about you?

I originally wrote this back on March 2, 2011 for Old Ways, a site that I founded on March 21, 1997.  Old Ways went offline earlier this year, but will return to the Internet on December 22, 2011.


  1. Though I'm a bit older than you, Jeffrey, I lived in a similar world! We'd leave in the morning and come back at dark-time! Out in the country there were no street lights, so lack of sun was what brought us in!

    I too, remember the first black family to move into our town and they WERE celebrities! And the first Hmong boy THRILLED us when he visited our home and drew flowers for us girls!

    It WAS a different time, then... I time that we could ALL use to get back to... Yes, a time of community. A time more innocent, seemingly, than today! I recently lived in a neighborhood like that! I really reminded me of my childhood in the way the community came together for one another... Would that more neighborhoods could BE like that!

    Thanks for the O-so-sweet memories!