School’s Out for Summer

About this time each year boomers eagerly counted down the remaining moments to when they could run out of their schools, screaming:

No more pencils
No more books
No more teachers’ dirty looks

Then suddenly, it was summer vacation; that glorious time of year when we could bask in the warmth of the sun, free of responsibility and forced learning. Much of our summer time was spent outdoors. The contrasts between how our generation spent summer days and what kids today do on their summer vacation is striking.

In our day, we generally woke up the same time we did when we had to go to school, which could be anywhere between 6 a.m. and 7:30 a.m. In Mister Boomer’s case, he and his siblings woke around 7 a.m., slipped out of our summer-weight pajamas and into shorts and a pullover shirt. Then we’d fix ourselves a bowl of cereal for breakfast. For Mister B and his siblings, that could be anything from Corn Flakes to Cheerios; Shredded Wheat to Raisin Bran; Sugar Pops to Sugar Smacks; Cocoa Puffs to Lucky Charms.

After rinsing our bowls and leaving them in the sink (Mister B’s family, like a lot of boomer families, did not have a dishwasher), we’d give our teeth a quick brushing and we’d be ready to go our separate ways out the door, all before our mother was even awake. So it was with most boomers all summer long — children could leave the house in the morning and not return until dinner time. During the agricultural era, people living on farms used bells to call the family to the dinner table; in the suburban boomer era, it was moms standing on their front porches, calling out the names of their children. We’d often be within earshot, a block or two away, so would usually pick up our individual maternal call that would immediately end our play and beckon us to head home.

What would we do in the eight to nine hours we’d be outside? Studies have shown that we’d participate in unstructured play with neighborhood children. While girls tended to stay closer to home, the boys could be anywhere from a baseball field to deep in nearby woods, thanks to their bicycles. The play was considered unstructured because the group would decide at that moment on that day what we’d do next: dig foxholes and play army, gather teams for a 100 inning baseball game or explore fields and streams looking for snakes, tadpoles and insects. Occasionally girls would join in with the boys, but generally, they remained near home and played with dolls or board games.

By contrast, today’s kids are media consumers. A recent report indicated children are spending almost eight hours a day either watching TV, playing video games or surfing the Internet. Some say this precipitous rise in indoor activity is directly correlated to the availability of mobile electronic devices, including cell phones and iPods. While we would spend hour upon hour outdoors in unstructured play, today’s children are spending half as much time outdoors as children did just 20 years ago, let alone compared to boomer years. Unstructured play has been reduced to just four to seven MINUTES a day. While our day was open ended, time for today’s kids is much more structured, with team sports or classes at given schedules. It is true, however, that today’s kids have fewer playmates. Being part of the baby boom meant there was always a group of kids in every neighborhood. Mister B recalls that every house on his block, with the exception of a couple of senior citizens, had more than one child. Children of different ages often played together as well. By the very mathematical nature of the birth rate since our Baby Boom years, there are fewer kids now to be prospective play buddies.

It’s becoming increasingly difficult for aging boomers like Mister B to understand how this indoor/outdoor shift will produce positive results for society as a whole. Yet it’s good to remember that the generation before us often didn’t have the luxury of summer play-time at all. Mister B’s father was working in a factory at age 12 to help his family out during the Depression. One generation later, we were given the gift of time — time to play, discover and breathe.

That summer time produced some fantastic memories for Mister B, as it has for boomers across the country. Will the generations that followed us be able to look at their summer play with the same nostalgia and remembrance of video games past? And will their summer experiences teach them life lessons that will carry them into their adult endeavors? What do you think, boomers?

Source: “Changing Times of American Youth: 1981-2003”, Juster, F. Thomas et al. (2004). Institute for Social Research, University of Michigan. Child Development Supplement

Boomers Go Fly A Kite

This year’s relatively mild winter belies the winters of boomer days when, by this time, we would have been desperately awaiting spring. Most of the snow would have melted, but the ground and trees were brown, and the sky was grey. A sharp wind was blowing, shaking our reality as the dot of sun beckoned us to play, while its rays struggled to warm our frozen landscape.

One of the first outdoor activities the neighborhood would engage in at this time of year was kite flying. The blustery winds of a Midwest March were perfect for launching our paper and wood flying machines, even if the bite of the cold numbed our fingers in the process. Boy or girl, regardless of age, could participate in the activity. For boomers, kite flying was another in a series of outdoor activities that required very little cost or training.

The neighborhood store readily sold kite kits for ten cents. Another ten cents would buy a ball of kite string, and you were in business. We could easily raise the money the same day we decided to “go fly a kite” by picking up a few discarded pop bottles (it was ALWAYS called “pop,” not “soda”). We’d quickly race back to our houses to rinse any accumulated dirt from our finds by using the faucet on the outside of the house. Glass bottles still wet, we’d rush back to the corner store. At two-cents apiece, it never seemed to take that long to accumulate the cash. All we’d have to do was follow the path that teenagers took on their walk home from our high school.

In the store, a cardboard box with the top third cut off sat alongside a glass display case that held a tempting assortment of candy bars, neatly arranged row by row. On this day, the money in hand wasn’t for sweet treats. Mister Boomer would browse through the selection of kites, looking for a color to “speak” to him. The paper kites were wrapped around wood strips and slipped into long, clear plastic bags. On the glass counter was a cardboard display of string balls. Kite selection and string ball in hand, the transaction was completed, and off we’d go to the nearest kid’s house that had a garage. It was easier to assemble our kites out of the wind, and we stayed a tad warmer in the process.

The kite itself was easy to assemble: Two wooden strips were joined by a piece of metal bent around them like a staple. All that was required was to turn the shorter strip perpendicular to the longer to form a cross shape. Each end of the strips had a slit notched into it. Unfurling the triangular-shaped paper kite, it was ready to attach to the strip by way of pre-placed pieces of string that conveniently slipped into the notches on the pliable, thin wood strips.

At this point, the kite took shape, but wasn’t flight-worthy yet. Down the central spine of the paper face were two dots that indicated the place to pierce the paper. Using a pencil tip we would do just that, then open our ball of string and slip the end through one of the holes. On the backside, the string was knotted. Flipping back to the front, the string was let out to give it a little slack between the two holes. A scissors cut later, the other end could be threaded through the hole and tied off like the previous end. This central string was the main line to which we could we could tie our ground-based string.

Flipping the kite over, we could see the paper was not as taut as we preferred. Mister B can’t say if this was a neighborhood or regional thing, or if it was the proper way to make a kite, but we’d tie off string on one horizontal end of the wooden strip and stretch it across to the other side, forming a bow by pulling the string before tying it off. Now the paper fit tightly over the wooden structure.

Next, a quick trip home to raid the basement rag bin. Boomer families kept rags for cleaning, but they sure came in handy when you needed to make kite tails. Strips of cloth were tied to a longer strip at regular intervals, creating Bow-tie shapes along its axis. Then it was tied to the bottom of the kite to act as a rudder tail and counterweight in the wind.

How you prepared string for your first flight was a personal choice. You could let it unwind from the ball as it came from the store, but most kids in Mister B’s neighborhood chose to tightly wind the string around a twig. If you found the right one, it would have a couple of knobs that could contain the string between them while offering space to grip the twig on either side when two hands were needed to steady the kite in flight.

Once the prepped string was tied to the central string, the kite was ready. Mister B’s block had far too many trees and telephone wires for kite flying. Inevitably, kites, trapped like live creatures rustling in branches and wires, were testaments to the hubris that got them there. Instead, happy to avoid a Charlie Brown kite-eating tree moment, we’d head over to the nearby schoolyard where the baseball field offered an unobstructed free range for flying.

While Mister B enjoyed the process of building the kite, he never became an expert flyer. First there was the launch: running over the uneven terrain and learning to time the release at just the right moment for your paper triangle to catch the wind. Then there was the stability factor. Here is where you’d see if you had indeed built a flyable kite: A tear in the paper, tautness too slack or too tight, cloth tail too long or too short, and your kite would not stay airborne for long. Once it was in the air, though, it was a thing of beauty.

Mister B recalls one time when the conditions were just right, and he launched a promotional kite he had received from the neighborhood Sinclair gas station. Fifty-plus feet up as he carefully let out more string, the kite seemed to hover in a sea of gray, its green dinosaur logo on a white triangle of paper holding strong in the breeze. The kite seemed to fly itself, and for one moment, Mister B’s spirits climbed up along the string and into the spring sky.

What memories do kite flying bring to you, boomers?