Lesson from a Small Town: Child’s Play
Child’s play is kid’s work and I worked very hard at playing when I was a kid.
For me, my 1950’s childhood was a time of self-discovery during an era when it was safe to wander about the countryside without an adult tether. You see, I had the luxury of growing up in the quaint village of Ames, New York, the “loveliest town of all” according to author E.B. White. My child’s play taught me many valuable life lessons.
I was quite young when my mother first allowed me to walk unaccompanied to the nearby corner store. I don’t know if she was too busy to make the trip herself and was therefore using her resources, but nevertheless, I was flattered by the trust my mother bestowed upon me at such an early age for a solo trip. On my first venture, Mom gave me a dollar and a verbal shopping list. I continuously repeated the items out-loud in my six-year-old voice on my journey along the roadway’s shoulder to the store.
A loaf of bread, a quart of milk and a pack of Carltons… A loaf of bread, a quart of milk and a pack of Carltons… (That was the brand of cigarettes that my mother smoked after dinner with her coffee.)
Minnie, the store keeper, had to reach the cigarettes for me. Cartons and individual packs were displayed high above the cans of green beans and corn niblets adorned with Jolly Green Giant labels. I snagged a loaf of Freihofer’s bread from a low shelf, after squeezing the plastic bag to make sure it was fresh. A carton of milk from the local dairy called out to me in the cooler next to containers of undesirable sour cream and cottage cheese. When my mental list was filled, I arranged the products on the linoleum counter at the back of the store and balanced my dollar on top of the items. Minnie rang up my purchases on her giant cash register. After pressing down on the keys, like those on my grandfather’s Remington Noiseless typewriter, Minnie pulled down on the side handle. A bell chimed and out popped the bottom wooden drawer. Her hands, disfigured from a harsh winter imprisonment in a German World War II concentration camp in her Czech homeland, coaxed the change out of the compartments. It was here in Minnie’s store that I saw that paper money could turn into pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters.
Suspecting that Mom would be too busy to check the coins upon my return, I made a last minute executive decision to treat myself to some candy from Minnie’s glass showcase with the left-over pennies. I put the rest of the coins in my left sneaker for safe keeping.
The cinnamon fireball burned against the inside of my cheek on the stroll home as I cradled the large brown bag in front of my chest. A squishy, jellied watermelon slice waited for later in a separate small bag in the pocket of my shorts.
My first solo shopping trip was a huge success.
Don’t Smoke It Wet
I learned a lot from my unsupervised child’s play. Sometimes I shared these moments with my three sisters and neighbor friends, and sometimes I enjoyed the solitude of make-believe. Through it all, I developed a respect for danger.
One thing I figured out through trial and error is how to successfully strike a match. First, you have to hold on firmly to a cardboard match after tearing it from the others. Then, close the cover and strike it quickly on the rough black strip. When a spark erupts, rapidly lower your finger down to the bottom end to avoid getting burned. A burned finger blisters. Of course, I was not encouraged to play with matches, but sometimes they were needed for some of my activities. So, I helped myself to one of the colorful books in the kitchen junk drawer. I always returned the contraband container to the exact same spot when I was finished to avoid suspicion.
Once, my friends and I decided to try out a discarded corn cob pipe. At first we filled the bowl with unused tobacco from my parent’s cigarette butts that I scoured out of the trash. But this was taking too long and we did not have enough butts. So, we decided to use corn silks from a freshly picked ear out of Ronnie’s field of cow corn behind our barn. The logic seemed clear to us. Both items contained the word corn. But alas, the lit damp silk only resulted in lots of smoke, a bitter taste and many spent matches. Drat! Science worked against us.
Sharing a Hat and Caps
In the early days of television, Dale Evans and Annie Oakley were the only girls I saw on TV who had guns. I wanted to be a cowgirl just like them. I envied the boys in town who had B-B guns and six shooters like The Lone Ranger and Hopalong Cassidy. The guys chased each other all around town and took turns falling down dead. Sometimes they ambushed the girls from behind trees with gunfire. I wanted a gun too.
When I mentioned my desire to Mom and Dad for a Dale Evans outfit, my older sister echoed her request along with mine. I didn’t know that she was a fan like me. Our dream came true on her birthday in May 1955. But the present came with the usual condition. Sharing.
I was born into sharing. As one of four girls in a five-year span, we were matched up by pairs in two bedrooms and all four of us shared a connecting bathroom. Clothes and winter boots were handed down the line and Ivory soap bars and Prell shampoo were community property.
Of course, my older sister and I each needed our own fringed skirt, shirt, a holster and a gun. But, funds must have been low since only one hat and one package of caps for the guns accompanied the outfits. Those parts were to be shared. Under my watchful eye, my older sister carefully divided the red paper roll by counting out the single percussion caps. Mounting my horse, the top rung on our split rail fence on the side yard, I loaded my pistol with the delicate strip and held my gun high over my head as I headed down my imaginary trail in pursuit of bank robbers. The bang from my gun stung in my tiny ears. The odor of fresh sulfur filled my nose. When it was my turn, I proudly donned the shared cowgirl hat and ran around the backyard chasing down more bad guys and spending more firepower. I always got the villains and took them off to my make-believe jail in the cemetery behind our house.
In the summer of 1955 I felt like a real cowgirl, even if I was not always wearing the hat.
Warm Air Dries Wet Pants
Bikes were our childhood means of transportation. My sisters and I used them for trips to the Ames Post Office, for rides to the crick and for visits to neighbors. On warm summer nights, we competed with one another with bikes races to Canajoharie. Six miles each way. The back roads to the next town were less travelled and we rarely saw a car as the four of us flew down the familiar route. The only interference came from angry farm dogs protecting wide property boundaries. I quickly figured out how to balance my feet up on my handle bars while coasting past the menacing canines as my heart raced with fear.
Shunk Road, a gravel bed roadway intersecting the singular road through Ames, led to the Canajoharie Creek and to surrounding marshlands filled with cat tails and wild flowers. It was a favorite bike route of ours. One Saturday in early spring, the four of us rode our bikes half-way up Shunk Road. The winter thaw had created a small tributary off the crick and residual hunks of ice moved lazily along the muddy shoreline seeking open waters. We parked our bikes in a grove of sumac trees and marveled at the giant ice cubes. We knew about Tom Sawyer’s adventures on a raft on the Mississippi and that story inspired us to recreate a similar adventure. My sisters and I used nature’s seasonal ice raft instead of building a wooden one of our own.
We lined up our shoes and socks on a flat rock and rolled our pants up to our knees. One by one we tiptoed through the cold shallow water towards a chunk of ice. Giggling, we dared one another to step out on the ice. I wasn’t too sure about climbing up on the cold surface, but sister number 3 eagerly stepped on the ice as the rest of us cheered on her bravery. For a moment, she was a balancing marvel. But suddenly… Splash! Thrashing in the cloudy water, she reached her arms out for help and let out a scream. Without hesitation, we pulled her to shore.
There she stood before us shivering. We knew that Mom would be angry with us. We were in this together so the four of us hatched a plan to dry her pants.
Just take your pants off.
My sister resisted.
No one will see your underpants if you hide behind a tree.
Now convinced that her privacy would be protected, she shimmied out of her play pants.
The three of us took turns riding up and down the hill on Shunk Road with the drenched pants trailing behind like an oversized kite trying to take flight. Up and down we vigorously pedaled while my once brave sister stayed behind half-naked and shivering in the thicket. Air movement was our solution. We had observed that when Mom put our clothes in the dryer, air pumped through the perforated drum and dried our clothes.
So why were her pants not drying? We had plenty of air flapping the pants around. But we had neglected to take into account the air temperature. Again, science got in the way. The cool spring atmosphere did not encourage the evaporation of the water and the pants only progressed from dripping wet to soggy.
Put your pants back on. Mom will never notice and then go right up-stairs and dump them in the hamper.
Mom was busy in the kitchen making dinner and listening to the radio so she did not notice my sister slinking in with her wet pants. The three of us kept a protective circle around her just in case.
Nothing was ever said about the wet pants. Perhaps my sister’s pants dried out more in the hamper by wash day, or maybe Mom just lumped the laundry together into the Maytag washer where everything soon was drenched.
That afternoon I learned that heat is the secret ingredient in a dryer.
Ants Really Like Sugar
Put the lid back on the sugar bowl Kim.
Because ants like sugar.
I never saw an ant in the sugar bowl so I guess my Nana was right. The lid kept them out. But how did my grandmother know that ants like sugar if she was always keeping them out with the lid?
The question swirled around in my head. By age five, I was developing a healthy sense of suspicion, so I decided to investigate further myself.
Everyone was still asleep upstairs on a Sunday morning. I awoke with a plan to test the lid on the sugar bowl theory. Slipping downstairs in my nightgown, I jumped up on the kitchen counter and opened the cabinet and took out our sugar bowl, lid and all. I put it on the counter next to my knees. Hopping down, I reached for the bowl, took off the lid and transferred it to the linoleum floor in front of the sink. With a teaspoon, I scooped out a white crystal mound and piled it in the middle of the floor. Pulling my nightie over my legs, I crouched down next to it and waited. Within a few minutes the first scout appeared. The brave black ant marched right up to the sugary prize. I bet he could not believe his good fortune. And then he disappeared. Soon he returned with six friends. They circled the sweet treat and started to crawl up and down the tiny hill like warriors conquering a new territory. And then there were more. Soon a parade started from a small space under the sink cabinet and before I knew it, there was a moving black column charging to their destination on our kitchen floor. I was so engrossed in the ant’s straight-lined procession that I did not hear my mother’s footsteps come down the stairs and into the kitchen.
Kim! What are you doing?
Mom had her arms raised above her head in her usual alarmed stance and headed towards me. Plastic pink curlers dotted her chestnut hair. Her frayed terrycloth robe was cinched tightly at her waist.
Nana said that ants really like sugar. I wanted to give them some. Our sugar bowl has a lid and they can’t open it.
So much for my generosity and insect experiment. In disgust, Mom grabbed the dustpan and broom from the cellar landing and swept away the sugar pile. Then she started stomping on the lingering ants with her bare feet as I watched in horror.
I did not understand why we couldn’t just share a little sugar with our insect friends. I did not understand that I was encouraging an infestation of troublesome visitors that might be hard to eradicate. (I later learned that was what the can of Raid was for under the kitchen sink.)
After all, I was just practicing what my parents preached. But in this case, sharing was not caring.
Paper money can turn into coins.
Pennies buy candy.
Cowgirl hats are optional.
Matches are hot.
Ignited damp corn silk smolders.
Ice is slippery.
Not all air dries wet stuff.
These were all self-taught lessons that my child’s play taught me. They were not facts in my Golden Book Encyclopedias that we collected as purchase incentives at Mr. Chuck’s A&P grocery story in Canajoharie. They were not written on the chalkboard by my sage elementary school teachers at the East Hill Canajoharie Elementary School. These moments were my own life lessons that came from my child’s play wrapped in the beautiful backdrop of Ames, New York.
Oh, and by the way, ants DO like sugar.