When I was a kid growing up in rural Kentucky, we did not have Nintendo, or Switch, or a Playstation, we had woods, and fields and bicycles. During the summer when we were off from school, we ate breakfast (as fast as we could) and then we were out the door to do whatever seemed fun that day. Building a “fort” in the woods behind the house or getting into mischief at the Crigler’s dairy farm where they had cows, and horses, and chickens, and tractors and a cool tree house. We could play war with our Red Ryder bb guns, (before I realized that war wasn’t a game), or cowboys and Indians (before I read the Trail of Tears) or help around on their farm. The cows needed to be fed and milked twice a day, even on weekends and federal holidays. Slaughtering chickens was great fun, we would chop their heads off with an axe and they would literally run around like chickens with their heads cut off, much like our current efforts to curb the pandemic.
Around noon we would wander back home for lunch, then we were back outside playing with the neighborhood kids, the Hoskins, the Criglers, the Peppers, the Hogans, etc. I knew every kid on Bullock Lane, how old they were, what school they went to, what bike they road, and who was good at wiffleball. I hated to lose so I always wanted to pick the better players so my team would win. We would then drift back home at dinner time. We had no cell phones at the time but there was the mom network. Often when we stayed out too late the mother of whomever house we were playing at would step outside and let us know that our mother had called, and it was time to come home. After dinner we would watch the news and a few shows (like M.A.S.H or Carol Burnett) on one of the 4 stations we got on our black and white TV (channel 5 – NBC, channel 9 – CBS, channel 12 – ABC, and channel 19 (independent). If the atmospherics were right, we occasionally got channel 64 (PBS). There was no Fox, or CNN or MSNBC, you got the news from one of the big three networks at 6 and 11 p.m. every night. It wasn’t fake news, or slanted to one side, it was just the news delivered by someone honest like Walter Cronkite and if he said it, well it was true. We later upgraded to a color TV, but still only had 4 channels. Saturday morning, we always watched cartoons because that was the only time they were on all week.
Many years later, I took a day off from work and I saw the school bus make several stops on our street and load up with kids. I was perplexed, all summer I never saw any of these kids riding up and down our street on a bike and rarely did I see them in the park next to our house, other than soccer practice. It then dawned on me that these kids spent their summers inside their homes watching TV and playing video games. I wondered if they even knew the other kids on their street, or what bikes they rode, or it they were any good at wiffleball. I was sad for a moment; the world had indeed changed, and I wasn’t sure it was for the better. These kids had hundreds (or even thousands) of friends on Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, or whatever the social media of the day was, but are they really friends if you’ve never seen them in person, or made a “fort” in the woods with them, or knew they couldn’t hit a curve. I guess the times had changed, and I was just being a bit nostalgic.
I still ride my bike regularly when the weather permits, and my wife and I take our dog Booker for a walk in the neighborhood twice a day, though I no longer build forts or chop the heads off of chickens. Until recently, my wife and I rarely passed a neighbor (adult or kid) when we were out on our walks, nor did we see anyone riding a bike or playing wiffleball. I wondered if there were even people really living in these houses, but I did see them driving up and down the street, going somewhere important I am sure, so I guess there was.
And then COVID-19 happened and now I see hordes of neighbors walking around the streets, with their kids and with their dogs. And I see a lot of people riding bikes and scooters. I wondered did they had them all along and they were collecting dust in their garages like your exercise machine, or did they go out and buy them?
And it’s amazing. These families are talking to each other, and they say hi to their neighbors when they pass (while maintaining proper social distance) and they are exercising. My poor dog Booker is beside himself. He barks at everyone who passes our house (while I am on calls for work), and he gets hyper excited when we are on walks because he, like Will Rogers, never met a person he didn’t like.
That got me to thinking. Maybe after this terrible pandemic passes (and it will), just maybe the world will be a better place. Where people get outside of their homes, walk around their neighborhoods, talk to their kids and parents, say hi to their neighbors, and get in some much-needed exercise. We’d be healthier, both mentally and physically. If only we could bring Walter Cronkite back to provide everyone the same (true) news. That, and a good backyard wiffleball game.