There’s just something about the country that makes it inescapably different from the city. Of course there are the obvious things—less traffic, less pollution, less asphalt; those aren’t the things I’m talking about. The smell of the morning when you first go outside, the dew heavy on the ground, the fresh botanical infusion of scents on the air, the newly plowed fields or mowed grass mixed with honey suckle and daylilies, or, depending on the time of year, the crisp and acrid scent of leaves burning and hay being cut and bailed—things that I took for granted every day as a child that now, many years older, float back to me from time to time.
When you grow up in the country, especially on a dirt road, there is only one option when you begin trying to figure out what you’re going to do after school, on the weekends, or during the summer. Staying inside was nearly impossible, unless it was raining, and even then, my brother and I still went for the door on most days.
After school was a no-brainer. We would get home from school, take off our “school clothes” and put on our “play clothes.” Our “play clothes” were usually some school clothes that were either too tight, had worn holes in the knees, or both, and were likely some less than desirable hand-me-downs from older cousins. Play clothes on, it was off to the barn, the woods, the pool (if it was warm enough to swim, we would)... It didn’t matter—we were outside! On some very rare occasions, our father would make it home before it was time to come in and we might throw the baseball around or play some football or basketball with him.
Weekends were just an extended after-school extravaganza of being outside. Most Saturday mornings, we had some sort of chores to do, and we always thought that we were being utterly tortured! We could not fathom how any parent could be so cruel as to subject their children to work on their first full day off from school. But, there was usually money in it for us and sometimes we had friends over from the night before, and that made things almost bearable. We all usually ended up making a game of whatever we were doing.
One of my father’s favorite Saturday morning chores for my brother and me was picking up pine cones. We had approximately 8 million pine trees growing in our yard, and each one of them dropped about 1,000 pine cones a week. Every Saturday that my father was going to cut the grass, every one of them had to be picked up and put on the burn pile—which was this huge pile of sticks, limbs, grass clippings, pine cones, and other assorted yard trash that we roasted once a year in a bonfire that, had we been smart about it, we would never have burned without the presence of at least 10 fire trucks.
When we were strapped with the chore of picking up pine cones, though, we’d use a three-step game. First, we would get the wheelbarrow, into which all the pine cones had to go to be carted to the pile. Then there were the five or 10 gallon buckets into which we would put the pinecones to then be placed in the wheelbarrow. The rules were, we would start at the exact same time, picking up pine cones and shooting them, basketball fashion, into the buckets from at least a distance of 6’ away—no closer. Once a bucket was full, the shooter had to sprint with the full bucket to the wheel barrow and dump the pine cones into it. This would continue until the wheelbarrow was full. The person who made the most trips to the wheelbarrow was the winner of that round, and the loser had to actually push the wheelbarrow over to the burn pile.
After the chores were finished, we had free rein of our world. We would take the BB guns, or pellet guns, and walk the mile to the old barn past our Granny’s house or we would walk to our fort across the dirt road in the woods. Other times, we would go off exploring in the woods surrounding our house.
After a hard day of work and pretending we were Indiana Jones looking for lost treasure and rescuing damsels in distress, we were always rewarded with a huge meal at the end of the day—hamburgers and chips with homemade ice cream, steak, and baked potato with peach pie, or fried fish with french fries, corn dodgers, and banana pudding were typical favorites.
I never really appreciated those days until I got much older. It never occurred to me that the freedom we had to go virtually anywhere we pleased was something that wouldn’t always be there. My wife and I have had an inside joke that we’ve shared for years now since our girls have gotten older: Youth is wasted on the young. There’s a lot of truth in that—more than most would admit, I think.