(This essay originally appeared in Main Line Life newspaper on 7/16/08.)
As I see children being shuttled to their summer day camps, swim and tennis lessons, and play-dates I wonder if at any point in their childhood they will be allowed to just run free. Gone are the days when you could assume your child would be safe roaming the neighborhood on foot or on bikes with other kids on your street. And when you live in an area that is as developed and urban as ours is, the opportunity to explore the outdoors is also limited. I doubt whether most kids today will ever know, as I did growing up, the wonders of the clay pits.
The clay pits was one of those places that today’s constantly monitored children would never be allowed near. When I think of all the ways we could have been accidentally maimed or killed playing there, I still shudder. Our parents either had no idea what a dangerous place it was, or they just believed strongly in Darwin’s theory – maybe a few of us needed to be weeded out.
To get to the clay pits we had to hop a rusty, sagging, tetanus-riddled barbed-wire fence and then cross a field. The field was home to ten thousand discarded beer bottles, a plague of grasshoppers (think of the Hitchcock movie The Birds and replace the birds with grasshoppers and you’ve got it), and the occasional lurking rattlesnake. The grasshoppers spit an orangey-brown tobacco on you when they landed on you, which was about every two seconds. They were huge suckers, dry and raspy, bulgy-eyed and evil looking, and you ran through the field as fast as you could, dodging broken beer bottles, with your eyes half-closed, swatting all around yourself as they hurled themselves at you.
If you made it through the field alive, you had to cross an irrigation ditch, which was more of a trickle in certain sections, and in other parts a fairly deep trough up to your waist. I am certain now that the irrigation ditch was the dumping ground for every toxic chemical within a fifty-mile radius of our town, and was also home to mutant frogs, more snakes, and a brown foam that smelled curiously like root beer.
There was a pond in the middle of the clay pits – we called it Green Pond. It was a dark emerald green and murky, and it glittered beckoningly. It looked exactly like the kind of pond you’d read about in the newspaper that kids would routinely drown in. Ignoring all posted danger signs, we built flimsy rafts out of old boards and whatever garbage was strewn about. There was always a lot of trash all around that area, because local residents found it more accessible than the dump.
One favorite pastime was poking through the mounds of discarded junk hoping to find treasure that would make us millionaires. One day we found a heap of discarded checkbooks with all the blank checks intact, and we wondered if we could spend them like real money. We didn’t know how checks worked, but we thought that if we just filled in an amount and took it to a bank teller, we would likely be able to get a huge sum of money. We debated this possibility for days, but in the end realized it wouldn’t work. Get rich schemes didn’t pan out in general, that much we knew from our own parents’ dreams.
It was in the clay pits that I received my first kiss, a feverish, furtive smooch that in addition to making me all swoony, unexpectedly made me sort of sad because it felt like the first step on the bridge to leaving my childhood – and the clay pits – behind. But as soon as the kiss was out of the way, I got back to being a kid for a while longer. My sisters and I ran wild and free, and we didn’t come home until the sun was beginning to sink behind the jagged, high peaks of the Rocky Mountains; until we were sweaty and filthy, clay dirt sticking in every crevice of our bodies.
The clay pits are no longer there. They were flattened out, filled in, and landscaped, reincarnated as a swanky golf course. I guess that’s what’s known as progress.