We were witnessing a coming of age moment that second, on the afternoon of an oily July day, on the street where we grew up, in a small Michigan town. At that moment, a young boy saw his freedom and seized it, riding recklessly away on a green electric scooter as far as the street would take him. He looked back over this shoulder with a look that said “You can’t stop me,” as tough as an eight-year-old can be without forfeiting dessert or getting sentenced to an early bedtime. Then he leaned forward and jammed it to top speed—trying to look cool at 10 miles per hour.
“Where the hell is his helmet?” His mom, my youngest sister, watched him careen off the street and bump across the neighbor’s yard. I was not worried. I couldn’t be. It was my big idea to bring the scooter to my mother’s house in the first place, thinking of all the kids who would love to ride it. Of course, if anyone had been hurt, it would have been my damn big idea, but since no child was maimed in a freak scooter mishap, I was OK.
I know the kind of freedom these kids are after. I know what it is like to be watched like a prisoner from that very same kitchen window where we sisters now stood eyeing our own kids. And like a gang of prison yard inmates our kids were looking to make a break out of the green confines and the scooter was their getaway machine. But they had to take turns.
Back in the sixties, I lived on the sidelines of freedom, stuck in that same yard. Each summer morning I watched my neighbor Pam buzz down the street on her Boonie Bike, Marcia Brady hair flying behind her and her big mouth with naturally straight teeth open with delight. Pam’s mom worked. Pam’s days were free. I had a bike with no motor and a stay-at-home mom. We were not allowed out of the neighborhood.
This was my life in a suburb of a very small town. Even in summer, my bedtime was a babyish 8:30pm. My friends were still shrieking outside as I lay sweating on the top bunk, listening to their voices, carried by the moist air into the long northern twilight. Summer in Michigan is a fairyland lit by fireflies. In summer it is light until ten o’clock and I was missing it. I was in prison with the window open. Freedom was just past the dusty screen.
It’s my theory, (stolen from my older brothers who really pulled some crap in their day,) that over-protective parents just make for wilder kids. It sounded reasonable at 12 years old and still sounds reasonable at 52 as I envision my sister’s kid eventually doing back flips on a dirt bike on Spike TV. Once my brothers left home to strike out on their own or avoid the draft, it was Girls Gone Wild at our house. I cursed not being a boy. I don’t know how my Dad could stand it living with six girls, but I know the threat of bodily harm kept me in line for many years, at least through junior high. Every day I came home from school, studied, practiced piano, flute and went to ballet as scheduled. I was chicken to do anything else, until I found out my one advantage in life.
At the strip mall one day, I was heading to Woolworth’s for double-chocolate coated peanuts. An Army recruiter standing on the sidewalk motioned me into his office and began asking questions that I still ask myself: “What are you going to do with your life? What are you doing here walking around the mall?” Bewildered, I blurted out the truth: “I’m fourteen! What do you expect?” Taking a close look at me, he stepped back in shock and I ran out the door. “Come back in four years!” he yelled after me.
Unnerving as it was, that military intervention opened my eyes to a power I exploited until highschool graduation. I looked much older than I was and it wasn’t long before it came in handy. Passing for the legal drinking age in the ‘70s in Michigan was a piece of freedom I didn’t go looking for, but I certainly didn’t waste it. Plus it alleviated the main teenage social problem of our time: where to party and who was buying? To top it off, because of some legislative shenanigans, for a brief, shining moment in Michigan, it was legal for 18 year olds to enjoy a beer and not have to hide behind a sand dune at the beach to drink it. With my new-found “You look 18 to me” status, awarded to me by genuine adults, by the time I was a junior in highschool and could drive, I knew all the local bartenders: the crabby lady at the Silver Dollar, the nice one at the Sand Bar, and the fat guy at the Tap in the next town who also served up an excellent cheese pizza. So when we were done collecting Indian beads at the beach in the evening because the tide was just right, the waves were gentle and you could see clearly to the bottom, I’d get one of my gutsier friends to go with me to the bar and we both would think how lucky we were not to have to bribe someone’s older brother to buy us beer.
Hands down our favorite place was the Silver Dollar. We even had a favorite booth. The whole place was a Midwestern beer distributor’s nightmare or dream, and we knew for certain none of our parents would ever go there. Every dark corner held a Wisconsin beer maker’s sign. Every mirror was swirled with a whiskey logo. There were velvet paintings of wide-eyed babies sitting on potty chairs dotting the walls, red shag carpet that covered everything else and a fake fountain light from Miller Beer spinning from the ceiling. Who could resist that stuff? This was real American life. This was adult life. I tasted freedom with every sip of Miller Light, every dime dropped in the jukebox and every quarter I placed on the pool table.
Once we spent all our babysitting money and left a 50-cent tip to ensure future service, we would head out the back door that faced the lake bluff. If I had my Dad’s convertible Plymouth Fury III, the top would come folding down with the touch of a button and we would cruise the town. Ten minutes later, satisfied we were not missing anything, we would then go down to the lake for the sunset. This ritual, repeated until we all went away to college, was the only proper way to end a summer day. Sitting on a soft dune we would write our names in the sand with our fingers and dig our toes down in it to the cool, moist layer. Then we would wait in silence for the sun to settle, inch by inch, from orange to pink to lavender, down into the fairyland summer night.