Connie Schultz | Let’s Give the Kids a Real Summer

Ah, June.

Time for the carcinogenic clouds of outdoor grills, the buzz of neighborly yard tools drowning out low-flying aircraft and family arguments over who gets to wear the inflatable starfish armbands in the swimming pool.

And let us not forget the children. Millions of the little darlings are about to be emancipated from teachers’ daily reprimands to use their words, not their hands, and rush into the Season of Living Hell. Unless, of course, their parents decide that even kids — especially kids — deserve a break from the rigors of a regimented life. Those lucky kids will spend at least some of the next three months drinking from hoses, scraping their knees and playing pickup games under open skies until fireflies light their way home.

We call that Summer.

In these tough economic times, most of us have had to scale back. Perfect chance to share the wealth of leisure with our children. Most parents still have to find ways to pay for summer camps and baby sitters, but we don’t have to schedule kids in 30-minute increments from dawn to dusk. The economy has freed up Americans to create a different kind of summer for their kids. The kind we used to have, before the Internet and reality TV.

Let’s take a walk down memory lane, shall we? Try not to trip over the hyperbole.

When I was kid — oh, here she goes — Band-Aids came in two sizes, a thong was something wedged between one’s toes and pickup games were as ubiquitous as sunburns. We left the house in the morning, came back for lunch. Left, returned for supper. Helped with dishes, thanked Mom and dashed back out the door. Mom and Dad had three rules: Don’t break any laws; run home when the streetlights come on; and don’t forget your brother.

“Well, yes,” you say, “but those were safer times.” Maybe where you lived.

We jumped off cliffs into the Ashtabula River, swooned from the breezes of whooshing trains that flattened our pennies and climbed trees so high even the tomcats thought we were crazy. And speaking of crazy, spare me the five verses of “Ode to Mothers Who Knew Their Place.” Yes, more mothers were home cooking and cleaning and kaffeeklatsch-ing. Why do you think we were outside all day?

Baseball games on homemade diamonds were part of the daily hum of summer. We played without helmets or uniforms, used tree stumps and box tops for bases. Shoes were optional. Gender mattered only if you were dumb enough to show up in a dress.

Some parents were cool enough to play. Mom, for example. She would show up wearing pedal pushers and an extra coat of Aqua Net and shout, “Play ball!” She was only 4 feet 11 inches tall with hair teased higher than an Indian burial mound, so nobody could find her strike zone. This made her a guaranteed walk at the plate. She carried a coin in her pocket so we could flip to see which team got her.

She drew crowds, my mother. “You go, Janey,” her girlfriends would yell from the sidelines. She’d pat her hair, give a little wave.

Nobody had a cell phone, laptop or BlackBerry to distract parents from watching the game. It was rare for a red-faced dad to scream at a kid for missing a play. Nobody benched the kids who wouldn’t know what to do with a ball if it landed in their gloves and said, “Hold on to me for a little bit, would ya?”

Maybe I’m a dinosaur, but I still believe there’s nothing like waking up for an adventure of your own making and feeling all played out at the end of the day. I have so many memories of walking through the door at dusk with my siblings, all of us tired and dusty. Mom would yell at us to keep our hands off that and leave our shoes over there, and then she’d march the little ones off to their baths.

“You kids,” she’d say, shaking her head. “You kids.”

But she was usually smiling. And so were we.

Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The Plain Dealer in Cleveland and an essayist for Parade magazine.

Copyright 2010