“Lord of the Flies?
“Yes! Lord of the Flies! That’s what it was like out here.”
The above conversation (more or less) took place last Memorial Day, at my in-laws’ house in Astoria, Queens. My brother-in-law, Johnny, my husband’s older brother, was waxing reminiscent about his childhood on those streets in this enclave in the northwestern bit of New York City’s most diverse borough.
What he meant by Lord of the Flies wasn’t that the kids he grew up were so unsupervised that they descended into a frightening, murderous gang with a conch shell. What I think he meant was that he and the neighborhood kids were alone often enough, and with enough autonomy, that they were able to form their own society, for good or ill. They figured things out. They negotiated, as best as kids can. Through trial and error, they knew what they could work out amongst themselves, and what required a quick run home for adult back-up.
In that, the Astoria kids of the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s were not unlike the suburban cadre of kids I ran with. We were on our own once we crossed the thresholds of our homes, once our bikes had disappeared around the corner, down the street, into the woods. And I’d venture to say that they, and we, were tougher and smarter in many ways than our kids are now.
Johnny, my husband and their younger sister, Debbie, merrily swapped stories about happenings that would absolutely not occur today, not on their block of brick row houses with the alley behind, and not on my suburban cul-de-sac, either. Stories like:
- The neighbor, Candy (Candy!) who was a stewardess (that’s what they were called then!) with no children of her own, who would call the kids into her house when she was home between flights, and give them candy (candy!) and pin those little airplane wings to their shirts. What was her game?
- The local Good Humor ice cream man, who would take fresh apricots the kids filched from a neighbor’s tree in exchange for rides around the ‘hood (and free ice cream) in his truck. What was his game?
The What was his/her game thing is meant to make you think: There was no “game,” no evil intent. Candy liked the kids in the neighborhood, and who doesn’t like to make a bunch of kids smile? (Plus, if you’re known as the nice lady who gives out candy and airplane wings, those kids are less likely to, say, egg your house on Halloween). The Good Humor man? He probably liked apricots. And obviously he was — like zillions of people that surrounded those kids then and our kids now — just your average decent person.
How cynical have we become that, in 2013, the very phrase kids catching a ride in the Good Humor truck gives so many of us the shivers?
It’s interesting to me that while so many aspects of our childhoods may not be as “good” as what we’re able to offer to our own children, we’ve also let them down in many ways.
A few weeks ago, I encouraged my boys, who were riding their bikes in a tight little circle in front of the house, to ride down the street to the park by themselves. It was a big step for them, and bigger for me. I was kind of hoping they might run into some other kids there, and play, and figure out a game that would work gloriously for a while before it all fell apart and they got into a disagreement that they’d have to work out.
In fact, they came back in a half-hour because no one was there and they were bored.
Something’s lost. I’d like to figure out a way to get it back. You?