Like Marty McFly’s travels back in time where he encounters youthful versions of his parents, my visit to Goshen, Indiana transported me back to the past where I was privileged to catch glimpses of a boy’s adventures near home.
Back in My Day
Decades ago, the world was a very different place. A child playing unsupervised outdoors was perceived to be safe enough. And houses were smaller, which promoted a shared benefit of outdoor play for children and their parents, who shooed them out from underfoot and out of earshot as frequently as possible.
We kids knew our next grand experience lay just on the other side of that front door. There were creeks that needed wading, snakes waiting to be caught, faces ready for another sunburn, and knees whose last scrapes had healed just enough to make room for new ones.
So we’d burst out that door at every opportunity, its routine slam announcing our departure to any adult who cared to note it.
Once outside, kids would seek out each other to find another shared adventure. Forming impromptu posses of curiosity and abandon, we’d show-off and dare each other into ever greater exploits. For hours we’d pursue one novel interest after another as we endeavored to squeeze out our little dose of joy for the day. In that process we’d bump up against – and too often cross over – the geographical and behavioral boundaries our parents had drawn for us.
Inevitably, just as things were getting interesting, that vigilant street lamp would blink on, shining its officious yellow spotlight on our sweaty, barefoot ventures. At that unwanted signal, we postponed our remaining plans until tomorrow, shouting fragments of intents and taunts to each other as reluctant obedience drew each of us to a waiting dinner table.
Adding a bike to that experience drove the bounds of exploration and autonomy even further.
So it was for Glenn.
The Boys Club
There was no better vantage point for my tour of Glenn’s hometown than the seat of my bike.
Leading me down the sleepy, tree-lined streets and empty alleyways of his childhood neighborhood on this hot July morning, we arrived first at the Boys and Girls Club (back then, just Boys Club) behind his school. Glenn described countless afterschool hours spent there. A place where he played chess and pool, and where he taught himself ping-pong by playing solo, with one side of the table folded up. His second home, where every Friday he and a dozen other smelly boys jockeyed for their favorite spots on the worn sofas, Kool-Aid and popcorn in hand, ready to enjoy the ritual that was the airing of the latest The Brady Bunch and The Partridge Family episodes.
With a modern façade and nearly five times its original size, the new club appears thriving and well-funded. I waited and held Glenn’s bike out front so he could explore inside. There he met the administrator who granted him a look-around as he told her how much that refuge meant to him when he was a child.
To honor the institution that granted him those indelible memories and such a sense of sanctuary, he made what felt like a too-small donation before emerging back into the sunny parking lot. He remarked to me how much had changed in the 50 years since he had been there last, pointing to where that first modest structure had been.
A Boy and His Bike
One block away, Glenn showed me 7th street. This was the same death-defyingly steep hill (as his nine-year-old stature had gauged) that he and his older, bigger and braver cousin Mike flew down together on their bikes. Daring disaster, they rocketed straight through the stop sign at the intersection of Crescent, bumped across a neighbor’s lawn, and flew right over the railroad tracks.
Spilling into the railyard, daredevil Mike used his adrenaline-fueled momentum to soar up and over a six-foot embankment of dirt and gravel – again earning the enduring admiration of his younger cousin – only to crash land and skid to a bloody stop on his back. Glenn remembered the tortured walk back to the house where his mother bandaged Mike’s honor wounds from the day’s adventure.
Another block away, Glenn pointed to that house, one of three places his family had called home within a quarter-mile radius. He paused there to tell me that back then, impossibly, eight people dwelt in that (still) red, wooden-shaked house, comprising a mere 950 square feet. He and Cecil had the whole unfinished basement to themselves. From the street we could barely make out the tiny window where Glenn had lined up his plastic dinosaurs.
Perched at that vantage point, the dinosaurs would have been able to watch Glenn walk across the street each weekday morning to Chamberlain Elementary. A school where his father, Amos, with his middle-school education became the improbable head of the PTA because “they weren’t getting anything done.”
Then, as now, this was a blue-collar neighborhood. Home to strivers and slackers alike, each house’s outward appearance reflecting which of those two personalities resided within.
Today, the front porch of the red house held an abandoned washing machine. In Glenn’s days there, I imagine his bike lying in the lawn as he ventured to the garage out back to “help” his father as Amos worked on one of his many race cars, or earned some extra money from neighbors doing body work and painting cars with the latest flashy green-glittered finish.
Our tour showed that most of the buildings were still there and only looked a little different despite the decades that had passed.
Frozen in Time
One place that time left utterly unchanged was the Olympia Candy Kitchen, a local diner and chocolatier. Today, we rode there together from the old red house, retracing the route Glenn and his cousin Mike took on a day when Mike had some extra pocket change. Glenn remembered that Mike had treated them both to huge hunks of chocolate that they ate greedily before too much of it melted in their hands and on their faces.
Walking into the Olympia, it looked like time had left it behind. The lunch counter was lined with diners finishing their burgers, fries and shakes. Along the other wall, decadence of every chocolatey persuasion tempted us from behind the antique glass display case – including those giant chocolate chunks that brought two boys to that shop so many years ago. Glenn, of couse, had to buy some, but only after we finished our individual scoops of blueberry and butter pecan ice cream served in tiny, old-fashioned glass bowls.
That Dose of Joy
As I followed Glenn on my bike down memory lane, the years peeled back with each turn around a corner and every breathless pause to recount a story. Soon I felt I was following that small, knobby-kneed boy on his bike who was confidently riding on his home turf, where he knew every bump and crack in the road, smiling and proudly pointing out the homes of friends and family who lived nearby.
For a moment today, I imagined Glenn and I were both kids, riding through his neighborhood, on our bikes.
A posse of two, chasing our own invented adventure with a sense of curiosity and abandon.