Catching bees was a strangely enjoyable pastime for a boy who was terrified of the little beggars. We were smart enough not to catch wasps, a lesson no doubt learned by countless generations before us, but bees were fair game. You never see kids doing stuff like that these days.
Jam jars were the cage of choice and flowering clover was always placed at the bottom of the jar, as if we were somehow being kinder by supplying something a distraction for the poor creatures. I must have caught dozens of bees in the summer and we always set them free. We possessed the beauty and unpredictable danger that came with being the free-spirited wildlings that we were. Free to roam to a large extent, tree-climbing, nettle-stung, self-repairing, not going in until it gets dark playing little creatures of the streets, we were easy to please and full of imagination.
We had very little. Toys were for Christmas and by summertime, play involved whatever you could find in the house or back garden and you had to improvise. I was like a mini-MacGyver. We made bows and arrows, go-carts, crossbows and entire horse jumping courses from any auld bit of discarded junk and sometimes from your mother’s best kitchen utensils – until she found out and you pleaded innocence or blamed it on your sister – but that never worked.
We did our fair share of damage in the process, broken windows, skint knees, soaked clothing, all sorts really. You name it, we broke it. I once fired a nail through my friend’s leg, absolute accident, but we patched him up so his old dear wouldn’t notice and ban him from playing with us for a week. Those were the risks and we all understood them. Once we engaged on a dangerous mission, we knew we had to take the chance that we’d be caught in the act and kept in for a few days as punishment. Nothing could be worse than being deprived of that freedom.
But that was just the point. Our lives were full of danger and risk. Nothing usually too life threatening, but we learned not to be risk averse. We had a shed at the back of our house and you could climb onto its flat, ten foot high roof via the adjoining wall. We would lie up there in the sunshine of our childhood summer, out of sight of the prying eyes of our parents and conjure up things to keep us busy, the riskier the better. We had adventures to create, castles to storm and they were no good if they didn’t feel real.
One game involved standing on the top, but at the back of the shed and running it’s length to leap into thin air at full tilt. We would see how far we could jump and the ten foot drop was nothing. We competed to see who could not just jump from that height, that was easy! It was how far away we could land from the shed that decided the winner. I doubt if I would jump off that height from a sitting position today. We could waste a couple of hours in such competitions, marking out the landing spot with great precision and making sure everything was fair. We created rules and re-wrote them as we went along.
I once set fire to a huge hedge at the end of our garden trying to smoke out a bee hive to see if we could find honey. That was me grounded for- I can’t even remember how long. I was in trouble for that one on all sorts of levels. There was the burning of the hedge, the “you could have set the house on fire.” There was the “you used what? – paraffin!” Not to mention the fact that I shouldn’t have been playing with matches in the first place, let alone the crime of smoking out a bee hive and ruining my clothes…I was lucky not to be locked indoors for the whole summer.
Boys fought boys. We just did. We formed swarms and had make-shift battles and they sometimes resulted in a bloody nose or two. They were harmless enough but I steered clear of such things pretty much. Even so, sometimes innocent versions resulted in accidental black eyes. Some kid or other always seemed to have a black eye in those days. We swung from ropes on poles, walked rickety fences that eventually we did the splits on and ran the gauntlet of leashless, vicious dogs. There were orchards to be robbed, not me I was a good boy, doors to be knick-knacked and dares to be accepted. Every waking moment was an adventure in the summer, or at least one in planning.
Night always came too fast and dinner was a hindrance. Eventually, the summer would end and we’d all go back to school to face the real dangers of older, tougher boys, slaps from the masters and if you didn’t have your wits about you, the unspoken but understood, ever present threat from at least one of the Christian Brothers.
Somehow we survived and looking back, the one thing I guess I miss most about those days is the spirit of my youth. I’ll never be that carefree again no matter how much I might romanticise myself to be now. But the memory of it is special and the lessons learned have stayed with me, good and bad and I think they have stood me well throughout the years.
I didn’t just jump off that shed though. Often I was alone there and it was in my solitude that I discovered the joy of books. I would lie in the sun, soaking up the warmth from above and the joy of my books. I owe much to the length of rope I was given. My freedom to explore the inner reaches of my imagination is perhaps the thing that led me to write books. That wild, carefree pony boy I often recall, is someone I call upon when it’s time to put my stories to the page. He helps me remember not to be afraid to let go and to allow my imagination to take flight. Long may I find him in my heart.
Max Power’s books include, Darkly Wood, Darkly Wood II The woman who never wore shoes, Larry Flynn, Bad Blood and Little Big Boy
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