Is it just me or have people gone nuts on being overprotective with their kids? I can’t imagine most kids today doing ten percent of the things we did when I wore short trousers. What I can remember is my mother knocking on the kitchen window and wagging her ginger at me and my friend for jumping off our garden shed. I held my hands out, palms up and lifted my shoulders in a “what’s the problem” type of “I’m innocent, I didn’t do anything wrong” type of gesture. She raised her finger in front of her face, which she tilted as she raised her eyebrows in a “are you questioning me?” type of response.
I knew what it meant. I sat on the edge of the shed and instead of jumping from a standing position to the ground, jumped from a sitting position to the ground. It was a concession and defiance as if to say “see it’s safe.” The shed roof was ten feet off the ground and I was a skinny little, short-arsed eight year old boy playing cowboys. Didn’t she ever see the magnificent seven? I was in the bell tower with a Winchester at that moment and she was ruining it. If I was coming down from that shed, it should have at least included being winged and ending with a fall and multi-role on the ground afterwards. Sitting and jumping with a “see it’s not dangerous” expression on my face, was pushing my luck.
The cheekiness could have got me in trouble and I knew that the minute she came out the back door. She scolded me but I argued the toss and I explained just how safe it was. I brought her around to the back of the stone out building and demonstrated that I had been sensible. There was an old wooden crate that worked as a step to the wall attached to the side of the shed. I could step up onto the crate, then the wall and then easily and safely ascend to the top of the shed. My mother was a pragmatist and knew if I wasn’t up on the shed where she could see me, I’d be up a drainpipe somewhere beyond her gaze. We did a deal. As long as I used the same route to descend from the shed’s flat roof as I used to climb up there, I could sit on the roof of the shed. But no running, jumping or standing near the edge.
Yeah, like that lasted ten minutes. My next door neighbour and I, had competitions to see who could run across the top of the shed and jump the furthest! It was only one example of the devilment we used to get up to and the danger to which we readily exposed ourselves in the interest of learning our boundaries.
In general we were very much left to our own devices and while I’m not saying it was perfect, it is sad to see the level of control and surveillance on young kids today. Leave aside the stranger danger issue, of course we have to protect our children, I’m talking about the preciousness that stops the adventure of climbing a tree or walking a tightrope.
I’m telling you now, when I saw Burt Lancaster in the Crimson Pirate, the first thing I did was dig out a rope from my Da’s shed and tie it from my friends tree to the fence so we could walk along it. By day two, we were both balancing on it fencing with sticks, with me doing my best Burt Lancaster laugh impression “HA HA HA” one hand on me hip!
Smoking out bees, battling through fields of nettles in shorts, firing stones at each other with gats, mother of divine, when I think of it! Did we get hurt? Of course we did. Did we break windows? Of course we did? Did we get punished? Not if I could blame Martin Dredge.
School was just as bad. It was a cesspool of disease and infection. We were crammed into classes of 40 plus and at some point, someone in our working class 1970’s school classroom had one infection or other. We didn’t get driven to school, we walked. We got rained on, snowed on and slid on ice until our little arses were sore from falling down.
There always seemed to be at least one kid with a snotty nose and usually one with a permanent stream of green ooze being sucked back up, licked with a tongue or wiped on a sleeve. ‘Snotzer’ was the name given to such permanently afflicted children and there were quite a few Snotzers in our school. At some point we all got whatever was going around. We didn’t have classrooms with ensuite bathrooms or gentle alcohol free, hypo allergenic wet wipes. We had sleeves on our jumpers and usually one or more of us had a nice crusty one from wiping their nose in it.
I’m not saying that’s how it should be. It is great to see smaller classrooms and better conditions, but what I am saying is that a little bit of crustiness does no harm. If your kid hasn’t at least held a slug, worm or earwig and contemplated licking it to see what it tastes like, you are holding on to the reins waaaaay too tight.
I hated earwigs yet we all had to see what it felt like to have one grasp you with its pinchers so you could imagine just how much damage he would do after he crawled inside your ear and burrowed his way into your brain as we all surely knew they would.
Catching bees in jars was a summer given and access to my auld fella’s shed to use his tools was no problem so long as we put them back when we finished with them. How else were we to learn what our limitations were or understand the sheer greatness of our potential? I thought myself how to ride a bike and I learned to swim out of shear dogged determination all by my lonesome. I was afraid of everything and I took everything on to overcome the fear. What a lucky boy.
But I was only able to do so by having the freedom to do so. A couple of months back; I had the opportunity to go canyoning in the mountains of Spain. I hadn’t even heard of the activity before and when I got there I was drawn immediately back to my childhood.
They told me to put on a wet suit and waterproof shoes, handed me a harness and a helmet and then said let’s go. I had little idea what was in store for me. It was a combination of rugged beauty and calm mixed with blind terror and white water adventure. We made our way on foot several miles along a deep canyon. We began by wading through shallow water on very uneven slippery rocks in the blazing sun, followed by abseiling, jumping twenty feet off rocks into rockier pools below and white-water rafting without a boat.
I haven’t had so much of that type of reckless fun since I was a kid. Of course I realised that a lot had changed since then. When I was eight, I would have raced to the highest point and cannonballed into the water. This time I found myself carefully peering down and calculating the percentage chances of hitting one of the rocks on the descent, before I eventually jumped. But of course I jumped. How could I not? I jumped, swam and dived, I slip-slided, floated and clambered my way through the whole thing with a sense of adventure that I had almost forgotten.
It was the first time that I tested my old ticker properly since the unmentionable scare eighteen months previously and that more than anything, had me on edge. The old man in me came out as I considered the response time of the Spanish paramedics should anything go wrong in the remote canyon in the mountains.
But I let it go. My darling Jo made a very apt comment when I showed her photos of her less than handsome old man in a wet suit on my return. She knows me better than anyone and she smiled looking at the pictures of her auld lad clambering through the canyon. Her comment hit the mark.
“Look at you smiling,” she said, “you look like a big kid.”
I guess inside at least, I always will be… Gotta’ love my beautiful girl, she gets me…