Sometimes when the dishes from the evening meal are put away and I’m on the front step watching the sun set over the river bluffs, I wistfully remember being a young boy with no worries but whether I’d get chosen for the pickup game of baseball on the vacant lot in my old neighborhood.
I spend too much time these days reading news sites and social media comments, so I sometimes forget how carefree my young days were here in the middle of South Dakota. My older son, usually when he was leafing through albums of family photographs, used to look at pictures of himself playing backyard games with his friends and say, “We didn’t know how good we had it.” I didn’t either, when I was a kid. I have a hunch that’s true of many grownups.
My young world changed a lot when, before the start of my third grade year, the family moved to Chamberlain. We still owned the farm. My dad still drove the 18 or so miles to work every day. My big brother and I still accompanied him on many weekends. But from about Labor Day to Memorial Day, the family lived in town. Instead of being driven eight miles from the farm to school in Reliance. I could walk five blocks from the house to grade school in Chamberlain.
The change was much more than just being able to walk to school. Living in town meant that after class and on weekends when I wasn’t needed at the farm, I could play with some of my classmates who lived in our neighborhood on the south side of town. Think of that. Instead of going home to the farm and trying to persuade my big brother or my dad to hit pop flies or shoot baskets after supper, I could plan the rest of the day with the guys who shared the walk home on our side of town.
When I look back, I recall how old Highway 16 informally but firmly divided the town for purposes of after-school or weekend play. Kids who lived north of the highway tended to organize their own games and outings. Those of us south of the highway did the same. As we grew older, of course, the two sides merged more and more often. In the grade school days, though, the division was pretty definite.
On our side of town, the go-to place for fun was a vacant lot below Novak’s house, just across the street from where the swimming pool is located these days. We played hours and hours of informal baseball, sometimes with only five or six kids, sometimes with a dozen or more. We made up games to fit the number of kids who showed up, used flat rocks and pieces of wooden plank for bases and played until Mick Nova’s mom yelled from her back door that it was suppertime or to call it a day.
On weekends when we played all-day games at the lot, we’d drop the baseball, bats and gloves wherever we had been playing and run for lunch, confident the equipment would be there when we returned and knowing we’d be able to remember where we’d left off by where our glove or bat lay.
If we tired of baseball, we could grab a basketball and play pickup games at the hoop affixed to the back roof of Marsh’s garage. It didn’t look like much, but the playing surface was flat and 10 feet from the rim. It dried quickly after a rain. I was told some years ago that the owner of the court mixed the dirt with other chemicals to create that surface, specifically so kids in town would be able to play there as often as possible.
We made a lot of noise, both there and on the vacant lot with the makeshift baseball diamond. I don’t recall any neighbors complaining. I guess they understood that kids having a good time make noise. They treated the whole bunch of us as if we were their own children.
That might have been the coolest part about being a kid in those days.