Getting in trouble for trying to do the right thing

Published 5:00 am Saturday, June 1, 2024

It was the first time in my childhood I had an excuse for coming home late for dinner, but nobody — not even the cops — would listen.
In the summer of 1972, when I was 10, Tommy Gillen and I built a dam in the creek on the other side of the Horning Road railroad tunnel.
We’d been building up the dam for days to create our own three-foot pool in which we chased after crayfish and minnows — our own cool spot to while away the hot summer afternoons.
We’d just completed adding another row of blocks to the dam when I heard my father’s voice booming from a few blocks away, calling me home for dinner.
That was the rule for kids then: We were free to roam the hills and fields, ride our bikes and build shacks and dams, but God help us if we didn’t respond when our parents called us home for dinner.
Just as Tommy and I were clawing our way up the bank of the creek, we heard a motor racing and tires screeching. Then we heard a spectacular crash.
As we got to the top of the hillside and ran toward the tunnel, we saw a lime-colored Plymouth Roadrunner, a popular muscle car, roaring away.
The driver was young — 20 or so — and had long hair. I’d seen that car and driver before and figured the fellow lived nearby.
When we ran into the tunnel, we saw Grandpa Johnson’s ’68 Corvair convertible smashed against the wall.
Grandpa Johnson told us that the long-haired fellow side-swiped him as he passed him in the tunnel, forcing him into the tunnel’s side wall.
He and his wife were pretty shaken up, so Tommy and I ran up the street to his son’s house, where he lived, to tell him what had happened.
By the time we returned, the police had arrived. I tried to get their attention but they weren’t much interested in what a lousy kid had to report.
“Did you get a license plate?” said the cop.
“No, sir,” I said. “But I got a description of the driver and vehicle.”
The cop grunted and turned his attention back to the adults.
I got home for dinner 30 minutes late and, boy, was I in trouble.
I tried to explain what had happened — how Tommy and I were being good citizens — but they would have none of it.
Still, I was lucky to grow up when I did. I had no idea I was living in the original “free-range childhood,” in which children are encouraged to learn outside the house on their own.
With summer upon us, the media are publishing articles that offer parents tips on how to make their kids go out and play.
But the articles generally suggest that adults organize and participate in the activities — because today’s kids aren’t allowed to do much of anything on their own.
Nor are they free to figure things out for themselves — a skill that is essential for succeeding in adulthood.
I was grounded for being late for dinner, but that didn’t stop me, a huge fan of “Adam-12,” from doing important investigative work!
I spent hours near the accident site, keeping an eye out for that lime-colored Plymouth Roadrunner!
Regrettably, the long-haired, hit-and-run jerk was probably careful to never drive through that tunnel again.
He’s lucky, too, because this motivated 10-year-old would have recorded his license-plate number and got him sent to the slammer!

Email newsletter signup