Left to our own devices

Back in the day, our sources of fun didn’t require batteries


Many kids today have almost everpresent access to electronic devices to recreate. Maybe I’m jealous. When I was a kid the closest thing to a device was an Etch A Sketch and I never mastered that. Oh sure, one could play a pinball machine now and then and pool was popular, but more often than not, these were found in bars so they weren’t much of an option for a kid living in the country.

“Hey Mom, I’m heading over to the tavern to play some pool with the guys, okay?” No, that scenario didn’t happen. Instead, kids in my day, rather than owning devices, were left to their own devices which in many cases made going down to the tavern to play pool look like the more reasonable option. In fact, being left to my own devices was anything from fun to fearsome or creative to critical and the only way to explain it is to look at some of them.

Having read about the adventures of Huck Finn, most boys dreamed of building their own raft and my cousin and I were no exception. Our raft consisted of railroad ties bound together with a few 2x4s. After pushing and levering the heavy creation into our pond, we should have taken a hint from the fact the raft hovered barely above the water line. Undaunted, we simultaneously jumped onto the craft which promptly sunk into the ice-cold waters of early spring.

It was a good lesson in the need for a testing phase. We should have thrown a Rhode Island Red or two onto the thing first as it’s doubtful it would have held them either. This would have been a good lesson too for the Anderson boys who lived in the neighborhood. For their device, they built a parachute out of a bed sheet and their first test flight was from the hay mow from their very sizeable barn. We got wet. They broke bones.

Rocks were great devices and we skipped them on water or threw them at trees and such just to see what we could hit. I don’t recall actually hitting anything memorable, but it was a good way to spend time in the country. I suspect folks in the city would just as soon kids didn’t throw rocks, but it’s just a guess. Little red wagons were popular devices, but kids quickly grew out of the need to pull loads around and shifted instead to the everincreasing desire for thrills.

Given wagons had wheels and most everyone had a slope of some sort nearby, the next step was obvious. What was not obvious is that a wagon is not a worthy ride at twenty mph down a steep ditch bank and the resulting cataclysmic crashes are why, I suspect, there are so few antique Radio Flyers around today in good shape. On the topic of wheels, every kid had a bicycle when I was young and we used them whenever we wanted to get somewhere or to simply free ourselves from the terrifying clutches of being stuck at home.

This is in stark contrast to the chauffeur system and the love of the great indoors kids have today with their fancy devices. Drive about in any town of choice on a beautiful Saturday afternoon and see how many kids you see on a bicycle, skates, skateboards or walking for that matter. It’s not many.

If Darwin’s theory were to hold true, generations from now, kids’ legs will eventually be reduced to little pedestals just strong enough to pop them onto the couch or, perhaps, their legs will simply fall off altogether. On the other hand, they will likely have thumbs that can crush rocks which will prove useful, I assume, in playing Fortnite XVII. If that scenario doesn’t encourage a hope for God-inspired creation over evolution I don’t know what will.

Just a few of many other devices included forts, frogs, sword fights with cattail stems, homemade slingshots (great device for hitting your thumb with rocks), good climbing trees, board games and Allstate. I’ve noted before that I didn’t have a horse as a kid even though we had a small farm. You’d think we would have had a horse. But instead, we had cattle and for a couple years, a monstrous Hereford bull named Allstate, would visit our farm for a month or so.

One day, my father hoisted me onto the back of Allstate (at my request) to see what kind of ride I could get out of it. Dad was a good father, the best actually, but apparently, his disdain of owning a horse exceeded his concern over me riding a one-ton bull. Allstate was nothing like a bull you see on a rodeo circuit. He was rather tame, actually, but I can tell you he wasn’t much into giving rides either and the ride was short. The way I figure it, I may not have had the chance to play video games as a kid, but for a fleeting moment, I had a device the size of a ‘57 Chevy.

I really shouldn’t make light of kids and their options on idle time and recreation today. They are as bright, as talented and as athletic as the generations before them including mine. Not only that, years from now, one of them could be pushing me around in a device and there would be nothing stopping them from plunking me, my remarks and wheelchair into the nearest drink. And I already know what that’s like. This is probably a good place to stop.

Leo Wilenius lives in rural Cook, with his wife Lindy. He is retired from Lake Country Power in Mountain Iron.

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