Summers with matches, a ball of string & a slingshot

Summers were endlessly sunny when I was a boy—at least that’s the way I remember them. Actually, that’s arrant nonsense. I grew up in southern England where rain is virtually a permanent climatic condition. But I’ve probably wiped the rainy days from my memory because we boys always spent our summers outside.

I’m sure if I really tried I could recall days when it rained so hard we were confined to the house bickering over games like Snap and Happy Families (“Have you got Master Chop the Butcher’s Son?” “You cheat! You looked at my hand.” “Didn’t.” “Did.” “Didn’t.” …”) The bickering might explain why our elders were so happy to wave good-bye to us immediately after breakfast, relishing the prospect of not seeing our grubby faces again until just before supper.

I feel very sorry for children today. They seem so regimented—packed off to computer camp or some such, driven here and there for classes in this and lessons in that.

Certainly we had summer homework and a dozen or so “set books” to read, but Caesar’s Gallic Wars and The Mayor of Casterbridge were squeezed into the evening hours after our favorite radio programs, when we had nothing better to do.

Unlike today’s children, we were free as air to pursue whatever whims and fancies came our way. Sometimes we left home with a pack of sandwiches and a bottle of cold, sweet tea. But more often than not, we went with nothing more than a box of matches, a length or two of string, a slingshot, and a good sharp pocketknife.

On days like that we didn’t starve. Far from it. Usually we would make snares to catch rabbits for lunch—a skill we acquired from George Juggins, a noted local poacher and a boon companion.

Children in today’s America would probably consider tucking into a plump cottontail for lunch to be thoroughly “yucky.” Not a bit of it. Rabbit featured regularly on the English menu when I was a boy—and not merely as a consequence of the rationing that was introduced during World War II.

Indeed, rabbits have formed part of the English diet since the middle of the 11th Century, when William the Conqueror brought them over from the European mainland to augment the native British game animals.

The English have scores of recipes for rabbit: pies, fricassees, stews, stuffed, and slow roasted. My grandmother’s favorite was—wait for it—Maryland of Rabbit, rabbit fried in the way Marylanders fry chicken.

We boys didn’t bother with anything quite so exotic. Rabbit spit-roasted slowly over an open fire was our favorite, but we would occasionally feast on rabbit stew if we could spare a couple of ha’pence to invest in a pair of Oxo bouillon cubes.

To be quite frank, most of us found the cooking part a tad tedious. But as luck would have it, one of our number, Michael Morgan, was utterly fascinated by the art. He would cheerfully preside over the fire while the rest of us climbed trees, bird nested, or scrounged a few vegetables from neighboring fields to accompany our meal.

(Michael grew up to be a highly regarded chef de cuisine. He has presided over the kitchens of some of London’s finest clubs and restaurants, and I confess I often wonder if he ever tells his patrons where he originally acquired his cooking skills?)

No doubt there is something a little disturbing about the notion of a pack of children roaming the countryside armed with slingshots, air guns and shotguns, lighting fires and cooking little bunnies for luncheon. But things were rather different 60 or 70 years ago.

Today we live in what my parents would probably dismiss as an age of over-protection. Like modern folks, our parents were perfectly aware that, used improperly, matches, slingshots, and guns presented very serious dangers. But they protected us not by banning us from owning the things, but by teaching us how to use them wisely.

All of us knew exactly how to build a safe campfire. All of us were familiar with the rhyme: “Never, never let your gun, pointed be at any one …” All of us knew that it was wicked to kill wantonly, even when the targets were rabbits, squirrels, pigeons, and crows—pests that did great harm to farmers’ crops and cattle.

Our parents taught us never to leave farm gates open and always to walk around the edge of a field so as not to damage the crops or disturb the cattle. They taught us that dogs should always be kept in check and never permitted to chase livestock—a favorite canine pastime.

They taught us farm machinery was invariably dangerous and was to be touched only those who knew how to use it. They also made sure we learned our road drill to keep us safe both on city streets and country byways.

They taught us manners, too. All adults were to be addressed respectfully as “Sir” or “Ma’am.” It wasn’t just a case of opening doors for ladies and giving up one’s seat on a crowded bus or train. All women were to be treated as one was expected to treat mother, while all girls were to be treated as sisters.

Last but very far from least, they taught us there were adults who like to harm and molest children, and what we should do if approached by such people.

Life, of course, is different today. And it is not merely that air conditioning, the television set, and a society constantly on the move have changed the dynamics of neighborliness. That, of course, is part of it.

Everybody in our village knew everybody else, from the newest babe in arms to the most senior of senior citizens. The same was true of town and city neighborhoods. Children had to travel far and wide to escape the watchful eye of neighbors and the local constabulary.

Today, people frequently have little or no contact with their neighbors and it is by no means unusual for family and closest friends to live in another state. What was regarded as mere neighborliness when I was a boy would almost certainly be considered a gross intrusion on privacy today. Thus the unsophisticated defenses our parents relied on to keep us safe are no longer available to this generation.

There are compensations, of course. Today’s children have many more toys and much more in the way of entertainment—TV, movies, and amusement parks—to keep them occupied. Personally, I wouldn’t swap my boxes of matches, bits of string, and homemade slingshots for any of it. But I must confess that, when it comes to luncheon, a Five Guys burger
is just possibly an advance on rabbit-on-a-stick. GPH✠

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