Freedom And Illusion

…Mostly Illusion

By Fred Reed

August 15, 2010

Fred Reed

When I was a kid long, long ago, before time began, or anyone had thought of why time ought to begin, or what it might be good for, I lived in rural King George County, Virginia. The county bordered on the Potomac River and was mostly woods. Dahlgren Naval Proving Ground, on which my family lived, sloped down to Machodoc Creek, perhaps three-quarters of a mile wide.

Things were looser then. When I wanted to go shooting, I put my rifle, a nice .22 Marlin with a ten-power Weaver, on my shoulder and walked out the main gate. At the country store outside the gate I’d buy a couple of boxes of long rifles, no questions asked, and away my co-conspirator Rusty and I went to some field or swamp to murder beer cans.

Today if a kid of fifteen tried it, six squad cars and a SWAT team (in all likelihood literally) would show up with sirens yowling, the kid’s parents would be jailed, the store closed and its proprietors imprisoned, and the kid subjected to compulsory psychiatric examination. Times change.

In King George if a buddy and I wanted to go swimming, we might go to the boat dock, which was for public use, and jump in. We did this by day or night. Almost never were there other people around, certainly no lifeguard. Or we might take my canoe, bought with paper-route money, and paddle out into the nighttime water and glory in being young and free and jumping overboard to swim. No one thought anything of it. It was what kids did.

Today, unsupervised swimming is everywhere forbidden. Worse, swimming at night, hundreds of yards from shore. In a canoe without floation devices approved by the Coast Guard. No supervising adult? No proof of having taken a governmentally approved course in how to paddle a canoe? Impossible in these over-protected, vindictively mommified times.

We saw no need of floatation devices because we were flotation devices. We could swim, easily, fluently, because we had been doing it forever. I don’t think I knew anyone who couldn’t have swum the width of Machodoc. Nobody supervised us. Nobody thought we needed supervision. And we didn’t.

If we wanted to fish, an urge frequently upon us, we just got our poles and did. We caught mostly cat, perch, and bream and the occasional wildly combative eel. Adults had nothing to do with it. We didn’t need fishing permits. Nor did we need help.

What I didn’t notice then, but remember now, is that we didn’t look nervously about to see whether our elders might disapprove. We knew they wouldn’t. We were fishing. So what?

The whole world worked that way—unsupervised, unwatched, left alone. In winter the Cooling Pond on base froze deep, and way after dark fifty of us would sail across slick new ice on skates, unsupervised. Adults skated, but they were skaters, not Mommy. And if you wanted to stay late till you were the only one on the (huge) pond, sailing fast, ice hissing under blades, not tired because you are sixteen and don’t know what the word means—you did. No supervision.

The boys had cars. The county being mostly empty, we spent endless nights driving, driving, to Fredericksburg to get Might Mos at Hojos, or just putting miles behind us on winding roads through the woods, alone, with friends, with our girls.

What I remember is how free we were. Solzhenitsyn once told of stopping on some desert desert highway, getting out of his car, and marveling that no one knew where he was, or cared. That’s how it was in King George. You parked with your girlfriend for endless hours on some blind pull-off into the woods. No one asked where you had been or what you were doing or, more likely not doing. Parents didn’t care because they didn’t need to care.

In retrospect, it felt unregulated. And was. In today’s world of over-policing by militarized hostile cops, of metal-detectors and police in schools and compulsory anger-management classes and enforced ingestion of Ritalin or Prozac, King George sounds, well, dangerous. I mean, how can you let kids run around as they like, with…with….guns, (eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeek!) and beer, and unregistered canoes without supervision by a caring adult, and…?

The answer of course is that we supervised ourselves. Within limits, anyway. I do remember lying on the roof of my father’s station wagon and looking up at the brake pedal because I hadn’t taken that unbanked downhill S-turn on Indian Town Road quite as well as I had planned.

But, being Southern kids, we boys knew how to handle guns, and the girls knew how to handle us, and though the country boys were physically tough from doing real work (consult a history book), we were not crazy in the head, as the phrase was. To the extent that adolescents are willing to be, I guess we were happy. We just didn’t know it.

The wretechedness we see today—the kid who shoots ten classmates to death, the alleged students strung out on crystal meth, the suicides, the frequent pregnancies—just didn’t happen. Why? Because (I strongly suspect) we were left the hell alone. The boys were allowed to be boys and the girls, girls. We grew like weeds, as our natures directed, and so did not have anorexia or bulimia or the sullen smoldering anger that comes of being a guy kid forced to be a girl or androgyne or flower.

I cannot speak well for the girls, except to say that they were sane, good-natured, and splendid. I do know that the boys needed, as plants need sunlight, to take canoes up unknown creeks, to swim and bike and compete—without a caring adult. In fall we used to play hours of pick-up basketball at the base gym—unsupervised. The brighter of us read voraciously. Some took up ham radio or read physiology texts. But we needed physical exertion, adventure, and freedom.

We had them. The consequence? Our heads were screwed on right. We probably even thought that the world looked to be a good place for a while. Although the entire high school had easy access to fire arms, nobody ever shot anyone. The idea would have seemed lunatic. In rare fights, boys might punch each other in the nose. Pick up a tire iron? Kick the other guy in the head? Not a chance.

The foregoing will enrage the whole sodden bolus of therapists, psychological beard-scratchers, counselors, feminists, fruit-juice drinkers, and congenitally insecure promoters of sun block. But it worked.

© 2010 Fred Reed

6 Responses to Freedom And Illusion

  1. Mona says:

    Sounds like wishful thinking to me. We did have a whole lot more freedom, like for instance no one ever locked their doors and kids walked all over town unsupervised, but if you were a stranger, look out. The KKK probably existed and if you weren’t in with the in crowd, things probably weren’t quite so free.

  2. Fred…I loved every word of it, smiling joyously with the same delicious memories. We had horses, too, and not only did nobody supervise us once we learned to ride we were EXPECTED to saddle and care for them ourselves. (I didn’t tell my parents about the time I misjudged a jump and ended up only partially under the horse. It was part of our wonderful lives.) Nobody ever seemed to break arms, nobody played organized games, and I still wonder if my parents knew that my brother and his best friend dug lead out of .22 shells and filled them with Zest soap for their quick draw contests. Of course they didn’t wear goggles! I’m not sure we had ever seen any. We took responsibility for our own actions (including keeping the boys in line!) and had pretty good judgement. Every last living member of the class of ’58 was graduated honestly (2 died in auto accidents, not causing the problems) even though three of the boys had to go to summer school. The illiteracy rate nationwide was 5% for whites, not that much higher for blacks, and instead of Ritalin you got a trip to see the Principal, which wasn’t nearly as bad as what you got from your parents. Aaah, life was good, wasn’t it? Thanks for the memories. Linda Brady Traynham

  3. Redman says:

    As a member of the American Graffiti generation (class of 62), I well identify with Fred’s memories. Growing up in rural north La., life was an adventure on a daily basis. Guns, dogs, woods, lakes, creeks, streams, barns, horses, red bugs and ticks were just normal stuff. So was home grown vegetables and fresh meals everyday! Local characters were a real treat and listening to the old men at the local store was pure joy.

    How I have longed for those days for my children and now my grandchildren. They and all future Americans, I fear, will never know or experience the freedom and exhilaration we had as kids. The Old Man and the Boy by Robert Ruyrk captures the essence of those days just as I recall them.

  4. Chad says:

    Even though I am a graduate of 2001 I was lucky enough to grow up in Cracker Country Florida. As my spouse says, where I grew up, family and neighbors have never seemed to have gotten past the 1950s. As a result, my brothers and I had free reign of my parents and grandparents farm and ranch. We spent the summers completely unsupervised and roamed about freely. The only condition is that if we wanted to eat we had to show up at noon and around 7 in the evening. I remember target practicing with both guns and crossbows with my brothers. We also engaged in games with flinging our pocket knives at each other’s bare feet to see who would flinch first, that and sword fighting with our dad’s machetes.

    Unfortunately, my Cracker Country Florida is being threatened by Yankee retirees, they move in and promptly began telling everyone else how to live. But thanks to my family’s and friends vast amounts of land we have been able to push back against these alien concepts of what we are allowed to do on our own property. How long will we be able to maintain our culture and lifestyle? Only the Creator knows.

  5. Oh, m’gosh! This was the first post I ever saw on DumpDC, and somehow I missed the photograph. That’s Fred! I mean, that’s really FRED! Fred on Everything Fred! Delighted laughter. Fred…who will probably back me up 100% that a very great secret of a long and happy life is never to lose our sense of wonder and enchantment. Another is not to take ourselves so seriously that we can’t that we can’t act like a four-year-old sitting on a department store Santa Claus’ lap. See? I’m stuttering. I’ve been a fan of Fred’s since who flung th’ chunk.

    Y’all may laugh, but I am a very hard lady to impress. Money doesn’t do it, a string of degrees doesn’t do it unless whoever is really in the Stephen Hawking class, I wouldn’t look across the street if someone exclaimed “That’s XXX” and named a big Hollywood star (something I can’t do), and I would turn away deliberately if someone attempted to introduce me to Mr. Obama. (Trust me; I actually did that to the governor of a big state known for patting the help on the rear. The governor, not the state.) I’ve been just about everywhere and done just about everything in the course of a long life filled with unusual opportunities and unlikely coincidences, met movie stars long ago, seconded to the corps diplomatique as “unofficial” liaison for the Army, spent the weekend with King Farouk’s sister (singularly unpleasant female), knew the richest man in Germany (also the tightest, tended to serve Ritz crackers with small chips of indifferent cheese), and charmed four unreconstructed Nazi generals (all of them assured me gravely they were Wehrmacht.) and I’m just not the groupie type, so let’s see if I can act like an intelligent, coherent adult.

    Fred’s special. Nuthin’ wrong with a lady having heroes, my biggest being my darling Charles. What is so FUNNY here is that my first thought after “No wonder I loved that article, that’s FRED!” was a closed to awed, “My articles appear on the same site Fred’s do!”

    My articles appear on the same sites as some pretty special people (I got lucky, and wrote a couple of letters to the Editor, and his boss wanted to expand the site, so he asked me to submit and I had a go at it and it just sort of…growed.) Anyway, I’ve been on the same home page many a time with a very well-known writer. I’m so certain all of you have heard of him I won’t name him, because it wouldn’t be polite. I don’t like him, I don’t like his work, and while I guess it would look good on my resume if I wrote for money or were looking for another site–which I am definitely not. I’ve reached my limit!–it doesn’t matter to ME. It’s just that…that’s Fred. Gosh, I’m as excited as a little kid seeing Ronald McDonald. He doesn’t have to write to me, or come visit me, or do anything except just be Fred.

    How this fits in with the theme is…I’m the happiest lady I know with a wonderful life on a small ranch, and there isn’t anything reasonable I want that I can’t have (Laughter; part of that is our idea of “reasonable,” because we aren’t rich in money, we just have everything we want except maybe a road grader, and that’s not reasonable. Dear Charles is a 30 year Navy man, 6 1/2 years under the sea, and he and I flipped out today because we got an AhOOOOga horn today. A REAL one, on sale for ten bucks, which multiplies the fun several times.)

    Fred, seeing your face suddenly gave me a feeling I hadn’t known since childhood. It was like being 7 and seeing “Cinderella” for the first time–in a movie theater. Kids today will never know that joy because they can watch cartoons 24/7. There is no magic in them. THAT is what is so very special. You didn’t do it on purpose, but thank you very much.

    For anyone daft enough to read this far, here’s a clue to the kind of exuberant happiness dear Charles and I have. Find at least a thing or two that you only do on very special events. It doesn’t have to be expensive, just a treat you don’t have frequently. MDC and I adore a tiny steak house about 50 miles away in a little bitty town that is as good as any place we have ever eaten. The owners’ faces light up when we walk in, and so do ours. It is a little more expensive than standard chains, but certainly not extravagant given the quality of the food, service, and welcome we get. We could afford to go every week if we wanted to…but then it wouldn’t be SPECIAL and besides, I try not to leave the ranch more than twice a month. We save it for birthdays, anniversaries, Valentine’s Day, and when we have houseguests, or my brother and his wife fly up from Belize. You know: special. If you do NOT know you have my sympathy. Few young people do today. They see it, want it, buy it, and it means little. They have never had to work or save for anything. They don’t cherish anything. Every time I look at a gift I remember the person who gave it to me, but to them it is all just “stuff.” Not to break the mood, but if we don’t get on with getting rid of the nanny state we’ll all be so poor we’ll find out why an orange in your stocking for Christmas was a big deal.

    Gosh. Fred. Who would have thought it?

  6. The Piano Bar in Rockdale, closed Sundays. We suggest the angus strip. Tiny, intimate, has a bar but the sound is never up on the TV. The sort of place you would take your girl to if you were going to propose. Special.

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