“Birdie with the Yellow Bill”

The StoryWorth question that I got this week was: “What about being a child do you miss the most?” It’s Interesting question to receive and reflect on at a time when the COVID-19 virus makes many of us long for a simpler time.

I’m one of those folks who looks back upon their childhood from the vantage point of many decades, and smiles.   It was the 1950s and the early 60s.  It was a different time.  My world was bound by Snelling Avenue — a very busy street to the east, St. Clair, marginally less busy to the north, and a warren of alleys and streets lined with single family homes extending for block after block in the other directions. 

Those were the neighborhoods in which we played; through which we walked to get to school; and where I lived from 1953-1961.  It was safe and it was inviting.  It was where I learned independence — venturing farther afield each year on my bike.  Exploring.  Playing.

We lived at 1604 Berkely and that was the base from which I launched my explorations.  There were no fences separating our back yards and we ran freely through them all.  We picked and ate the green apples on the Anderson’s tree next door.  We ran across the sloped hills that separated the Strehlow’s house from Mrs. White’s, and then again from ours (Mrs. White lived next door with her dog Bimmy).  You could run across the yard, roll down the hills and come home grass-stained and dirty just in time for lunch or dinner.

Two doors down were the Mickos and their kids (Cynthia and I were in the same grade), and across the street, on the corner were the Armstrongs (they too had kids, including Bill — aka Bumper — also a classmate).  Across the street were the Cassidy’s and the Brotts (one of the girls in that family was my sister Chris’ first nemesis). They weren’t classmates, however. They went to public school and and we were at Nativity Catholic grade school.  Not that that mattered so much to us but that was the first time I realized that there were different “identities” that would define us in life.

One of our favorite “playgrounds” was the vacant lot up on the corner of our block that bordered Snelling. There we creating a variety of games. Nonsensical in retrospect but great fun at the time. “Trucks, cars and busses” was one. It had something to do with racing from the street side of the lot to the “safe” zone on the other side of the path that diagonally bisected the lot as designated vehicles raced by on Snelling. At home we played “7 steps around the house” which was a version of “freeze”…you were allowed seven free steps in an effort to circumnavigate the house but after that, if the person who was “it” saw you move (they’d stand with their back turned and spin around quickly to try and catch you motion) you had to go back to the beginning. We played “war”  (it needs no explanation, I think). We combed the yards looking for four leafed clovers. 

There was always something, it seemed. Maybe we offered the plaint I hear from our grandkids at times…”I’m bored”… but I don’t remember every really feeling bored. There was always something to do.

It’s funny how vivid some of the memories are now. I remember the lilac bushes blooming in the spring and the Lillies of the Valley that grew along side the house.  I remember the huge leaf piles my dad would build in the fall as he raked, and the smell of the burning leaves (yes…we did open burning back then) on a late fall afternoon.  And I remember the big trash barrels (large metal drums) in the backyard bordering the alley where Dad burned the trash too.

In the winter we’d shovel out the back yard (or my older brother would) and then he’d flood the flattened space surrounded by banks of snow to make a homemade ice rink. I wasn’t much of a skater but it was still very cool. And I remember the shacks he’d build in the spring with his buddies. I was always so excited when he’d allow me to explore his handiwork. I remember our garage…creepy and full of cobwebs. The car was parked on the street or in the yard alongside the garage while the structure itself was used for storage of anything and everything it seemed.

We had our freedom but weren’t totally without supervision — most all the adults in the neighborhood would offer “corrective guidance” if it was called for — and there was routine that provided a degree of comfort and stability. When I was small, in the mornings I’d watch the early morning cartoons and then Captain Kangaroo — my generation’s Mr. Rogers.  

After, I’d go out to play but Mom would call me home a few minutes before noon every weekday during the summers so that I could watch “Lunchtime with Casey” (Casey Jones and Roundhouse Rodney, his sidekick) while I ate my lunch.   Then, in the afternoons there was Axel and his Dog…a Twin Cities classic. Axel lived in his treehouse with Towser his dog and Tallulah his cat — all you’d ever see were their paws. And he had a magic “spyglass” that opened up the world and through which you could view Our Gang comedies and more cartoons. He and Nurse Carmen, who was regularly featured , also appeared in the morning on Saturdays keeping and we never tired of his goofy “Scandihoovian” accent and jokes. And every program ended with a terrible play on words starting with “Birdie with a yellow bill, hopped upon my windowsill, cocked his shining eye and said….” and it would be followed with things like. “how do you like your water Luke…warm?” or what is your boyfriend’s name, Jessie….James?” Somehow he made it work.

In the evening there were “wholesome” shows like Father Knows Best, Leave it to Beaver, Lassie, or the Donna Reed Show.  They reflected the perception, if not the reality, of that time.

It wasn’t all days of sunshine and childhood frolic. Like any time, there were challenges.   I’ve mentioned before “fallout shelters” and the worries about nuclear holocaust (no small thing… lol), but it seemed far away, intruding on our childhood consciousness only sporadically at best. And, at least until JFK’s assassination and the turmoil of the mid-late 60’s, the days of childhood were, in many ways, golden.

It was different then.  Simpler.  And that’s what I miss.  I miss the simplicity of a childhood where everything seemed more peaceful, gentler, and just…easier .  I miss the days of innocence and freedom.  Of rolling down hills, of catching grasshoppers, of watching the sunlight filtering through the trees.  

Maybe the passage of the years has filtered how I see those days…perhaps time has softened the edges and memory retouched the blemishes… but I’ll treasure — and miss — those days nonetheless.

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