In Queens this weekend on the E train, I sped past the stops my father used from childhood until his wedding day; Elmhurst Avenue, Newtown, Roosevelt/Jackson Heights. I don’t know why but there was something furtive about it, as if I was reading his diary. I can vaguely remember those subway platforms myself as a kid, in tow with my grandmother in the steaming summers of the 1970’s when New York seemed hopeless and dying.
Childhood memories cascade through me when I’m in the country’s most diverse county, the glorious menagerie that is Queens. There was disco, and trash, and graffiti. There was a sense from everyone above me that the city and frankly the world beyond it was spinning headlong into oblivion.
Alas, the obituaries for New York and the rest of us were premature. In fact, what I see more and more on places like Facebook are glorifications of that time, not so much in terms of expecting a 10 year-old to navigate the subway system alone (as my father did in the 40’s), but in terms of being a kid as we were in the 70’s and more so in times preceding it. I see endless shout-outs to drinking from garden hoses, not wearing helmets or knee-pads, rolling around as toddlers without car seats, playing until it was dark and wandering home, etc, etc. Indeed, it was grand.
It was also sometimes debilitating or deadly. Most of the writers of the “that’s just how we rolled” posts are just fondly remembering what they perceived were simpler times. But some decry the involvement regulation and law have taken with regard to how kids play or navigate their lives, insisting that without all that government intrusion, they turned out just fine.
Presumably, they did turn out just fine. But not everyone did. Millions of children were crippled, scarred beyond recognition and killed before safety became more of an issue and governmental regulation underpinned it. In the 1970’s Sterling Park, Virginia I grew up in, wearing a bicycle helmet was an invitation to be bullied, and so, helmetless, I sought top speeds of 40 miles per hour, no hands, flying down streets on a ten speed. And I turned out “just fine” except for one terrifying spill that broke an arm when I was 13. Hardly the basis for “nanny-state” regulation of a kid on a bike, some would say. True, but with that wreck in particular, it was only the grace of God that put me in cast and not a wheelchair or a casket. And in fact, I knew kids who suffered fates exactly like that.
I was reminded of this after two stark tragedies marred July 4th celebrations, one in Tennessee and one in Long Island. In Tennessee two boys, swimming next to a houseboat, were electrocuted. In New York, three children perished when an overloaded boat capsized in the sound, trapping them below decks. Both are still being investigated, but shoddy electrical wiring on a nearby boat might have been responsible for electrocuting the boys, and having 27 people on a 34 foot boat might have led to the deaths in Long Island. I own a 34 foot sailboat with a 5000 pound keel (much harder to capsize than the one that sank) and I get sick just imagining packing 27 adults and children onto it, no matter the conditions.
No one enjoys stodgy rules, fretful finger-wagging or government intrusion where our or our children’s play is concerned. Trial lawyers (full disclosure: I was one) are blamed for the litigious culture we live in where no one will allow sledding on their hill, or tubing on their pond, for fear of being sued. Those sentiments are understandable. But there are hills too close to highways and ponds with deceiving depths with owners unconcerned and children too young to assume risk themselves. Litigation and regulation aren’t a cure-all, but they have made a difference.
Not every kid is killed when caution is thrown to the wind. In fact, most aren’t. But when they are, the echo of that death rings forever in the lives of that child’s family. It’s an echo that should not be drowned out by quaint but oversimplified sentimentality.