Watching a group of children in swimsuits being hosed down on a sidewalk not long ago brought back memories of the hot fun that I used to have in the summertime. Of course, I did not envy these urban youths as they hopped around barefooted on hot pavement littered with fragments of glass and stone.
Come to think of it, I'm glad I had my childhood a few decades ago or so -- certainly not today, not in this city. When I was growing up, summer was a time for checking swimming pool listings, not police reports of a rise in an already record-breaking homicide rate.
We shot marbles, not each other. There was hopscotch, fishing, picking peaches from neighbors' trees and chasing lightning bugs. We even read a book or two, if only the adventures of Spider Man.
Big Al, my boyhood chum, would bang on my bedroom window not long after sunrise. We'd run over to Little Mike's house, rouse him, then head for the woods to pick blackberries until someone claimed to have spotted a snake.
Often, we'd return with an armful of Mason jars filled with berries, give them to Grandmother, and beg her to make a cobbler.
I am reminded of my gang whenever I drive by the McDonald's on Georgia Avenue near Howard University. There is almost always a group of four or five preteen boys with broken teeth and ragged clothes hanging out there, and they never seem to be having fun.
The last time I spoke with them, they had descended on my car with their dirty palms poking through the driver's window.
"Could you help us get something to eat?" the oldest said. I asked when they had eaten last, and all replied that it had been at breakfast that morning. Now it was 7 p.m. They had been out playing in the sun all day, and their parents still had not returned home to feed them.
In my day, my friends would beat the heat by hanging out in the shade of a tall oak tree or stroll the banks of a lake or stream. We traded baseball cards and built kites, bows and arrows and fishing poles. We could always get fruit from a tree if not a bologna sandwich and Kool-Aid from somebody's house.
This was not the lifestyle of the rich and famous, but it was priceless. It was simple living that required a little imagination to have fun. There was no Busch Gardens or Kings Dominion. You created your own "Wild World" in a back yard with tents made of old sheets, swings made of ropes and automobile tires, and seesaws made of planks and cinder blocks.
There was no such thing as staying out all day unsupervised. All kids took naps in the afternoon. And even today, it seems like there is an elderly person perched behind the curtains of every window in the neighborhood. And somehow, parents would hear about every curse word and dirty joke we had uttered long before the gang made it back home.
Nowadays, a lot of kids don't go home. Or, if their parents do care about them, they are hardly allowed to go out. That's unfortunately understandable, what with the way grown men chase after adolescent girls these days.
There was a time when you could count on the neighborhood rising up against "Chester the Molester," when junkies would never let kids see them shoot up, let alone offer them drugs.
Today's kids have so much more to worry about. Many must work during the summer. Many have been forced to become heads of households because of their parents' addictions.
And for many, nightfall brings relief only from the sun, not necessarily the heat. I remember nights being filled with mystery and adventure, when boys stopped chasing boys -- and started chasing girls. Sure, we talked about sex -- even claimed to have done it. Kids nowadays don't talk about it; they do it.
I can recall the good times from my early years as if they were just yesterday. But when the youth of today think back on the hot days of summer, it's hard to imagine that they will have any idea about what it meant to be a kid.