I used to always wonder if other Southern children were taught the same thing we were while growing up. A particular case in point is a fabulous exchange that was heard often in my family around toddlers who were learning to identify various parts of their bodies. We would ask little kids to point to their toes, and to point to their ears, and to point to their shoulders, etc. As I grew older and learned about childhood development, I became aware of the immense importance of such exchanges. But we had an extra one in our little town – we would ask every little kid to show us “where the Yankees shot you.” Upon hearing that question, toddlers were expected to touch their bellybuttons. I can’t even explain how much I used to love that, but I never realized how universally Southern it was until I left home. It seems that wherever I lived in the South, everybody knew what that meant. Isn’t that fantastic? I hope we never lose that, and I really hope Southern parents keep their senses of humor and keep teaching it to their babies. All that thinking about childhood stuff got me thinking about the things we all used to do as kids that are probably disappearing from our culture. So, in a blog of blatant self-indulgence, here I go back in time to celebrate a happier, gentler, and more incredibly dangerous Southern childhood.
When I was little, we used to chase after the bug-spray truck that would patrol the neighborhoods at sunset in summer, which we called the “fogging jeep.” This mosquito-killing municipal utility truck had a generator mounted in the bed that gave off a very distinctive chugging noise, and you could hear it from blocks away. As the truck rolled down your street, it left a magic cloud in its wake that was heavily loaded with DDT and every kid on the street could be found engulfed in the DDT fog behind the truck. Make no mistake, we were each breathing in a massive lungful of potent pesticide, and our parents didn’t care. Every kid either rode his bike or ran as far as his legs could make it. You would have thought it was the ice cream truck from the army of kids that could be seen racing after. As far as I know, we had no goal or purpose other than to stay in the fog as long as possible. Since those days, I have only smelled DDT a handful of times, and I was immediately transported right back to those glorious evenings.
When I first learned how to ride a bike, I inherited my brother’s old discarded bike, which had no brakes. Therefore, as I rode all over my neighborhood, the only two ways to stop that bike were to either jump off while in motion, or to steer directly into a pine tree. What a dilemma! Both solutions were so dang awesome to a kid that I frequently had trouble making up my mind as to which one I wanted to do. All of my friends were desperate to ride my bike because they loved driving into trees. I also remember a legendary incident from my childhood where I actually rode my bike up a pine tree. One day, after I decided to ride into the nearest pine tree, I inexplicably popped a wheelie at the very last second before impact. I have no idea how the physics worked to create this result, but I basically rode up the tree trunk for about two feet. Both tires made and maintained contact with the tree until the back tire was at least two feet off the ground while I continued pedaling, and then I tumbled backwards like a failed Saturn rocket. My friend Richard witnessed everything and can sign an affidavit if needed. And I can’t even remember how many bike ramps we all built in the street, which should have resulted in all of us going to the hospital at some point – but never did.
I also had every chemistry and microscope set available, which were each stocked with rows of little bottles loaded with various poisons and toxins right inside the case. But the way it worked out was this – if any kid was known to be dumb enough to drink any of that stuff, then his parents would have recognized that potentially fatal behavior long before, and never would have bought him the set to begin with. So, you didn’t get to have a chemistry set if you didn’t have any sense.
I remember having some epic BB gun battles with one particular neighbor, but we kept it safe by only aiming at the stomach. I actually can’t believe I just typed “kept it safe.” We would hide behind trees and trash cans with our Daisy rifles, and pop out and shoot. Head shots were definitely not allowed, but I think the most valuable lesson I learned was that if you leave cover in order to shoot, that’s when you get shot. If you don’t want to get shot, then figure out a way to shoot while remaining covered. Every time I watch a TV show or a movie where a character starts running out in the open while firing his weapon, I think, “He definitely never grew up in our neighborhood.”
And a more uniquely Southern version of the BB gun fight that did allow head shots was the infamous pine cone fight, which could be a simple one-on-one fight between two determined kids, or an epic all-out battle that might involve 20 or more kids all at once. Since there are seemingly billions of pine trees all over the South, and pine cones naturally drop off the branches when they get older, then the ground is magically covered with an unending supply of potential ammunition everywhere you go. Each pine cone comes equipped with sharp spikes at the end of each scale, which makes them the perfect object to throw at another kid’s head. However, since they don’t drop to the ground until they’re old, pine cones are usually fairly lightweight and brown. So they sting a bit, but nobody ever got maimed from a brown pine cone. That situation doesn’t apply to the infamous green pine cones, however. The green ones are harder, heavier, and shaped like a small WWII hand grenade. Any kid that got hit in the head with a green pine cone probably wouldn’t be able to speak or write for quite some time afterward. Therefore, it was an unwritten and universal rule that the green pine cones were forbidden. But it still happened. Occasionally. Accidentally, you understand.