Dec282011

Community of Elders

Childhood in a community of elders

Yesterday, in Ancestral Call, I detailed my family history. I was born into a close-knit rural community, swaddled by family, extended family and a broader community which shared the same values. Both my grandparents living within a few miles of one another, and several aunts, uncles and cousins lived nearby. I had the support of this community during my formative years.

I grew up believing everything is possible:

You can be anybody you want to be,
You can love whomever you will
You can travel any country where your heart leads
And know I will love you still
You can live by yourself, you can gather friends around,
You can choose one special one
And the only measure of your words and your deeds
Will be the love you leave behind when you’re done.

Making the most of rural life

Friendship-Mill-Dam-01One of the drawbacks of rural living is that there isn’t much to do. There was one movie theater within 30 miles, few restaurants, and few other options for entertainment. Most people in rural areas of Wisconsin will spend their free time in the woods, in the tavern, or at home with their families. My grandfather and my father didn’t drink, so they didn’t spend much time at the local taverns, thankfully.

The one bar activity we did enjoy was snowmobile bar hopping. The snowmobile trails in Adams County have taverns as their end points. Every few miles, there is an opportunity to stop, warm up, and enjoy the camaraderie of friends and other snowmobilers. I always wanted to go along, but I always got sleepy as soon as we left home. I probably slept on most of the pool tables in western Adams County.

wheat-pennyWith so much extended family around, we would see them often, particularly my grandparents. My dad and his father are very close. When I was young, we would spend many evenings visiting their house. My dad and grandfather would talk for hours. My mother and grandmother would talk, play with me, or watch TV to pass the time.

My grandmother loved me openly and unconditionally. She is a psychological anchor for me, a reminder that unconditional love exists. Everyone should have people like that in their life. Sadly, many don’t. My grandmother died in 2001, but I still think about her often. She used to collect wheat pennies, and now whenever I see a penny, I think of her. It’s an association I cultivate and cherish.

CIMG0013When I was a child, I spent a lot of time outside. I used to go for walks in the woodlot behind my house spending hours exploring and watching wildlife. I had an enormous natural sand pile to play in where I created entire cities complete with roads for my Tonka toys to drive on. During the summer my mother and I would go for long bike rides to climb the numerous mounds, and spend lazy days at the beach on Friendship Pond. In the winter, I would go sledding or ice skating and build snowmen and snow forts for snowball fights. It was a simple time full of simple pleasures.

Life in town

Even while we lived just out of town, my mother’s parents had a house right on Main Street in the heart of the action — what action there was in a town of 2,000 people. I had the best of both worlds. When I was in first grade, we moved from our woodlot property to a house in town two doors down from the elementary school.CIMG0005

Back in the 1970s, the back yards throughout the neighborhood were a communal playground. There were no fences to keep people out, and nobody was territorial about their yards. My next door neighbor became a close friend, and the other children in the neighborhood would come around and play with us. Often we would go play at the nearby school yard and listen for our mother’s to call out to us when dinner was ready.

We bicycled all around our neighborhood, and in the summer, we would sometimes peddle down to the Friendship Pond to swim and cool off. Children today don’t have the freedom of movement we enjoyed as children. Perhaps our parents were foolish not to protect us from the predators out there, but in our time of innocence, nobody conceived such dangers existed. We didn’t have play dates, we just met up and did whatever seemed like fun at the time. It was a carefree era.

And this is where I grew up
I think the present owner fixed it up
I never knew we’d ever went without

And this is where I went to school
Most of the time had better things to do

Early Friendships and school days

00443_p_9aeu2xmha0900_rMy first friend outside my family was David Georgeson. His parents owned the gas station a block away from my mother’s parent’s house on Main Street. When we met, I was still riding my tricycle. David was about six months older than me, and he had already learned to ride a tiny two-wheeled bike. Since David’s parents were tied to their gas station business, they didn’t have the time or freedom to do much. David and I became close friends, and he was invited to go along with us everywhere we went. He was like a brother to me.

My first memories from school include the first day of kindergarten. I was not afraid on my first day; on the contrary, I was excited. It was going to be great fun to meet all these new kids and make new friends. I didn’t know what was going to happen in the classroom, but I didn’t worry I wouldn’t enjoy it.

All the students arrived at different times prior to the first bell. Some walked, a few were dropped off by parents, and many arrived by bus. We all played together until the bell rang to start our school day. These free times and recess is where we all got to know one another, and it’s where the pecking order was established. David and I were both popular, and we found ourselves near the top of the class. marbles

We played a lot of kickball and dodgeball in those days, but most of the play was unstructured. For a while marbles was a popular game, and it taught you something about risk. In the game of marbles, each player throws his marble at the other player’s marbles until one of them hits their opponent’s marble. There were two ways to play; for fun, or for keeps. The serious players liked to play “for keeps.” The winner of those contests got to keep the marbles of the losing player. My mother bought me a great set of marbles with many cat’s eyes, boulders, and the massive king-king-boulders. I was thrilled to get such a prized collection. I lost a few of my most prized marbles playing for keeps, and I was distraught over my loss. Games like marbles teach you about attachment, gain, and loss. It was never as much fun playing “for fun.”

CIMG0042The class cohorts were small in Adams-Friendship. There were only three teachers for a grade, and only a few elementary schools in the entire district. The graduating class of 1985 was only 125 students. The small cohort groups meant everyone knew everyone else, and you saw the same faces every year from first grade through graduation. It creates a closeness that’s lost in larger schools where students become anonymous. It also creates opportunity for marginal athletes to be local stars. Many small-town football studs wouldn’t even make the team in a larger school, but by being in a small town, they got those experiences which they cherish forever.

00637_n_9aeu2xmha0006Everyone today expounds the virtues of diversity, and living in a multicultural area has its appeal. Adams-Friendship was as homogenous as it gets. With no economic growth to bring in outsiders, the entire population was made up of multi-generational families like mine, all with the same background and rural heritage. There was no prejudice to speak of. We weren’t rednecks who hated outsiders, it was merely that outsiders had no reason to move to the area and become accepted insiders.

When I was in school, they opened a federal penitentiary in the south part of the county. Apparently, the feds liked the sparsely populated rural swampland as it made it easy to round up any escapees before they got too far. This brought new faces to the county, and with them our first African American residents. At first being the only black children in a school as white as Wonderbread made them stand out, but after a short time, the novelty wore off, and they became part of the group. Nobody had taught the children of Adams-Friendship to hate, so we had no reason to reject these newcomers. Acceptance was the norm in the community.

Wisconsin Dells

CIMG0081Despite the somewhat boring nature of rural life, we did have a nearby source of fun and entertainment. Twenty-five miles south of my hometown is the tourist trap, Wisconsin Dells. In the mid nineteenth century, loggers floating timber down the Wisconsin River noted unusual and beautiful sandstone formations in one area of the journey. The Wisconsin Dells quickly became popular with tourists who wanted to see this natural wonder. As tourists flocked to the area, other attractions sprung up, and a tourist Mecca was born.

During the prime season of the summer, my family used to go to the Dells on Saturday nights to watch the short track auto racing. The scent of burning rubber, motor oil and gasoline still brings back fond memories of watching racing. Some of the best short-track drivers of the era used to race these circuits. Wisconsin Dells was always my favorite track to go watch racing because afterward, we would go into town and race go-carts and play mini golf. Many of the best moments of my childhood were had there.wisconsin-dells-downtown-bill-lang

Wisconsin Dells has always given me a peaceful feeling. I have many joyous memories of both natural wonders and man-made thrills. I like to go back every year in late June for the good weather and 18 hours of sunlight, but it doesn’t always happen. I want to build these same memories for my son, but I know it will never be quite the same.

One of the greatest experiences of my youth happened one Friday evening in 1977. My father told me were were going to some new movie called Star Wars. I didn’t know what to expect. The poster at the local movie theater didn’t pique my interest. We drove down to the Dells drive in with my uncle and watched the movie on the really big screen. It was one of the most enthralling experiences of my life. I was completely captivated. After the movie, we went into town for our usual routine of go-carts and mini golf.

As we drove home that night, I remember the warm feelings of movie fantasy, family fun, and blissful contentment as I dozed off. I was the happiest time in all my life.

Remember when the days were long
And rolled beneath a deep blue sky
Didn’t have a care in the world
With mommy and daddy standing by

End of innocence

My idyllic childhood came to an abrupt end. When I was 11 years old, my parents decided to move out of our small town chasing an opportunity for a better life. Better than what? The desire for more afflicts us all, and it’s primarily what keeps me away even now. I don’t blame them for wanting something more, I only wished it would have made up for what was lost. For me, it never did.Friendship Mound early 1900s 03

The family moved to Northwest Arkansas near the home of Wal-Mart. The culture shock was jarring. Uprooted from my friends and family, I was plopped down in the prejudiced fringe of the Bible Belt. The school system sucked, so I was two years ahead of my peers, and being of above-average intelligence, I was actually much farther ahead than two years. Rather than being accepted as a leader, I was ostracized as an outsider. It was a role I later came to embrace.

The trauma of the move and my inability to adapt to the new culture served to increase my nostalgia for Adams-Friendship. I made many new friends in my years in Arkansas; in fact, the lifelong friendships I enjoy today all endure from the people I met there. However, my dissatisfaction with life in Arkansas prompted me to hatch a plan to return to Wisconsin. Years later, I did go back. The last semester of my senior year of high school, spring of 1985, I went back to come of age.

Come back tomorrow when I explore how I recaptured my sense of community and came of age by returning to my old home town.

Part 3: Coming of Age