Seventh Grade. Daddy gave permission for my sister, my younger brother and me to each invite a friend and pitch tents in the back yard in Virginia, which is where we were living at the time. There was the girl's tent and the boy's tent. There was just one rule. We were not allowed to leave the tents after dark.
I was in seventh grade, Ken was in sixth grade, and Ellen was a ninth grader. My friend was Vivien, and her brother Marvin was Kenny's friend. I don't remember who Ellen's friend was. Although there were the same number of months between her and me as there was between Ken and me, she always seemed way beyond my sphere. (She danced with boys; I played the accordion.)
Our house backed up to the woods on the Army base, Ft. Belvoir, and we enjoyed the normal early 60's routine of running behind the DDT truck in the early summer twilight. (OK, maybe it's not surprising that I ended up a little strange.) We ended up back in the tents by the time the night had gotten completely dark, and laughed and talked until all was quiet and the lights went off in the houses around us. Then, of course, we quietly slipped out of the tents and snuck off into the woods.
Walking along through the woods, we were able to avoid the street, but still make our way to the biggest playground any kid could ask for in this or any other lifetime. There was a parade ground right next to a golf course, and they were both within walking distance, bordered by beautiful climbing trees. There was lots of space for running, trees for climbing, and spots for hide and seek. We were a lot more innocent than today's pre-teens were, and we had a lot of good clean fun out there that night. Once in awhile the MP (Military Police) jeeps would come by, and we'd have to hide, but since we weren't caught, it wasn't a problem. I think they knew that kids routinely played out there at night anyway. Their patrols just kept a lid on things.
Finally, probably around midnight, we came straggling back through the woods to the tents, tired and dirty. I'll never forget crawling through the flap of our tent to see Daddy sitting cross-legged in the middle of our sleeping bags, waiting for us, with his belt in his lap. We were in deep, deep trouble. It probably would have hurt less if the MPs had gotten us first. Daddy had a temper. I remember he walked our friends home before the spankings started, but that just gave us time to think about it.
The funny thing is, I wouldn't have traded that night for anything. Even if I had known we'd get caught and punished like we did, I think I'd still have gone and had that last innocent night of fun, being a carefree child one more time. I think this was the last time I ever really ran free like that. After that night I pretty much started concentrating on my classwork and my music, and I know I thought about consequences more.
I know I still ran behind the DDT truck on occasion, and I sure didn't immediately throw out the stash of mercury we kids kept in a bottle. I think we often broke thermometers on purpose just to add to our collection. Gosh, that stuff was fun to play with! Still, it was the beginning of the end of an era. The era of childhood.