If you want to know how profoundly childhood has changed in the last two decades, ask someone over 35 how he or she spent summers.
More than cellphones, the Internet and TV on demand, summer is the starkest line of demarcation between modern childhood and the days of yore.
Starting at around age 11, I spent a few weeks every summer visiting my cousin in suburban Maryland. We would sleep for hours past the time my aunt and uncle left for work, make ourselves lunch (Cheez-Its and Diet Coke), watch a few hours of game shows and swim unsupervised in her in-ground pool.
Utterly unstructured, unscheduled and unenriching. It was delightful.
Now? Between my 14-year-old stepson, my 9-year-old daughter and my 5-year-old son, we are enrolled this summer in Second City camp, surfing camp, yoga camp, baseball camp, Girl Scouts camp and two weeks of regular ol’ play camp.
My husband and I will take turns working from home to fill out the other days. I’m not kidding.
This transition to camp culture is often attributed to both parents working, but that’s not entirely true. Plenty of moms have worked outside the home for plenty of generations. We kids just spent a lot more time unsupervised.
Good? Bad? Depends whom you ask and what agenda they’re pushing.
I asked my Tribune colleagues to share their summer memories and found they didn’t sound all that different from mine. Somehow we survived.
Here are their stories:
The week after my eldest sister graduated from high school, my parents and four siblings set out in the white station wagon to drive from Nebraska to Disneyland, Alcatraz and my aunt’s house. As the youngest, I spent most of the 1,500 miles banished to the hump on the floor between the front row and the middle row of seats, dragging on the secondhand smoke from my dad’s Winstons, possibly from a pack one of us had bought him with the $1.25 he would thrust into our hands. (It’s how I learned to count change.) Never was a seat belt fastened on the entire 3,000 miles or on any of the 50-mile trips to our cabin on Lake Angostura in South Dakota, where we spent much of the rest of our childhood summers, walking nature trails plied by rattlesnakes, crying when stickers in the scrubby grass pierced our bare feet and, as often as not, bailing water out of the boat rather than water skiing. I wouldn’t trade any of it for a safer summer.
— Wendy Donahue, lifestyles reporter
My mother’s dictum was “Go out and get some fresh air,” which was funny because we lived in the Bronx. My brothers and I hit the door after breakfast and might return for lunch, then out again and back at 6ish for dinner. What did we do? Stickball. Softball. Off the Wall. Running Bases. Riding our bikes through the streets of New York as though nothing bad could possibly happen. (We weren’t complete idiots; we learned how to recognize the look of people who wanted to mess with us, and we steered clear.) One day we rode clear out from University Heights to the Tappan Zee Bridge; I can’t tell you how far that was, but we barely stopped, and it was dark when we finally got home.
Now, we were poor. Not starving poor, but no-nice-things poor. So when my friends and I decided to take in a Yankees game, I’d get up extra early, grab my mom’s laundry cart and scour the alleys for discarded soda bottles. Stores charged a deposit on bottles then, and each 16-ounce bottle was worth a nickel, and quart bottles a dime. It didn’t take long to get enough for a ballgame; general admission seats were $1.50, a hot dog and Coke set you back another $1.50, and we saved money on the subway by jumping the turnstiles.
— Phil Vettel, dining critic
Until I was 10, I shared a three-bedroom house with my mom, two of her sisters and their five kids. The only directive we received from the adults was, “Stay outside!” Each morning after cartoons, we’d ride bikes, foot race and double Dutch blocks from our house. We might have run home for ice cream truck change, but ultimately we came home when the streetlights blinked on. I recall many nights during dinner when my aunts would ask, “What did y’all do today?”
— Toya Smith, lifestyles editor
Summer breaks in my grade school years were long stretches of unstructured free time interrupted by the glowering presence of my father, who realized how much time we spent in unstructured free time. He’d assign me and my brothers as many jobs as he could come up with. Mowing the lawn and trimming the edges. Splitting logs from old trees into firewood with a sledgehammer and a wedge (more manly sounding than it was). Coating the asphalt driveway in this black, paintlike sludge. I’m not sure which moments were more dreaded, those spent actually working or those being discovered not working. So a fair amount of my time those summers was spent avoiding both the best I could, hiding out in my bedroom reading books or in the basement where it was cool, doing nothing much — this was in an un-air-conditioned house in St. Louis in July. I wonder now if teaching a work ethic and teaching the fear of being caught unoccupied are one and the same.
— Doug George, theater editor
Summers were spent working odd jobs, sleeping in, playing golf, skateboarding and playing football. I was unsupervised between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. and can’t imagine a morning when I’d wake up before my mom left for work, with the exception of three weeks of football camp/double sessions when I’d get up at 7 a.m. One summer, I believe I was 13, I spent my days stripping paint off furniture for cash and riding bikes with a gang of other kids around our neighborhood, playing tag and getting ice cream. Now that I’m looking back, it was pretty idyllic and painfully boring.
— Dave O’Connor, Tribune events team
Besides a week of family road-tripping to wherever that year’s World Horseshoe Tournament was (my dad is an avid horseshoe pitcher, taking us to thrilling destinations such as Gillette, Wyoming), my summers were 100 percent unscheduled. The summer I was 8 and my brother was 10, we were really into Magic: The Gathering — super cool, I know — and would disappear for hours to the comic book shop to play against other people who chose to spend their sunny days indoors, being supervised only by a teenage neighbor and an owner who resembled Comic Book Guy on “The Simpsons.” I still have those Magic cards, if anyone wants to play.
— Marissa Conrad, deputy food and dining editor