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Socal Past

A Mother Remembers a More Innocent Time, When Magic Teardrops and a Simple 'Be Careful' Were Enough for Any Child

May 12, 1996|Susan Straight | Susan Straight's new novel "The Getting Place" will be published next month by Hyperion. Her last novel, "Blacker Than a Thousand Midnights," is available in paperback from Anchor

The arroyo that meandered through eastern Riverside was a wild and wondrous place when I was a child. Winding parallel to the railroad tracks, the sandy creekbed lined with cottonwoods left the foothills and descended into the patchwork of houses and orange groves, and by the time it edged past back yards, it was really a wide flood-control ditch in the hard-packed earth. Our trails cut down the steep banks in gashes we made with hundreds of sliding footsteps.

My brothers and friends and I could keep ourselves occupied in the ditch all day. We walked around the dead-end barrier of our street, through the waist-high wild oats of the vacant lot and crossed the railroad tracks. Then we chose our descents into the arroyo: sissy-path or not. Some trails had a gentle slope and banks for steadying hands. I always went the nihilistic way, so steep I had to stutter-step down loose dirt in a long slide until I nearly flew over the puddled water and slammed into the other bank.

We tried to dam the scarce water with rocks and sticks; we collected broken glass that I tried to arrange like glittering shells around the mossy trickles collected in deeper pools. I pretended there were fish near the abandoned shopping cart, that its silvery grate was a coral reef. We excavated reddish clay from the banks and tried to make Indian pottery.

When thirst dropped gauzy, dark veils over our eyes, we scrambled back up the trails and emerged onto the sharp edge of the arroyo, blinking at the fields and foothills surrounding our neighborhood, fingering the wild tobacco bushes with blooms like pale macaroni tubes. Before we gave up and went home, we laid pennies on the hot tracks so the next train could make copper jewelry for us.

"What did the pennies look like after the train ran over them?" my oldest daughter asks while I drive her to school. I hear the tremors of admiration mixed with fear in her 6-year-old questions.

"They looked kind of like magic teardrops, I guess," I say.

Now her voice, and the chiming in of my 4-year-old, sounds slightly disapproving. "Did Grandma know you were there? By the tracks? Did she know you put the pennies there? Did she know you went in the ditch?"

I laugh. "Yeah. She knew."

"Where was Grandma?"

"At home. Having a life," I tell them. I am constantly trying to explain the difference between acceptable parental supervision in the '60s and '70s and our hawk-watching worries of the '90s.

"Grandma gave us breakfast in the morning. Then she told us to go play. Outside."

"By yourself? Without a grown-up?" they ask, breathlessly.

"Yup," I say. "All day long."

The concept of total freedom in the wild outdoors is completely foreign to my children, as it is to most of their friends. My children spend hours in our yard, but many kids today rarely venture onto grass or dirt at all; their playtime is in dens and bedrooms with computer games and videos.

I watch my kids scramble up and down the ladders and netting and slides at a Discovery Zone birthday party; every now and then they look anxiously toward the parental faces lined with mine on the observer benches. My daughters wave and smile at me. I can't breathe. There isn't any fresh air in this place, and the screaming, arguing and laughter of parents and children buffets me in waves. The children look like hamsters in a huge Habitrail, scampering through the same circuitous routes again and again, their stocking feet flying in the giant cubes connecting the play chambers.

I picture us in the ditch, sliding and tumbling down the loose dirt, scraping our knees, collecting caps of mud on our elbows. I stare at the tiny shoes scattered on the floor, collected in the grid-cubbies; I look at the line forming at the entrance to the chamber, at smiling faces pressed to narrow backs, waiting to crawl nose-to-heel through the same tunnel again.

My brothers and I used to crawl through tunnels of bamboo and arundo cane and wild grapevine in the Santa Ana river bottom, our knees dragging through sand and leaves that smelled of dank and fox and eucalyptus. My mother would gather us in the station wagon, our foster brothers and sisters, our friends, and drop us off at the trail leading to the wild undergrowth along the river. Then she'd leave.

"She left you alone?" my daughters ask, staring at the thickets of bamboo and the tangles of grapevine draping the branches near us as we walk.

"Yup," I say, and my husband laughs and nods. He and his brothers and cousins played here, too, probably not far from us. "All day. I was the oldest, so I was in charge. I made everybody collect acorns and grind them up with rocks, like the Indians did."

"Did you eat that?" they ask, frowning, stopping by the side of that same trail, now a bike path, to pick up bottle caps and seed pods.

"Nope. We had snacks. Crackerjacks and stuff."

"How old were you? You were a teenager, right?"

"I was 11."

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