One of my favorite boyhood books was Bertrand R. Brinley’s The Mad Scientists’ Club (1965), a collection of short stories about a group of young science geeks in the fictional town of Mammoth Falls. The boys of the club used their scientific know-how to get in and out of various adventures. They had a clubhouse, scientific equipment scrounged up from here and there, and enough outdoor gear to support their explorations.
With stories like “The Strange Sea Monster of Strawberry Lake,” “Night Rescue,” and “The Big Egg,” The Mad Scientists’ Club takes us back to a time when kids created their own fun, without having every hour scheduled and coordinated by adults. The unstructured time enabled children to improvise and imagine. More often than not, they, nay, we managed to do so without getting into too much trouble!
Grade school years are a wonderful time to stoke curiosities about science, and The Mad Scientists’ Club captures that fascination. But I know that things have changed. Today, I’m afraid, keyboards, screens, and smartphones might overcome the exploratory instincts of yore.
I caught the science bug early. My first view was to the skies. I became interested in astronomy early in grade school. This was, after all, the early heyday of America’s space program, and our young imaginations were filled with wonder over what might exist above. What would it be like to travel in a space capsule? Is there life on Mars? Do UFOs exist?
Soon my fascination turned toward the invisible, and those curiosities required a microscope. A birthday present in the form of a student microscope (much like the one pictured above) brought enough magnifying power to observe the activities of one-celled animals — protozoa — such as amoeba and paramecia. I read up on early pioneers such as Anton van Leeuwenhoek, the 17th century Dutch scientist who used his own hand-crafted microscopes to explore the world of microorganisms.
The microscope gave me many hours of fun exploration, especially when I made slides filled with stagnant water, blood, tiny brine shrimp, plant cuttings, and other objects. The cheap metal case that came with the microscope opened to form my own little lab in the bedroom I shared with my brother Jeff.
I think it’s more than nostalgia for my childhood — which wasn’t nearly as dramatic or exciting as that portrayed in The Mad Scientists’ Club — that has caused me to go online at times to price out student microscopes and biology kits. I live within walking distance of a pond where I could collect all sorts of specimens to view through a microscope, and I sometimes wonder if I could lose myself in a hobby that appeals to the little kid in me.
For now, I’ve got plenty of good stuff to keep me busy, and I’m not sure where I’d find the time to add another hobby. But I’ll definitely keep this on my radar screen.
Friday was a raw, wet, overcast October day here in Boston. For me, it meant that fall has truly arrived in New England. As my wholly repetitive earlier posts about fall attest (here and here), this is my favorite and most nostalgic season.
The change of seasons from summer to fall is rooted in the equinox, an astronomical term. As explained by Wikipedia:
An equinox is an astronomical event in which the plane of Earth’s equator passes the center of the Sun. . . . The Astronomical Almanac defines it, on the other hand, as the instants when the Sun’s apparent longitude is 0° or 180°. . . . The two definitions are almost, but not exactly equivalent. Equinoxes occur twice a year, around 21 March and 23 September.
The month will culminate with Halloween, that most candy-coated of holidays. It will include a viewing of It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, a childhood favorite that still manages to get me in the Halloween spirit.
But Halloween is about much more than empty calories and chocolate fixes. Its origins are grounded in religion and death. Again, from Wikipedia:
Halloween . . . is a yearly celebration observed in a number of countries on 31 October, the eve of the Western Christian feast of All Hallows’ Day. It initiates the three-day religious observance of Allhallowtide, . . . the time in the liturgical year dedicated to remembering the dead, including saints (hallows), martyrs, and all the faithful departed believers. . . . Within Allhallowtide, the traditional focus of All Hallows’ Eve revolves around the theme of using “humor and ridicule to confront the power of death.” . . .
According to many scholars, All Hallows’ Eve is a Christianized feast initially influenced by Celtic harvest festivals, . . . with possible pagan roots, particularly the Gaelic Samhain. . . . Other scholars maintain that it originated independently of Samhain and has solely Christian roots.
Perhaps it was inevitable that ghosts, goblins, and haunted houses would eventually enter the picture!
I’m in the right part of the country for religion and the supernatural to mix. It’s a combination that goes waaay back. Rosalyn Schanzer opens Witches! The Absolutely True Tale of Disaster in Salem (2011), a short, lively, fact-filled narrative of the Salem, Massachusetts witch hunts of the 17th century, with a description of the Puritan mindset of the day:
Yet with all their fine intentions, the voyagers had brought along a stowaway from their former home — a terrifying, ancient idea fated to wreak havoc in their new land. For the Puritans believed in the existence of two entirely different worlds.
The first of these was the Natural World of human beings and everything else we can see or touch or feel. But rooted deep within the Puritans’ souls like some strange invasive weed lurked their belief in a second world, an Invisible World swarming with shadowy apparitions and unearthly phantoms in the air.
It shouldn’t surprise us that this New England milieu has produced legendary writers of scary stories such as Stephen King and H.P Lovecraft.
After polling friends on Facebook and elsewhere for their Stephen King recommendations, I bought a small bagful of his books (Pet Sematary, It, and Needful Things), all with Maine settings. This one is first up on my reading list:
In his new introduction to Pet Sematary, King calls it his scariest book, so much so that he believed it would never be published.
In other words, it’s a great choice for an October reading.
I can thank a British sheep or two from 1981 for stoking my interest in this story:
In a piece for the Huffington Post, science writer Macrina Cooper-White reports on a potentially significant discovery near Stonehenge in Britain:
Archaeologists studying Stonehenge and its environs say they’ve unearthed the remnants of an untouched, ancient encampment that dates back 6,000 years–a find that could rewrite British prehistory.
“This is the most important discovery at Stonehenge in over 60 years,” Professor Tim Darvill, a Bournemouth University archaeologist and a Stonehenge expert who was not involved in the new discovery, told the Telegraph. And as he told The Huffington Post in an email, the discovery overturns previous theories that “Stonehenge was built in a landscape that was not heavily used before about 3000 B.C.”
It’s pretty cool stuff, yes? But I might’ve passed on the story had Stonehenge not made its own indelible mark on my life decades ago.
During my 1981 semester abroad in England via Valparaiso University, one of our weekend group trips included a visit to Stonehenge. (As the photograph above indicates, we were ultra-serious about these mini-sojourns, giving new meaning to the term “visiting scholars.”)
You see the comely lass waving to me in the photo below? That’s my long-time friend Hilda, now an English teacher and novelist in Northwest Indiana. You can visit her book sites here (Kingdom of the Birds) and here (Plank Road Stories).
Anyway, if memory serves me well, just a few minutes after snapping that picture of Hilda, I would take a short slide down a hill. Although it was damp and cold that day, it wasn’t precipitation that precipitated my fall. No, I had slipped and scooted down on a big pile of sheep droppings.
Yup, really, really gross. And kind of mortifying.
I won’t dwell too much on the odoriferous aftermath, but suffice it to say (1) thank God our bags were packed in the bus nearby, so I could change; and (2) although my wardrobe was sparse — most of us did our best to pack light for our semester abroad — I removed those trousers and quickly threw them away.
Now, you rightly may be asking yourself what the heck this has to do with a potentially significant archeological discovery near Stonehenge, and I agree the connection seems weak.
But here’s one thing I’ve learned about travel and education: Simply being there plants a lot of seeds. (No jokes about fertilizer, please.) I was not anything close to being an Anglophile when I opted to spend my final undergraduate semester abroad. But I got sooo much out of that experience, despite my remarkable immaturity at the time. In fact, I’ve returned to England at least a half dozen times since that collegiate semester, and each visit has been rewarding.
So when I read about this exciting discovery near Stonehenge, I thought to myself, cool, I’ve been there!, and then checked out the article with great interest.
Of course, it’s not necessary to have visited a country in order to appreciate it. I’m fascinated by ancient Greece, for example, but have never visited there. In my case, however, it does help to have walked around a place.
And who knows, maybe that location is close to where I did my slide down the hill!? Talk about deep-seated connections….
Baring Parkway makes up two big rectangular plots of grass and trees in the Woodmar neighborhood of Hammond, Indiana, the small northwest Indiana city where I grew up. For me and many others during the late 60s and early 70s, it was our baseball diamond, football field, and — on one occasion — archeological dig.
Fields of dreams
Some of my best memories of those days are of playing pick up baseball games with improvised rules and teams made up of guys who showed up on any particular afternoon or early evening. It was slow pitch hardball; a batter could strike out but couldn’t wait out a walk. If we didn’t have enough players for full teams, a ball hit to an uncovered part of the outfield was considered an automatic out. There were no fences, so a home run had to be earned by hitting the ball far and running fast. (Umm, my home runs were few and far between.)
I spent chunks of five or six summers playing in those pick up games on Baring Parkway. When I started, I was pretty terrible. I could barely hit the ball, and my fielding skills were pretty bad too. Early on, if there was an odd number of players, I’d be designated the “official catcher,” which meant that I caught the slow lob pitches for both teams and didn’t get to bat. 😦 But I was becoming quite a baseball fan, so I stuck with it, enough so that I could hold my own at bat and in the field. Such improvements are the little things that can build a kid’s self-confidence.
Baseball was still America’s national pastime. Although I don’t want to over-romanticize those days, a love of the game was very much a part of the culture of this gritty little industrial city. Youth baseball leagues were very popular, and a fair number of future high school and even college standouts cut their teeth that way.
Our Baring Parkway games harbored no such sporting ambitions. We played for the fun of it, and by and large, the experience delivered. Furthermore, we mostly got along with each other, with only an occasional disagreement blowing up into fisticuffs.
The photo above shows a lush green park. Our makeshift baseball diamonds made Baring Parkway less picturesque, with carved out bases and basepaths pockmarking the landscape. But on a nice summer day, you could see kids enjoying themselves with a game of baseball, which I think was a good tradeoff.
Football was less popular those days, but occasionally we’d turn a stretch of the Parkway into a makeshift gridiron. We played both touch and tackle varieties, adding necessary rules such as minimum counts before a defender could rush the passer (“one Mississippi, two Mississippi…”). We usually played without safety equipment, but I cannot recall any injuries of note other than some bumps and bruises.
In search of dinosaurs
One early fall — I’m pretty sure as we were starting the 6th grade — a big utility company dug up much of the Parkway to do some work on the underground pipes. This meant a temporary suspension of its use as a playing field, but what we discovered there caused us to shelve our growing obsession with sports.
Unlike today, when fences, orange tape, and big signs will warn people (er, kids) to stay away, we could simply walk right into the work site. I cannot recall who first ventured into the excavation area, but I remember how quickly the news traveled among our small group of friends: There are lots of bones down there, as in bones from big animals.
And so we went, with small shovels and garden tools in hand, during early evenings and the weekends when the workers weren’t on site. And we dug up these big bones and all thought, whoa, I wonder if these are dinosaur bones???!!! We took bags of them to show & tell at our grade school, breathlessly speculating about whether they were the remains of giants that once roamed the planet.
Well folks, it turns out that none of our archeological discoveries will be found at your local natural history museum. Indeed, the fact that we also dug up rusty horseshoes at the site should’ve told us that we weren’t on the trail of a mighty T-Rex. But our excitement over this discovery allowed us to suspend disbelief, and also would make for a good childhood memory along the way.
Kids and unstructured time
Back in the day, a childhood for a someone born into America’s emerging middle class or robust working class came with free time, especially during summers after the school year ended. Sure, for some there were activities such as scouting, church groups, organized sports, and the like, but overall our days didn’t seem quite as packed as those of today’s young folks.
Although I’m not a parent, I understand how modern child raising often involves a lot more structured, adult-supervised activities than we saw with earlier generations. Still, it saddens me a bit that the kind of self-organized play that we engaged in on Baring Parkway is less and less of a typical kid’s experience. This was an era when parents (usually moms) could tell their kids to go outside and play, and about the only mild concern was whether you’d be home in time for dinner. Yup, times have changed.
Watching the launches and splashdowns of manned space missions is one of the shared experiences of being a kid during the 1960s. For many, it meant gathering with family members or schoolmates in front of a television, anxiously awaiting the successful blast off or the safe recovery of a space capsule and its heroic astronauts.
The minutes before a launch were full of excitement. As the countdown proceeded, we’d eagerly listen to newscasters talk about the mission’s duration and the spacecraft’s payload, in addition to what the astronauts were doing in the capsule to ready themselves.
The Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo space missions were designed to lead us to successful moon landings, and that they did in 1969. If you want to be reminded of the drama and excitement that accompanied this effort, then rent the 1983 film “The Right Stuff.” And take a look at this excerpt (about four minutes) of President Kennedy’s famous 1962 speech at Rice University:
Today, we don’t have that communal excitement about exploring space. We don’t show up to the breakfast table, work, or school the next day talking in breathless tones about a mission to the moon.
Instead, we talk excitedly about smartphone launches. We share recommendations about great new apps. And we await new versions of gadgets that will render our current ones, purchased just a year or two ago, “old.”
Yup, I marvel at what my laptop and iPad can do. And though I dislike cellphones, I bow to their remarkable capacities.
But we’ve also lost something in the way that our excitement over science and technology has become a more private affair, in some cases sharply limited to those who can afford the gadgets. Perhaps the pioneering space missions are destined to remain the stuff of childhood memories, but I lament the passing of shared awe and wonder over how great advances in scientific know-how can enrich our lives beyond our last download.