When I was a kid living in the ‘hood we all played outside almost all the time during the summer – from dawn to dusk, as soon as the breakfast feed was done we were outta there – skipping out the back door to see our friends, get into things, play, and generally just run around. We’d play in the woods, build forts, climb trees, fight sometimes – crawling in ditches waging our dirt clod wars; riding bikes (for those who had one), playing ‘war’ (our most popular game) or wandering the pine and scrub oak woods.

Come lunchtime our mothers would bring us in, either collectively to eat at someone’s house, usually on the carport outside, or one at a time, us kids dispersing to our various homes only to quickly reappear – running down the dirt street kicking dust up from the road, wandering ‘them woods’, and mostly having fun.

There was no internet, nor TV – TV was for viewing at night and Saturday morning cartoons – the only time cartoons came on back then. This was long before the era of Sesame Street and kid’s channels running 24/7. We weren’t allowed to talk on the phone; using them was a strictly regulated thing with the parent overseeing the entire process, or at least in our childhood. I can’t speak for other folks. I suppose other kids used the phone. I didn’t, except when Mickey came over for babysitting and we would sit and make prank calls.

We would play until the same time every day: five-thirty, when our father would come home. My mom would be busy cooking – and shooing us kids from the kitchen if we came in – and as soon as he’d gotten changed out of his military gear we’d be sitting down eating. That’s where the dinner bell came in.

My mom got the great idea early on to do something about us kids and our wandering habits which made us so hard to get hold of sometimes during the day – and to regulate when it was time to come in, or simply go on home.

She’d got this big iron triangle – a big one, the kind you use to call the cowboys home on the range. It was thick and heavy with a long iron rod – and she’d take that rod and beat that thing, clanging it in a circle. You could hear it all over the ‘hood. You could hear it in the borderline woods, you could hear it in the fields. Sometimes you could even hear it ringing down in the underground forts – and while soft and muted, its clanging was as demanding as thunder.

It wasn’t long before someone else in the ‘hood got the same idea – no doubt from hearing it clanging down her street. It was a good friend of ours; a family of friends, actually, and the only other military family around. They were our friends, and despite our difference in religion (they were Jewish), we came to treasure them – as many families treasured ours, and each others – as a sort of extended family, as it were. Everyone became part of one extended family. You know what they say about it takes a village to raise a kid – the hood was a village of ours; one we lived in, and helped make sometimes. Certainly there were some outsiders – for instance, the house next to the one that we owned. It was a renter’s house, and was occupied by different families during different times. And then there were the other outsiders – the ones who belonged there, but didn’t take part in our life in the hood. And then there were the social rejects and outcasts – the one up the hill: the fat girl, who was plagued by weight issues during her young life, and the Stevenson’s, who were at times some bullies, and then there was the Proctors, who were German – or at least lived like they were. Their dogs were usually drunk, wandering around rolly-eyed lost in the tall grass (the Proctors would never mow it, preferring to let it grow tall during the year, and then burning it all down come fall – another reason the neighborhood disliked them). Then the dogs would fall down or get lost – or one of the Proctors would come stumbling out and collect them . . .

But that bell . . .

It started simply enough – those bells would call, the mothers marking time together – hell, their husbands sometimes even rode together, they worked at the same Army installation, and it was no joke that our families swapped dads when it came time for discipline (though their father was never as mean as our dad). And us kids – the army ones – would go home. After awhile the neighbor next to us – the one with the mason’s son, the family of my dear friend – began to eat dinner at about the same time. Before the week was up so were my friends across the street. Then it seemed to spread to almost everyone. Typically those bells would ring about five-thirty or six o’clock – and then all the kids would go in. Soon there’d be dinners eaten – and if it was summer or during the weekend, some more time spent outside – then in for your baths and your bed. For us it was at eight o’clock – we were to have one of the earliest bedtimes in the ‘hood, I later learned as an adult – and as a result I missed a lot of TV. I know we used to go to bed when the Red Skelton Show came on.

But from that time on – from the moment my mom got that first triangle – it set a pace in the hood. Not a new pace, no – but a timing and a beat which eventually caught on between all the families in the neighborhood. Between the woman up the street – she lived at the very top of the hill – and our mom, living two-thirds of the way down, there was no missing or mistaking dinner’s call; nor it’s demand. If you heard one of them calling – the one up the street being for my military friends, and the one down being mine – you’d better get on home.

I note this to give you some idea of life in “the ‘hood” . . . how intertwined and connected things were; not only by time and proximity, but by the very emotions and heartbeat of the ‘hood. It was an unusual community, even for its time – a throwback to an earlier time, perhaps as much as a hundred years earlier when communities were small (this one was); alone and isolated (this was true as well, to some extent – especially for us kids). Neighbors helping neighbors raise their children, aiding one another, looking out for the other one. I remember my mom talking about how the man across the street – a good friend, and like a rough and redneck (and sometimes drunken) father to us would come over, checking our cabinets to make sure we had food, knowing how our father was (typically this was while he was overseas spending his money on charities and whores).

They say it takes a village to raise some children, and in this case ‘they’ (the grownups) certainly did. I can’t say how all faired for certain. I know most certainly survived, and while we (the young ‘uns) don’t keep touch with each other, we were like comrades, best friends when we were kids. Strange how things change: the old neighborhood is still there, but it’s changed. It was changed the moment I got back from Germany . . . or maybe it changed that Halloween. The one before we left to go overseas . . .

A lot of things changed back then.

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