Frogs' Legs and BB Guns
Childhood in America, 1945Alfred's father had given him a BB gun, perhaps to annoy Adelaide, and we went looking for things to shoot, crows mostly, though we did manage to score several large frogs around the spring. I had heard that the French ate frogs' legs, and somehow we prevailed on Adelaide to cook them up for us. They were all right but unexciting; the French version owes much to garlic, unknown in those days to white-bread Americans. Then there was something about moles, or possibly mice, that memory has mercifully smudged. This was my project, and I was going to make something, a little purse for coins, with satiny soft furs sewn together. Did I trap and kill moles? Or use mice from the kitchen mousetraps? I must have skinned them myself, and then tried to cure the skins, and I suppose they stank and I was persuaded to bury them. Forgotten, and just as well.One year we collected the roots of young sassafras trees and talked Adelaide into making root beer. It smelled lovely, and was put up in mason jars on a shelf in the kitchen, and exploded. The jars blew up one by one at long intervals, usually in the quiet of the evening when we sat at the table reading, and we all jumped, and Adelaide would go for the mop. One year we concentrated on archery, with bows and arrows we whittled by hand, and practiced. We stood sideways to the target and squinted our eyes like professionals, and even I got fairly good, considering how crooked our arrows were.One year we had butterfly nets and jars of formaldehyde that nearly knocked us out as cold as our unfortunate prey. Sometimes we found Indian arrowheads. Sometimes we poked around the abandoned cabins on the mountainside, with little left of them but a tumble of stones, a stone fireplace, a cellar hole fringed with wild daylilies down which we never quite fell and broke our legs, and the remains of a trash heap, blue glass medicine bottles and the lids from mason jars. Sometimes we hitchhiked down to the river.
I was there, it was me, but even so it's hard to believe. Adelaide was certainly not an irresponsible guardian, and yet there we go in memory, two children eight, nine, ten years old, trudging across the pasture and down the long steep mountain road, unpaved then, that gilded the trees with dust in August. At the east-west highway we stood by the roadside holding up our thumbs. Presently somebody pulled over and shoved open the passenger door and gave us a ride, down the curves and dips of the long long mountain to the Shenandoah.
No driver seemed surprised to see us; none molested or kidnapped us. During the war when gas was in short supply, it was patriotic to offer wayfarers a lift, and later, in the sixties, a whole generation thumbed its way around the country and met only occasional trouble. College students regularly thumbed their way back to school, holding up signs with their destinations, Oberlin, Cornell, Penn State. Hitchhiking was a mode of transport. Offering a lift was a mitzvah. Sometimes you met interesting people. Something fundamental seems to have changed, though I'm not sure quite what. Maybe it's just prosperity: who would offer a ride to a stranger so low, so outcast, so peculiar and possibly deranged as not to be driving a car of his own? Or maybe it's part of the paranoia of privacy, like never sitting on our front porches anymore.
We hitchhiked to the river and plunged in, wearing our cotton shorts and shirts that, like our flesh, hadn't seen a washing since June. Again, nobody expected us to drown, any more than they expected us to cut off our fingers with our pocket knives or shoot out our eyes with the BB gun. Somehow the safety of children, a subject of obsessive, passionate national concern today, simply didn't bother anyone I knew. Maybe this was good for us. Maybe it made us brave and carefree. Or maybe reckless and foolhardy. Or all of the above. At any rate, like most children we survived unscathed except for poison ivy and occasional bee stings when the wild grape was in bloom.
By the time we were bored with the river we were shriveled like peach pits and our teeth chattered. Somewhat cleaner than before, we hitchhiked back up to the Gap, then walked the steep mile up Bear's Den Hill, and on across the pasture's dusty cart track, arriving sweaty and dirty again in time to go for the evening's water.--- When All the World Was Young