Sunday, September 22, 2019

Nothing Better to Do: The Power of Dull Moments

From far away the strange sound came—
like the drone of distant dragonflies,
but we knew that couldn’t be.
Louder and nearer it grew
as three approaching bikes on the sidewalk  
flashed in the dappled shade of elms.

Slowly the riders came into view—
unknown boys with peddling feet
and blowing hair and happy smiles,
amazed at the speed of their “motor bikes”
powered not by pistons nor pumping legs, it seemed, 
but by the sound of something roaring in their wheels.

As the three bikes passed, we saw
the secret of that summer day
was a Jack and a Queen and an Ace of Spades
flapping ‘gainst their spinning spokes.
Just playing cards from some abandoned deck
fastened to the fender brace
with clothes pins from the line.
But what a wondrous sound!

What joy to know that bikes gained speed
when motorized with cards and clothes pins—
and better yet to know with certainty
that all around the block those first to try
this feat met not one mocking laugh
but rather awe from youthful eyes of admiration.

"We could do that!" We said amazed as if
it were the answer to the question of the day.

Soon the sound was everywhere
from other boys on other bikes
whose coming and going and jumping of curbs
would last for days and weeks on end
but not for years it seems,,,
for it has been a lifetime since 
I’ve heard that sound of cards on spokes...
And years, I fear, since youth have looked for fun
made not by Mattel...
and powered not by batteries...
but by the pent-up energy of dull moments
and the sweet imagination of a summer day…
with nothing better to do.

These lines are a first draft,  but I wanted to post them before I forgot the image and memory. They are triggered by two passing bikes of boys at a campground. They had empty water bottles wedged on the front fork and rubbing on the tire. It was quite a different sound than cards flapping against spikes, but it was a similar idea, and it made me laugh because I’d forgotten about the cards. I was happy to see kids being kids—but keep in mind: these were not random kids; they were children of parents who go camping. That alone gives them an edge and makes their childhood slightly more like mine.

Here is a clip of my grandson who, like me at his age, found the sound a great addition to an otherwise quiet ride at the campground.

The reference to Mattel is a hat tip to their battery-operated “Varoom” motor that mounted to the frame for kids whose parents had money and no imagination. Today’s children of course know nothing about “Varoom” motors (which at least encouraged riding the bike outside), but I used it as a metaphor for “screen-time” and all the other distractions that keep kids indoors with “something to do.”

Our bikes were not the “Stingray” style of the early 60s that forever changed the look of bikes. (It would be years before we could save the money for a Schwinn “Typhoon” and many more years before demand for 10-speeds outpaced supply.) No. Our early bikes were old hand-me-downs from the 1940s brought to life by cards and clothespins.

It may take a century to know what we've lost from childhood's past. "Screen-time?" Oh, we watched our share of TV in the 60s--it was from the TV screen we borrowed scripts for countless hours of outside swashbuckling play. Screen-time today, however, takes the place of play itself. It's in that sense that it may take a generation or two to assess the creativity, motor skills, and work ethic our culture has lost from having fewer kids with nothing better to do... nothing better but to think...and wonder....and create good wholesome fun from the resources within their reach.
See “The Virtue of Reality” at POI.

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