Life Before 'Helicopter Parents'
When I think back on all of the combined dangers confronted in my youth, it’s a miracle that anyone of my generation is still alive to talk about it.
Don’t get me wrong. I have amazing parents. But by today’s standards, some of the things they subjected me and my sisters to constitute child endangerment.
Take the free summer basketball camp they made us attend at an alternative high school in Syracuse, N.Y., for example. To get there, we had to cut through a densely wooded and desolate forest. (All while wearing cardboard in the bottom of our high-tops and walking a mile uphill – both ways.)
But our more pressing fear was of the other campers – some of whom were in-between stints in juvie. Seriously.
Based on ability, my sisters and I got assigned to different groups. Unfortunately for me, I was tall and a decent basketball player, which resulted in my (mis)placement amongst the highest skilled players – all of whom were ridiculously bigger, better and badder than me. Whereas they looked and played like Allen Iverson, I was, comparatively, not even worthy of holding the man’s water bottle.
I was a minority in all ways at this camp. In my group, I was the only girl, the only Caucasian and the only one who showed up with a really cute, matching outfit and a coordinating bow in their hair. No one had informed me that the preferred choice of headwear was a nude stocking.
At first, my comrades didn’t acknowledge me. Even at the conclusion of camp, a week later, nobody, beyond the counselors, addressed me by name. I was dismissively dubbed, “The Girl” by my fellow ballers as they dripped sweat on, dunked over and knocked me around under the basket. There was only one guy charitable enough to occasionally pass me the ball; otherwise I just ran up and down the court like some wayward apparition.
I learned a lot that summer. Some of it basketball-related. But most of it – new swear words, slang and the lowdown on which 7-Elevens were best for shoplifting. Every day, we took a lunch break, and on a couple of those days, a kid or two wouldn’t return because they’d get picked up for heisting something at a convenience store. It was sort of scary (but admittedly, titillating, also) to a sheltered and naive Catholic school girl.
In spite of my nightly harangues related to my scarring basketball camp experience, my parents wouldn’t let me quit. My dad claimed it was “character-building” and that I just needed to “gut it out.” Come to think of it, he tried to tell us the same thing years earlier when my family was picnicking and nearly attacked by a herd of bison.
That happened when we lived in Oklahoma. We were on a family outing in the middle of nowhere, lunching at a picnic table, surrounded by tumbleweeds. Suddenly we were overcome by bison.
My mother instinctively and urgently grabbed us girls and scurried to the safety of the wood-paneled station wagon. My dad didn’t budge. He sat there, calmly biting into his white bread sandwich, while the buffalo roamed at home, (home) on the range. My freaked-out mother rolled the car window down a crack, as we kids screamed in terror, imploring my dad – who at this point, was flanked on every side by bison – to get in the car.
But unbeknownst to us, in addition to being foolhardy, our dad was also a Bison-Whisperer. He never left the picnic table or stopped eating, and within minutes, the bison continued on their merry way down the plain without stampeding him or disturbing any of the food.
Another time we kids unintentionally got put in harm’s way involved a family road trip from Colorado to Wisconsin. Due to work, our dad couldn’t join us on the trip, but to “ensure safety” he insisted on taking care of the loading (which involved copious amounts of criss-crossing bungee cords and some duct tape for good measure, I am sure) of the luggage atop the car.
Fast forward to hours later, mother and children barreling down the highway, hundreds of miles away from home. We felt a strong pull from the roof of the car that nearly lifted our vehicle off the road followed by a loud, cartoonish-sounding, “SPROOOOOIIIIIIIING!” Within seconds (as my mother unfurled some of the choice words I would hear again, years later, in the aforementioned basketball camp), all four of our (newly-purchased) tartan suitcases – now torn, with their contents emptied and blowing all over Route 66, artfully being dodged by our fellow road warriors – became visible in my mother’s rear-view mirror.
My mom yanked the car over to the shoulder of the road, invoking my dad’s name in vain the entire way, and attempted to retrieve our belongings between the lulls of the passing cars. Fortunately for us, a police officer quickly came to our aid and stopped traffic altogether so we could gather our ripped luggage and clothing. He also assisted my mother in getting the recently defiled luggage back atop the car in a more secure fashion.
When I think back on all of the combined dangers confronted in my youth – Wonder bread with crust intact, parents smoking in cars with windows rolled up, no car seats/seatbelts/bike helmets or sunscreen, being away from home all day until the street lights came on with no one having a clue or care as to where we were or what we were doing, eating hot dogs and grapes that hadn’t been cut into small pieces, etc. – it’s a miracle that anyone of my generation is still alive to talk about it.
In fact, it’s amazing we were even born. Looking through some of my parent’s old photos, the iconic image I best remember, from a Mad Men-era party they once hosted, is the shot of a woman who was visibly pregnant – a cigarette in her left hand and a martini in her right – slumped forward in a chair.
No wonder people had so many more kids back then and seemingly, such less stress. Helicopter parents, take note.