The suburban sprawl of the baby-boom years turned many farmlands into neighborhoods for young families in the 50’s and 60’s. City dwellers who escaped the concrete surroundings of apartment buildings, row houses, front stoops and playgrounds reveled in the spacious surroundings of their newly erected free-standing colonial or ranch homes. But there was one small price to pay. For the first two or three years of any new development construction, those homes sat amidst endless clouds of dusty farmland dirt. It was a nightmare for moms and their washing machines, but a living dream for kids.
When my parents moved my brothers and me into our own new homestead on a former Long Island potato farm, we had truly found our field of dreams. The endless acres of dirt provided the perfect theater for playing out unlimited fantasies, which for the boys, always seemed to involve the thematic backdrop of either sports or war.
Our dirt lots had no boundaries except the ones we created. We morphed baseball diamonds into football fields with the simple altered placement of a few rocks, where World Series and Super Bowl games were replayed a hundred times over. We stormed the beaches of Normandy and Iwo Jima, reliving Allied victories while looking for excuses to roll down the biggest dirt mountain in the field. The choice of either feigning your escape from enemy fire or being mortally wounded sufficed equally for this purpose.
To the neighborhood kids of these early “Levittown” construction years, the dirt was heaven. To the adults, the dirt was a curse and a nemesis against which they were constantly waging battle. Moms resorted to the chemical weaponry of detergents and bleach, while Dads attacked the ever-encroaching dirt through the trench warfare of planting shrubbery and rolling out their most effective big guns – the dreaded grass seed.
For us kids it was always a sad day in the neighborhood when another quarter-acre of gorgeous brown dirt would fall victim to a carpet-bombing barrage of fresh grass seed. In an instant, that free-roaming plot of land was transformed into a virtual mine field, demarcated by wooden stakes, white string and dangling tiny pieces of torn cloth which acted as implicit “Keep Out” warning signs. Heaven forbid the stickball player who was unlucky enough to pull his Spaldine rubber ball sharply into the foul territory of someone’s newly planted grass seed. To a Baby Boomer dad, there was no greater personal violation than that of his freshly burgeoning grass seedlings being trampled upon by some aspiring Hank Aaron. To retrieve such a ball was to navigate a mine field indeed, risking the wrath of an angry man holding a rake.
Despite the break-through creation of Pong in 1972 we were still decades away from XBox’s Call of Duty or Play Station’s Modern Warfare. In the absence of such technology – and still years away from Paint Ball – we needed some other way to fulfill our biological need to “play war” (a boy-hood desire which, for some inexplicable reason, seems to remain universal for every generation). And so, as with everything else, we took to the dirt.
War is…. Dirt
There may have been no better arena in which play out war games than the former potato fields of Long Island. That’s because the land offered an endless supply of the most important ammunition and vital resource known to boy kind: The Dirt-Bomb. They were small clusters of oddly shaped dirt cubes in various sizes, with a perfectly balanced consistency. These little weapons of mass destruction were solid enough to pick up and hurl without crumbling, but soft enough to explode in a dramatic burst of dust upon impact, and without serious injury… well, mostly. Occasionally, you would find defective Dirt-Bombs; ones too soft to withstand the stress of manually launching them (i.e., you couldn’t chuck those suckers), or worse, ones so hard that the Dirt-Bomb wouldn’t explode upon impact. Often, those Dirt-Bombs were not dirt at all. They were actually the fearsome Rock Bombs; solid dirt clusters that had the outward appearance of a Dirt-Bomb but with a hidden inner core of stone or rock. Nasty little buggers. As the Trojan Horse of Dirt-Bomb munitions, the Rock Bomb was considered unconventional weaponry and was offensive and intolerable by any standards of civilized Dirt-Bomb warfare rules of engagement. We were pretty sure the Geneva Convention had said so. We did know for sure that they hurt like hell and had sent more than one brave little foot soldier running home crying to mommy long before dinner, which was the predetermined official end to any battle.
Whether you were fighting in local skirmishes between two families, or in a fierce battle between your end of the block and the “other” end of the block, or on rare occasion engaged in a huge World War epic between your block and another entire block (the Mother of all Dirt-Bomb wars!), those Dirt-Bomb wars helped define our boyhood. And, in some strange sort of way, they also afforded kids the chance to establish rules of right versus wrong, and play out their conflicts. No Rock Bombs! No sneak attacks from behind! No aiming for the eyes! No ganging up on the little kids! These were perfectly sensible rules established within a perfectly stupid game. And like the countless (and much safer) stickball, basketball and touch football games to take place in the neighborhood, adult supervision for creating and enforcing the rules and consequences of these contests was not required.
Whether gleaned from our own household rules or derived from some innate sense of fairness and equity, the kids of our neighborhood in Smithtown, Long Island seemed capable of adequate self governance without the constant intervention from adults. We had our share of disagreements and certainly a few fist fights, but even those were part of the culture of deciphering right versus wrong. Perhaps we always knew that the court of parental appeals was only a doorbell away, and that helped to keep things in check. But in those early years such intervention was rarely needed, allowing childhood ethics to feel more like a Norman Rockwell painting rather than a scene from Lord of the Flies.
Eventually – as with any newly constructed neighborhood – the brown dirt lost the war to the green grass and shrubs, as wide-open dusty properties were slowly transformed into lush private yards. Admittedly, the grass felt good on our bare feet, though poor Mom had to wage war against a new enemy – grass stains.
Of course, for kids today (gotta’ love that expression) the way they compete – and conflict – has changed. Much of it plays out on cell phones and Facebook. Because everything plays out on cell phones and Facebook. Teenage and adolescent communication is now so instantaneous and constant that there’s no shortage of opportunity for unlimited wars of words and techno-competitions. Perhaps kids have bought into the old adage that “the keyboard is mightier than the sword.”
Face-to-face contact is slowly transforming into Facebook-to-Facebook contact. And the only remaining face-to-face competition for kids seems to be the super-structured and professionally-styled sports leagues where parents hold all the reigns and the kids are often pawns in an activity devoid of free spirit. Our new virtual world has changed the way we do everything, including play and fight, and it leaves me once again longing for the good old days when our adolescent conflicts and competitive instincts were all carried out in the same elementary forum – the dirt lot.