My sister Susan and I spent as many summer vacation days outside as weather permitted. Our day started early with reruns of Miss Francis’ Romper Room (with her discriminating all-seeing magic mirror) and at eight o’clock we ate our cereal with Captain Kangeroo, Grandfather Clock and Mr. Greenjeans. I especially liked the Captain’s magic drawing board (I could never get my Etch-A-Sketch to work even close to the Captain’s board) and Bunny Rabbit’s ping-pong ball jokes on Moose. I think that Susan and I were the same as other kids up and down our street, as every other kid was the same in the cities across New England; we actually felt the Captain invited us in to his world and that we were special because he spoke to us face-to-face.
By nine o’clock Susan and I were ready for some serious play: our adventures were never staged, we went wherever our feet took us. Since the morning dew hadn’t burned off, our mother insisted that we wear red rubbers to protect our sneakers – shoes were precious back then, they needed to be out grown, not ruined by inconsiderate wear. We hated to wear those rubbers because when they fit over our sneakers they bit into our Achilles tendons and ate big holes in our socks, which crippled us as if we had been hobbled. We hated our rubbers with a passion, but since they were our ticket out we put up with them until we were out of sight of the house.
Our mother’s second rule was that we wear hats to keep the sun off our faces – this we had little complaint about, we got to choose between baseball caps, cowgirl hats, kerchiefs, or jaunty French berets. Our choice was mainly determined by the wind and sun, or on some mornings by whatever was close at hand before we opened the door. We would tumble out onto the stoop gulping air like our grandfather’s guppies after being whipped into a frenzy by our mischief.
Outdoors meant freedom, it meant we could do whatever we could imagine – we interacted so tenaciously with nature and our surroundings that a farsighted adult could have labeled our daily experiences a learning lab. Mom often claimed that she enjoyed her mornings without us underfoot; she was able to get her household chores completed in luxurious silence, fluff pillows, vacuum under beds and tables, rearrange her closets and cabinets, plan the evening’s meal, in short – put order to her world in which her daughters only partially inhabited. Did she miss us? No, not one bit, and this was by no means a sign of a negligent parent – parents of this time period gave no thought to putting their children out of the house for long intervals of time to play in the neighborhood. Playing en plein air was considered the work of childhood and it was truly believed that a village did raise its children. Each house along our street held grumps, giants, spinsters, or fairy godmothers; cookies and tasks were handed out according to benevolence or consequence.
Ah, fresh air! What would present itself for our adventure today? We were eager to find out – boredom was not a part of out vocabulary. Oh, sure, we had down times and I had plenty of hours docked in the corner, but Susan and I always found something to amuse and educate ourselves, and on most clear mornings, days with blue cloudless skies and beckoning fields, streams and woods chockfull of wonders calling our names, we couldn’t wait to begin!
As we crammed on our caps we would promise to be home for lunch, cross our hearts. We used the sun to tell time by the position of our shadows; by noon our shadows would be completely under us, which would prompt our heading home. Of course this method of telling time wouldn’t work on cloudy days so we would have to rely on mom ringing the dinner bell to call us in. We found that we couldn’t roam too far because we had to stay within hearing distance – our mother didn’t wait for long before closing the side door.
On this particular morning we discovered that our cat, Molly, had dragged a dead rodent back from the woods. It was large and brown and very interesting. I ordered Molly to drop the woodchuck and Susan ran for our operating tools which consisted of spoons, shovels, poking sticks, and an old rusty hedge trimmer. I determined that it wasn’t a rat – too large – so woodchuck it was. We pulled the woodchuck by its long naked tail (maybe it wasn’t a woodchuck) over to the cellar bulkhead where the flat concrete slab made for a perfect operating table.
We crouched; legs splayed, then knelt closer as we became highly engrossed in our study of the woodchuck. We prodded and poked, scooped and cut into our specimen until suddenly it twitched and shuddered. I was so surprised that I almost fell over backwards while poor Susan caught her balance just inches from the animal’s head. My prodding had dislodged a flap that covered a deep wound – this once gaping hole poured forth white squirming larvae (of course we didn’t know then what larvae was) and we thought that the animal was alive with something that we didn’t want touching us and eating its way through our skin. Our overactive imagination plus Japanese Godzilla movie reruns prepared us to believe that dead animals could reanimate and scare the Bejeezus out of us at any time.
Still, we would have continued our autopsy examination if our mother hadn’t stepped through the bulkhead door with a full basket of laundry to hang on the line. Mom nearly stepped on the squirming “woodchuck”, shrieked and tossed the clothes-basket loaded with damp clothes half way to dad’s garden. She grabbed a nearby hoe and with a couple of deft slice and dice moves flung the creature over the hedge and into the Soucy’s backyard.
“Aww, Mom! You ruined our investigation!” Susan and I both whined in unison.
Susan would say ‘topsy and instigation instead of investigation – perhaps we were instigating the neighborhood kids with ideas beyond their stale Cowboys and Indians. Most of the kids we played with would have peed their pants if they had to poke a dead woodchuck or peer into its insides! I had heard about autopsies from watching TV news about President John Kennedy’s assassination, the president had been autopsied and then flown to Washington, D.C. Mom’s dictionary had filled in the definition – although I now think the correct word for what we were doing was necropsy because we were working on an animal, not a human.
Adults spoke above our heads all the time, tossing out words that we collected and used with unusual aplomb for our ages; rolling the foreign words off our tongues with utter indiscretion. What a mispronunciation riot of sounds and incorrect usage! This was how Susan and I grew our vocabulary – adults were totally responsible for influencing my delinquency and I tried to mold Susan in my image. She was my lab technician, my Igor, dependable my scrub nurse.
We had just located the creature’s heart before it had begun to twitch and our examination was disturbed. How could we tell a heart from other organs – Susan and I poured over our complete set of World Book encyclopedias on rainy days, committing whole sections to memory. We had become neighborhood expects on snakes, horses and all pedigrees of dogs. We were practitioners of the Scientific Method well before our school friends had been introduced to the concept. We kept drawing pads and notebooks full of our drawings and notes of everything we encountered in our outdoor world. [All that remains of these notebooks are my three hand-drawn Egyptology books, the rest were lost to moves from Maine to Vermont and back. Susan may still have some of her horse notebooks.] Because of my uncertainty over whether our dead animal was in deed a woodchuck or not meant that I would have to consult several volumes after lunch. We were pretty sure we would be staying in for the afternoon due to our mother’s sense of consequential priority.
“That dead thing was dirty, dirty, DIRTY!” Mom yelled. “Go wash your hands and change your clothes before you even think of touching your lunch!”
“How can you girls even look at that disgusting thing? Dead animals aren’t playthings; GIRLS don’t play with dirty animals full of germs and disease!!!”
During this outburst Mom had gathered up all of the clothes and headed back into the cellar to rewash them. They were suspect of being infected with germs simply by being in close proximity to the dead animal.
Susan and I looked at one another. If we were dirty girls then so be it – it could be quite possible that we could become famous dirty girls – who knew? Madame Curie had to have started somewhere before she grew into a scientist. We reckoned that what our mother didn’t know wouldn’t hurt us and we vowed to continue our dissections and autopsies out of her eyesight – how else would we figure out life?
Note: Our ‘autopsies’ were more like dissections