Sunday, August 28, 2016

Growing Up Outdoors

I'm thinking of writing an autobiography. Not because my life has been in any way remarkable, but because it would be fun to write it. Instead of describing events chronologically I want to write separate chapters about various aspects of my life: school, college, computers, languages, books, friends, work, etc. Here's the first one that I've finished:


A couple of years ago I purchased a pair of rollerblades on a whim. Some time later I was sitting in a conference room at work, with my right arm in a cast, when a co-worker asked me what happened. I explained. He looked at me in a surprised way and said "you don't seem like someone who'd ride rollerblades". And he was right: I really don't. Which makes it especially funny that, to a large extent, I grew up on the streets.

Between the ages of roughly 4 and 13 I spent many hours a day away from home, without adult supervision, mostly playing with friends. What did we do?

I remember exploring dark, dank basements of apartment buildings when we were 5 or 6. We all had flashlights for this purpose. There was an abandoned construction site not far from where we lived, which we had thoroughly crawled over. We built fires from garbage that we collected, and melted plastic toys and lead radiator gratings in them.

In winter we built castles out of snow which we then proceeded to take and defend in a military fashion, running, pushing and throwing snow balls at each other. A direct hit to the head can be surprisingly painful.

There was a bridge nearby whose side was used as a slope. A bunch of kids would pour water on it, which turned to ice. Then everyone brought flattened cardboard boxes and took turns sliding down on them. The speed increased to an impossible, truly frightening level until, without any warning or transition, I would realize that I was lying face down in the snow. Up and back to the top of the bridge.

There was skiing and hockey, and everyone had aluminum sleighs. The only stereotypical winter activity which we never partook in was making snow men. I only know those from pics and cartoons.

The coldest it ever got in Moscow during my childhood was -40 C in 1979, which neatly corresponds to -40 F. Every year there were a few days when the temps reached below -30 C (-22 F). Over time such cold could induce anesthesia in exposed body parts, usually the nose and the cheeks. You had to rub them vigorously for any feeling to return. My father's ears were permanently redder than his face, and when questioned about it he always said that he "froze them off in childhood".

School was out on, if I remember correctly, below-30 days, but we went there anyway to run around the corridors and play our usual games.

When the snow melted we built dams in our neighborhood in order to break them, creating dramatic floods. This required long hours knee-deep, and sometimes waist-deep, in cold water.

In the summers we made bows from willow branches in order to shoot makeshift wooden arrows at each other. Once, at a construction site across the street, someone found a cache of welding rods. We sharpened them by rubbing their ends on asphalt and used them as arrows with our bows. As my father was coming home from work one evening he saw me running around with a bloodied face from a glancing shot. He took me by the scruff of the neck and dragged me home.

The branches for the bows had to be cut with knives, which we all had. I remember begging my mom, on our way to the hardware store, to buy me a fold-out knife. For some reason she did. I was probably 8 years old. A tiny sharpening stone soon became one of my most beloved possessions.

The main game we played with knives started with cutting a circle on the ground. Two kids stood within it, taking turns throwing knives so that they'd stick in the earth. The way the knives fell determined how the circle would be sectioned. If your opponent succeeded in making your slice smaller with his throws, standing became more and more difficult, with your last knife throw being performed while balancing precariously on the tip of one foot.

Ironically, one of the least dangerous games we played was called "war". It involved filling used detergent bottles with water, running around and spraying each other from their nozzles. A version played on bicycles simulated mounted warfare.

Our neighborhood formed a rectangle whose perimeter could be easily covered on a bike. There was a slope in the middle. I used to ride up to it as fast as I could, and then keep pedaling all the way down. Very soon after the end of the downward slope, when I was at the maximum speed that my musculature and the bike's design allowed, I had an option of entering a turn. These turns were the craziest, most bone-headed decisions I've ever made in my life. The fact that I survived all of them sometimes seems unfair.

There was a group of ponds about a 15 minute walk from where we lived, which were good for fishing. My love of equipment, gear and paraphernalia associated with various trades and hobbies was already in full bloom then. The bamboo fishing rods, the line, the tiny spherical lead weights which gave way a little when you bit into them, the multi-colored plastic floats, the hooks - so much to choose, cherish and arrange.

Every fishing trip started with digging for worms. At the current stage in my life I would never touch a worm, much less pierce one with a steel hook, but all the other kids did it then, so it seemed natural. When the fish bit, you felt a complex, almost human-like pull on the line. Afterwards we either released them back into the pond or gave them to a kid who had a cat at home.

When we saw playground swings, our first instinct was to see who could jump out of them the farthest. We drew lines on the ground marking where each of us fell after flying off the seat. Some kids could do 360 degree turns around the axis of the swing, both sitting and standing, but this was above my abilities.

I think that the reason that none of us maimed ourselves doing any of this stuff was that humans, well, only the men really, evolved to have precisely those kinds of childhoods. People have had access to flint knives for hundreds of thousands of years and biking is kind of like horse riding. Through most of history parents didn't have time to constantly look over their kids.

But if I could play things back in a way that would have allowed me to have children of my own, would I have let them grow up that way? Absolutely not. I'm naturally neurotic, so the fear and anxiety for them would have simply killed me.

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