The other day I overheard an animated conversation between two sixth-grade boys, singing the praises of “Minecraft,” a wildly popular video game I know absolutely nothing about.
As usual, I couldn’t resist the temptation to offer a contrarian’s perspective: “Hey, do 11-year-old boys ever play in the woods anymore, build forts, have dirt-clod battles, stuff like that?”
One kid asked me what a dirt clod was. The other said he didn’t like to play outside.
Such is life for too many boys in the 21st century. Don’t get me wrong. As a kid, I wasn’t averse to vegetating. I watched more than my share of dumb TV in the ‘60s, held captive by the antics of Gilligan on the worst deserted-island set in Hollywood history. But I spent even more time outside, doing dumb guy stuff while interacting with my peers.
As luck would have it, I grew up next door to the O’Brien clan, four boys my age or close to it. If we weren’t playing marathon games of Whiffle ball, we were having dirt-clod battles with other neighborhood boys. Our archenemy was bivouacked about 50 yards away, past a grove of stately pines in the backyard of yet another neighbor. I’ve since wondered why Mac McCarthy, an elderly gent, never noticed the hellfire raining overhead as he methodically mowed his lawn.
We went through a phase where we blew things up, mainly dead animals, in a small patch of woods on Broad Street. This was certainly twisted behavior, but we did have standards. No dead dogs or cats allowed. We had both for pets, for crying out loud. Dead birds, rabbits, and possums were all fair game, as long as they weren’t grotesquely decomposed.
We picked an orifice and inserted a predetermined number of firecrackers. Then we made Danny O’Brien, the youngest, light the fuses. The result was never as glorious as we’d imagined, but it gave us something to strive for.
I remember lots of hanging-out time, time to rib each other, but also time to pay attention to the world around us. We purposely eavesdropped on adult conversations, noticed and then discussed quirky behaviors, and assigned impertinent nicknames to neighbors and strangers alike. I’m convinced my writer’s eye and ear developed over the course of my childhood, without ever realizing it.
I acknowledge that the technology genie is out of the bottle. There is no turning back. I remain hopeful, however, that we learn to harness the best it has to offer before our kids wind up electronically entertaining themselves to death.
Here’s to hoping there are still boys who find joy in the mundane dumbness of their lives. There’s a big world out there just waiting to be messed around in. And too little time to spend so much of it in the glare of a video screen.