The six-year-old criminal


An early run-in with the law ruined my smile. I'm the sullen one on the right.

When I was a child, I had a knack for getting caught. It never held me back, though. Trouble interested me and punishment was the price I paid for pursuing it.


Terry B., who lived on the corner of our block, was my best friend because we shared this same interest. In the summer, we were just this side of feral, in the sense that we played outside from morning until just past dark almost every single day. During the day, we found food where we could; everyone’s screen door was unlocked and every mother had large jars of peanut butter and jelly to spread on white bread. And Kool-Aid. Always a pitcher of Kool-Aid.


Where I grew up, children were expected to play outside. My mother, like every other mother on the block, never posed “Why don’t you kids go outside and play” as a question. They meant it as a command, one that we were happy to obey. While they made coffee cake and wandered back and forth to each other’s house to drink coffee, smoke, play cards, or gossip, the kids had the whole wide outside world to themselves. Our moms had to holler us back for dinner, but as soon as that was done, we joined our tribes outside until the darkness came and one of our parents hollered us back for good.


In my sixth summer of freedom, Terry and I decided it would be fun to switch people’s mail. We knew all of the neighbors, knew which houses we could go in, and which to avoid. Our next-door neighbors, the Coles, were an older couple. We were fond of Grandma Cole and her delicious cookies, but we had to eat them on the porch. Her husband liked to hold little girls on his lap, and even though our mothers never spelled it out, we understood and stayed away from him.


One afternoon, after the mailman made his delivery, Terry and I went to several houses and took the mail. We couldn’t get everyone’s mail because many of the mailboxes were too high to reach. In spite of the inconvenience, which seemed a marked lack of consideration on the part of our neighbors, we mixed up the letters and re-delivered them. Then we were off to our next adventure. Probably something involving matches.


Not once did we consider that we were doing all of this in plain sight, that most mothers were at home with the curtains and the front door open. Terry and I lived in a world of our own choosing, and all those adults with their watching eyes weren’t a part of it. Once the sun went down, we returned to their world, but daylight belonged to us.


We had telephones back then, the kind that were tied to the wall. Neighbors called my mom and told her what we were doing. She called my daddy and he called the police.


Yes, the police.


They arrived at our house right around suppertime. I don’t know if my empty stomach led me back home or someone was hollering about dinner, all I remember is the police car in front of our house. My daddy walked out of the house to greet the officer, and then called me over and made me confess what I had done.


I don’t remember a single word of what was said that summer evening. I probably cried, and if I did, my daddy held me.


Daddy just wanted to teach me a lesson or two. He did. I never messed with people’s mail again. It took me longer to learn the other lesson: the same broad daylight that made it so easy for me to find trouble was what made it so easy for grownups to find troublemakers like me. We roamed the neighborhood creating kingdoms, fighting wars, lighting fires, and creating as much mayhem as we could get away with, but the grownups were there, invisible, ever-present, and, it seemed at the time, ever-seeing.








30 thoughts on “The six-year-old criminal

  1. This is just too funny! I had a childhood pretty much like yours, but unfortunately my daughter no longer has that luxury (living in an urban jungle, changing times, and what have you). Those were good times.

    • It does seem sad that our children and grandchildren often don’t have the freedom to roam and get into trouble. Not bad trouble, but enough to teach them some lessons about life and themselves.

  2. And that’s why we could “run our heedless ways.” In our neighborhood, one, older, man who liked to spend the summer days on his front porch was the watcher, never interfering (well, I have no idea if he made phone calls!) but never napping. I’m not a person who spends a lot of time thinking about guardian angels, the eyes of God, and such celestial watchdogs; in my childhood, George took that role (with the more casual assistance of mothers up and down the street, glancing out windows in passing, looking up over the rims of iced-tea glasses as they gossiped with friends, quietly noting whereabouts as they looked down the street to see if the Vegetable Man was coming on his converted bus. On other blocks, other adults, other forms of mindfulness. Yes, it was possible in my cousin’s neighborhood to follow the stream into the woods and disappear from view; but probably several adults noted it, and noticed if he stayed disappeared for too long. The freedom of those long days of discovery and self-direction was made possible by the unobtrusive vigilance of relatives, neighbors, strangers. Today both parents are away at jobs and other people “mind their own business,” and children have lost their liberty, with its manageable risks, teachable moments, and wonderful, wonderful “lamb-white days.”

    • You expressed it beautifully. Our freedom which seemed boundless was really bounded by the care of those in our community who knew the value of letting children run and explore. I like your term “manageable risks.”

  3. Beautifully written! You an Terry B were quite imaginative. Switching mail…brilliant! My friend Lisa and I were (in)famous for ringing and running, aka ditching doorbells. That’s about it for our gutsy-ness.

    Thanks for another great post!

  4. Oh, wow, brought me back to my childhood and neighborhood. So much fun when there is no real responsibilty and your world is so familiar to you. Open doors, neighbors you actually know and like!! Priceless. It seems so many things have changed since the days of yore, the doors are now closed, locked and bolted. Dad would not dare call the police on you, they’d turn you over to “Child Services,” and Grampa Cole would probably prefer a young lad to sit on his lap. (Sorry for the downer) Love your posts..

  5. Wonderful post which really takes me back …….. . I never thought about neighbours looking out for us and what we were doing! As Kate says: those ‘easy, free days’. Ahh. I want to watch ‘Stand By Me’ again (which makes me cry every time).

    • That’s a great movie and the song is incredible. I wish I had more stories of my mom’s childhood. I have some that we asked her to record. I think we need to be recording our stories for our children, grandchildren, nieces, and nephews.

  6. Margie

    Your description of childhood mirrors mine in some ways! How wonderful it was to run free! We didn’t have home mail delivery, so I was never tempted to do what you did. But I did do a bit of art work with yellow paint on the side of the Watkin’s man’s car. He never came to our neighbourhood again…

  7. Ahahahaha this made me laugh so much 😀 Also, what pretty dresses you had! I think that’s so sweet (in a scalding way) of your father to call the police, and fair play to him for actually going through with it.

    Just because most fathers these days would be like lol go to bed or I’ll call the police, but would never actually do it.

    My mother used to call an alleged Mrs. Jones at the equally questionable home for naughty children. These mock phone calls struck fear into my heart. While (in retrospect) it was clearly a fabrication, it worked wonders for my behaviour (which was, naturally, impeccable anyway) ahahahah :>.

    What terrors you must have been!

  8. My mother made those dresses – white with turquoise and silver rickrack. Yes, I was a terror at times, but clearly if your mother had to call Mrs. Jones, you must have been committed your share of naughtiness. : ) I really like the idea of having a Mrs. Jones to call.

  9. It was a great pleasure to read this post of yours, about your childhood, and what it was like in your world when you were a child. I am very happy for this part at least… for the freedom you enjoyed. Since I have so few happy memories of childhood, I will try to think of your childhood, when I’m forced to think about the subject. It is usually a subject I try not to think about. Getting to know you, is a pleasure too, with every step. Thank you.

  10. In Virginia Beach, we did it all barefoot, which made the nieghborhood-wide games of kick-the-can particularly challenging. But “matches” is what caught my eye and ignited related memories of being interviewed by police. I wanted to read about your escapades with matches and felt cheated until I saw the link to your next post “Why I am not an arsonist.” Thanks for sharing.

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