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.