Years ago, I interviewed a young man at the Bethlehem Center on West 38th Street, and something he said has stuck with me ever since. We were just walking around the grounds, and he pointed to the grass growing on the front lawn. It was lush and thick.
"When I was coming up, we didn't have grass there," he said.
When I was young, we didn't have a lawn service, and our yard was nice but hardly manicured. In my naiveté, I have to confess I thought he was making a comment on how tough he had it growing up. I probably said something to that effect. I don't remember, and I don't even remember now why I was there or what we talked about after that because of what he said next.
"No, when I was coming up, we played OUTSIDE. The grass never had a chance to grow."
I know I'm going to sound like the old guy sitting in his rocking chair talking about walking six miles uphill both ways to buy a penny candy at the store, but that conversation was easily 15 years ago or more, and his point is truer today than it was then.
And what is sadder is that I have zero solutions. I used to take my kids outside either to the yard or a nearby playground or park, but I hovered around like a mother bear. They would have no more stayed out there by themselves than I would have let them.
I recently asked one of my son's friends, an athletic 20-something who played several sports growing up, how many pickup games of anything he's played in life. He said one, and it was the other day.
My brother and I, as preteens, left the house after breakfast and came home for lunch and dinner and spent the rest of the time roaming Brainerd. I mean all of Brainerd. We once crawled through a 3-foot-wide drainage pipe that starts up at Talley Road and deposits into the big ditch behind the old Hannah-Adams store a few hundred yards away. Even our dog, who followed us everywhere, wouldn't come with us.
I'm pretty sure my mother would be jailed today for allowing us to wander free and for some of the things we did, and rightfully so, so I'm not suggesting kids be pushed out the door. It's a different world.
We did learn a lot -- good and bad -- during our explorations. We learned how to entertain and protect ourselves and how to get along with people we met along the way. If we ran into some kids playing, we joined in, usually.
We learned how to settle disputes on the ballfield, and we learned not to be so afraid. That's the part I'm not sure we can get back.
Contact Barry Courter at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6354.
Barry Courter is staff reporter and columnist for the Times Free Press. He started his journalism career at the Chattanooga News-Free Press in 1987. He covers primarily entertainment and events for ChattanoogaNow, as well as feature stories for the Life section. Born in Lafayette, Ind., Barry has lived in Chattanooga since 1968. He graduated from Notre Dame High School and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga with a degree in broadcast journalism. He previously was ...