Catchers in the Rye
I have seen a number of articles recently and listened to several reports about the epidemic of childhood obesity plaguing our nation. These are children who are not just chubby or plump or stout—they are obese, and their weight is causing them to have complications now and will cause diabetes and cardiovascular problems in the future.
Most medical experts point to the same causes for obesity in children that they do in adults—lack of exercise (television and video games) and too much processed food.
It’s not just a problem for the kids, although it’s more upsetting because they have less responsibility for how much they exercise or how they eat. It didn’t always used to be this way, though.
Back when I was a lad, all of us were almost invariably thin little urchins. This was because unless we were in school or eating or asleep we were outside, usually running around tearing things up. This is why my mother (among others) wanted us outside. If we stayed inside we tore the place up. We didn’t intend to—we just had a lot of energy and were basically clumsy ( I still am). If someone were inside for long periods of time they were either sick or they had really ticked their parents off and weren’t allowed out to play. Staying inside was a punishment. Kids begged to go outside. Of course (hang on to your hats, kids) we only had four television stations we could get on a black-and-white set. And so we were outside most of the time, for extended periods. My parents wanted to know where I was going and told me when to be back, generally in time for meals. Although there were probably perverts and child molesters roaming around then, I think there must have been fewer of them. Being outside was considered safe. Of course, we had the whole neighborhood watching us at all times. One time my buddies and I came across a book of matches (which wisely we were not allowed to have otherwise). We amused ourselves for a while by setting small tufts of dry grass on fire and after we stomped them out went home because we were out of matches. I hadn’t even gotten in the front door when my mother met me wanting to know what I thought I was doing setting fires in a vacant lot. One of the neighbors had seen us and called her. So, we had a lot of friendly eyes watching us. We didn’t think they were friendly on occasions such as our short-lived career as junior arsonists, but they were.
I remember one memorable outing I have written about in this space that my brother and I took on our bicycles. We were peeved at our parents so we decided we would run away. I took a can of pork and beans from the kitchen and we set out, headed south from Fairfaxto wherever the road took us (probably Cliftonalthough we never got anywhere near it). The road went from paved to gravel to dirt and then turned into a path through the dense woods. We came upon a clearing, and there were old rusted train tracks. Since we were tired, we sat down, opened our beans and took turns eating them with sticks since we had neglected to bring forks. It occurred to me that this would be a perfect place to live in a boxcar in the woods. Under the influence of the Boxcar Children books, I imagined that as an ideal existence. As I recall the books, the children who lived in a boxcar in the woods had no parents in evidence and that sounded pretty good to both of us. The sun set, and as the temperature dropped, we decided it would be wise to return home to a hot meal. I vowed to find a boxcar to live in and have it moved there and also to learn how to cook beyond opening a can. I never did locate a boxcar or live in it in the woods. I did learn how to cook, after a fashion, many years later.
It’s entirely too bad that the world has changed and become a more dangerous place so that kids can’t run free (or amok) as we once did. I don’t know what to do to change that. I find myself thinking of the passage in J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye in which Holden Caulfield, thinking about the innocence of his sister Phoebe, imagines the children of the world playing in a large field of rye next to a cliff. He would catch them before they fell off the cliff, becoming “the catcher in the rye.” I wish we had big fields of rye or oats or barley where kids could play without worry. I know, we have organized sports for children, but it’s not the same. Although my children are far past the age where they want to run around in fields, I’d volunteer to take a turn watching the other children play outside without fear. They deserve it.