I was watching the sun set a while ago, and musing about that magical time of day that exists from the last rays until time for young ‘uns to go in for dinner — or “supper,” if you grew up in the South.
I don’t suppose kids today notice it all that much, what with soccer practice, computer games, and other distractions, but back in the days of black and white TV (two channels available if you were lucky and nothing but news in the early evening) us kids were almost invariably running around the neighborhood at twilight, for the last few minutes of fun with our friends before settling in with the family to eat and watch “Lucy,” or “The Ed Sullivan Show.”
This was, among other things, a time when it was OK to converse with girls. I’m not sure why, but the “girls/boys have cooties” tabu seemed to be suspended for that period. Social interactions with older kids were less likely to end in teasing, or worse, as well. It seemed as though everyone, in trying to squeeze those last few minutes of freedom out of the waning daylight, had not only a heightened sense of immediacy, but of tolerance as well.
Younger kids were more likely to be permitted to join in games of hide ’n’ seek, for instance. This was pretty cool, because at that time of day, hide ’n’ seek took on a different dimension. There were more shadows. Perceptions were strained. A kid could hide practically in plain sight- – perhaps gaining the edge that less speed or cleverness denied him or her at other times. (Flashlights, of course, were verboten…not that any of us knew the word, or would have used it if we did.) A bush at the side of a house became sanctuary. If you climbed a tree (no one ever looked in trees) you could watch as the others crept around and sometimes keep your hiding place through another “it,” if time permitted. Sometimes — oh joy, oh horror — you might even find yourself sharing a hiding place with a (insert appropriate person of the attractive gender), a level of intimacy to remain unmatched until the first fumblings in a parent’s car some years later.
Then, too, there was the simple mystery of its being almost dark. In today’s world of light pollution it is difficult for a person living in a city — or even in a small town — to imagine what the night was like in the days when street lights (the unbroken ones) had only 150-watt bulbs. Most places, even in town, it was dark! Familiar places ceased to be so. Kids raised on an oral tradition of ghost stories and a diet of Robert Louis Stevenson and other less literate but equally adept chroniclers of the creepy got p-r-e-t-t-y imaginative not too long after the sum went down! Not that we believed all that stuff, of course…. Nonetheless, many a kid got creeped out if he had to pass, too long after dusk, a cemetery or the house where the crazy old lady lived.
At that hour, it was possible to suspect that perhaps those weren’t just “lightning bugs” out across the field toward the edge of the woods. The hoot of an owl or the whistle of a whip-poor-will sounded completely different when you were out in the dark with them. The dog across town that chased sticks when you threw them in the lake took on a whole new dimension when he barked. And that moment of delicious terror when your best friend jumped out and scared the bejeezus out of you was a thrill that many may have sought in later years, but few (I think) found.
We weren’t all that naïve, in many ways. By age ten or so, many — if not most — of us were more or less convinced of the excellent chance that we could someday end up as part of a radioactive cloud in the stratosphere. (None of us, mercifully, were aware of how close we came on a few occasions.) We knew of broken homes and abused kids, although perhaps fewer, and certainly less talked-about, than today. Just about every kid of my generation knew another who had been crippled by polio. We had pressures to conform, to succeed, to do well, just as kids do today. But we had one thing that many kids today may never have: those magical moments before supper, and the certainty that supper and our loved ones were just a few minutes away.