NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

April 10, 2013

Boys will be boys

As I See It
Robert 'Boots' Chouinard

---- — Back in my early youth of the 1930s, we kids had a ball being kids. We were outside playing all the time. Because most families were large, we had lots of kids to play with. In my own family, I was the youngest of eight children. I had six older sisters and an older brother. Within the neighborhood, the houses were close to one another and sat close to the sidewalk with a small yard on the side. Since there were few families who owned automobiles, we were able to play on the sidewalks and streets. There were so many games that we played, I couldn’t begin to list them all.

One thing that stands out in my mind is that all boys carried in their pocket a jackknife. I can’t remember any boy who didn’t have one. The knife was never considered a weapon but just a toy. In those days, if a fight broke out between boys, they settled their differences with their fists. It would be thought cowardly to do otherwise.

One way they could use the knife was to whittle pieces of wood, another to carve their initials into things. All the trees in the neighborhood had kids’ initials carved in them. The school desk had wooden lids that opened to put books within, an inkwell on the top right corner and was mounted on metal legs all fastened to the wooden floor. The wooden lid all had engravings in them from the boys’ pocket knives.

Purchasing a knife was never a problem. All the 5 & 10 cent stores and hardware storessold them. In each store the knives were displayed in a glass case. They were nicely lined up in trays, reminding me of gems displayed in a jewelry store.

The knife case held two blades on one end, one longer and the other shorter. The case being only 3 1/2 to 4 inches long, it fit nicely into the palm of our hands.

There were a couple of games we enjoyed using our knives. One was a game we called “baseball game.” We would kneel on the grass and open up the knives. With the long blade straight out and the shorter one only half way out, we would begin by tossing the knife, hoping it would twirl in the air and land point first into the grass. How it landed determined the hit: if it landed on the long blade first or on the smaller blade. If the knife landed flat on its side, they were out. The game was not much interest to me, it was too slow.

The other game was played kneeling on the grass in a circle. With the long blade out someone would begin with placing the point of the blade on the back of their hand. With the other hand on top of the knife, he would flip the knife over to make the knife land in the circle point first. If one succeeded he would then work farther up the arm with the knife, with the same objective, to flip the knife point first into the circle. With each success, we would work farther up to the chin, the face and so on. If we missed the circle, we’d lose our turn. I really did not care for this game either.

My favorite activity, with a group of boys, was to hike to what we referred to as “out back.” There were two popular areas we hiked to, both about 3 miles from home. One was near our swim hole along the Boston & Maine Railroad where the tracks ran close to where we swam. Just down the dirt road from there was a trail into the woods. Not far in was a large rocky ledge; on the ledge we would climb around, working our way to an opening to a den-like cave. It was known as “Devil’s Den.” After climbing around, we’d build a fire in the den using the wood nearby. Using our old trusty knives, we’d cut twigs to hold our hot dogs and marshmallows. After having a great time cooking and eating, we’d put the fire out and head home.

Another favorite hike was out to “Chipmunk Mines,” heading in a different direction than “Devil’s Den.” We would have to cross cow pastures, go under barbed wire fences to get there. As I recall the old mine had shafts in the ground, where they mined for silver. In our time, there was only one opening in the woods leading to it. No buildings left, we just went there to play around and mostly climb trees. All of us carried a knapsack with some food to cook. Someone would have a hatchet attached to his hip. We always had a rock pit to make a fire in. When the fire got going we would toss in a couple of potatoes; as the potatoes were cooking, we’d cook our hot dogs and marshmallows. We’d then take a stick, roll out the potatoes that when done were covered with black ash — they looked like a piece of coal. With our knives, we’d cut them in half to expose the white potato. It was such a treat. When we finished we’d clean up and walk home.

We had so much fun going on those hikes. If there were pup up tents available, we would have spent the night. I know my own boys all did similar things. I often wonder, do kids of today still do these kinds of things? I know for sure, if today a boy were found with a knife, it would be considered dangerous. Just imagine if he went to school with one and was discovered, what alarm that would cause. It’s too bad how times have changed, for boys can’t be boys anymore!

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Robert “Boots” Chouinard lives in Salisbury.