Life Lessons from a Vacant Lot

Growing up in the country, these small-town kids turned vacant lots into worlds of adventure and learned life lessons together.

Life Lessons from a Vacant Lot

Life Lessons from a Vacant Lot

This tree fort is a lot like the ones built by the author and his buddies.

Life Lessons from a Vacant Lot

Life Lessons from a Vacant Lot

Rufus gets a ride up to the tree fort, which is a lot like the ones built by the author and his buddies.

    Story by Lloyd Van Horsen
    Santa Barbara, California


    To a boy growing up in the country, the vacant lot was as important for life lessons as any classroom. It was a world of fantasy where we played, dreamed, laughed, cried, stretched our minds and learned lessons about getting along with others. Our values developed and we made the journey from childhood to manhood. We didn’t realize this was going on; we were just having a good time.

    Growing up the vacant lot was where we built tree houses, cabins and dugouts, things our parents never let us build at home. Tree houses were the most challenging and exciting to build. Back then you could find wood in packing crates or abandoned barns. Boards for the platform were hauled by ropes to a good crotch in the tree and secured there. We learned that if two nails didn’t hold a board in place, three might split the board.

    Sometimes the project went no further than a simple platform. Other times, when material was plentiful, we added walls, a roof and a brace to steady the spyglass. And we experimented with fire. A campfire was part of many games. We roasted potatoes and marshmallows over flames in an old metal bucket, which could be lowered to the ground in case of emergency.

    Once we sent $4.98 for a paper hot air balloon from Boys’ Life magazine. It was guaranteed to rise to 20 feet when filled with hot air from an open flame. It did rise majestically, almost to the promised 20 feet, when a sudden breeze caused the flame to touch the edge of the balloon. Our paper balloon became a flame 30 feet high, sending a dozen small boys streaking to safety at sonic speed. It was magnificent—the best $4.98 we ever spent.

    Growing up I wonder how many future biologists started their careers in a vacant lot. Here we had the time to examine birds and insects closely.

    We watched the birds build their nests and excitedly gathered around as soon as the ugly naked chicks appeared. Through the weeks that followed, we watched the parents carrying wriggling worms to the nest to satisfy the hungry mouths that never seemed to have enough. And then there was the day the fledglings teetered on the edge of the nest and took their first flight. We worried that a roaming cat might find the baby while it was still on the ground.

    Our small town had other uses for the vacant lot. There were medicine shows, tent revivals and the one-ring circus. I remember when the first biplane came to town. We visited them all.

    By the time we were 12, the vacant lot had done its job. There we could be boys, and, without adult supervision, experience the marvels of nature and learn life lessons like how to work as a team. Surrounded by tall grass, we lay on our backs, looked up and saw our dreams in the sky. Everything we needed was right there on the vacant lot.

    Diana Baldwin November 19, 2013 at 6:05 pm

    I loved reading this memory from Mr. Van Horsen’s childhood. Though I often find my thoughts regarding today’s children’s interest in all things techy as an inevitable cause of future psychological impediment to healthy social interaction, perhaps we will find that while sharing thoughts and discoveries by means of a smart phone, children are still learning valuable life lessons. I can only hope!


    Diana July 14, 2014 at 8:52 am

    We had an empty field during my childhood. It was a field farmed for vegetables, with apple and pear trees on the perimeter. After harvest, we claimed it as a baseball field, football field and scaled the great oak tree on its center, which was our built-in gymnastic equipment: it’s long, strong branches serving as balance beam, unparalleled bars, and a great place to hang ropes.

    The forested area behind our field was wonderful canvas for the vivid imaginations of bits visitors. For my best friend, Karen, and I it was our own little house, or a tent while playing Indian Princesses. For my brother Dom and his friends, it was enemy territory during a game of war, or a frontier for Davy Crockett and his pals.

    Like this author, our parents never knew of the hard fruit plucked from the trees we ate, or the fires started in the dusty field by errant magnifying lenses. It was the best part of our childhood.


    Barb and Bill Rinker November 17, 2015 at 6:06 pm

    Hi Barb and Bill,
    Thought you would enjoy this story about a vacate lot experience during this authors childhood. Reminds me of the many stories I have heard Bob and his brothers share with the family. I hope it brings back many wonderful memories from your experience with your brothers Bill. Always fun to share these experiences.
    Love, Bob and Dayle


    Leave a Comment