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