By Tim Hayes
It sat there, on the corner of the desk in my bedroom, from the time I was around nine until the day I left for college. Just a simple little lamp, nothing fancy. I didn’t even turn it on all that much in those later years.
But I liked having it there, just to remind me.
We grew up in a neighborhood where the homes stood no more than 10 feet apart. Where it took about 15 paces to traverse the entire back yard. Where the steeply sloped alley behind the houses doubled as playground, basketball court, whiffle ball field, kick-the-can base, and daredevil bike rally track.
We all knew each other’s business, which cut both ways, of course. On the downside, there couldn’t be a lot of secrets when an open window – nobody had central air conditioning in our part of the world – served just as well as a wiretap planted in the kitchen next door.
But on the upside, we knew when a neighbor needed help or a hand – like when the terrified screams that rent the air one early spring morning from the house across the street sent my mother running out our front door, to find our neighbor hysterical beside her dead husband.
He had suffered a fatal heart attack while sitting in his favorite living room chair, waiting to drive her to work at the A&P. Within three minutes, though, most of the neighbor ladies had arrived, helping to calm and comfort our block’s newest widow.
It was that kind of neighborhood. And now, nearly 40 years after I left, the importance of it in shaping me and the other kids becomes more clear. One of the best examples remains that lamp on the corner of my bedroom desk.
My mom served as Den Mother to my Cub Scout troop, made up mostly of guys on our block and some other buddies from school. That meant the meetings took place in our basement, as we worked on projects and did activities to earn merit badges. I have no idea what badge this led to, but over the course of a series of Cub Scout meetings, we built our own lamps.
Mom pulled in reinforcements for this undertaking – namely, Dad, whose skill at home repairs and building things still impresses and baffles “all-thumbs” me. He had the whole project mapped out – a bunch of pre-teen males would saw blocks of wood, drill holes into them, paint them with stain, assemble the wood pieces to make the base and stand, thread wire through a metal pole to deliver electricity, affix the bulb carriage, screw the bulbs in, and attach the lampshade.
He must have been either the most patient man on earth, the most confident, or the most off his rocker. But, doggone it, every one of us guys came out the other end of that odyssey with a perfectly functioning lamp. And, best of all, we had made it ourselves.
You hear about kids these days receiving trophies for “participation.” About parents hovering, interfering, refusing to let their kids learn by trial and error. In our crowded, tough-love, city neighborhood, that sort of soft nonsense didn’t happen.
But please don’t misunderstand. We each got a trophy, all right. We built them in my cellar with our own hands at the tender age of nine. My Cub Scout lamp illuminated more than a desktop covered in homework and baseball cards and Hardy Boys books.
It illuminated the idea among my buddies and me that we could do anything, with hard work and the right guidance. Best of all, that light has yet to be extinguished, even if my Cub Scout lamp itself has long been lost. Thanks, Mom and Dad.
Copyright 2016 Transverse Park Productions LLC and Tim Hayes Consulting