Chapman Quarries is the smallest incorporated borough in Pennsylvania, with a population in the 2010 census of 199 people. It’s where my dad’s family was established, and where his dad, granddad, and nearly all his male relatives worked the slate quarries.
While I didn’t grow up in town, that’s where church was and where my cousins and grandparents lived and where I spent a good amount of time. And it was the only place apart from school recess where I was able to freely interact with a lot of other kids outdoors. Three childhood memories tell a connected story:
Ice skating on the dam. The nearby quarries both used and generated a lot of water, and before Hurricane Agnes’ flood broke it in 1972, the dam was an idyllic nook in the woods. All the kids would walk out the back of town down “the dam hill” to amuse ourselves on the frozen lake. (It was a good joke to tell the new preacher about “the dam hill!”) I wasn’t a very good skater and I remember my cousin Judy telling me that I spent more time lying on the ice than skating on it. The older kids would build a bonfire off to the side, and we’d spend the better part of the whole day freezing, thawing, and “just messing around,” as we called it, with never a grown-up in sight.
Skateboarding on Main Street. The town was founded on a great hill after slate deposits were discovered in the 1850s, which brought an influx of hard-working families from Cornwall, Wales and Devon to work the quarries. When the skateboard craze hit some hundred-plus years later, it drew all their young descendants to Main Street with short, metal-wheeled boards to mess around. (Metal wheels were the leftover technology from roller-skates, which took a special key to adjust on your feet. And—let me tell you—roller skating on uneven slate sidewalks just wasn’t even fun!) I remember my cousin Craig telling me I had to get a skateboard with clay wheels—they’d work a lot better and I wouldn’t be spending all that time lying on the concrete than riding atop it. Like sledding, we’d walk to the top of the hill and ride the boards straight down the center of town, pausing only when someone would yell “CAR!” The old folks in town wished we wouldn’t go so fast because they didn’t want to see us get hurt. But no one stopped us.
Swimming in Claude’s pond. Deep, water-filled Fisher’s Quarry was the destination of choice for the older teen boys to go skinny-dipping and wash up when it was hot. (This had also been the common practice of all the previous generations.) But I had that opportunity only once, living out of town as I did. Instead, my pappy would occasionally drive me and my brother and sister and a couple of cousins to his friend’s farm pond where we’d go wading and swimming and messing around. The older teen boys would drive there themselves and bring a long wooden plank. They’d extend it over the deep end of the pond and secure it with one of their jalopy’s front wheels to create a perfect diving board. The bigger boys allowed me, as a non-swimmer, to take a few turns, and after some tentative jumps into the shallows, I ignored my own caution and jumped out as far as I could. I remember my cousin Robert hauling me out of the water, saying that I shouldn’t spend more time lying on the bottom than floating on the top.
I learned a lot from my cousins. And from going outside and getting involved.
Like mine, most Baby Boomers’ childhoods were characterized by the habitual frequency in which we engaged our peers in free-spirited, unsupervised, outdoor play. It was there that we learned leadership and cooperation in picking teams for a pick-up game, and creative problem-solving in building a treehouse over a creek. We exerted our bodies while managing risk, and stretched our imaginations while messing around. We discovered both ourselves and our places when we pushed our limitations and our possibilities. Our self-development sprung from self-reliance.
A copious body of research now proves what we then knew, but didn’t understand: that social interaction in connection to nature is essential for our physical and mental health and our intellectual and social development. May we extend that legacy to both encourage and enable it with our children—and theirs.