Free Range

By Billy Smith
My older brother lost his mind in the sixth grade. Yep, it was the sixth grade. He rose from the grimy lunchroom table, picked up his hard, plastic lunch tray and shattered it over the bridge of Victor’s sharp nose. Victor was the tallest, meanest, nastiest, most viscous reprobate in Capital Elementary School. Even today, if I was to contemplate fisticuffs, I’d give my older brother a call to see if he’d be willing to lose his mind one more time in the event things didn’t go my way. This was the result of my parent’s decision to engage in free-range parenting, which appears now to be fashionable, even trendy. For me, it was just what my parents did.
Perhaps what my older brother did to Victor’s nose wasn’t what my parents had in mind. Nonetheless, it seemed like on that day, when green beans soared across the lunchroom floor and Victor’s face was soiled in mashed potatoes and a heap of surprise, my older brother became my hero. I reckon that’s the case with everyone fortunate enough to own an older sibling—there is that moment when heroism outstrips rivalry. In this case, it emerged across the bridge of Victor’s snout.
My brother was the same boy whose pants were packed with dirt when our Shetland pony dragged his 6-year-old body around the arena hanging from one stirrup. He’s the same one who caught that low-hanging elm tree branch just as another out-of-control Welsh pony decided to bolt down Highway 385 and in front of a barreling 18-wheeler—both brother, Welsh pony and angry truck driver survived, by the way. This was one of those times when my older brother and I seemed to penalize the world for letting us live in it. And long before someone coined the phrase “free-range parenting,” my parents practiced it with a vengeance.
“Get out of my house, and don’t come back until it’s dark,” my mother often screamed when we’d so sorely taxed her patience that she succumbed to the temptation to “free-range” us. More than a half century later, I can count no fewer than a dozen episodes—Welsh pony and the vile lunchroom scene not withstanding—that one or both of us should have died a quick and painful death. Yet we lived.
One time, we discovered that opposing grain trucks made perfect bunkers from which we could divide up armies and lob bottle rockets at one another from empty “Cocolla” bottles. I’m sure someone somewhere in the world lost an eye in similar battles. We temporarily lost hearing a few times, but no eyes were injured in the making of us.
Another time, we won the giant cigar as a county-fair prize. Yes, in the 1960s and ’70s they gave tobacco to children at carnivals. Only this was not an ordinary Arturo Fuente—this cigar was about the size of a kitchen paper towel cardboard roll. It’s also quite possible that this stogie was packed with substances other than tobacco. But how would we know? A giant cigar in the hands of two free-range youth meant it had to be smoked. There was never any question. It took us a good half-hour to get it lit and a full minute to smoke enough of the cigar for the residual effects to kick in. At one point, death would have been a welcomed guest to replace the nausea and unspeakable gastrointestinal response that followed the ingesting of said cigar. In a weird way, those carnies saved me from a life of tobacco addiction. At times in the raising of my own two children, I pondered the notion of offering them each a giant-sized cigar as a deterrent to habitual smoking. I never did, but each time the notion crossed my mind, I smiled.
But back to Victor and the day my older brother lost his mind. We grew up in that hopeful era where the smartest of us thought if you just transplanted the worst kids in society into the country with the country kids, you’d solve all the bad kids’ problems, neat and simple. And if they were free-ranged a bit, they’d either die of their own demise or change the world. Either way, it would be a natural and organic process. No need for mind-altering drugs. The combination of free-ranging and country life would have a transformative effect, so the notion went.
So our little elementary school became the transplant location for some of the country’s roughest inner-city kids—kids who, through no fault of their own, found themselves living among parents, siblings and friends whose lives were a coarse-ground mess of drugs, turmoil and violence. The country kids were easy pickin’, and Victor could smell the fear rising up from the youngsters whose job it was to instill some civility in him. Over the course of the next couple of years, it was clear that Victor’s civility quotient was askew. He spent his days in Capital Elementary spewing fear and venom. After all these years, I’m sure my recollection of Victor is muddled in the memories. He seemed an easy six-feet tall with biceps rivaling a Marine. We all gave Victor a wide berth in the hallway and hoped against hope that we wouldn’t make eye-contact. Eye contact meant at least a stern thump on the head. At worst, it was a piercing left hook across the face.
Trips to the principal’s office for a swift set of licks from Mr. Foster’s hand-made paddle only stirred Victor’s malcontent. Woe was it to the boy who snitched on Victor, so no one snitched. Somewhere in all of that elementary school fear and loathing, my brother had had enough. This was before anti-bullying campaigns, before celebrities found a vehicle to public-relations goodness by assuming the role of anti-bully czar. This was when moms, and particularly dads, advised their sons to take care of their problems on their own rather than rely on a school program or sympathetic teacher. My dad was the rule. The notion of complaining to dad about Victor or any of his ilk never really crossed our collective mind. We were on our own, which from this end made for an adventure but from that end seemed like we were in the midst of the apocalypse.
What really happened in all that chaos, food fights and occasional lapses in sanity is that we survived, flourished, learned to solve our own problems and didn’t worry too much about risk. Perhaps, most importantly, we learned to cultivate adventure in life by taking some risks. We cut a big piece out of that pie called life and ate the whole thing, going back for seconds. And I’m grateful that we occasionally lost our minds along the way.