My childhood neighborhood was full of wonderful places and things that were attractive and fascinating to a kid - only a block from the tracks and the sand piles. I don't know why they were so inviting, but all the kids had to go there.
Once in a while, we would get together to walk the tracks after school. One foot on the rail, one foot on the tie, right foot rail, left foot tie, right, left, up, down... We never went too far, the train may be coming soon.
We would go with our pockets full of pennies. We put them on the rail and waited for the whistle of the 4:00 Milwaukee Northwestern to come in from the east.
"You kids, stay away from those tracks!" Mom would always say. "What if you got your foot stuck? What if no one knew you went there? What if you got hit? What if...?" Well, none of those things ever happened. I tried to figure out how anyone could get their foot stuck anyway. I couldn't.
At 4:00 the train would come by and smash our pennies. We would run to look through the tall grass near the tracks to find our treasures of flattened copper. You could hardly see Lincoln's face anymore. They looked more like carnival trinkets than pennies now. Like the trinkets, the pennies weren't worth anything either. They were just NEAT!
There were so many neat things to do there. The Street Department was close by, and the sand piles... Actually, there was a pile of gravel, a pile of sand, a pile of pink rocks, and, in the fall, even a pile of salt rock.
Standing 10 - 15 feet high, the sand piles were great for playing King-of-the-Hill. I don't recall ever being King, but I didn't mind. I always got to the top, but didn't try to claim the hill. It was more fun getting pushed off - to tumble down the soft sides of the sand, dust flying.
"Don't play on those sand piles!" Mom would always say. "The guys at the Street Department wouldn't want you kids messing them up. What if there was a slide and one of you got buried. What if they couldn't find you in there? What if...? No one ever got yelled at by the guys at the Street Department. I tried to figure out how there could be a landslide. I couldn't.
The salt rock pile was my favorite. I would fill my pockets with the rocks. I'd stick a few in my mouth and suck on them. I love the taste of salt and these were the best!
"Don't stick those dirty things in your mouth!" Mom would always say. "You don't know where they've been. What if you got sick? What if..." I thought about what she said about the rocks. I washed them off first.
When I was young, I said, I would never say "Don't... or What if...?" when my kids wanted to explore the world around them. I never saw the dangers that my Mom always did.
Years later, I heard those same words coming from another mother's mouth to a child who was venturing out to test the world. This time, however, the words rang back to my ears like an echo from my childhood. I was the one saying "Don't... and What if...?" to a child who was searching for her own tracks and sand piles.
That child is now a parent herself, I wonder how long it will take before she hears those echoes too.