• Frédéric de Villamil/FlickR
  • A close call waiting to happen?

If you’re like me you sometimes think about the close calls you barely survived. These are the ones we never know about, when the coin was sailing through the air but no one told us fate had flipped it. Yet if we’d gone home one way instead of the other we’d have been flattened by a semi at an intersection; if the fiend trailing us down that darkened street while fingering the whetted blade in his jacket pocket hadn’t been distracted by a distant siren, or something, he’d have quickened his pace and sliced us up. The iced-over pond we took a shortcut across as kids could have cracked wide open as easily as not, but it didn’t. We don’t remember these moments because nothing happened, but something so easily could have!

We don’t just believe this—we need to. Even though we don’t mind getting to an advanced age safe and sound it’s nice to think we walked the edge once in a while. We’re survivors, are we not? We’re not wusses who never came within a country mile of taking a genuine risk in life. Surely, at some point it could have gone either way. The observation that if at some point in all our lives it could have gone either way then for half of us it would have gone the wrong way and the average life expectancy wouldn’t be 78, which it is, simply demonstrates yet again the inadequacy of common sense. We all know we’ve lived life of daring and danger, even though the survival of almost everybody into ripe old age seems to argue we haven’t.

Anyway, these dangers we insist that we eluded by a hair are precisely what we want to spare our kids. So I’m a little suspicious of the new fashion that calls itself “free-range parenting.” Why flirt with disaster when confronted with that harrowing peril known as growing up? I speak from experience. My parents were free-range parents before the expression was in fashion; they belonged to that obsolete school of parenting whose motto was “Get them all out the door and pour yourself a drink” (which in my mother’s case was tea).

When I was of an age that requires relentless vigil, I did all sorts of stuff. And, mind you, this was a tough mining town I lived in, buried in the Canadian Shield and crammed to the teeth in that postwar era with ill-shaven men the town’s gentler folk called “DP’s.” They worked underground, gathered in bars, and you never knew what they were thinking because they didn’t think it in English.

And yet I had the run of Sudbury.

I remember one night I can’t believe I survived. My brothers and I came out of Cub Scouts in the basement of the Presbyterian Church and spotted a fellow across the street who wasn’t holding to a steady course. He was drunk, which made him an enemy of civic dignity. Dressed in our Cubs uniforms, we felt an obligation to honor what the uniform stood for, and so we decided not to walk home but instead keep an eye on him. We trailed him up one street and down another, oblivious to the possibility that he would suddenly turn on his heel and say, with all the menace of Raymond Burr in the last reel of Rear Window, “What do you want?” Lucky for us that didn’t happen. He wandered into the bus station, plopped himself on a bench, and fell asleep. We walked across the street to the police station and let the desk sergeant know about someone they needed to keep an eye on. A cop drove us home.

You’d think our parents, who vaguely wondered where we were, would have learned their lesson. But the unexacting oversight continued. There was the time word went around the schoolyard that aliens might have been spotted in a desolate area of rock outcroppings a mile or so up the road. Off we went that weekend to investigate. Imagine for a second that my brothers and I had run into the aliens. We were as scrappy as the next kid—unless the next kid’s dad hailed from Eastern Europe and worked in the mine, in which case the next kid was twice our size and at recess his softball team beat ours every day by an average score of 15-0. But we’d have been no match for aliens. We collected what evidence there was—a couple of bottle caps—of their brush with Earth and headed west toward another fascinating location, Sudbury’s ski jump.

Years later, after my wife and I had moved to Paulina Street, a lawyer advised us that if neighbor kids kept sneaking into our yard to play on our trampoline someone would hurt himself, and we’d be legally liable as keepers of an attractive nuisance. Can you imagine any attractive nuisance more attractive than a ski jump? Except in winter, it simply sat there, unattended, on the side of a hill. A description of the catastrophe writes itself: Child climbs onto ski jump, scampers to top, poses dramatically and falls off. Why parents didn’t try to head this off by petitioning to have the jump dismantled, or at the very least surrounded by an electrified fence, I’ll never know. We can’t imagine the worst that can happen until it happens, I suppose, and in this case the worst hadn’t. (Years later, returning to Sudbury as an adult, I recognized another possibility: the ski jump wasn’t as lofty as I’d remembered it, and it might have been that kids fell off a lot but weren’t hurt.)
I could go on. When the wind blew from the smelters and the sky turned puce Sudbury was a rank, menacing place. The Canadian Pacific’s national line tore through town, and when kids put pennies on the track for freights to flatten our life was in our hands. The mystery of the body found lying along the path we took to school was never solved, the assumption that a drunk from the Lido Hotel down by the station had wandered up the hill, passed out, and frozen to death being unworthy of such a sensational development. While selling peanuts at a hockey game at the Arena I poached on another kid’s section and got punched, and that would never have happened if we’d both been playing organized soccer instead, with our mothers running up and down the sideline.

No, survival wasn’t guaranteed in Sudbury. Miraculously, I and my brothers and sisters and everyone I knew survived childhood, but who can blame authorities in this more enlightened time for refusing to put their faith in miracles. As you undoubtedly have heard, Alexander and Danielle Meitiv of Silver Spring, Maryland, both self-described free-rangers, are dealing with county authorities after letting their children walk home alone from a park a mile way. Police spotted them and stepped in. Parents who support the Meitivs and say they thank God they were raised the same way are putting an awful lot of stock in mere logic, the logic that thinks it important that although children do go missing (800,000 reported missing in 1999), 97 percent show up, and almost none (about 115 in 1999, or .014 percent) were abducted by strangers. Danger is real when we’re scared out of our minds, isn’t it? What’s more real than our terror?