Back in my day

Hindsight and adulthood have altered my perspective, but when I reflect on my childhood, my daily activities offer clues about what life was like. Here are a few snapshots of growing up in suburban Dallas-Fort Worth in the 1970s and ‘80s:

Lance about age 7 posing on shag carpet with an indistinct photo backdrop with a bowl hair cut and wearing a white turtleneck with a red and gray striped jacket, tan pants and shiny brown dress shoes.
Rocking that ’70s bowl cut, turtleneck and jacket, I have always been a fashionable guy.

Screens were low-fidelity, bulky, and not at all portable. Television was our primary screen, and we watched it when the shows we liked and were allowed to watch were on. We scheduled our lives around “The Dukes of Hazzard,” “The Incredible Hulk,” and “The A-Team.” As a small child, I spent mornings with “Sesame Street,” “The Electric Company,” and “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.” Limited to about two to three hours a day, my viewing was dictated by my parents’ standards of decency and the dearth of age-appropriate content.

We had only four or five channels, which we tuned in to with an antenna. Our first television required a person to get up, walk over to the set and physically turn a knob to change the channel. I grew up hearing my parents watch the evening news, and sometimes I was awake to hear them watching Johnny Carson at bedtime. I don’t know what else they may have watched after we went to bed, but I remember on the weekends my dad watched nature documentaries and fishing shows like “Bill Dance Outdoors” and “Jimmy Houston Outdoors.” Concerns about screen time back then were as much about how close to the TV I sat as the hours I spent consuming programming.

I clearly recall TV sets evolving with such innovations as remote control and cable, expanding our channel selections. But what extended my screen time beyond a few hours a day was the advent of video games. When my brother and I received an Atari video game system for Christmas in the late 1970s, it took over the main television in our living room. My dad came up with a creative solution. To ease the competition for our family’s main screen, he set us up in my grandmother’s old florist delivery van in the garage. My dad put our old color TV and two chairs in the cargo area of the van. When it got too cold, he added an electric space heater. We imagined it was the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon. It sparked our imaginations and kept us occupied for hours, allowing him to watch the TV in the den in peace.

At first we only had two Atari games, Space Invaders and Combat. Undeterred, we logged hours of screen time. With each birthday and Christmas we added to our game cartridge collection with such classics as Breakout, Missile Command, Asteroids, Adventure and Pitfall. The games advanced marginally with slightly fancier 8-bit graphics and more complicated storylines. Eventually, there were cinematic tie-ins with games like Indiana Jones and E.T. We had about 50 cartridges by the time we graduated to computer games when I was in high school.

The only portable games we had were the handheld electronic sports games: Football, Football II, Basketball, Soccer and Baseball. These were powered by 9-volt batteries and featured red LED lights representing the players. The player with the ball glowed just a bit brighter, and we had to hand the device back and forth depending on which player was on offense. The noisy games were nerve-wracking with their bleeps and bloops, so we kept them on mute for long car rides.

Mattel Classic Football 2 handheld electronic game
Bought this re-issue a few years back. The blinking LED “players” still confound my boys allowing me to show off my mad skills.

Now, the phone I carry everywhere has more computing power than those early video game systems and home computers. The amount of time I could spend gaming is limited only to the number of hours in a day. Today’s plethora of distractions require stronger limits and greater discipline, and the portability of such systems as the Nintendo Switch allows my children to take the game they were playing on a larger screen with them anywhere. Gone are the 8-bit animations, except in those games trying to evoke nostalgia with purposefully rudimentary graphics. The games have complex storylines, musical scores, and stunningly artistic imagery. When you factor in video streaming apps on iPhones and iPads for such services as Netflix, Hulu, Disney Plus, and YouTube, my boys can access millions of hours of entertainment from anywhere, and it’s a special family event when we sit down together to watch something on our television, which leads to another clue…

Movies that captured our imagination didn’t come out every year. I was 7 years-old when the original “Star Wars” appeared in theaters where I grew up in the mid-cities between Dallas and Fort Worth. Though I may not have immediately grasped the plot, the inventive visuals were unlike anything I had ever seen. Lasers and spaceships and aliens all came to life in a way that my dreams took on a cinematic quality. What I saw on the big screen outstripped what I could imagine. In the years before VHS, though, we had very limited access to “Star Wars.” I remember listening to a radio play on my parents’ bedroom clock radio. It featured scenes cut from the original motion picture giving me precious nuggets of new information about the story of Luke Skywalker. I had “Star Wars” comic books as a way to delve into the world I had seen only once in a theater. The line of action figures, playsets, and spaceships allowed me and my brother, Lee, to tell our own “Star Wars” stories and stage our own battles even as we impatiently waited for the next installment in the series to arrive in theaters.

I was 10 and Lee was 6 when Mom took us to see “The Empire Strikes Back.” Our minds were blown during the climactic duel (spoiler alert) when Darth Vader revealed he was Luke Skywalker’s father. We were crushed when the movie ended with the swashbuckling Han Solo encased in carbonite being transported by the bounty hunter Boba Fett to the gangster Jabba the Hutt’s palace. No movie I had ever seen with such beloved characters had ever ended on such a down note. There was no immediate antidote to the depression. We had to wait another three years before “Return of the Jedi” lifted our spirits and filled us with the euphoria of victory over the galactic empire and the dark side.

In those intervening years, Lee and I received record albums of the movies’ soundtracks complete with dialog and the musical score. We listened to them so often we had large swaths of the films’ dialogue committed to memory. In a few years, we had VHS to allow us many, many rewatches of the original “Star Wars” trilogy. It was more than 20 years before another original “Star Wars” movie would come to theaters, and I had moved on from childhood and the “Star Wars” universe. With the release of “The Phantom Menace,” my childhood sense of awe and adventure came rushing back, even if the plot and acting were not up to the same level of excellence I had remembered from the original trilogy.

Now, I can literally watch “Star Wars” on television any time I want. There are more movies and weekly serial television-style stories that come through streaming services. If I wanted to inhabit the “Star Wars” universe, I can immerse myself any time I want. Gone are the days of waiting three years to discover the truth of Luke’s heritage and if Han will escape Jabba’s clutches.

For fans of “Star Wars” style action and adventure, there are also many more stories to consume. The Marvel Cinematic Universe cranks out two to three movies a year. It makes going to the movies a spectacle reminiscent of those childhood experiences with “Star Wars.” DC competes with a cinematic universe of its own, stuffing the comic book superhero genre with more movies than we can take in. My boys have far greater access to visual entertainment that appeals to them than I ever could have imagined in my youth. They also have far fewer reasons to go outside.

I played outdoors more often and played more sports as a child. Even though Texas summers could be unremittingly brutal, I spent most of my days outside. Armed with a toy gun arsenal no longer in vogue culturally, my brother and I matched up with neighbors and friends to play such traditional scenarios as army, cowboys and cops and robbers. When we got noisy “Star Wars” blasters for Christmas, we elevated our outdoor play to include “Star Wars” battles.

Bicycles were not only our primary mode of transportation, they were the source of hours of occupation. We were allowed to ride the neighborhood, which included a long, curving hill. We discovered the best way to get repeated thrill rides without having to pedal or push your bike back up the hill was to let the momentum carry you down the hill, around the curve, and down the street to the intersection. From there, you could turn right, go up a block, take another right, pedal down that street and you were back at the top of the hill. Occasionally we would be granted permission to ride our bikes to the nearby elementary school, which had a number of ramps and amphitheaters with thin steps separating the grade pods. The futuristic design and footprint of the campus enhanced a game of bicycle chase giving us the feeling we were on speeders tearing through Mos Eisley or some other “Star Wars” city.

I was very mindful of the seasons: football, baseball and basketball. Playing football one-on-one with my younger brother created some challenges. It forced us to follow special rules for rushing the passer and completing forward passes to one’s self. Football was always more fun when we recruited neighborhood friends to play, but our front yard field was often too confining to accommodate more than two-on-two. Larger games moved us out into the street where the call of “car!” caused frequent timeouts. Our world revolved around the Dallas Cowboys, so when we weren’t playing a game, we were recreating dramatic touchdown passes from Roger Staubach to Drew Pearson.

Wiffle ball was ideally suited for our situation. This baseball variation had a plastic bat and ball, so no windows would be broken. We could play one-on-one using basic baseball rules. Our yard served as the perfect venue with the other side of the driveway serving as the homerun barrier. My brother and I took turns deciding which major league team we would be for that contest, and we tried to make each game last five innings, although most ended after three. One summer we even drew up a schedule and would play a different make believe matchup each day. We were fans of the Texas Rangers, so we knew more about American League teams. The Yankees were the most hated opponent, and my brother and I didn’t like having to be their stand-ins.

I don’t remember what year we got a basketball goal, but I do remember we were not very good. We broke out the windows in the garage doors, forcing my dad to install plastic. Like wiffle ball, basketball was particularly well suited for my brother and I to play by ourselves, and we could shoot baskets alone. Our favorite game was “H-O-R-S-E” or the shorter version, “P-I-G” in which we took shots from various positions around the court. When your opponent missed a shot you had made, he accumulated the letters of the games’ namesake words. We also marked the driveway with chalk to have a course of what we called “Around the World.” The winner was the first person to make a shot at all the pre-marked spots.

The only similarity to my childhood outdoor play experiences that my boys have engaged in during their childhood is riding their bikes. When allowed, they take them all over the neighborhood. Admittedly, we were more restrictive with their territory until they were older. Our first house in Lilburn had a large, shady backyard. They played outdoors in a sandbox and on a tree swing and swing set. There was a basketball goal, but our boys never got into sports nearly as much as I did growing up. The creative outdoor play seemed to vanish when we moved into our current house with a terraced yard on a hill.

Mealtimes were more about quantity than quality. My mom prepared all of our meals, except for the occasions when my dad grilled. She took time off to stay home with each of her boys after we were born, but I also remember her spending a fair amount of our lives working. When we lived in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, that meant stressful days, long commutes and limited time to cook supper. Unlike kids these days, we did not have options at supper time. We ate what was set before us, and we typically had no say in what would be on the menu. I remember such delicacies as Hamburger Helper, meatloaf and fried fish that my dad would catch on his frequent fishing trips around the area. Side dishes came from a can or from a box, and as we got older my mom used instant potatoes to fill us up. We never ate school lunches, instead taking a lunch box or brown bag with a sandwich and chips. If there was an emphasis on eating healthy, I was unaware of it. The only rules in our house were “clean your plate” and “no dessert if you didn’t eat your vegetables.”

Church was the focus of our activity. If the doors of the church were open, we were there. Even before my dad left his job as an airline mechanic at American Airlines to go back to Bible college to prepare for the ministry, we were always at church. And we weren’t the only ones. Society was more focused on faith, and schedules were based on the assumption that families would be tied up with church activities on Sunday and potentially Wednesday night.

My family is still very much focused on church, and we’re still there every Sunday and most Wednesday nights. But society has moved beyond accounting for church activities when scheduling youth sports, Scout trips, and even school activities conflict with worship services. As a child, it never occurred to me that there would be anything else to do at those times. My boys have grown up keenly aware of what other kids do instead of going to church.

It’s a cliche to say “life was simpler back then.” It’s also probably not completely true. My awareness of what was going on in the world was limited by my childlike understanding of events like the Vietnam War, Watergate, the oil crisis, the Iranian hostage situation, and many other world events of that era.

From my vantage point, life was good. When we moved to Central Florida the summer I turned 12, my life changed dramatically. Adolescence coincided with a new landscape, and my innocence slowly faded as I became a preacher’s kid, enduring the scrutiny of a congregation and having to live up to a higher standard.

I remain grateful for my childhood and don’t for a second believe I suffered any lingering trauma. I enjoyed being a kid and count myself lucky to have grown up the way I did.

My spelunking adventure

In February 2008, not long after my oldest son, Barron, turned 7, the two of us went with our Cub Scout pack to Cumberland Caverns in McMinnville, Tennessee.

The excursion included a walking tour, an adventure tour, spending the night in the cave, and eating breakfast underground the next morning. It was Barron’s first overnight trip with scouts, and my first spelunking experience.

Boy with a headlamp helmet on carrying a flashlight in a cave
Barron, age 7, navigated the cracks and crevices way better than his old man.

We made the Saturday drive up to McMinnville, and it was dark when we arrived. The weather was cold and nasty, with scattered accumulations of snow. We parked in a large, roped-off field, gathered our gear and hiked the few hundred yards to the rendezvous point in front of the cave. The cave entrance was large and inviting, and as a host of Cub Scouts and their families gathered, we had nothing at all to be afraid of. The temperature inside the cave was a consistently cool 56 degrees year-round, so even with freezing conditions above ground, a sweatshirt and light jacket was enough to keep me comfortable. Barron felt fine in long sleeves and a jacket.

There were about 50 of us from Pack 502 who made the trip, and we had a designated sleeping area inside the cave for our group. The caverns’ staff directed us to our place, an open stretch of cave with a 10-foot ceiling at its apex that gradually sloped to the floor on both sides. We found a spot that didn’t feel too confined, and Barron helped me lay out our tarp, foam pads and sleeping bags. In just a few minutes, we were ready for the tour to begin.

A guide led our group on the introductory walking tour of the spacious rooms not far from the entrance. Electric lights illuminated the paths and the rooms, and a glass chandelier and disco ball adorned the ballroom-like “Ten Acre Room,” which our guide explained was rented out for special occasions such as weddings and concerts. It was easy walking with no climbing or crawling. There was nothing to be afraid of.

They extinguished the lights for a full minute to demonstrate the sensation of total darkness. In the dark, the guide told us the story of surveyor Aaron Higgenbotham who discovered the cave in 1810. He was alone, and his torch went out while he was perched on a high ledge. He was trapped in the cave for three days before a rescue party found him. According to local legend, his hair had turned white, and he acted strange for the rest of his life. The story gave me my first shudder, and when the lights came back on, I breathed a sigh of relief and checked my flashlight batteries.

We learned about stalactites and stalagmites, why we shouldn’t touch the mineral deposits and rock formations, and the rule of three: “Always tell three friends where you are going, carry three sources of light, and always have three points of contact when climbing.” The tour demystified the cave, and it felt less intimidating the longer we spent in the more commercial spaces of the tour. Despite the darkness demonstration, I was lulled into thinking caving was no big deal. After a couple of hours, we were ready for the “adventure tour.”

It was about 10 p.m. when they called the more intrepid of our group together, and those not wanting to explore the more challenging areas of the cave were free to relax or go to bed early. The rest of us were lined up to crawl through a wooden box that was 18 inches tall and 24 inches wide to prove we could fit through some of the tighter squeezes in the tunnels. I easily squirmed through the box, a little full of myself for being physically fit, unlike some of the parents who were not able to go on the tour because they couldn’t fit through the box. One of the larger scout dads asked me to take his son in our group because he couldn’t fit, and I happily obliged.

The tour started easily enough with a few climbs, crawls and tight spaces. We were near the back of the group, but we all had our flashlights and could hear our female guide’s reassuring voice. About a half hour into the tour, however, the adventure really began. A fissure with an indistinguishably long drop required us to climb a series of metal ladders embedded in the rock. Barron and his friend with the too-big-for-the-box dad easily scampered up the rungs and waited for me on the other side. I made it without a problem but the final people in our party, a family of three completely decked out in obviously new and expensive REI spelunking gear, struggled to get across. Ever the good scout, I did my “good turn” by helping them across. When we were safely on the other side, we were confronted with two passageways and no sign or sound of the group or our guide. I thought I heard voices to the left, so I led our little band that direction and crawled on.

In just a few minutes, the need for an 18-by-24 test box became evident. Not wearing a helmet, I had to carefully maneuver so as not hit my head, trying to aim my flashlight in front of me while I pulled myself along with my forearms and knees. I was initially encouraged by our progress and was convinced that this was just a short tunnel. Doubt creeped into my mind the longer I crawled without seeing or hearing anyone in front of me. I tried to keep this disconcerting fact from the two seven-year-olds in my care and the REI family.

“It’s just a little farther,” I called back to them trying to reassure myself just as much as my followers.

But the cramped crawl space continued.  After what seemed like an eternity but what was only about 20 minutes, the son of the big dad started repeating, “We’re lost… we’re going to die.”

I held panic at bay and kept us crawling forward. It was clear my expectation of encountering one or two tight spots the size of the box was a miscalculation. We had been crawling on our bellies for a half hour, and it had been even longer since I had seen someone in front of me. I regretted taking the left-hand path back at the fork, and the refrain of “We’re lost… we’re going to die” eroded my thin veneer of calm.

“Listen, we are not going to die,” I finally said emphatically.

We pushed on into the darkness, and my limited, panic-influenced vision created the sensation that the crawlspace was narrowing the further we went. I could not imagine hitting a dead end and having to reverse course.

Just when I was convinced I had led us the wrong way, I heard voices in front of me.

“They’re up ahead, guys. We’re almost through,” I said to our group.

Less than a minute later, we emerged into a large room and were greeted by our guide.

“Glad you made it. I was about to head back in there to find you.”

The rest of the adventure tour was a piece of cake. The biggest challenge was keeping your shoes on as the floor of the cave was covered in a sticky, slippery mud. Navigating the tunnels was much easier, and the trail was often open vertically for 10 to 20 feet, allowing me to stand upright. We explored for about an hour before we came to another small opening which immediately triggered my fear. I just knew we were about to be forced onto our bellies again for another prolonged period of snaking along the ground in the dark.

I got down on my knees again and proceeded through the hole. In just a few feet, I came out with the noise of the campers standing directly in front of our tarp and sleeping bags. Exhausted but relieved, I turned to the boys, who both looked supremely pleased with themselves for not getting lost and dying.

We brushed our teeth and readied for bed. Little did I know that the real adventure would be trying to sleep in a cave full of snoring scout dads. From that trip forward, I always remembered to pack ear plugs on camp outs.

I wasn’t the least bit claustrophobic before heading underground, but after spending a night spelunking, I developed a healthy suspicion of enclosed spaces.