The Detroit Zoo and an 8 year old boy

I grew up in suburban America in the 1960’s. It seems like I was raised in a distant country. The freedom I was allowed as a young child amazes me. My own children are all grown now, but without a doubt, my kids did not enjoy the independence that I had. (On the other hand, two of my kids have traveled to Europe. They have ventured much farther than me.)

When I was in college some of my favorite adventures happened on a 10 speed bicycle. I was going to write about one of those events when I remembered the first adventure I had on a bicycle. It was in 1965. I was 8 years old.

One beautiful summer day I had nothing to do. Usually summertime meant going to the ball diamond at Berkley Elementary School. For some reason that day there was no baseball going on. I rode my bike up to the school excited at the thought of a day playing baseball. Then, dejected, I looked out on the empty ball diamond. While I was sitting on my bike, sadly contemplating a day without baseball,  I had a great idea for an adventure. I could go to the Detroit Zoo.  

I left the ball field and went home to drop off my baseball glove and bat. I vaguely recall packing a lunch. Then, I hopped on my bike and took off. My bike was a simple two-wheeler, without gears to change. It stopped by pedaling backwards.  (I do not think they make bikes like that anymore.)

I am not sure if my mom was home or not that day, but either way I did not ask for permission. I just went. I had, apparently, already learned at the ripe old age of 8, that if you want to do something, it is better to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission. (A habit I carry to this day.)

The Detroit Zoo was about 4 miles away. Not a terribly long bicycle ride. There were a few busy streets I had to cross, but mostly it was neighborhood sidewalks all the way. The journey took maybe half an hour, forty-five minutes tops. In those days there was no entry fee for the Zoo. I could just ride in the front gate, park my bike in the bike rack, and have fun. I spent most of that day at the Zoo. (I may have jumped in the water fountain and maybe picked up some change to buy an ice cream or a soda. Probably enjoying my freedom a little more than I should have.)

When I got home at the end of the day I remember my mom asking me how my day went. I told her that I had fun at the zoo. Surprised, she asked who took me to the zoo. I told her that nobody took me, I took myself. I still remember the look of wonder (shock?) on her face and then her laugh. She thought about it for a few seconds and said, “Well, I guess it was OK that you went to the zoo. Please, next time tell me when you are going so I will know where you are.” That was it. “I guess you can go to the zoo, just tell me when you are going so I will know where you are.”

As a parent of 3 children I can tell you this with absolute certainty. There is no way when my kids were 8 that they would go on a 4 mile bike trip without supervision. Nope. Never. Not going to happen. 1965 seems like such a long time ago. A different culture. A different world.

I still remember the joy of that day. An 8 year old riding his bicycle to who knows what may lie ahead. It was marvelous, experiencing the freedom of the open road at such a young age. I did not know it then, but I was laying the foundation for many future bicycle adventures. It’s funny what can happen when no one shows up at the baseball field.