Memories from a free-range childhood

In the summer, there’s always something to do.
In the summer, there’s always something to do.

As we pulled into my driveway in south Charlotte last Saturday, my son uttered three absurd words: “Dad, I’m bored.” It’s absurd because his weekends are chock-full of activities. From a parental involvement standpoint, his slowest surpasses my childhood’s busiest.

“Yeah,” his older brother echoed, “there’s nothing to do.” Just then I noticed a spool of fishing line on the garage wall, triggering a memory from the summer of 1986:

“You sure it’ll work?” I ask my brother Jack. A 15-year-old asking a 13-year-old, the blind leading the blind. “Absolutely. It’ll be legendary.” He emphasizes this last word.

Anyone can while away lazy summer evenings playing ding-dong-ditch. Our plan is to tie fishing line to front door-knockers. This way we can knock not just once, but many times. “You string up the house,” Jack continues, “and I’ll be the cut-man.” I don’t think to ask what a cut-man does.


We come to the first suitable house: gargoyle-knocker, good tree cover across the street. The Renfros. I tie the line to the gargoyle’s nose-ring and we backtrack to safety. Jack pulls out an x-acto knife. “Hit it,” he whispers. I give the line three tugs. We wait.

Suddenly Mr. Renfro appears in the doorway, eclipsing hallway light.

Renfro looks about but never sees the fishing line I’ve carefully let out. He slams the door. I laugh, but Jack’s all business. “Hit it again,” he whispers. “Right now.”

The great ones take chances, I remind myself, and give the line two tugs. Renfro returns, swift with the spring in his step of a suburban dad looking to mete out frontier justice. He’s utterly perplexed to find nobody there.

Renfro knows the troublemakers couldn’t have gotten far. Figuring they’re hiding in his bushes, he begins the hostage negotiation.

“I know you can hear me,” he says, crouched with his back turned to us. Renfro softens. “If you turn yourself in, I’ll go easy on you. I promise.” The “I promise” is a nice touch – not even Renfro believes himself.

He searches for his prey, whom he won’t find while we remain hidden behind him. That’s when we flew too close to the sun.

“Do it again, while he’s out there,” Jack commands. I look into his eyes and understand – it’s a time for heroes. I give the line two tugs. Renfro turns his head around more completely than I thought humanly possible.

In three bounds he’s back at the door, faster than I could let out the fishing line, which he now holds. The hunters have become the hunted.

Renfro pulls violently on the line, following it hand-over-hand. As excess wire cuts into my forearm, I no longer wonder what a cut-man does. Renfro closes in like an angry silverback.

“Cut the line!” I beg. My arm’s a bloody mess, and in moments Renfro will be upon us. By yelling, I reveal our position, which quickens his pace. Jack drops the knife. Finding it, he frantically cuts me loose.

Now it’s a footrace. We run for the woods. The branches snap violently as we run headlong through the pines. Adrenaline has left us oblivious to pain.

Once safe, we slow down. My arm burns, but wounds heal and glory is forever. “Legendary?” Jack asks breathlessly, head between his knees. “Legendary,” I confirm.

Maybe that’s why fishing line was on the garage wall, as a reminder. Sure, it was a more innocent time, and nowadays I certainly don’t want my boys terrorizing our neighbors like that, but still.

I look at my two young sons. “There’s always something to do. As long as you have each other, there’s always something to do.”

Kerrigan is an attorney in Charlotte. Email: