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Letter From America: Whatever Will They Think Of Next?

...We must never underestimate the dynamism of a child’s curiosity. Multiply one child’s robust compulsion to explore a place. Though the Devil’s name is on the doorplate, through the flames and thunders will the inquisitive child march, not even waiting for the brass band to strike up....

In this joyful column Ronnie Bray reminds is of the exciting imaginative "worlds'' created by children at play.

To read more of Ronnie's gloriously satisfying columns please click on http://www.openwriting.com/archives/letter_from_america/

When my gaze first fell upon it, it reminded me how amused I was in the olden days when I read about a family whose four young children decided to go on one of their customary safaris. No forward planning was necessary, they just agreed on the idea and set out with not so much as a broken biscuit, a rigid crust of bread, or bottle of watered down milk to sustain the quatrain during their explorations ‘out there!’

With a shout of, "Last one to Africa smells!" they charged through the back door four abreast and, laughing at the hilarity of their inanities, were gone. The house was suddenly quiet – not empty, but quiet.

Even as their home fell silent, the world beyond was awakened by the commotion that accompanies companies determined on wild adventure and unrestrained fun, such as is common in Pirates, Puppies, and Preternatural Progeny, as were the four youngsters that, equipped with happy dispositions, and each having enough energy to power freight trains, for more than an hour they enjoyed exotic adventures, the fount of which was in their extravagant imaginations.

The places named for exotic locations by the Safarians, when viewed through grown up eyes, were regarded as being on the other side of commonplace, and were avoided by all that had reached the auguste years when long trousers, combing hair, frequent checking of the profile in mother’s dressing table’s three-way mirror, and, of course, worrying about zits.

Failure of the maturing and the mature to see the ‘vision splendid’ is the dismal lot of sad souls, whose abilities to forge fascinating spheres out of the tedious using only the faculty of phantasy, expired as soon as they dropped the playthings of their lives, having chosen the sombrous path of prosaicality too often plodded by beings that neglect to observe the "First Law of a Happy Life," that rules we must forever remain children at heart, ceasing not to wonder, to applaud, to express surprise, gratitude, and thanksgiving for the miracles in life that elevate what the gloomladen think of as their ill-starred existence, but that lifts and transforms the banal in such wonderful ways as to promise enduring happiness to those willing to unfurl their inner eyes, to see inner worlds, even in such a place as a hot and reeking compost heap.

Such a place could be the business end of the Aegean Stables one day, and the next it could be the dungeon underneath the Tower of London, where the stench of the dead and the near dead gave off a sweet, foetid, and repulsive smell. The ‘let’s pretend’ inside every child is the Magic Carpet of fable that transport all that are able to loose their grasp on ‘real’ life, and its attendant woes. As the poet wrote, "My mind to me a kingdom is … "

Why should such imaginings be discouraged by dullards, whose dreams never creep above lavish toys for Christmas, and to whom distant places, far planets, and everything their mercurial minds can summon, and that free spirits will head out to secure.

Visitors to the home, were often surprised by the roars of lions on the Serengeti, the chucking of chimps and monkeys swinging through the tall canopy in search of Tarzan, the snorting of screaming wild bolas twirling Gauchos zipping through the tall grasses of Argentina’s pampas, or the sounding of true whales in the Antarctic seas, accompanied by whaler’s calls and the sound of a harpoon exploding into the great creature’s blubber.

The clanking of suits of armour in the lists at Camelot was difficult to reproduce, but the cries of the ladies cheering on their gallant knights were real enough. Oh, what tales they would have to tell their children and grandchildren in years that – like their fancied progeny – were some distance ahead of them!

When the sky turn leaden and threatening a downpour, young Lancelot, Guinevere, Merlin, and Queen Faye, having spent enough time away from their homelands, opted to descend into the bowels of the earth to emerge on the other side of the world in a place to which they attached no name except the intimation that it was, "Somewhere in the Antipodes."

With as much information as they could recall from films such as "The Great Escape," "The Wooden Horse," and "To Whom Does This Tunnel Belong?" they decided that the cellar would be a good place to start because it was out of the storm and fourteen feet lower than the rest of the house. This, they agreed, would save them a lot of hard work wielding picks, shovels, and other tunnelling equipment (such as the handle of a long defunct posser).

Gravely, silently, awed at the adventures ahead of them, they single-filed down the worn stone steps and into the dark, dank, musty bowels of what was, surprisingly, Terra Incognito, the web-laden, cellar, a place they did not habitually frequent on account of it being kept locked since Uncle Joe had tumbled headfirst down them when in his cups. He never really recovered from his injuries, and a sadness attached itself to the name and the place, and it became a no-man’s land forever after. That is, until today.

We must never underestimate the dynamism of a child’s curiosity. Multiply one child’s robust compulsion to explore a place. Though the Devil’s name is on the doorplate, through the flames and thunders will the inquisitive child march, not even waiting for the brass band to strike up.

When that force is multiplied by four, the result is an unstoppable dynamism. They entered that place unseen and unheard by their protectors overhead in a reception room watching a wall that had been replaced by an enormous and reassuringly expensive plasma television screen, on which, at the moment we see them in our mind’s eye, some evil looking debauchee was treating poor little Tess of the D'Urbervilles to an incredibly ugly time.

Meanwhile, below Tom Hardy’s drama, heading swiftly through magma to the core, the children made a startling discovery. The ancient crate that contained the surprise fell apart when the eldest jumped up and sat down on it. The dry boards cracked and cricked and, as the dust settled, the discovery stood erect and regal as did the ‘vast and trunkless legs of stone’ of what remained untumbled from the crumbling giant statue of Ozymandias ‘King of Kings!’

For seconds, the four heirs presumptive stood stock still, staring in silence. Then, without speaking, the quartet sprung at it, lifting and shutting its lid, opening and closing two sets of double doors, twirling the green thing in the middle round and round, all the while wondering what it was. After a very short time their faculties of speech returned, and, in mounting excitement, they made the most of it.

The uncovering of the alien object, "Probably" one of them suggested, "evidence of our parents’ chequered past," delayed sine die their return from three miles down the deep shaft towards their re-inhabitation of the world upstairs.

Time passed, as time does, before their parents, as parents do, missed them by noting an unaccustomed silence, and went in search of them, but not before the drama was ended.

Deducing from the dead calm of the place that their young were not in residence, they went out into the spacious grounds to explore all their known haunts, including the African tree house, of which the cicatrised harpooner, Queequeeg, had permanent free use; the Rhinoceros Compound with a gorgeous Golden Rhino, the rarest of the specie; the shallow Krugerrand Gold Mine (in which the quest for unimagined riches was temporarily suspended due to the collapse of the embankment around the seam of pure 100 karat gold caused by their two digging dogs); the clandestine Non-Alcoholic Brewery whose area was strew with soft drink bottle caps, a subterfuge to bamboozle prying eyes of parents and Revenue Men; and the South Face of the Matterhorn behind the potting shed, were all as empty as beggars’ bellies.

Mother and Father communicated their non-plussedness by shrugging shoulders at each other, their palms supine in the universal idiom for "I haven’t a clue!" Nor did they.

"Why don’t we check the upper pasture? Better still, You check the pasture and I’ll look in the paddock and stables," said Mother.

Father nodded tight-lipped but agreeably. They went off in different directions. After several minutes they re-grouped on the gravel drive at the front of the house.

"No luck," said one, verging on dispirited.

"Me neither," said the other unenthusiastically.

Silently they mused as to the whereabouts of their inventive children. An idea came into Father’s mind, and spilled out through his mouth with a small gurgling sound.

"We haven’t looked around the top of the Eiffel Tower!"

"You mean Blackpool Tower," said mother. She was in a corrective mood.

"Blackpool Tower was last week. This week it is Eiffel’s eyesore."

Nodding, Mother took Father’s elbow, and so joined they went inside via a side door, hiding behind a screen of Mile-a-Minute Russian Ivy. Mother led the way, Father brought up the rear, as they climbed the narrow, creaking staircase that led to the servant’s quarters, last used in the days when servants were necessities in well-endowed houses.

The poky rooms with their sloping ceilings, postage stamp windows, and patches of mould were as empty as a boozer’s purse after the pubs close on Saturday nights. More shrugging, this time with wry grimaces that were close to being precise images of each other’s. However, Father’s moustache was an hindrance to perfect correspondence.

"Where now?" asked Mother.

"Back down, I suppose," replied her laconic mate. Downstairs they went without speaking.

When they reached the main hallway, Mother paused, putting her cupped hand to her ear.

"Listen, what’s that noise?"

"What noise," asked the man of the house.

"It sounds like music. Where can it be coming from?"

"Let’s find out," suggested the bemused paterfamilias.

The walked through the narrow passageway that led into the hallway, then stopped to listen. In silence, their hands cupped to their ears, achieving passing likeness to Television Licence Detector Vans, they listened.

Mother wandered round the hall, standing quietly at each door, listening hard. Father followed her example at the opposite side. They did this until Father thought he heard something in the corridor from the kitchen to the stock rooms. He gestured his wife to join him in listening.

Checking each door they finally settled on the cellar door. It was dim, distant, and unmistakable. It was music, muted, but manifest.

"What the … " began the Childfinder General.

"Let’s go and see," said his accomplice, patiently, as she moved him toward the massive door that like the Gates of Hades sealed the cellar from the land of the living, making descent into the Underworld impossible – or so they had believed.

From his pocket the Sire deftly removed his key chain, separated an iron key from its fellows, and stuck it in the lock to open it. He could not open it. He made several tries to disengage the bolt, but his key would not turn. Although not easily given to frustration, he prepared to make an exception on this occasion. Eventually, he tried to lock the door, and found that he could do so, after which he could unlock it. It had been unlocked all the time; although the edict from Olympus directed that it remain forever secured on pain of misfortune.

The door turned on its hinges as if it was used to doing so. As it did the volume of the music increased, and did so even more when the second door was opened.

Up from the cold darkness of the subterranean tomb of forgotten dreams, abandoned possessions, and unrealised hopes, came the sound of eight dancing feet, punctuated by young voices intoning "Yeah, yeah, yeahs," as if in the grips of severe gastric ailments, and the unmistakable sound of four Northern lads twanging away at stringed instruments, and nasally twanging out "She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah … "

Having descended the stairs, the pair turned to their left and beheld a sight that both relieved and amused them. The tribe was dancing around a dusty old gramophone from whose tinny bowels issued what had been their song when they first courted. Seeing their parents emerge from the gloom at the stairs foot, the children rushed to embrace them with joy evident on their faces and in their voices.

"Look what we found in an old box," said the first.

"It’s a magic music machine!" said the next.

"It is magic! It doesn’t have batteries and it isn’t plugged in, but it does all kinds of music. We’ve had an absolutely marvellous time!" beamed number three, jumping up and down to the beat of the Beatles, ignoring the hisses and crackles as Ringo fried rashers of talkative bacon at the same time as he put the beat into the Beatles.

The last of the brood, in breathless wonderment that came as close to bliss as is humanly possible, sighed through her smile, "Isn’t it wonderful what science can do? Whatever will they think of next!

That is the story that flashed into my mind as I drove by the children's playground near the mailboxes in our little corner of Mesa. It came to my remembrance because of what I saw hanging from the large tree at the corner of the retention basin that does double duty as a playground and safe place for children when the weather is not likely to cook them to a crisp.

The play-set is impressive: not alone for the joyful brightness of its multi-coloured plastic panels, but for the range of activities it accommodates, such as climbing, sliding, playing Indians and Cavalry, Cowboys and Rustlers, Pirates and Sailors, and even becoming the US Starship Enterprise out beyond the beyond scouring space for aliens whose depredations and cynical machinations will secure sufficient drama for another good hour’s viewing.

The construction, supply, and commissioning of the play-set would surely have cost five or six thousand dollars. Yet as I swung by it to collect the day’s post, ‘spectacular and expensive’ was abandoned in favour of ‘simple and dirt cheap.’

All parents will have observed that the most fun for children at Christmastime comes from playing with the boxes in which their presents came. Many’s the time when witnessing this phenomenon, I have pledged, "Next Christmas I am buying nothing but empty boxes!"

What was it that had diverted the little one’s attention from the modern adventure ensemble, and lured them to the corner where the tree stood? At first, I could hardly believe my eyes. But then, as I remembered the excitement and fun that similar equipment had cultivated in my young days, all my questions were answered in a flash of Gestalt.

The creator of this fascinating plaything had uses an almost flat piece of metal, two feet long, seven inches wide, slotted along its ends, and had tied on a length of thick rope at these ends.

Then, the creator assumed his intrepid mode, climbed the tree, secured the free ends of the ropes around a substantial limb, dropped the plate with its ropes, and ‘Before your very eyes!’ the swing was born!

The swing appeared forsaken and forlorn, but only until its possibilities were explored; the art of swinging mastered by a new generation; and then the humble swing was back where it belonged, enthroned and desired wherever happy children play.

Comparing the new against the old, I exclaimed to the doggies, and myself, "Isn’t science wonderful? Whatever will they think of next!"

Copyright (C) 2009 - Ronnie Bray


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