July 18, 2016
By Arthur H. Gunther III
Just before the pre-suburban explosion of the 1950s in my part of lower New York State, in a fruit orchard area fittingly off Cherry Lane, a young fellow, second grader, had just left a dream world adjacent to his backyard, a former polo field and then still a riding track for stabled horses. The kid would easily pretend it was the Wild West, what with the rustic fences and all, and his cap pistol reaffirmed that in noise. There weren’t many other children about, and a Saturday afternoon had to unwind somehow.
The youngster was almost home when he came upon a bow saw, a sturdy, oddly shaped wooden contraption with a cable at the top to tighten the blade. He picked it up and found an old piece of wood that he set between two rocks. And then, with ease, though the second grader was obviously without teenager strength, he cut the wood.
That one piece of log was followed by another, then others until the boy and his younger brother had enough to build the first of several huts in their lives, with cracks filled by using the winter straw found in the many fields before Progress came to town.
The hut building became a weekend past-time for a while, and it added to the western scene the old polo field afforded. It kept the boys out of the house, out of their mother’s way, forged confidence in their ability to do things on their own, to keep occupied, to take imaginary trips. And it cost nothing.
Once, that young boy’s backyard and the old bow saw were a metaphor for the seemingly endless American frontier, whether that be the West or advances in science, in better living conditions, in improving the way humans treat one another, in growing the Founders’ democracy.
These were just two boys of many thousands, with opportunity that cost little or nothing except sweat and drive and imagination. They made enough mistakes after their “frontier” days, yes, and it was the grace of many and the beyond that truly pushed them forward. But it began in imagination. For many thousands of others, too.
Today, in a confused, lost America, there seems no frontier, and even if one were in sight, the typical college debt of $50,000 is a millstone as the fellow or gal tries to move ahead.
Perhaps the nation needs some old-fashioned bow saws and weekends in which the young can dream and have a real chance that the dream will be realized. Time for our youth now seems overbooked or stolen by the negativity of rundown neighborhoods, and the bow saws cost too much, the old factories having closed and the saws made by huge, profitable conglomerates on other shores.
The writer is a retired newspaperman who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org