A bird's-eye view of boyhood

True Tales From Everyday Living

March 04, 2007|By Andrew Ratner | Andrew Ratner,Sun Reporter

I was surprised that the woods were so small.

As a boy, they'd appeared vast. It had seemed nearly impossible to find someone there in a game of hide and seek. The large, gray rock formation in the middle made an exquisite fort. All that brush and all those trees seemed remote.

Grown-ups rarely approached them (part of their appeal) and, especially if bigger kids wandered by, they were probably a little dangerous (also part of their appeal). There was a distinct quiet to the place, far -- or at least it seemed far -- from the noise of traffic on the nearby streets or the happy screams of children in the playground below.

I took a look at them the other day, for the first time in decades, and was surprised to find they were more the size of a wooded highway median strip than a primeval forest. They sat closer to civilization than I remembered, too, although civilization hadn't encroached on them much over the years and the woods surely hadn't moved.

I didn't actually set foot back in my boyhood neighborhood in Yonkers, N.Y., the small city portrayed in the hit musical Hello, Dolly! that has awaited the next sweet, lyrical depiction ever since.

I saw the woods from several hundred feet above -- not in a helicopter but on Google Earth, the computer program that provides a virtual satellite map of the planet.

I'm not even sure what prompted my search. It might have been the mention in the news recently about the singer Mary J. Blige, who grew up in a Yonkers public housing complex and won three Grammys last month. But whatever impelled me to type my childhood address into the Google Earth search window left me surprised and astonished.

I was struck by the proximity of things that once seemed so far apart.

A concrete patio with benches where we always saw the old folks sitting after dinner was smaller than I remembered -- although, for that matter, the folks sitting out then were middle-aged adults and we saw them as "old folks."

From high above, the main baseball field in the nearby park actually seemed a pretty good size -- although lack of skill was still a largely inescapable explanation for why I never hit one out.

And blocks to the west lay the Hudson River, gray and still, and the adjoining freight tracks. They resembled a thin scar from the sky-high Google vantage but used to seem like a foreboding golem to me, particularly after a classmate mangled a leg playing near the trains by the river.

The neighborhoods from above resembled dense patterns of Lego blocks infrequently interrupted by a ribbon of green.

From on high, the geometry also revealed demography. You could discern which neighborhoods had money by their shapes. Grids of horizontal and vertical streets that bisected at right angles defined older neighborhoods like mine. Newer, richer ones had more circular road shapes and cul de sacs.

Perhaps people who remain roughly where they grew up wouldn't be as awed by a virtual tour from above. But for me, it was another example of why the Internet, among its strengths, mimics a time capsule so well. You can search for a high-school classmate, download a song you hadn't heard since eight-track, see a TV show that's been gone for decades -- or find childhood haunts etched deep within your soul.

Like many of their friends, my children have grown up in a much different place than their parents, who grew up in a much different place than their parents, and so on. But even though kids seem more sheltered today, more chauffeured, more air-conditioned and less likely to roam alone very far, my guess is their world to them isn't so different from mine to me.

A child's world seems vast but stretches out only about as far as he can see, like the vantage of a pre-Magellan explorer, or of a boy in a rock fort in city woods.

andrew.ratner@baltsun.com

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