Children participate in a sack race during the Houlton Agricultural Fair on July 3, 2021. Credit: Alexander MacDougall / Houlton Pioneer Times

What if we all held onto our childlike view of the world and that wonder of play we knew as a kid? Sometimes I think of Holden Caulfield. I wonder what the world would look like if J.D. Salinger’s protagonist actually pulled off what he wanted to do — be the Catcher in the Rye. Yes, I think of Holden quite often, particularly that dream of his.

“Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around – nobody big, I mean – except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff – I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be.” 

Today it feels as though we don’t use the word “kid” anymore. “Young man” or “young woman” seems more in use these days, given the societal expectations to learn and grow as fast as one can. Kids are innately curious, but then the world tells them to sit up straight, stop the foolishness. Their sense of wonder and playfulness is muzzled to a degree because it feels as though we’ve become so serious about everything. Holden’s cliff looms larger today than yesterday. 

I know I am closer to the end than I am to the beginning of my life, which by itself brings a reflexive glance back at time. Sometimes my childhood is hard to catch because of today’s distractions. But I do remember enough. With childhood memories we can resurrect distant days of wonder and by sharing them help others see what perhaps they’ve been missing. We all can be catchers in the rye.

Phony is the word Holden Caulfield used to describe adults. In his mind, the adult world is where we say one thing, then turn and do the exact opposite. It is a world where everyone eventually will lose their sense of wonder and kids will no longer play. Luckily, for some, that sense of wonder is still intact; for others, not so much. To perpetuate the wonder we had as kids delays the inevitable, and just maybe makes our world a little less “adult”, and a bit happier. 

What are some memories you have from when you were a kid? Perhaps they’re a bit dusty, but I’m sure they are still there. Memories of younger days when the sun was always shining, stale water from the hose would quench a thirst and the neighborhood “gang” moved from one yard to another. And we didn’t wear watches because we had time and knew when to call it a day. Oh, how I remember those days.

In the morning before school started we played marbles on the playground, hopscotch and jump rope courts were always packed and that perpetual game of kickball went on and on until the bell rang. We ran forever playing tag or hide and seek; wiffle ball games always went to extra innings; we built tree huts, forts and rode bikes of all shapes and sizes. Board games, baseball and basketball were the three B’s we cared most about, looking for a pickup game anytime. And sometimes, on a really hot August day, we would play tackle football — in full pads and helmets — no less. Crazy? Probably, but we were kids!

Our playgrounds were backyards that ran from one house to another; fields, forests and meadows were where we would drink in nature, explore and rest. Our laughter became the air everyone breathed in the neighborhood. There is nothing like the sound of children laughing. 

We saw everything, too, as kids. From clothes on the line drying to the holes in the knees of our jeans; from our sneakers tattered beyond recognition to the air, crisp, clean and breathing possibility under a sky of friendship. Our shadows played forever in this wonder until it was time to go home. 

Your childhood memories are important. Write them down and share them with the family, especially children and grandchildren. Let that wonder float free like those lightning bugs we would patiently wait for on a warm summer’s evening. The sun sinking low, coolness settling in, and then a pop of light in the distance, then another, until it’s as if flashbulbs are going off at a birthday party. Surrounded now, their light seals our contagious smiles and wonder within a cocoon of memory — to which we have the key.

Our memories and stories delay the inevitable — keeping our kids from falling off that adult cliff — if just for a day more. It also gives us adults a newer, fresher perspective and touches life with wonder, something we surely could use a whole bunch of today.

RJ Heller, Down East contributor

RJ Heller is a journalist, essayist, photographer, author, an avid reader and an award-winning book critic who enjoys sailing, hiking and many other outdoor pursuits. He lives in Starboard Cove.