In the days of yore, before Smartphones and Instagram, as many as 70 children would play heightened games of hide-and-go-seek in my old neighborhood in Wellesley, Massachusetts. Ultimately, those spring and summer afternoons 50 years ago not only framed our childhoods but taught us a myriad of life lessons as time unfolded like shuffling cards.
Originating in Great Britain hundreds of years ago, the childhood game was eventually brought over to the colonies during the 1600’s. By happenstance, each corner of the British Isles formed its own version of hide-and-go-seek, initially called, “All-ee, Outs in Free.” This was a euphemistic call from the person who was “it,” and letting those hiding children, otherwise known as “the outs” that it was now safe to come back to home base.
Even as the game evolved along with the English language, local town criers, most notably in Wales, Scotland, and Ireland, commenced calling out the phrase, “All-Ye, All-Ye,” meaning to beware of the information the crier was about to proclaim to the townspeople. Accordingly, when Irish, Scots, and Welsh immigrants emigrated to the New World and brought their language and traditions with them, “Ollie Ollie In Come Free” became Americanized over time as the password to use to reconvene in games of hide-and-go-seek.
As a child in the 1960’s, I regularly participated in this time-honored contest in the tree-lined community where I grew up, Wellesley, Massachusetts. At the apogee of the historic Baby Boom, this most communal of games formed our own twentieth-century, social-media platform. Because of the vast amount of children being born in Eisenhower America, a local developer, Ralph Porter, constructed four and five bedroom houses during the winter of ’55 on a 1/2 mile road, which meandered, like all New England streets do, by rock, whim, and angle. Our family moved into our brand-new dwelling at 48 Radcliffe Road on April 30, 1955 – when I was a little more than three months old. Exactly a decade later, 109 children between the ages of 1 and 17 inhabited the 29 homes on our street.
One of our senior neighbors, who resided at the corner of Hobart and Radcliffe, often complained about the battalion of youngsters who would file in groups of 15 or so, treading together en masse to school. “Here come those damn kids!” he would yaw as the offending children formed a movable Jersey Barrier, trekking down the street in sync. I was terrified of his cantankerousness at the time, but these days, I can only smile. I guess the wondrous thing about growing older is that you don’t lose all the other ages you’ve experienced in life.
Back then, of course, our childhoods were largely autonomous. If afternoon or summer jobs did not govern us because we were too young at the time, we were only obligated to show up at our houses for both lunch and then dinner. For as much as nine hours during the day, we were blissfully on own. Our parents, who had been framed by the Great Depression and World War II, believed both in fresh air and little adult interference. In a world where there were only four television channels available, all we had was each other.
That proved to be more than enough.
Because we instinctively intermingled like a gaggle of geese, we knew each other’s quirks, qualities, and foibles. We even recognized the distinctive clang of each family’s dinner bell. “Time to go home for supper, Art, Anne, Charlie, and Jeannie!” we would bark when the Garrity’s chime would ring out. (Sometimes, even their dog, Sam, would venture home at the sound of the bell). My own dinner signal was the Town of Wellesley’s idiosyncratic fire whistle, which would habitually blow from our community’s firehouse at precisely 5:45 each evening. It’s deep-throated crescendo still throbs in my memory even though it made its last appearance in town many years ago.
While we all experienced some nicks and bruises along the way, our Greatest Generation parents believed that you only came home during the day if you were bleeding. My tough-as-nails mother was typical of the kind of “suck-it-up” attitude that prevailed among the adults on the street. As I joked years later, if Mum had been in Dealey Plaza when JFK was shot, she would have told him to walk it off.
Ultimately, we kiddies played together all day and into the evening on weekends. When school was in session, we would inevitably walk together to our various schools. For six years, for example, Brian Fay and I routinely trudged to either the junior high or high school in concert. If the timing was right, we would then be joined by neighbors Jay and Sally McCreery, Peter Reed, Charlie and Ann Garrity, and Wendy and Holly Seiler. By the time we reached Hobart Road, Phil Carens might amble out, sleepy-eyed but still rarin’ to go. By that time, we might have as many as a dozen kids with us. To us, security was omnipresent; there was always safety in numbers. We felt both unquestionably safe and alive. The vast majority of us believed that childhood was the kingdom where nobody died.
Like most kids back then, sports remained the epicenter of our neighborhood lives and followed the course of seasons without exception. We played touch football in the fall; street hockey and basketball during the winter and spring seasons, and baseball or whiffleball during the summer.
This beehive of sports activity depended upon geography and circumstance. Hockey and baseball were played first at the Patrick’s at 49 Radcliffe Road, but when they moved to California in 1965, both playing fields were shifted to the Fay’s next door. Football was reserved for the Sullivan’s front yard up the street. Because we had the best hoop and the flattest driveway, my brother and I hosted countless games of basketball over the years. There was only one problem – an overhanging tree limb that often blocked players’ shots to the basket. When that occurred, we would roar, “Blocked by Cliff Branch!” – as in the then-famed wide-receiver for the Oakland Raiders.
Because it was our house and our driveway, I began to practice how to make an inconceivable bank shot off the storm window of my parents’ bathroom window and into the net. After a ridiculous investment of trial-by-error practice, I ended up getting pretty good at it by the time I was 10. Because there were so many youngsters to compete with at the time, I was continuously seeking the ultimate home-court advantage.
Within the confines of Radcliffe Road, my family was known as the “White Kellys,” because our dwelling was painted white with dark green shutters. Residing next to us, however, were the “Red Kellys,” a family whose house was decidedly scarlet. A palpable rivalry ensued within the neighborhood community where kids eventually had to take sides in a world where there were no shades of gray. We had the Fays and the Patricks, for instance, firmly entrenched with us. Our weapon of choice, of course, were the bountiful amount of crabapples that fell on both of our properties and the surrounding environs. At the time, I assumed that our little rivalry was, at best, provincial. Consequently, I was astonished when a friend from Elmwood Road, more than three miles away, asked me if I was a White Kelly or a Red Kelly. I guess controversy traveled long and far in those days.
Situated in the Fuller Brook section of Wellesley, Radcliffe Road buttressed the western end of Wellesley’s prominent cemetery, Woodlawn. Hence, when one of us observed a hearse from either Waterman’s or Leo J. Doherty’s, our town’s two primary funeral homes, creep slowly down adjacent Brook Street, the word would soon spread: “There’s gonna be a funeral today.” For the vast majority of neighborhood kids, including my brother, Mark, this was a manifestly undesirable event, and they stayed well clear of such proceedings.
However, there were a few of us who were well…intrigued. After a service was over, we would subsequently hide in the trees or even behind gravestones and watch a myriad of Woodlawn employees do their thing. We were there for the entire process – from the mechanical shovel that scooped out the earth to the installation of the cement casing to the subsequent lowering of the casket into the ground. In the summertime, these same workers would meticulously place artificial grass over the soil and then move to their next assignment.
Usually, the entire job would take several hours. The most haunting part of the process – and I mean that in the most literal sense – would transpire during the lull of the proceedings when the men would take their lunch breaks. In the meantime, the deceased’s coffin would lie on top of the ground like a discarded camp trunk – waiting to be buried for all of eternity.
As a couple of us hid behind two headstones, one of us would whisper to the other with a heady mixture of glee and horror, “Are you brave enough to sprint to that casket and tag it?” Even the thought of doing it so horrified us that it gave us nightmares, but that was all part of the charm.
Of course, the head “cemetery man” knew all about we neighborhood kids who liked to play on Woodlawn’s property. Thus, he was forever threatening to call the police whenever children were playing on a human-made hill owned by Woodlawn. Over time, this singular mound of soil, which sloped down at a gradual incline like a bunny-trail ski slope, reached more than thirty feet into the sky. Because virtually all of our dads were World War II veterans, the massive pile took on much greater proportions in our prodigious imaginations. Ultimately, it became the foundational site for an ongoing neighborhood version of the Battle of the Bulge. One enterprising Radcliffe boy, Mark Fuller, brazenly announced one day that he was a five-star general. We immediately gave in to such sweeping ambition.
Before the hill was removed bit-by-bit by the late ’60’s, we played “war” on it for hours, especially on weekends. This turned out to be our introduction to politics, negotiation, and psychology. Predictably, we were always trying to look for an angle. On one occasion, when we were ensconced in a protracted battle with the Red Kellys, I intuitively slid around their house, hid in the bushes at the base of their porch, and overheard their secret plans to take over “Fortress Fuller” on “Cemetery Hill.” When I reported back to General Fuller, he broke into an Eisenhower-like grin and then slapped me on the back, bellowing, “You’ll be decorated for this!”
During the dog days of summer in pre-air-conditioning America, there were times we didn’t want to cavort too much, and so we essentially stayed put on such searing days. Consequently, we invented a little town of our own at the top of the street in a chunk of semi-woods, which we named, “Pinecone Village.” We each made a tiny home and played out our childhood loves by “coupling” with someone who would then share our little domicile for the summer. Thus, neighbor Holly Seiler became my first wife.
When winter visited in the days before global warming, we sometimes had as much as 100 inches or more of snow. Therefore, we had two options for sledding. The Sullivans had a decent slope at the end of the street adjacent to Brook Street, not far from Pinecone Village. However, because Radcliffe Road had one of the steepest hills in all of Wellesley, we usually blocked off the street with a concoction of both toys and rakes. Those of us with either sleds or toboggans would then commence at the Garrity’s house and coast to a stop near Steve Woodward’s abode at the bottom of the street – an eighth-of-a-mile away. While I almost bought the farm one February day when I nearly smashed my sled into a fire hydrant near the Pelles’s house, I eventually plowed my little flyer against the base of an offending boxwood shrub.
However, despite all of our activities involved in everything from war to street hockey, it was our gargantuan games of hide-and-go-seek, which proved to be the single most inclusive activity of them all. We never had less than 30 participants; occasionally, we might have many as 70, if we included the kids from Hobart and Southgate roads.
Typically, we would convene at the top of Radcliffe adjacent to the telephone pole by the Haley’s house and take up “sides.” For the next two-to-three hours, we would use all of our facilities to avoid getting caught. The game would subsequently end not with one side necessarily winning but the various family bells ringing out for dinner. Our designated rendezvous point turned out to be the stately telephone pole by the Haley’s house at the top of our street’s elongated hill. Over the years, you could witness scores of Radcliffe Road children pressing their little hands against the brown-stained wood and then wailing out into the abyss, “OLLIE OLLIE IN COME FREE!”
When I think back on this most communal of games these days, I now recognize that we played hide-and-go-seek unreservedly, with unfettered glee, and without any hidden agenda. Five decades later, virtually every memory of it is a blur, except for one triumphant contest. It occurred thanks to the near cataclysmic Cuban Missile Crisis. Because we has been “this close” to a nuclear holocaust, the Haley’s hired a local firm to construct a well-fashioned bomb shelter in their backyard.
Thus, it didn’t take long for Dougie Haley and me to come up with an epiphany. One teaming day during the summer of ’63, we ended up hiding in the family’s bomb shelter for more than three hours. Nobody could find us. In the meantime, we were safe from both Nikita Khrushchev and our neighborhood pals. For one brief and shining moment in our childhoods, we were the kings of the neighborhood. Because of Dougie’s and my sagacity, however, the Haley’s bomb shelter was deemed “out of bounds” for eternity.
The last time we all participated in a massive Radcliffe Road hide-and-go-seek game occurred during the early evening the day after I graduated from Wellesley High School. Our neighbors hosted a block-party on the street for all of us who had just graduated. After the cookout ended, my old pal and fellow graduate, Doug Haley, convinced all of us to play one last game of hide-and-seek. Virtually everyone eagerly joined in the fray, which went on well into the dark.
Two months later, I left for college.
On June 1, 2019, I visited my old neighborhood in Wellesley when I went back to speak at the memorial service for a beloved high school teacher. The day before, Mrs. Betty Fay, the matriarch of Radcliffe Road, had finally passed on at 97. Her seven children, my childhood chums, had all ventured back home, mostly from the West, for her funeral. When I entered their familiar house that day, we literally fell into each other’s arms. I hadn’t seen many of the Fay children for decades, but it didn’t matter. We still knew and loved each other to our very cores. As Nancy Fay exclaimed, “We had seven children in our family, but we really had about 50 siblings.”
When her younger sister, Betsy, asked me about the last time I had seen her mother, I smiled, “Last year! I was in the neighborhood, and I observed that the kitchen light was on, and so I knocked on the door. When your Mom saw me, she chirped, ‘Oh, Shaun – come on in!’ – as if it was 1965.”
We all had a good laugh at that one.
I also shared with them the last time I conversed with their father, Jim Fay before he died in 1995. As we sat out in his beloved indoor porch, Mr. Fay remarked, “You know, Shaun, when you kids were out there playing on the street, to me it was the best sound imaginable.”
When I was then introduced to one of Fay spouses, she asked me in total innocence, “Are you a Red Kelly or a White Kelly?” The story had been passed on to her. And here I was a living and breathing White Kelly who had come back to the golden street once again.
After we spent an hour reminiscing about our communal childhoods, one of the Fay children, Betsy, who was now 61 years old, exclaimed, “How lucky we were that we all grew up together!” I smiled and agreed heartily with Bets. In hindsight, our inadvertent gathering was nothing less than a family reunion.
Before I left Radcliffe Road that day, I ventured up-and-down the old street for a spell. As I paraded from the remains of Pinecone Village to the old Woodward house, I realized that this particular spot on earth remained my epicenter. Eventually, I stopped at the telephone pole by the Haley’s house, leaned against it, and then murmured to myself, “Ollie Ollie In Come Free.”
Needless to say, no child came scurrying from stately bushes, majestic trees, or even old bomb shelters to join me at the old upright. In reality, the silence was mostly complete except for the infallible New England wind, which blew memories in swirls as I pressed my hand against the pole one last time.
In memory of the few of us from the old neighborhood who have died much too young – Holly Seiler, Steve Woodward, and Bobby Haley – and for a few guardian angel parents who were always there for us – Jim and Betty Fay, Lynn and Bernice Patrick, and Larry and Laurie Kelly.