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Freedom and friendship along Baltimore's Stony Run

Man, did we have it good growing up. There was a handful of us back then that summered along the Stony Run, one of the most idyllic spots in Baltimore: Bobby, Chris, O.D., David, McDonald and Kenny, just to name a few of the boys who frequented that stretch of land regularly.

Our group’s boundaries were Wyndhurst Avenue on the north and Cold Spring Lane on the south, with Blythewood Road and Wilmslow Road serving as the eastern and western borders respectively. Inside was our own personal laboratory to do what young boys did when they had free time: create fun. The area’s “arcadian mood” was kept by the neighborhood’s planners, and we were oh so grateful.

We were curious kids back then and risk takers, too. No tree was too tall to climb, and no part of the meandering Stony Run stream was too deep for us to wade across. We built dams and tree forts, played baseball and touch football, and scoured every inch of the parkland for what it offered. We even became urban spelunkers of sorts and once or twice crawled our way through the nearby sewers that emptied into the stream, something that scares me today just thinking about it.

I can still point out where our baseball diamond’s home plate was located in the park’s wide expanse of open field that began right where Oakdale Road dead ends and to the right of where the old Ma and Pa railroad used to chug along making its way into the city decades ago. And I bet, if I dug carefully just a little bit below the surface, I could still find the single brick marking the spot where countless neighborhood wannabes struck out or clobbered one into oblivion.

In the park we fell out of trees and were stung by bees, bitten by stray dogs, washed downstream during rain storms, and bullied by older ruffians cutting through on their way to somewhere else. And guess what? Each one of us survived and has no demonstrable trauma to show for it except a minor scar here and there. Eventually, we learned to forgo the dangerous (climbing through sewers) and stick to more traditional fun (exploring and playing sports).

The best thing about those days, however, was that we were in complete control of our activities. Leaving the house in the morning, we could stay out until dinner. My brothers and I were summoned by a cowbell; other children answered to a whistle or the sounds of a triangle clanging over and over. We would return home at the end of the day exhausted, eat, get a good night’s sleep and start the whole routine over in the morning.

Katsuro Ohata, one of our regular crew, reminded me of those days recently. Katsuro was from Japan and lived in Baltimore with his family for several years in the mid-1960s while his father was posted here for his job. Mr. Ohata filmed us one day playing “army” in the park, and Katsuro posted a short film of our activity on his Facebook page. For 40 seconds of wobbly and sometimes-out-of-focus cinematography, you can watch what looks like a battalion of kids with plastic rifles fighting an invisible enemy somewhere off screen. It was play at its best — joyous, sweaty, rolling-on-the-ground-and-getting-dirty fun.

Today the young voices of Stony Run are quiet, as far as I can tell. Occasionally, I stop by when visiting relatives hoping to see another generation maintaining the rich traditions we set. But the only children I see are accompanied by an adult. Cutting through the baseball diamond is a well-worn path for dog walkers and runners. What was intrinsic for us, in a location that screamed freedom and autonomy — dirt, trees, water, play, friendship, open spaces, conversations and, yes, a little risk thrown in for good measure from time to time — is gone.

Maybe today’s kids have their time taken up by schedules so packed with organized activities, computers and social media that there is little time for spontaneous fun.

But there is something encouraging to report: Down the winding path on the east side of the stream, there is a large beech tree. If you look up about 10 feet or so, you can still see “Chris”— my friend’s name — carved into the tree’s side. Fifty years on, it’s proof that we were once there.

Lee McC. Kennedy is a history teacher at The Boys' Latin School of Maryland. His email is lkennedy@boyslatinmd.com.

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