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A millennial’s non-millennial childhood

By most definitions, I am considered a millennial. Definitely at the older end of that much-talked-about group, I am a millennial, nonetheless.

Technology became an increasing part of my life growing up, and, in true millennial fashion, I readily admit my least favorite form of communication is actual conversations on a phone.

But, as my children, ages 10 and 6, continue to blossom, I have reflected upon my own childhood. I love how reflection reveals so much more the older one gets.

I didn’t know it at the time, but my childhood was actually a very non-millennial throwback.

With the nearest city of more than 20,000 people situated more than two hours away, Alpena’s isolated geography meant that modern “trends” sometimes took a while to reach the beautiful shores of Lake Huron. It was joked that we were 10 years behind everything else, which, in hindsight, was a pretty good way to grow up.

With nine months of questionable weather, summer is magical in northern Michigan, and seemingly endless summer days were spent traversing the city’s streets with packs of friends, traveling in gangs of Huffys. I remember two true corner stores that were each about four blocks from my home. My friends and I would make daily treks there, buying 5-cent pieces of candy or a 50-cent pack of baseball cards. I remember learning to blow bubbles riding my bike home with a wad of purchased gum from the store.

Alpena’s pathways are a collection of curbed and non-curbed crossings from sidewalks to streets. So we learned how to efficiently utilize driveways, rather than rattling our bike and bones going up or down the curbs. We’d weave around from side of the street to side of the street, dodging cars and curbs along the way like a daredevil racer darting from lane to lane.

I never realized that practice until last summer, when my wife (who did not grow up in Alpena) and I went on a bike ride through those same streets. I casually zigged and zagged, not breaking conversation. Pretty soon, I realized I was talking only to the wind.

We played backyard baseball, backyard football, and, more than anything else, pickup basketball. There was a park down by the lake that featured three full-sized courts. The talent level said otherwise, but, to us, it was no different than the famed playground courts of New York or Chicago. Myriad kids converged each day, and it was win, you stay, lose, you sit. The battles were always heated.

After, we’d ride downtown to the local candy shop to buy a Sprite and to the next-door sports card store to buy a pack. We’d go back to one of our houses, laughing and trading cards.

It was one of those childhoods when I was expected to be home for dinner, but I was, within reason, allowed to roam freely during the day.

As a parent, I can’t really even fathom that concept, sadly.

“Playdates” are structured, with a time element typically involved. While we always look to find ways to bolster our kids’ independence, it never involves them roaming around town, popping in and out of stores.

One is hard-pressed to find a game of sandlot baseball or pickup basketball, even in the dead of summer.

The reasons for that are obvious, born out of safety, technology, and a momentous increase of controlled activities for kids. My children have a wider variety of opportunities than I ever did. But it is different.

Childhood friendship, the purest of all forms of relationships, persists. The importance of family hasn’t changed.

But I do think it is crazy that my childhood seems so far away, out of a bygone era.

Those days just before the internet and cell phones and social media and online predators were special. I wonder what will change when my kids become parents of their own and their childhood looks different from the next generation.

It all feels like another reminder to log off, maybe find a trail or a park to take my daughters for a bike ride in.

Where is the nearest outdoor basketball court?

The next step is to grab my phone, press a few buttons, as the screen will show me the answers on how to get back to my roots.

I am, after all, a millennial.

Jeremy Speer is an Alpena native and the publisher of The Courier in Findlay, Ohio, The Advertiser-Tribune in Tiffin, Ohio, and the Review Times in Fostoria, Ohio. He can be reached at jeremyspeer@thecourier.com or jspeer@advertiser-tribune.com.

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