Recently, there has been a good deal of discussion concerning the practice of “free range” parenting. In a case that has caught national attention, a Maryland couple had their children taken into police custody for hours and were threatened with foster care for allowing their 10 and six-year old children to play at the park and then walk home alone.
In the context of today’s world of heightened security and protection, the practice seems strange. Government officials and many parents label the outside world as one giant threat to children. We baby-proof our houses for people that aren’t even yet mobile. We hear about the dangers of lead paint, crib slats, soda, and processed food. Kids can’t talk to strangers or weird relatives. Babies aren’t supposed to sleep in their backs, but shouldn’t be on their stomachs, either. Dogs are even too dangerous now. And as far as car seats go, I think some kids will be still be using them when they learn to drive.
But it wasn’t always this way.
In the early years of the 20th century, Oklahoman “Catch-em-alive” Jack Abernathy was known for his ability to catch wolves with his bare hands. The tales of Abernathy’s exploits soon reached the ears of noted outdoorsman President Theodore Roosevelt, who then hosted Abernathy in New York. The two became friendly and Abernathy was later appointed as a United States Marshal.
Abernathy and Roosevelt were both adherents to “the strenuous life.” This philosophy was certainly encouraged in the men’s children, with Roosevelt’s children being the authors of wonderful White House tales of stunts and shenanigans. But Abernathy may have taken it a bit further. He encouraged two of his boys, Louis “Bud” and Temple, to go on cross-country adventures by themselves. The strange part—the boys were nine and five years of age.
Bud and Temple began by trekking from their home in Frederick, Okla. to Santa Fe, N.M. in 1909. Upon the completion of their 1000-mile journey, they began the trip that would cement them as national celebrities– a trip on horseback from Frederick to New York City. The ultimate goal: meet the now former president Theodore Roosevelt when he returned from his specimen-collecting trip to Europe and Africa.
The boys, now 10 and six (the same ages as the current-day Maryland children), took one month to successfully navigate the forest, mountains, rivers, and wildlife to reach New York City. Along the way, they visited Orville Wright, who offered them a ride in an airplane and were hosted by President William Taft at the White House. The New York Times documented their progress. Once the dynamic duo reached the Big Apple, they were greeted with almost as much enthusiasm as Roosevelt himself. They took part in a ticker tape parade and encountered legions of lady fans who adored the cute boys. According to The New York Times, the brothers, not being adolescents yet, avoided the cheek kisses from their female fans.
As we all know from trips of our own, the return trip is always dreaded. The anticipation of going somewhere new and exciting is gone and we are simply left with the long road home. Thanks to Brush Motor Car, Bud and Temple did not have such worries. They were either given or purchased a Brush Runabout (depending on the source), which they proceeded to drive home, making the return trip much easier. They shipped their horses back to Oklahoma via train.
The Abernathy boys continued their adventuring ways, attempting to complete a trip from New York City to San Francisco in 60 days for a $10,000 reward. Despite making the 4,500-mile trip in record time, the boys fell two days short of their goal and lost out on the prize.
Thinking about the Abernathy boys makes me appreciate and lament the passage of a bygone era. I remember being able to walk home from school in second grade and running around all summer without shoes. Hell, I took a family excursion from the Midwest to Virginia Beach stuffed under a truck camper shell with three aunts and a cousin. My parents and baby brother rode in the cab. It was great until my cousin threw up.
It’s too bad that freedom so often must take a back seat to safety. But given the price of such perceived safety, is it really worth it?