John McLaughlin had the loudest whistle in Van Nuys. At sundown, when the streetlights came on, he would put two fingers in his mouth and let it rip. From Kittridge to Archwood, the kids would report in on their skateboards and roller blades and bikes. Katie, her brother Mike, Samantha and Annie, all the friends.
“We were a pack of wolves.”
In the morning her mother would drop Katie and Mike off at St. Elisabeth’s Elementary. In the afternoon, she would walk home on Kittridge, a key around her neck, across six lanes of Van Nuys Blvd., past the Dearden’s department store and the 7-11. When Mike, who was three years older, transferred to Notre Dame High, she made the trek alone. Creepy men would sometimes pull over and expose themselves to her.
When her father played in his softball beer league in Encino, the kids would run into the cornfield and down into the concrete wash. There were no fences to stop them.
There was no phrase “free-range parenting”. That was just the way it was done in the Valley in the 1980’s.
Maybe it worked because there was strength in numbers. Or maybe it worked because there was little to command their attention indoors, but no so long ago a large cohort of children wandered, unleashed, without GPS devices or sunscreen, across Van Nuys.
Katie’s mother Jan also was a free-range kid. She grew up two doors down from the house she raised Katie and Mike. Her father, Frank, was a set painter at MGM studios. He painted ships for the Navy during WWII.
Frank and Madeline settled in Van Nuys and had three daughters. Jan was born in 1946.
Jan attended San Fernando Valley State, married John in 1968, and began teaching English at Providence High School in Burbank. John also became a teacher, and later in his career, a principal. In 1976, when Michael was born, they bought 6712 Costello, where Jan once played with her childhood friend Dolores.
The kids lives revolved around the ball fields at St. Elisabeth’s. John would chalk the field, seed the grass, man the snack shop, and coach. Katie’s greatest fear growing up was that her parents would get divorced.
That, and being abducted by aliens. There was a neighbor who lived across the street who claimed to have been abducted and probed. In an era noted for the Night Stalker and the Freeway Killer, Katie sobbed hysterically when she saw E.T.
In the summers, the families in the neighborhood would share a rental in Newport. John would surf. Katie smoked her first cigarette here at 15 with Samantha and Annie.
She would attend Notre Dame High School, with her brother Mike. On the weekends she would go with her friends to Hollywood to see girl bands like Hole and Seven Year Bitch. She became a Derby Doll. She met a boy from the East Coast with tattoos who worked with motorcycles and fell in love with him. She moved directly from her childhood home into his apartment in North Hollywood, which was both a rebellious and very traditional thing to do.
In 2000, John would leave Jan after 32 years of marriage. He would spend time at the beach. Things went a little haywire in the McLaughlin household for awhile. Jan withdrew. Mike struggled. Katie decamped for Virginia with her boyfriend.
Grace saved the family when she came to the world in 2005.
After a brief marriage in Virginia, Katie returned to Van Nuys and moved back in with Jan to raise her daughter as a single mother. As so often happens with the arrival of a grandchild, a rapprochement of sorts was effected between Katie’s parents.
Grace can put her foot behind her head. She played Danny Zuko in her school production of Grease. She claims a photographic memory and has excited opinions on many topics. She talks with her hands, and can recite the plot of Carrie, though she’s not allowed to see it yet and is terrified of scary movies. She sleeps in the bedroom her mother grew up in and loves her vinyl record collection.
What she doesn’t do is wander down the street. There are no other children her age on the block. She doesn’t walk to school, either. Unlike St. E’s, her magnet school is well out of the neighborhood. She’s the last 11-year-old in LA without a phone. Almost.
Like so many Valley children today, Grace is not a free-range kid. She lives indoors. She loves her Marvel and her DC comics and YouTube channels and her Kindle. For Katie, this is the heartbreaking part of raising her, the inability to re-create for her daughter the freedoms of her own childhood.
By any statistical measure, it’s much safer for children alone on the street today than 30 years ago. But the heart doesn’t work that way. One can’t un-know things once one has experienced them. Creeps will lurk in cars. A cool priest will be deposited in your parish, mix jokes with his sermons and be very popular, until he wasn’t. Men you love will fail to live up to the hope you invest in them. There may have been no alien abductions, but Southern California played host to a cornucopia of serial killers.
And Grace is the only child. The last in the line of four generations living on Costello. The house hasn’t changed, but the world around it has. You cleave to her most tightly and you care for your aging mother and you hold down your job at the salon and occasionally you slip away to Macleod for a beer to nurse your heartaches. You’re going to make it work.