It was the first time in my childhood when I had an excuse for being late for dinner, but nobody -- not even the cops -- would believe me.

In the summer of 1972 or thereabouts, when I was 10, Tommy Guillen and I built a dam in the creek on the other side of the Horning Road tunnel that carries cars below railroad tracks.

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We'd been building up the dam for days to create our own three-foot pool in which we chased after crayfish and minnows -- our own cool spot to while away the hot summer afternoons.

We'd just completed adding another row of blocks to the dam when I heard my father's voice booming from a few blocks away, calling me home for dinner.

That was the rule for kids then: We were free to roam the hills and fields, ride our bikes and build shacks and dams, but God help us if we didn't respond when our parents called us home for dinner.

Just as Tommy and I were clawing our way up the bank of the creek, we heard a motor racing and tires screeching. Then we heard what sounded like a spectacular crash.

As we got to the top of the hillside and began running toward the tunnel, we saw a lime-colored Plymouth Roadrunner, a popular muscle car, roaring away from it.

The driver was young -- 20 or so -- and had long, greasy hair. I'd seen that car and driver before and figured the fellow lived nearby.

When we ran into the tunnel, we saw Grandpa Naylor's Corvair convertible smashed against the wall.

Grandpa Naylor always did drive slowly. He told us that as the impatient greasy-haired fellow passed him, he was forced into the wall of the tunnel.

He and his elderly wife were pretty shaken up, so Tommy and I ran up the street to his son's house to tell the son what had happened.

By the time we returned, the police had arrived. I tried to get their attention but they weren't much interested in what a lousy kid had to report.

"Did you get a license plate?" said the cop.

"No, sir," I said.

The cop grunted and turned his attention back to the adults.

I got home for dinner 30 minutes late and, boy, was I in trouble.

I tried to explain what had happened -- how Tommy and I had run to get help and had tried to be good citizens by reporting what we saw to the police -- but they would have none of it.

It never occurred to my parents to check with the Naylor family or call the cops themselves.

We children were guilty until proven innocent then, and parents had zero interest in finding out if we were innocent.

And, boy, were we lucky to grow up when we did!

With summer upon us again, the media are publishing a spate of articles that offer tips to parents on how to make their kids go out and play.

The articles generally suggest that adults organize and participate in the activities -- today's overly coddled kids aren't allowed to do much playing on their own.

Nor are many kids these days free to figure things out for themselves -- a skill that comes in handy in adulthood.

God forbid if a kid were to spend a few hours with his best friend, damming up a creek and witnessing a hit-and-run accident!

I got grounded for being late for dinner, but a few days later I was back at the creek -- and keeping an eye out for the license plate number of that lime-colored Plymouth Roadrunner!

©2011 Tom Purcell. Tom Purcell, a freelance writer is also a humor columnist for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, and is nationally syndicated exclusively by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate. For more info contact Cari Dawson Bartley at 800 696 7561 or email [email protected]. Email Tom at [email protected].