PORTLAND, ORE. — This is the time of year when children start to learn a hard truth about summer vacation. Boredom is out there, waiting to strike.
For kids in the range of 5 to 7 years old, it can be a very unsettling discovery. The daily routine of no school and lots of play begins to lose excitement. Videogames, books, DVDs, and the treehouse all melt into a blasé menu of dull predictability.
Fortunately, as a kid, I had a fallback position, and it was an option that I suspect was unusual then and may be even more so these days. I call it the GND factor.
When my household surroundings seemed like a wasteland of meaningless pursuits, I sought intellectual relief from a nearby source: The Guy Next Door.
He had gone to high school with a close relative, so my parents knew him and didn't worry whenever I abruptly headed out the door and said, "I'm going to see what George is doing."
The sound of those words often gave me a feeling of happy anticipation. Amazing experiences were always possible at the modest bungalow he occupied.
George was doing postgraduate work that eventually got him a PhD in pharmacology, but I didn't know any of that. What mattered was that he spent a lot of time at home, and his life was an ongoing parade of fascinating activities.
His house was like a chapter from a John Steinbeck novel, combining elements of a laboratory and natural history museum. The atmosphere could best be described as "science in action."
The main feature of the living room was a display case filled with an assortment of carefully assembled skeletons of small animals. George once opened the case, took out the skull of a little squirrel (minus the lower jaw), and gave it to me.
From my standpoint, it was like being presented with an Academy Award.
Another unique occurrence involved a demonstration of the food chain. It happened while my mom and I were watching television with George and his wife one night. Their fluffy gray cat, a grumpy feline who always treated me with contempt and hostility, emerged from a hallway carrying a dead mouse. The overhead lights had been turned off, so the only illumination in the room came from the glow of the TV screen.
In that eerie setting, with the little skeletons watching impassively from the display case, the cat proceeded to consume its prey on the carpet in front of our group. No one seemed to think this was unusual.
George was also a handyman, and had an acetylene torch. When one of my scooters broke, he welded the damaged parts back together. For smaller repair jobs, he used a workshop located behind the carport, and that cramped cubicle held the most memorable attraction of all.
I won't go into detail, but it was a biological oddity resting in a large jar of formaldehyde, and it would have been right at home on an episode of "The Twilight Zone." George said it was "from Mexico," which made the aura of mystery that surrounded the jar even more exotic and compelling.
Obviously, not all kids would have shared this unqualified enthusiasm for George's place, but he certainly made my early childhood years more interesting.
I sometimes wonder if we should create an organization of professional Guys Next Door. They could be sent around the country, as needed.
Parents would have a quick solution whenever any young voice exclaims, "There's nothing to do!" Kids would get extracurricular lessons about the real world that no classroom can provide.
And summer vacation would never be boring.