My childhood neighborhood’s tiny lookalike two- and three-bedroom prefab houses, packed tightly along steep and narrow streets, were built quickly and inexpensively. These weren’t anybody’s dream homes; it was optimistic to call them modest. But they were attractive to working families getting their start.
I was on the way in 1966, and Mom and Dad’s apartment wouldn’t accommodate three. Dad’s salary didn’t stretch far, making it challenging to afford even one of these homes. When they found a seller who needed out badly and let my parents assume their mortgage, my parents moved to this neighborhood on South Bend’s south side.
My brother came along the next summer. So did several other babies along our street, which is how the neighborhood came to be called Rabbit Hill. By the time my brother and I were old enough to venture out to play, 31 other children lived on the Hill.
Kellie lived next door; when her family moved out, Jimmy’s family moved in. Robyn and Sally lived two doors down. Robyn was only a couple years older than me, but she always seemed so mature – except when she stuck her tongue out at me, which she did often. Sally was my brother’s age, a flirty girly girl with lots of thick blonde hair. My dad always called her Sweet Sarah Ellen, usually in his deepest voice, which made her blush. Their sister Mary came after my brother and I were school aged; she occasionally came to our front door in her birthday suit, to her mom’s embarrassment. Tomboy Angie lived a couple doors down, and Brian and David lived right across the street from her. Their dad was a cop, a man’s man, but Brian liked to direct neighborhood musical productions.
A few doors up from there, right across the street from us, lived Denise, Sherry, Michelle, and David. The girls liked to come over and color with me on the front stoop, at least until their mother shrieked at them to come home. Danny and Michael lived next door to them. Danny was a lot older and didn’t have much to do with us little kids. Michael was older too, but not by so much that he didn’t come around sometimes. He was the cool kid in the neighborhood and we all looked up to him.
Darin, Craig, and Dawn lived just up the hill. Darin was about my age and liked to sing slightly naughty rhymes. (“In 1944 / My uncle went to the war / He stepped on the gas / And blew off his ass / In 1944!”) Tammy, Mike, and Dawn lived across the street and a few doors up. Tammy, being a bit older, liked to be in charge. So did I, and so we didn’t get along. I regretted it in high school because she turned out to be traffic-stopping gorgeous. Mike and my brother were both four years old when his family moved in. Something clicked between them and they are still best friends almost 40 years later.
Christy lived a few doors down, right next to the Secret Sidewalk, a concrete path that served as a shortcut through the neighborhood. Next to her were willowy, honey-haired Shannon and her younger sister, Rachel. Skinny, anxious Eric was next door. Once I shut Eric’s family’s garage door on my brother’s hand, shredding the skin to the bone. Between Eric’s house and ours lived Angie, Colleen, and Muffy. Colleen liked to eat dirt with a spoon, but I think she did it just to get a rise out of the rest of us. Ornery Jay lived in the house behind us, which we accessed through a hole in the bushes. He got on my last nerve one day when we were playing ball and so I clobbered him with my plastic Wiffle bat. My dad made me apologize in front of his parents, but Jay didn’t get out of line around me again.
With so many children around, there was almost always something to do and someone to play with. Our yard was popular, especially in the summers. Mom would set up the Slip ‘n Slide and half the neighborhood’s kids would come over. She made gallons of Kool-Aid for us all. We also had a lot of old Army gear and some plastic M16A1 rifles, and we’d play war across several neighbors’ back yards. But our default activity was riding our Big Wheels up and down the hill over and over. The noise used to get to my dad, and he’d take us all out to Dairy Queen for ice cream cones just to have a little peace.
The adults often gathered to socialize. Robyn’s dad often hosted, as he had built a large family room, complete with a bar, onto the back of his house. I remember lying in my bed and hearing his big stereo thumping late into the night. Michael’s mom and my mom became best friends. My parents grew close to Kellie’s parents, and our families spent lots of time together even after they moved off the Hill. My parents and Kellie’s still play Canasta most Saturday nights.
I don’t mean to leave an idyllic impression of Rabbit Hill. I understand that there were factions in the neighborhood, drawn mostly along Catholic and Protestant lines. The parties sometimes got a little out of hand – for example, there’s a famous story of several of the men injuring themselves as they made a drunken ride down the hill on their kids’ Big Wheels. (My parents, who were extremely straight laced, always left the moment any party looked like it might get raucous.) Alcohol abuse led to marital problems for some couples; there were a few divorces. And a woman at the top of the street made dates with truckers on an illegally boosted CB radio. You could hear her loud and clear if you tuned your TV to channel 3. Her neglected kids ran around in filthy clothes; the youngest was so ignored that he was eight years old before he could speak coherently.
We left in 1976 for a larger home in a quieter neighborhood. We didn’t see our old friends except around school, and in time we drifted apart from most of them. We heard that Robyn and Sally’s parents divorced, and later that their father died unexpectedly. We were saddened by the news, but didn’t know how to reach out. Then Michael’s mother died after a long fight with cancer. My mother had remained close to her right up to the end, and we all went to the funeral. Her death was hard on my mother, but of course it was harder on Michael and Danny and their dad. And then bit by bit many of the Rabbit Hill families moved away, sometimes propelled by divorce, sometimes in search of more room for a growing family, and sometimes because fortunes afforded nicer accommodations.
Facebook has reconnected me to several of my old Rabbit Hill friends, including Robyn, Sally, and Michael. It’s been fun catching up. Robyn’s dad took endless Super 8 home movies, which she had converted to digital files. Last Christmas, she mailed me a wonderful DVD full of those movies. When my parents and my brother came for the holiday, we watched together in wonder. It’s hard to imagine any neighborhood could have been more fun for young children than Rabbit Hill.
Summers on Rabbit Hill were the best. Read that story.