It’s high time I retold this story that I first told in 2010.

My childhood neighborhood was packed tightly along steep, narrow streets with tiny, thinly built lookalike two- and three-bedroom houses. 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 wages didn’t stretch far, making it challenging to afford even one of these homes. But a seller needed out badly, and he signed his mortgage over to my parents. With that, they had their first house, in this neighborhood on South Bend’s south side.

A whopping 31 other children were born along our street within a few years of me. With a wink and a smile, the neighbors all came to call our street Rabbit Hill.

Summertime children on Lancaster Drive: Darin, Colleen, Christy, David, Mike, and two others partially hidden. Summer, 1976.

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 on the many occasions when she stuck her tongue out at me. 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, just to make her blush. Their sister Mary came much later; to her mom’s embarrassment, she occasionally came to our front door in her birthday suit. Tomboy Angie lived a couple doors down with her dad, 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 cool, and we all looked up to him.

Walking and Big-Wheeling it up Rabbit Hill, which was freshly slurry sealed: Me, Jimmy, and Sally. Summer 1972.

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 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 more than 40 years later.

Christy lived a few doors down, right next to the Secret Sidewalk, a concrete shortcut through the neighborhood. She organized endless games of Red Rover. Next door 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 summer. Mom would set up the Slip ‘n Slide and half the neighborhood’s kids would come over. She made gallons of Kool-Aid and popped gobs of popcorn for us all. We also had a lot of old Army gear and some plastic M16 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 quiet.

The adults often gathered to socialize. Robyn’s dad often hosted, as he had built a large family room and 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. We used to all pile into her big ’68 Chevy and run up to Kroger. 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 played Canasta most Saturday nights for 48 years, until my parents retired and moved to Indianapolis.

All was not idyll on Rabbit Hill. I understand that there were factions in the neighborhood, drawn mostly along Catholic and Protestant lines; the two sides barely spoke. 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 was found dead unexpectedly in his home, and that much later their mother passed after a long illness. We were saddened by all of this 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 better.

Facebook has reconnected me to several of my old Rabbit Hill friends, including Robyn, Sally, Shannon, Sherrie, Denise, and Michael. It’s been fun catching up.

Robyn’s dad took endless Super 8 home movies, which she had converted to digital files. A few Christmases ago, 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 over how much life was lived in that little spray of houses. 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.

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15 responses to “On Rabbit Hill”

  1. J P Cavanaugh Avatar

    What a great place to grow up! It reminds me a little of my childhood neighborhood in several ways, where there were quite a few kids of my age. Your tale is beautifully told.

    I have regretted that my own children grew up in a neighborhood with very few kids close by. Only my daughter developed anything close to a childhood friend. All of their friends came from school and involved parental shuttles to other neighborhoods.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I wish my sons had more childhood neighborhood friends, too. Living out here in old suburbia, with all the cul-de-sacs, it’s just a different lifestyle.

  2. pesoto74 Avatar

    Sounds like my experience of growing up during the baby boom. I think every place was rabbit hill back then.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      This was the 1970s, so the boom had passed. This was truly a matter of houses priced right for young families, which flocked to the neighborhood!

  3. tina Avatar

    I enjoyed your story. The writing brought it to life for me.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Thanks so much Tina! This one’s an evergreen, worth dusting off every few years and retelling.

  4. Jason Shafer Avatar
    Jason Shafer

    This makes me feel bad about how nomadic my life has been in the 13 years my daughter has been here. Rabbit Hill does indeed sound like a great place.

    Your timing is fantastic. I’m making my first voyage to South Bend tomorrow.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I hope your pilgrimage involves seeing some classic Studebakers!

  5. Tom Hitt Avatar

    My experiences during that time were not unlike what you describe here. Work on your memoir. Excellent imagery. Thanks for the essay. ~TH~

  6. Bob Dungan Avatar
    Bob Dungan

    Two things you have a wonderful memory for names and it just goes to show that you don’t have to be rich to to have a good life or be happy.

  7. Sam Avatar

    Wonderful post and memories, I’m glad to hear you have reconnected via Facebook!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      My hometown people pretty much came out of the woodwork five years or so ago on Facebook!

  8. Tom Avatar

    I had a friend who lived in that area his name was Tracy Essex he moved with his family about 1962 ,, to North Way, Park that’s where I moved in 1963 from somewhere in South Bend called Marietta Street he would tell me about the neighborhood there they had a house built over by which is now Kmart and that’s where I lived and he became my best man at my wedding

  9. Steve Bryan Avatar
    Steve Bryan

    Great story, well told. My childhood was a decade before yours. It was the baby boomer years. New schools were being built all over the city and additions being added to existing schools.

    I lived in a neighborhood of small houses on the near east side of Indianapolis. Six of us in a house smaller than the house I now live in with two people and a cat. It was an industrial area. The neighbors across the street had a New York Central rail yard just beyond their back yard fence. The rail yard was moved in the 60’s but left behind many building and a round house for exploring.

    Thank you for sharing your story.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Thanks very much Steve! Isn’t it interesting how different our expectations were 50+ years ago about how much space we needed in our homes? The homes on Rabbit Hill were 700-1200 sf, I think. Ours was about 900 sf. The reason we moved was because as my brother and I got older, the space felt tighter and tighter.

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