The news that Charles Manson died this week after nearly 46 years in prison did not bring me any sadness, but it did dredge up some memories from long ago.
The fact that these memories date back to when I was just a lad illustrates just how long Manson was in the jug.
My strongest memories of the notorious cult leader who directed his followers to murder several people in 1969 has to do with a game my friends and I used to play called flashlight tag.
This classic game, played in the dark, involves one person being designated “it.” Armed with a flashlight, the person who is it is tasked with trying to find the others in the group.
When caught in the beam of the flashlight and identified, the next person becomes it.
Some versions of the game involve putting everyone who is captured into “jail” before the next person takes over being it.
The players who are hiding are free to move around within the designated boundaries in the neighborhood, and it can be a lot of fun.
My friend Kim’s house was usually at the center of our flashlight tag games.
I grew up in a time when we didn’t worry about playing in the dark.
Our gang was about equally divided between boys and girls, and none of us were afraid to hide outdoors alone in our own neighborhood.
There were a few neighbors who we knew didn’t like kids hanging around, so we avoided their properties.
One of those was Kim’s neighbor Rosie. Her personality was not very Rosie, as far as I could tell. She scowled a lot, and she had an ugly little bad-tempered dog we called The Red Coat.
I didn’t blame the dog for being cranky, because Rosie made the poor mutt wear a stupid red sweater year round. The indignity of it must have colored the dog’s attitude.
In any case, we avoided Rosie’s yard even though it was right next to our home base.
One summer, our tranquil evenings of nocturnal fun were tainted by a wave of paranoia.
This was 1974, when the book, “Helter Skelter” came out. It was the story of the Manson cult’s murders. I think every girl in our gang read it, and it set them all on edge.
From that point on, “Helter Skelter became a code for our group.
If anyone which really meant any of the girls saw anything suspicious while we were playing flashlight tag, she would shout “Helter Skelter!” This was the signal for all of us to immediately come out of hiding and assemble on Kim’s back porch.
We figured there was safety in numbers, although what we would have done if a horde of gun-toting, wild-eyed California freaks had showed up is beyond me.
I don’t recall any evidence to suggest there was ever a branch of the Manson Family operating in northern Minnesota, but the book made quite an impression on the girls.
Even a stranger innocently strolling past at night might be enough to cause panic that year.
The paranoia lasted all that summer, and once lost, we never quite regained our former innocence.
Charles Manson and his followers have a lot to answer for, far beyond the murder of innocent people in California.
He became the personification of evil for our little gang, and for a lot of other people across the country.
Manson was obviously mentally disturbed, and the fact that he got others to follow him and do his bidding is as troubling today is it was back then.
I don’t know if gangs of neighborhood kids play flashlight tag on warm summer evenings anymore the way we did when we were kids.
If not, they are missing out.
Perhaps it’s not safe for kids to hang out after dark in their own neighborhoods anymore.
There have always been predators, but maybe there are more of them now.
It’s possible kids today would rather sit indoors and stare at electronic devices than go out in the dark and play together.
Perhaps they’re so used to having all their activities orchestrated and organized by adults, they wouldn’t know where to begin if they had a chance to make up games of their own.
The world has changed since they put Charles Manson in a cage and threw away the key. Sadly, he was not the only one who lost some freedom that day.
We are all less free than we once were, because fear has replaced innocence, and that’s a shame.