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Woog's World / Westport rites of passage, reckless and benign

Published 9:08 am, Monday, February 4, 2013
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Amid the daily drip-drip-drip of our lives on Facebook -- photos of restaurant meals, links to cat videos, rants and raves about Obama and Rand Paul and Justin Bieber -- there are random moments of amazement.

Once in a while, someone writes a beautiful story. Or points us to a powerful video. Or posts a photo that takes us back to a time and place we'd long ago forgotten.

That last thing happened the other day. There -- in the middle of a mess of memes -- was a memory from my youth. It was a photo from the 1970s, of a then-Staples High School student jumping from the Interstate-95 bridge into the Saugatuck River. On (of course) a dare.

Once upon a time, that was a rite of passage. Teenagers back in the day -- back in my day -- had plenty of traditions, marking the path from the safety of childhood to the wild and crazy exuberance of youth. Here are some of them.

I won't identify those I participated in, those I was a spectator at, and those I merely heard about. Supposedly, now that I am an adult I serve as a role model. Also, I am not sure whether the statute of limitations has passed for some of these.

Still, they make great stories.

On Bayberry Lane -- just north of the Merritt Parkway bridge -- there is a hill. You scarcely notice it anymore, because it's been engineered into a mere molehill, but for years it was closer to a mountain. And, like a skier flying downhill, if you were driving a car and timed it right you could catch plenty of air heading southward. It wasn't great for the chassis of your (okay, your parents') car, but for generations of newly minted drivers, it was a memorable challenge.

To add to the enjoyment, "some people" painted a bull's-eye target at the bottom of the hill. Right opposite Leslie Schine's house, as I recall.

An even more dangerous tradition -- in retrospect -- were late night (also early night, evening, afternoon, and sometimes morning) runs to Vista and Port Chester. The lure was alcohol, because for many years while the legal drinking age in Connecticut was 21, New York's was just 18. For 18-to-20-year-olds, those jaunts were legal. For the rest, it was a lot easier to pass as 18 than 21.

In those days, fake driver's licenses were far easier to obtain. Everyone's license was horizontal, not age-related vertical, and the DMV didn't think to take photos. It hardly mattered; clerks at border stores -- some of them younger than their customers -- seldom checked.

"Border stores" is a literal term. Vazen's in Port Chester was just over the state line; Vista Market was about four inches beyond New Canaan. The market is still there, though I can't imagine it does anywhere near the business it did back in the booming beer era.

The movies were a more sober place to assert independence. When the Fine Arts Theater filled the space now occupied by Restoration Hardware, Saturday afternoons were matinee time. Junior high boys and girls poured in. For some seventh- and eighth-graders, the unspoken code of conduct was to be as obnoxious as possible -- yelling, throwing Jujubes, congregating on the balcony and doing whatever kids did before cellphones commanded all their attention.

For others, the movies were a perfect place to make out. Boyfriend/girlfriend relationships could blossom, bloom and then die, all within the time frame of a double feature. All the action was conducted to the soundtrack of other kids watching, cheering, jeering -- but thankfully not tweeting -- the action.

A less romantic/frenzied rite of passage/step toward independence took place on the water. It's been years since I heard anyone do this, but for decades it was a summer tradition for teenagers to spend a scary/fun night on Cockenoe Island. It was as rocky and rat-infested then as it is now, but that didn't matter. The chance to sail (or motorboat) out there, build a fire and do "whatever" was one of those things that made growing up in Westport memorable, and great. The island sits just a mile or so offshore, but when you're there you might as well be on another planet. Particularly if you make camp on the far side, where you can't see Compo at all.

Every generation has its own growing up, hope-our-parents-don't-find-out traditions. Some are benign; others could easily result in serious bodily harm. All get better and crazier year after year, with each retelling.

Now, of course, teenagers record everything on their cellphones. Photos and videotape prove exactly what happened; with one click they can be sent to a few people, then instantly forwarded to the entire planet.

Which is actually far more dangerous than jumping off the I-95 bridge.

Dan Woog is a Westport writer, and his "Woog's World" appears each Friday. He can be reached at dwoog@optonline.net. His personal blog is www.danwoog06880.