Commentary: Nancy Drew and the case of the Missing Plug Nickles

My friend Jeanne and I used to play Nancy Drew when we were kids. We were lucky to grow up three doors apart in Los Angeles and are luckier still to be neighbors now.

When we were young, there was so much to do! No supervised play dates or organized girls’ sports. No gymnastics or karate lessons. Just the freedom to be kids. (Son Tim says his was the last generation to experience that kind of freedom.) The world was safer then.

Summer was free time for running through the sprinklers, playing with dolls under the fruit trees in the backyard, and playing hide-and-seek until dark. Weekends were for free shows at the Ritz, the La Brea and the El Rey. Of course, on either weekends or in the summer, we could also skate, ride our bikes and explore.

We lived near Wilshire Boulevard and Highland Avenue, a few blocks from the Miracle Mile and a block and a half from the creek. I suppose the creek had a name, but we just called it the creek. It was down low in someone’s back yard, off Eighth Street, and nobody stopped us from wading in the cool water and catching crawfish in Hills Bros. coffee cans.

We four girls on Citrus Avenue could explore anywhere within our purview — west on Wilshire to the Tar Pits, north of there to the Farmers Market at Third Street and Fairfax Avenue, southeast to the Los Angeles Public Library across from Los Angeles High School on Olympic Boulevard.

Before we had bikes, we kept our eyes on the sidewalk so we wouldn’t step on any cracks. Sometimes we would find a penny or a nickel or a dime along the way. With all that exercise, it’s no wonder we were skinny then.

The most fun was exploring houses being built. After World War II there were a lot of them. We would pretend we were looking for clues to solve a mystery, maybe “The Secret of the Framed House.” Jeanne and I felt we were doing something very dangerous, although we were always cautious.

We would collect the plugs punched out of newly installed electrical boxes. Jeanne and I kept ours in empty Band-Aid boxes. They made such a delightful racket! The boys said they used the plugs, or slugs, in jawbreaker machines. We didn’t tell on them, though.

More than 50 miles south (and considerably more than 50 years later), Jeanne and I are still lured to houses under construction. And we still refer to it as “playing Nancy Drew” when we make a date to explore after the workmen have gone home.

A major remodel has been going on next door since last November. Jeanne and I played Nancy Drew and explored it not long ago. It was fun observing the clues and guessing where the kitchen would be now, figuring out the newly designed location of the hall bath and the master suite, and enjoying the view, which would be visible from a whole corner of windows.

We didn’t find any plugs, though. Where could they have gone? Don’t they make electrical boxes like that anymore?

Being a grown-up takes some of the adventure out of things. Before we went, I had asked the owner if it would be all right if I walked through her project as it progressed.

She said, “Yes, just be careful,” and of course Nancy J. and Nancy L. are always careful.

LIZ SWIERTZ NEWMAN lives in Corona del Mar.