My apartment building had its own playground. Unfortunately, the playground was a mess. It was nearly impossible to sit on a bench without getting a splinter in your finger or your cheek (you know the cheek I’m talking about) and there was frequently broken glass on the ground. The swings were routinely vandalized and it would be months (if not years) before they were replaced. The sliding ponds were full of rust and possibly a breeding ground for tetanus, and the see-saws disappeared early on in my childhood and only made one short-lived comeback. There was a stairway at the entrance of the park leading down to the building’s underground garage but the door was always blocked with litter and empty beer cans. Yet this playground was one of the highlights of my childhood.
In the summer months, every night after dinner, every kid in the building would congregate in that park. There were no phone calls, emails, or texts. It was an unwritten rule; show up around 6:30 pm if you want to be part of the fun. The main game was tag, and with a dozen or more kids to play with, the game was pretty exciting. We’d start with the standard “eeny, meeny, miny moe” to determine who was “it” which was a job in itself since at least 24 feet wearing Converse sneakers had to be tapped endlessly while reciting the rhyme. In our minds, there was no way around this, and we attempted to move through the selection process as quickly as possible. It’s amazing we could actually run in our Converse sneakers since it was like running on a piece of cardboard with a shoelace wrapped around it, but that’s all there was back then and no one seemed to ever sit out a game because of shin splints, so I guess they served their purpose. We played tag non-stop until the street lights went on and you could barely see your opponent. The only kids who left early were the European ones who to our endless fascination didn’t eat dinner until 7:30 pm. They had to leave, scoff down foods no one could pronounce, and try to get back to the playground before dark.
While tag was the most popular game we played, there were others. Wolf was a game where the person who was “it” was the wolf and all the kids on base were the chickens. Each kid had to decide on a color that would represent their “eggs” and share their choice with the other chickens so there were no repeats. The wolf would ask if the chickens had any eggs of a certain color and when your color was called, you had to run and try to get back to base before the wolf tagged you. If you succeeded, you got to pick a new color for your eggs; if you were caught, you became the new wolf. The game was fun while we were young and just knew our primary colors, but kids started “aging out” of the game and selecting colors that were impossible for the younger kids to guess, like magenta, lime-green, and the always dubious “rainbow colored” eggs. It was time to move on.
Another popular game was Red Rover. In this game, the kids divided into two teams and created a human wall by linking hands together. The teams would take turns chanting “Red Rover, Red Rover, we call (insert name here) over.” That kid would have to run and charge through the human wall, hoping to find the weakest link and break through. If he was successful, he returned to his team. If not, he was captured and became part of the other team. This game was so painful that it terrified everyone, yet it was more terrifying to say you didn’t want to play. So we just grinned and beared it, and hoped that the kid carrying the extra 20 pounds didn’t sever an artery or take off a limb as he body slammed our clasped hands.
Red Light Green Light was a gentler game, but not without its own set of problems. In this game, the person who was “it” turned his back to his opponents and chanted “red light green light one, two, three” while his opponents had to run off base and stop and freeze once the phrase was recited and “it” turned around to face the runners. The goal was to tag “it” while his back was turned and then run back to base without being caught. But, if “it” finished the phrase and turned around and you were not frozen in place, you had to go back to base and start over. The problem with this game was that there was an enormous amount of subjectivity and you never knew for sure if “it” really saw you move or was just pissed off because you didn’t give him the five cents he needed earlier in the day to have enough money for a Hershey bar. Tempers always flared during this time and kids would decide whose side to take in the argument and become their playground lawyer. The game deteriorated quickly, which is why we probably ended up resorting to playing Red Rover.
From time to time we would bring our big pink hula hoops to the playground for hula hooping competitions where we would see who could gyrate the longest without dropping their hoop. My brother Stuart would bring down our Monopoly money and offer to take bets from the other children as if we were thoroughbred race horses. My main competitor was my friend Eileen. She was younger, faster, and had better rhythm than me overall. She won every time. Yet my loyal friend, Harlan, always bet on me. He lost millions in Monopoly money, but preserved his friendship with me. Wise man.
During the school year, kids went to the school park which was considered a step up from the Saxon Hall park. The school park was fairly new and had a free-spirited, late 1960’s “feeling groovy” feel to it. There was a pink structure that vaguely resembled an octopus, a climbing apparatus that looked like a spaceship, and another thing to climb on that looked like a camel with two humps. People claimed that the park was designed by some up-and-coming artist, but I think the park resembled the tortured images of some poor guy on a bad LSD trip. The only things in the park that looked like what they were supposed to be were the monkey bars. There were three monkey bars shaped like an arch; small, medium, and large. The large one was at least five feet high and kids would routinely try to walk upright over the entire length of the monkey bar without falling. The developer of the playground thought about spurring a child’s imagination by creating structures with nebulous identities, but he never once thought about safety. Like many parks in the 70s’s, there was no protective padding below the monkey bars or any of the other structures and we proudly showed off our cuts, bruises, and gashes after our foot slid through the bar and we toppled onto the concrete five feet below.
Similarly, the word helmet only appeared in our vocabulary when we were discussing astronauts; surely there was no place for this equipment while riding a bike or roller skating. Likewise for elbow and knee pads. We were playground warriors in our bad sneakers and splintered asses. And we liked it that way just fine.