Those summer nights of hide and seek where we were willing quarry,
our efforts to make curfew were too often dilatory.
Our neighborhood adventures stretched out under the stars—
those shadowed venturings abroad, hiding behind cars,
in barrow pits or hedges, darting through the dark,
avoiding passing car lights and the dog’s insistent bark.
Bigger kids the kingpins of this nightly sequestering,
lying still as death with our fears of capture festering.
That titillating strain of remaining undetected,
somehow in our memories has made us more connected.
How we so consistently lay spread out on the ground
cowering, but secretly hoping to be found
by that special someone who, in our pre-teen flush
even then, in passing, could bring about our blush.
All this search and parrying that we called summer games
very soon would fill our lives called by other names.
Their creaks were my alarm that kids were on the elementary school playground across the street and if my biggest sister was downstairs or away from home or even sleeping as soundly as she always did after coming home late the night before, I’d sneak into her room to look out onto the playground from above and see who was there. I knew the difference in the sound between the merry-go-round and each set of swings—the little swings next to the little slide, or one of the three big sets directly across from the block my house was on. Higher, with longer and more flexible chains, these swings could be made to loop de loop—pass up so high that you actually went over the top of the frame the swings were suspended from and wound the chain once around the pipe.
Some of the boys could repeat this three or four times until the swing got so high that none of the little kids could get up to it. Then the janitors would have to get their tallest ladder and go up to push the seat over and over the cross pole with one of their big push brooms to straighten it out again and bring the seat down closer to earth.
There were rules forbidding loop de looping, but the boys would come after school when all the teachers had gone home and even our janitors, Mr. and Mrs. Polachek, who lived kitty-corner across from the south end of the playground, were at home in their backroom away from the sounds of kids they had to deal with every day.
The creak I was listening for was the creak of the merry-go-round. Teepee shaped, it had a wooden runner all the way around it a foot up from the ground. There was a handrail about thirty inches above it, so you could stand on the wooden runner, facing the center pole, hold onto the hand rail and enjoy the ride as the big kids ran around in circles around the merry-go-round, pulling it with them to go faster and faster, then stood on four sides of it, grabbing the handrail pipe and pushing it off to make it go faster still. One by one, more onlookers would enroll in the joint effort to get it going fast enough. Then they’d jump on and everyone would pump up and down, sticking their bottoms out into space as they bent their knees to keep up the momentum.
There were other ways to use the Merry-go-round. The bigger girls like Marie Holstedt who lived on the street that faced the opposite side of the playground from the one my house faced, would sit on the foot board with her boyfriend Robert. Their feet side by side on the ground, they would sway to and fro in a kind of two-step movement—two to the right, then one to the left––their knees touching with their swing to the right, their hips touching when they swung to the left. When they did this, the sound of the merry-go-round reminded me of the strange rhythmic creaking I’d hear sometimes late at night in my house.
It was probably the TV antenna on the roof, my mother had said. Or maybe the furnace trying to pump out heat, she had speculated when I pointed out that it had been a windless night.
Life was simple and I believed her. Only now do I make sense of it and of my father’s late night short trips down the hall to the bathroom—the washcloth always draped over the tub faucet the next morning.
It was an innocent age where it was entirely possible to be eleven years old and to never have had the least idea that anything like sex existed in the world. Yet a good deal of what eventually led up to it went on in the playground across from my house. Older girls would sit in the swings, swaying back and forth without ever taking their feet from the ground. Or, take fast running steps forward and backward without really letting go and allowing the lift off. To their side or in front of them would be their crush of the day or the week or the hour. If he was not the boy of choice, sometimes the girls would switch swings. If the boy switched again, too, and the other boy let him, then it was a sign language of sorts that indicated which boy favored which girl, and if the girls went home, a clear message that things had not matched up correctly to their satisfaction.
But at other times—usually during games of ditch ‘em played in the twilight and darkness of summer—courtships could progress toward hunkering down in the ditches around the playground, close up to some culvert where the ditches were their deepest, the girl in front, the boy with his arms around her waist, holding her back from running to try to get to home base when one of the littler kids who was “it” ran past without seeing them. In these junior high years just past childhood, the objects of the games started to shift until finally in high school, the rituals of the old games were left behind entirely and ditch ‘em became merely a starting place––as did the swinging back and forth, the pumping, the dance.
Today, with merry-go-rounds a thing of the past, they are still an appropriate metaphor for what life pushes us toward from our birth. It begins with our rocking in the arms of our mothers, the rocking chairs of our grandmothers, the wild swings through the air locked hand-to-hand with our fathers. It is what slippery slides and swings and merry-go-rounds and dancing move us towards. Everything going around and around and in doing so really going back and forth from generation to generation. Passing the world on and fading away. Now and then doing a loop de loop just because we can.
This is a rewrite of a piece from three years ago. The prompt today is enroll.
“Ring Around the Rosie” for my sister’s birthday & a backyard production of “Cowboys.”
“Annie I Over,” ” New Orleans.”
In shorts or dresses or cutoff jeans,
we ran and threw and played and shouted.
our pent-up energy thus outed.
“Send ‘Em,” “Ditch ‘Em,” “Cops and Robbers.”
“Poor Pussy” turned us into sobbers.
Do you remember these childhood games?
All vastly varied, with different names?
Before TV or internet,
games were as good as one could get
for transport from reality.
Back when we were cellphone-free,
“Drop the Handkerchief” we knew well
along with “Farmer in the Dell.”
“London Bridge” went falling down
each birthday party in our town.
All the long-lit summer nights
“Cowboys and Indians” staged their fights.
“Cops and Robbers” led to searches
of school ditches and behind churches.
The whole town our playing ground,
each chid lost, each child found
in hours long games of “Hide-and-Seek.”
Count to one hundred. Do not peek!
In childhood games of girls and boys,
imaginations were our toys.
Does such magic now reside
in minds of children safe inside
their cushioned worlds of rumpus rooms,
sealed safe within their houses’ wombs?
For dangers real now lurk in places
that formerly hid playmates’ faces.
Safety dictates different measures
for insuring childhood pleasures.
But oh, I remember so well
joyful flight and heartful swell
of friends pursuing through the dark
back then when life was such a lark.
Now children seek play differently
on cellphone screens and Smart TV,
scarce imagining a world
with internet not yet unfurled.
Our world had not yet been corrupted
with connections interrupted
with wireless servers on the blink,
for we needed no further link
than friends pounding upon our door
to come outside and play some more!