I was small for my age, awkward as a new-born calf, my tiny moon face partially hidden behind bottle bottom lenses set in a baby-blue cat’s eye frame (in 1964 the only other choice in girls’ glasses was baby-poop brown). I peered out at the world; my prescription glasses corrected my near-sightedness (which my mom, like the wicked foster mother in Kipling’s “Baa Baa Black Sheep,” believed was the result of reading in bed), but did almost nothing for my total lack of depth perception. I could see my hand in front of my face; I just wasn’t sure of how far away it was.
You will not be surprised that I was a reluctant participant in any physical activity. My idea of heaven was, and still is, a comfy couch and an endless supply of books. I spoiled my carefully curated party (pink cupcakes, girly crafts, elaborate party favors) when a guest asked the birthday girl, “What do you want to do?” I happily passed around my favorite books and encouraged the girls in their fancy Polly Flinders frocks to sit down and read.
I had a special hatred for school-sanctioned games. In our daily gym classes at Congdon Elementary, tradition dictated that the teacher couldn’t just count out one-two-one-two or use where our names fell in the alphabet to divide the class up into teams; nurturing children’s self-esteem was not a priority in those days.
The team selection ritual, as grim as “The Lottery,” was for the two biggest boys to, in perpetuity, be deemed Captains. They took turns picking their teammates, a process designed for maximum humiliation. Once all the boys were chosen, a grudging nod was given to Nancy Erland, a tall rangy girl who tackled black diamond ski slopes at the age of seven, outran every boy who tried to yank her braids, and had an older brother who taught her how to punch.
After Nancy and the one or two other girls who managed to be semi-athletic, even in those dark, pre-Title IX days, team selection slowed to a crawl, as the number of unchosen girls dwindled.
Even today, a millennium later, I can too easily conjure up my pit-of-the-stomach dread, slouched against the slick and chilly biscuit-colored tiles of the gymnasium, studying the wood-slatted floor, hearing “Becky,” “Joyce,” “Debby,” knowing once again I’d be the last kid picked. The cheese stands alone.
Only after the other 27 students had all been chosen and we were a good ten minutes into our hour of gym, did an unhappy Captain wave me over to his side with all the enthusiasm of inviting a leper to lunch and the games — kickball, dodgeball, or Newcomb, a weird ancestor of volleyball — could begin.
The string of old maid teachers I had from kindergarten to fifth grade had zero enthusiasm for gym; it was a task foisted on them by The President’s Council on Physical Fitness. Like my teachers, I resented gym as an unwelcome break from the pleasanter tasks of learning to sing “White Coral Bells” in a round, memorizing the multiplication tables, making shoebox dioramas, and blowing through all the levels of SRA Reading Lab booklets.
The one exception — for my teachers, not me — was their unbridled zeal for our bizarre annual immersion in square dancing. Every day for a week Mr. Swan, the cranky school janitor whose vile glowing stogie was surgically embedded in his jaw, wheeled a pre-war record player down to the gym, wisps of cancerous smoke trailing behind. The vinyl record was placed on the turntable, the needled dropped, and the torture began.
For the next hour, thirty sullen children (boys unhappy at the very idea of dancing, girls cringing at having to touch sweaty boy hands) do-si-doed, promenaded, and bowed to their partners (unisex cringing), while Miss Johnson or Miss Ritchie dementedly clapped off-beat to “Turkey in the Straw.” Why, dear Lord, why?
During the rest of the school year, once the psychological trauma of team selection was complete, the teacher announced the fresh hell of the day and found a folding chair to collapse in while a mild melee reigned around her, as every boy competed to kick or throw the ball the hardest.
For me, gym was just being hit with a ball; it takes a full sixty seconds for a neural message from my brain — such as “Volleyball headed this way!” — to reach my hands or feet. On dodgeball days, I got whacked in the head or chest; on kickball days, whacked in the shins or stomach. Billy Shaw had a kickball that could knock the wind out of a moose; my only hope when I saw one of his cannonballs headed for me was to turn sideways to present less of a target.
Newcomb, the gentlest and stupidest of games, is played with a volleyball net, but instead of spiking or banging the ball with your fists, you catch it and then loft the ball back over the net to the other side. I usually caught the ball with my face and let it drop to the floor, costing my team a point and me the rest of my dignity.
Despite the physical violence, our games were as orderly and well-mannered as World Cup Cricket. We did not need the teacher to referee. While the most daring girls chewed gum in class, future greasers carved their initials in their desk with pointy metal compasses that were never used for anything else, and even Miss Goody Two-Shoes once swiped a pack of Nik-L-Nips from Woolworth’s (for two weeks I lived in fear of the cops showing up at my door), when it came to games we were the Children of the Rules. Game rules were our unwritten Magna Carta, Articles of Confederation, and Ten Commandments, what kept kidlife from degenerating into Lord of the Flies.
By the time we toddled through the kindergarten door, we had spent years immersed in outdoor games, which were passed down as oral traditions from older kid to younger, with no adult input or interference.
From the end credits of My Friend Flicka Saturday morning, and on Sunday afternoons when even lie-a-bed families like mine were home from eleven o’clock Mass, and throughout the North’s never-ending summer days, neighborhood kids gathered on Lakeview Avenue, as if summoned by the Pied Piper, and asked each other, “What do you wanna play?”
My preferred outdoor activity was reading, but I usually did not have time to grab a book before getting the bum’s rush out the door. A toppled glass of milk, a spoon dropped into the garbage disposal, nuclear warfare with my sister — mom was on her last nerve and I was banished: “Go outside and play!”
I could slump on our front cement steps, yank grass out by the handful, and watch the neighborhood kids play, or I could sigh at the unjustness of the world, get up, and join in. Since this was an all-ages group, there were usually a few kids smaller than me and thus more likely to get clocked in the eye by a Wham-O Super Ball.
Like the Talmud and “The Road Not Taken,” the rules of our street games were open to interpretation. No game of Tag or Spud or Mother May I or Red Light Green Light or Kick the Can or Red Rover or Four Square or even Hopscotch (played exclusively by girls) could begin until the rules had been hashed out and approved by all players. If a kid showed up once the game was underway, she had to abide by the agreed upon rules, no matter “That’s not what we did last time.”
The youngest kids played “Duck Duck Grey Duck” (known everywhere outside of Duluth as “Duck Duck Goose”), a game with limited potential for mayhem, since most of the participants are sitting on the ground. A game with rules so simple a three-year-old can grasp them, so simple a five-year-old can turn up her nose and say, “That game’s for babies.” You run in a circle, you don’t leap over the laps of other kids, you don’t argue about the tag, you don’t wallop the Grey Duck too hard on the head.
Are we playing Hide and Seek? That birch tree is Home (where the person who’s It will lean, arms crossed, forehead pressed against wrists, eyes squeezed shut, nose pressed against tickling papery bark) where It has to count aloud to 100 one-Mississippi two-Mississippi. Even if the garage door is open, no hiding inside, that’s cheating. Mr. McCauley’s lawn (a lush green acreage well-fertilized with sheep manure) is out of bounds.
If you get S-P-U-D, you have to go through the Spanking Machine, and if anyone is a crybaby about it, you can’t play with us EVER AGAIN. (I consider the Spanking Machine as a springboard for sexual deviance and pray that it has been outlawed.)
Setting the physical boundaries for Tag required the map-making skills of Gerardus Mercator: include yards on both sides of the street and someone was bound to trip over the curb, scrap my knee, and have to go home for a Band-Aid. We wanted enough space to Run Faster Jump Higher as promised by our PF Flyers, but if the playing grounds were too spread out, no one ever got tagged and It ended up exhausted, sweaty, and red-faced, insisting, “This is dumb, let’s play something else.”
And there was the crucial question: who would be It? Hide and Seek, Spud, Tag, and almost every other game known to kids, required preliminary discussions on the It selection. The easiest solution was when a kid volunteered, “I’ll be It,“ otherwise we had to choose a choosing rhyme.
We were ignorant of the ignoble origins of “Eeny meeny miney mo, catch a tiger by the toe;” what was disturbing was the kid who wouldn’t stop at the second mo but insisted on “My mother told me to pick the very best one” and other addenda ad nauseum.
“Engine Engine Number Nine” was also popular, although it took longer when idiot children couldn’t decide whether they wanted their money back or not.
For a while, “One potato two potato” enjoyed a brief vogue, then we went back to “Eeny meeny.”
(In the tiny burg of Aberdeen, South Dakota, where I went every summer to visit my 525 cousins, they had but a single choosing rhyme:
“Ika bika soda cracker,
Ika bika boo,
Ika bika soda cracker,
Out go you!”
My attempt to introduce this rhyme to Lakeview Avenue was met with universal derision.)
All this parley took a long time. The rules were what we decided they would be, and we all had to agree: we were a mini-democracy, tiny Hamiltons and Jeffersons hammering out our Constitution. And we had these discussions every single day. It didn’t matter if we had just played Hopscotch the day before; the size and design of the court had to be re-negotiated. I would wager we spent as much time discussing rules as we did playing the game.
Since the water bottle had not yet been invented, when I was parched with thirst on those rare Duluth days when the thermometer hit 75, I called “Time out!” and dashed home. Forbidden by my mother to return to the Great Indoors (“I just waxed the kitchen floor!”), I headed for the side of the house where a brass valve needed a good hard twist to send water running down the green garden house. The icy water that bubbled out had an interesting undertaste of dirty penny. I’d gulp down water until my stomach gurgled, then swiveled around to where my sister was waiting her turn for a drink, stick my finger in the end of the hose, and earn myself another hour’s exile when she went wailing to our now-nerveless mom “Gay squirted me!”
Something else that had yet to be invented was snack. Lunch was some kind of sandwich — cream cheese and jelly, Oscar Meyer bologna and Miracle Whip, peanut butter and banana, a buttery, toasty grilled cheese in the winter — on squishy white Taystee bread, along with an apple or an orange, washed down with a glass of milk, chocolate milk for those lucky kids whose dads were not dentists.
We kids managed to survive on those provisions until dinner. Did something happen to children that they can no longer go a few hours without eating? If I had known I was signing up for a decade of having to bring snack I would never have had kids. I had to bring snack for school, snack for after school, snack for Little League and soccer, snack for chess tournaments. Even the pricey half-day summer camp I forced my boys into so I could have three hours of sanity-preserving peace and quiet mandated that I send in snack for twenty twice a month. And not just any snack: moms (or their au pairs) were baking madeleines, frosting brownies, and bagging up homemade trail mix. The look on the counselor’s face when I dropped off a couple of packages of Safeway brand cookies told me I had failed as a mom. I’m sure when I die Saint Peter will meet me at the Pearly Gates and demand, “Did you bring snack? It was your turn to bring snack.”
So there were no snack breaks; calls to come home and eat lunch or dinner were the only interruptions in our flow of games. As six o’clock approached, singly or in sibling groups, kids were fetched or called to come wash their hands and set the table. In the paradise of July, after even the most interminable family dinner (usually a result of my sister and I being forced to sit at the table until we took one bite of some foul vegetable) there were still hours of gentle twilight, a liquidy glow reflected off the Great Lake of Superior and down through the lushness of green tree leaves, magicking the street.
On the prettiest summer evenings parents drifted outside, cocktails and cigarettes in hand, to watch their offspring at play and exclaim with the neighbors at the sweltering weather: “Warm enough for ya?” Then the streetlights came on and it was time for bed.
Summer was peak season for games, despite kids being dragged off to sleep away camp, or out-of-town relatives, or rustic lakeside cabins where their families could escape the hustle and bustle of Duluth. Even if our kid numbers were reduced to three, we could still play Hopscotch or jump rope. Thanks to my mother, who claimed to be the Brown County Jump Rope Champion, I knew dozens of jumping rhymes, even though I couldn’t manage to coordinate my feet with the swirling rope, which wrapped around my ankles like a gaucho’s bola.
The lovely twilit evenings of summer dwindled and the dull comforts of the school routine resumed. Birch trees and maples and now extinct elm cast off their yellow, red, and orange leaves. We gathered armfuls of leaves, flung them at each other, raked them up into towering mounds, and burrowed through like chipmunks, our usual games forgotten. Mothers popped out of houses bearing scratchy wool sweaters smelling of mothballs that were forced over protesting children’s heads: “Put it on! You’ll catch your death!” Mothers were loath to accept the germ theory of disease: not wearing a sweater, going out with damp hair, and getting your feet wet were more dangerous than a virus.
It’s now the autumn of my life, what I convince myself is a brisk and blue-skied mid-October day, with a few bright-colored leaves hanging on. I hope sunset is still a bit away. I think back to those simple games we played for hours, our pleasure in being free and outside, how the answer to “Can I play?” was always yes, how we made the rules and held fast to them. The battles of my life were won on the playing fields of Lakeview Avenue, and I take a minute of gratitude for that morphing, grubby band of neighborhood kids, some blurry faced and nameless in my memory, some, like our games tsar Nancy Green, who was a year older and twice my size, as big and bossy as ever. There she is, in my mind’s eye, pointing at me and hollering “You got Spud! You have to go through the Spanking Machine!” arranging the spankers in a line, and leading me to my doom.
Featured image: Roman Nerud / Shutterstock
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