Child’s Play

Baby boomers remember when kids used to go outside and play instead of sit in front of a computer or electronic games device. In the mid 1950’s, playing outside on Jackson Boulevard in Chicago’s West Garfield Park area meant either doing pretty much the same stuff that my year older sister did. This included hopscotch, hula hoop, jump rope and a great game for whiplash called “Red Rover”. This involved, if memory serves me right, having two rows of kids stand a few feet apart facing each other. The captain of one row instructs his or her line mate to shout out “Red Rover, Red Rover- let Tommy come over”. Then, it would be Tommy’s job to earnestly try to break through the human wall opposite him. Being the boy in this group and one of the younger ones- guess who was most often the sacrificial lamb?

I was saved from the indignity of being called a sissy by a neighbor in our building named Allen. He was a year older and very wise about sports. He taught me “pinners”. It was a simple game usually played by two persons with a rubber ball. One would stand inches from a wall or stair and throw the ball against it in such a way as to have it bounce off and go towards the other player several feet away in the field of play. I’m sure other neighborhoods had different names for this game. If the fielder caught the ball cleanly, it was an out; otherwise, a runner was safe on base. A ball that flew over the fielder’s head was an automatic hit and depending on how far it went- as agreed to before the game- decided if it was a double, triple or homer. We’d play nine inning games as well as several matches for what seemed hours.

In the alley in the back of the building we’d play catch or swing a bat at a ball. Being six or seven years old, I wasn’t very good and more in the developmental stage, taking this all in for use at a later date.

Down the block, a double empty lot that we called a “prairie” was our battleground for war games. The ground sloped from the alley toward the street so it was like a small hill. This was before the days of caring about ecology and the environment. We’d find discarded large corrugated cartons by consumers who had bought their first television set, automatic washer or frost-free refrigerator. We’d go inside these cartons and roll down the hill pretending that we were fighting in tanks. After a battle, we’d take out our candy cigarettes and pretend to smoke just like the soldiers did on tv.

In the late 1950’s and early 60’s, westerns were so popular that they comprised more than half the shows in prime time. The number one rated show for the year 1959 was a western. Naturally, little boys played with toy guns of all types of construction.

By this time living in the Austin neighborhood, I had a toy gun that shot out plastic bullets. They went flying and could hurt an unsuspecting person if it hit him in a sensitive area. This was before consumer safety laws addressed this type of issue. Then I migrated to a gun that shot caps. I’d open the metal gun barrel from the side just as they did on tv and load a roll of red paper onto a spool. The paper was affixed with sulfur spots every two-eights of an inch I guess. If I shot the gun properly, it would cause a continuous round of realistic sounding popping noise and I’d smell the sulfur and see brief sparks of smoke in the air.

After a while, my parents would yell at me to stop playing in the indoor back porch with the gun or go outside and use it. Too often, the roll would not flow properly, so I’d forget about loading it in the gun and instead lay it out on the sidewalk, strike it with a rock and start a continuous round of pop gun noise. Yeah, I know what you think- cheap thrills.

During the warm months, especially around July when the bugs would be outside at night, a group of us would light up punks. They were long sticks that had some type of material at the top that caused it to stay burning for a while as it let off smoke and a strange smell. It was supposed to ward off the bugs and it also got us a little high.

When our family moved to West Rogers Park on Chicago’s north side in late 1968, I was now a junior in high school and too old to play goofy games. We lived in a townhouse development that had a very large shared parking lot in front of all the houses. All the kids in this cooperative played in the lot indifferent to the coming and going of cars. I’d play catch with the kids regardless of their age and as soon as my kid brother was old enough to put on a baseball glove, I was tossing grounders to him as well.

More than forty years later, my mother still lives there and the third generation of kids from the development go outside to play in the parking lot. But it is mostly to ride their bikes and tricycles in good weather or play on the snow mounds during the winter. It’s not that these kids are inside on a spring or summer night watching television or chatting up on Facebook because none have those entertainment or social comforts. Their parents don’t allow it. It’s just that kids don’t play ball anymore outside. Which has me concerned about the future of America. But, that’s another story.

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