Ask anybody over 40 about their childhood and they’re sure to blather on about “the good old days.”
Early-onset dementia, coupled with a tendency to view the past through rose-colored glasses, means most old people can’t tell fantasy from reality. Childhood was dangerous. It’s a wonder most of us lived to tell about it.
The most dangerous place for a kid was the playground.
Playgrounds nowadays are sanitized “learning zones.” Equipment is made of rounded, friendly plastic that rests lovingly on artificial ground-cover as soft and springy as a pillow-top mattress. Playing is like jumping on your parents’ bed.
In my day, playgrounds were gladiator proving grounds. They were secretly funded by the local hospital to ensure a steady stream of patients for their emergency room.
The playground was a concrete jungle. Literally. Even if it wasn’t concrete, the dirt was packed down so hard by the pitter-patter of little Keds, it might as well have been. Playgrounds featured such Large Instruments of Bodily Destruction as:
Geodesic Dome Monkey Bars: This was a half-circle of rusted metal that crested 6-feet off the ground. You scrambled to the top and then hung upside-down by your knees from the top rung. If you were lucky you had about 1 minute to enjoy that blood-rushing-to-your-head feeling of triumph. Then a bigger kid would knock you off to become the new King of The Hill.
It was a marvel if you escaped playing on this without getting your head bashed in.
Slides: Climbing up the tall, rickety ladder was daunting, but he who hesitates was lost. There were 5 kids climbing up right behind you, face to butt all the way. If you didn’t sit down and slide immediately, they’d climb over the top of you.
Slides used to be all metal. In the summer it was like playing in a frying pan. Kids knew to either lift their legs up or scootch their shorts down to avoid 3rd degree burns on their thighs.
9 times out of 10, you’d have to try to stop halfway down the slide because some bully had decided to climb up the slidey part, rather than wait his turn. You’d be wedged midway, grabbing the burning metal with your hands, sneakers braced against the sides while you tried to stare down Scott Farkus. You could only hope you weren’t TOO high up when you inevitably gave in and jumped over the side to escape a vicious slug to the arm.
Slides could kill you. We once stopped to visit our grandmother on the way to the zoo and our parents exiled us kids to the park a couple of blocks from her house. They had a slide that was 10-foot-tall, honest to God! My little brother Billy, about 8 at the time, was goofing around at the top and he fell off. I can still see him in slow motion, plummeting off the side. It made a dull thud when he hit the hard-as-iron ground below and he was knocked out, cold. We thought he was dead. My sister Mary Kay was about 12 then and she struggled to carry him back to grandma’s house with the rest of us trying to help hoist an arm or a leg.
Billy turned out not to be dead, but he insisted on having a concussion or some such little thing so we didn’t get to go to the zoo. What a wuss.
Swings: There were 2 kinds of swings.
Rubber slings: When you sat in one of these, the space narrowed so your arms were trapped at your sides and your butt popped out the back. The thick rubber sling squeezed your thighs together so tightly you lost all feeling in your feet.
Wood: These were straight slabs of hardened oak, suspended by metal chains as thick as your wrist. They were tough to get going, but once you did, you could really get some height on them. The biggest risk with a hundred kids running through the playground is that one would get too close to a swing in mid-flight.
My sister Carolyn walked behind one and nearly lost an eye. She bears the scar from the stitches under her eyebrow to this day.
Springy Animals: Painted, cast metal figures of tigers, sheep and other exotic creatures were mounted on giant, coiled metal springs. When they were new, they were coiled so tight they would barely move, which was no fun at all. When they got old, however, the springs got so loose you had to be careful you didn’t smack your head on the ground on the back-swing.
If you managed to avoid back-swing head trauma, you’d probably still wind up with long-term brain damage due to lead poisoning from the flaking paint.
Swing Across Monkey Bars: How I envied the kids who could swing across these, kicking their legs and reaching hand over hand like, well, monkeys. I lacked the upper body strength to make it across. I’d get only a few rungs out and then hang there like a slab of meat on a hook as I could feel my hold weakening. In the 30 seconds I spent debating whether I should try to turn around, or risk a broken ankle by dropping 6 feet to the ground, my weak, sweaty hands would uncurl from the bar and make the decision for me. Down I went with a thump.
The only good thing about being a weakling was I was spared the inevitable mid-monkey-bar jousting tournament. As soon as one kid started swinging across from one end, another would start out from the other end so they met in the middle. Each would swing their legs out wildly to try to get them wrapped around the other kid’s waist. The intent was to knock the competition to the ground. Then the triumphant combatant would continue their Victory Lap Of Monkey Bar Supremacy over the body of their fallen enemy, swinging unimpeded to the end. It was a game of chicken to the death.
Teeter-Totters: Mounting a teeter-totter was a suicide mission unless you were wearing a mouth guard and padded Depends.
The temptation for your teeter-mate to hop off mid-totter was usually too much for them to resist. They jumped off when you were at your zenith and you plummeted to earth with such a crash you were in danger of breaking both your teeth and your tailbone. The only way to avoid this fate was to do unto them before they did unto you, and jump off first.
You rarely see teeter-totters anymore. The UN outlawed them along with mustard gas.
The next time you go to the playground, by all means enjoy yourself. But take a moment to bow your head in silent homage to the children of yesteryear. The modern playground rests on a foundation cemented with our blood, sweat and tears.