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Sunday, June 5, 2011

The Last Innocent Age...25 Hours in a Day...The Games we Played, the Things we Did

Every neighborhood...probably every region of the world for that matter...has their own games that the kids played growing up. I'm not talking about playing baseball or football...we certainly did that. I'm talking about the funny things we did to entertain ourselves when we weren't playing sports. The games we made up on cottony-thick summer nights when we needed to run to avoid the mosquitoes that were so big they had landing lights. The tales we told, the hobbies we engaged in. The innocent practical jokes we played on the neighborhood.
Monroe Avenue was built in 1960, and as such it was an "old school" neighborhood with telephone poles. Since about the late 70's, they bury all utilities, but back then they used telephone poles. It might seem like a nuisance and an eyesore...and it probably is. But a good portion of the fun we had on that street revolved around either the poles that stood on the curb at every third house, (and only on one side of the street) or the wires that were strung across and between them like a giant web. We played wire ball almost daily. This is were you throw the ball up in the air and you try to hit the wire. (We used a "pimple ball" or a tennis ball). If you hit it and your opponent dropped it, it was a single. Hit it on the way up and it counts regular, if you hit it on the way down and your opponent dropped it, it was a HR. We tied old Converse "Chuck Taylors" together and threw them over the wires. Johnny Wilkins, Richard Ferraro and I lost a sinker or two wrapped around those wires while we were practicing our casting techniques on winter evenings when it was too cold to go fishing.
The poles themselves were the most user friendly things on the street. The were a pole for a basketball backboard. They were the backstop for stickball games after we took the cinderblock wall down. And they were "homebase" for about a dozen different versions of tag or capture the flag that we made up as we went along. They were the end zones for legendary touch football battles in the street.
Probably the one game we played the most using the poles was "Up and Down Tag". The poles defined the base. The object was simple. Whoever was "it" was in the middle between the pole at the Riccio's house and the one at Mr. Lowman's house. A distance of about 50 yards. All of us would spread out behind the imaginary line that ran from the pole across the street. Behind the line was safe. Once you crossed the line, you couldn't go back, you had to run down to the other pole and cross that line to be safe. The guy in the middle would try to tag you. if you got tagged, you stayed in the middle with the original "it" until everyone was caught. then the first guy who had gotten tagged became "it" for the next game. We would play this game for hours. Sometimes we played a version of it with a wiffle ball where the "it" could throw a wiffle ball at you and that was how you were tagged.
We played a version of capture the flag that they called "Relievio". We were all divided up into two teams. The two poles represented our home base and the "jail" where we kept the prisoners we captured. We designated one jailkeeper each, and the rest of us ran and hid behind the houses. (This was in a day when virtually nobody on our street had fenced-in yards. A few families did because we had dogs, but mostly we all ran through each others yards at will and nobody cared) The object was to capture opposing teams players and take them to your base where they were now in jail. When you caught someone, you had to say "caughty-caught jailbreaks!". That was the official lingo and that meant the person had to stay in your jail until his team mates came to set him free.
 This was going on simultaneously on both ends and it was a lot of fun that lasted deep into the night. It was nothing for us to be out in front of the houses playing beneath those street lamps until 11pm and our parents never gave it a moments thought. They knew we were out there, they knew all the kids on the street, it was as safe as anyplace else. We played "Buck Buck" which has it's origin in Philadelphia. We played wall-ball. We played a game that had no rules and no real intention except to scare us all. The game was created by Frankie Messick who was older than most of us. A little history is in order to introduce this one. Behind the houses across the street from mine was an area of public space. It stood between the backyards on that side of the street and the public park. It was a no-man's land. The county owned it and they cut the grass once a month, but it was really ours to run wild in. There was a big creekbed that ran through it where we had enormous fun. The creek was dry most of the time except when we had big rains. At one end of this area was a grove of trees we called "Heinyaland". They were calling it that when I moved there so I have no idea where the name originated. I do know it was really nice by day and creepy as can be by night. On those thick summer nights, sometimes we'd go back to Heinyaland and play a game called  "Heinyaman". Frankie Messick would go back there first and hide in the darkness...usually inside the boughs of the willow tree. Then we would all go marching in to face his inevitable attack. He would come running out of the darkness howling and menacing and we'd be scared witless. We knew he was there...we knew he was coming...and he still scared us.
We played wiffle ball and we held our own roller derby. We all had those noisy steel-wheeled roller skates and we made an oval in chalk out in the street and we re-enacted the roller derby we watched on TV. 
Tommy Riccio, Johnny Wilkins and I would take a trip down to the "Chelsea Swamps" where our beloved Nonesuch Creek was, and bring back dozens of cat tails. Or "punks" as we called them. We'd let them dry for a week or so and then we'd light them at night, convinced the smoke kept the mosquitoes away. We pretended to be smoking cat-tail cigars and we would blow the smoke at each other. each summer we got fireworks and we'd use the punks to light the fuses. They have a unique aroma when they burn and I can still smell them if I think about it.
We built models. Models of dragsters, and battleships and airplanes. We collected butterflys. In fact that was a big hobby for most of us on the street for a lot of years. We knew all the species and which ones were the hardest to find. Johnny and Richard and I always sought the elusive Zebra swallowtail and the Mourning Cloak.
We had chemistry sets and microscopes. We had erector sets. We built elaborate tree houses and ground forts. One fort even had a working fireplace. We built a 9 hole golf course in the public ground behind the houses one summer. We built goal posts for our football games. When the summer rains would come, we'd take my 2 man inflatable raft and float down the creek in the rapids that suddenly developed.
We had lemonade stands in the summer and snowball fights in the winter. We would hide between parked cars and hop the bumpers of those who drove down our street in the snow. You'd run out, grab the bumper and let the car pull you along.
We were fascinated by UFO's back then. It was the rage in the mid 70's. Me, Tommy, Johnny and Kevin would lay out in the big park on a blanket at night and watch the stars to see if anything strange happened. it never did, but we never lost the wonder of looking up into space.
We ran and laughed and imagined and dreamed. And the last thing we wanted was for the nights to end and to have to say goodnight and go inside. They don't make video games that capture what we had back then.
...we packed 25 hours into a day. We'd sleep, and dream, and wake up to do it all again the next day.

1 comment:

Dave Lewis said...

Enjoying the read!