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This post is part of my 2022 Word Project. You can read what that’s about here.

Wednesday, May 31, 2023

I’m admittedly a little spent after yesterday’s diatribe. So today I think I’ll have a little fun, inspired by said diatribe. Turns out I’m not the only one who remembers “surviving.” A few other survivable scenarios surfaced in response, and one from Kaarina about a slide brought back a slew of memories.

In deference to surviving, and in honor of fun, I invite you to join me on the playground today.

The playgrounds of my childhood did not have padded ground. They did not have brightly colored plastic equipment with all the sharp edges shaved away.

The playgrounds of my childhood were on a patch of dirt that may have been grass before it was worn thin by running jumping climbing swinging digging. There was usually grass somewhere. Just not under the monkey bars or swings or slides or seesaws.

The playgrounds of my childhood had things to swing and climb and jump and spin on and they were pretty much all bare metal.

I remember a park under the Bronx River Parkway where my grandfather used to take us, a collection of swings and probably some other equipment, but what I remember most are the animals on springs.

There may have been a duck. Quite possibly a rooster or some other bird, perhaps a seahorse. What they were is secondary to the fact that I loved sitting on these things and swaying backward and forward on the spring.

Nothing much happened. You just sat and rocked and the spring creaked and you loved every second of it. If you were really good, you could get the duck’s bill to touch the ground on your forward rock, and the duck’s tail to hit the ground on the backswing.

Nobody ever told us not to do this. We jut rocked and smacked, rocked and smacked. Pure joy.

Not everything was as joyful, but we did it anyway. Have you ever gone down a metal slide in shorts on a hot summer day? Pure pain and torture! But we were kids, so we scalded our legs going down, then climbed back up to do it again.

You just had to figure out how to scoot-slide while holding onto the hem of your shorts so you could make it all the way down.

Then there were the wooden seesaws.

I loved seesaws. I particularly liked pushing off the ground really hard so the person on the other side smacked into the ground and you got jolted out of your seat so you had to hang on for dear life to avoid flying off.

Then the other person would push off really hard and you’d smack to the ground and they’d hold on for dear life.

And you’d laugh hysterically like this was the best trick ever.

If you were the one on the down-side, you stretched your legs out in front of you so your seat would hit the ground as hard as it could, without being interrupted by your feet. And if you leaned back, you could hold the other person in the air indefinitely like you would never let them back to the ground again.

Nobody ever told us not to do this. It’s how it worked. And yes, we survived.

There was one incident, though.

For some reason I decided to use the seesaw as a slide, so when I was up in the air I skated down to the other end on my butt.

Did I mention the seesaws were made of wood?

It would be an understatement to say I ended up with a thousand splinters. I have a very specific memory of being butt-naked in my grandparents’ apartment while they plucked splinters out with tweezers for what felt like about the rest of my life.

Merry go rounds. Those were super fun. Metal, so if you fell over you could break your teeth, but we never broke our teeth.

Dad spun those around crazy fast. Running around in circles and shoving the rails hand over hand while we whizzed by getting dizzier and dizzier.

Then when he was utterly breathless and needed a break before recommencing the spin, you’d get off and walk around wobbling and falling over laughing.

I don’t know where he got the stamina for that.

I remember a playground that he took us to that we dubbed Barrel Park because it had barrels.

We were creative like that.

They were maybe ten feet long lying on their sides, covered in a mural of brightly painted designs. At the time, I couldn’t quite stand up inside them, but my brothers could.

What I remember most is trying to climb on top of those barrels. They were round, slippery, and the top was almost as high as my head so getting up there was no joke.

One of the barrels had a little peep hole halfway up the side so if you swung your leg up to about waist height you could wiggle your toe into it, then hoist yourself up.

But the real thing was to get yourself on top without the hole. There was nothing to do once you got up there, you just sat there and reveled in your accomplishment. You stood on the round slippery side of this barrel and looked out over the mere mortals in the rest of the park, and you felt very excited to be on top.

Nobody ever told us not to do this. Every time we went to this park, we worked on our barrel climbing until we went from small and weak to bigger and stronger so we could get up there on our own.

Swings with chains. Do they still make swings with chains? I seem to recall someone adding plastic covers to the chains later in life. Do you know what happened when you swung too much and held onto metal chains for too long?

You got blisters. And maybe your palms bled. Then they got better and they got calloused and you could swing forever and go hand-over-hand on monkey bars for a mile without a problem.

You toughened up, as they say, and you figured out how to not slide off the top of the barrel and eventually your hands didn’t bleed anymore and you survived.

I remember that someone would push you so high you wondered if you’d spin around the top bar. Quite possibly you even tried to spin around the top bar, but never quite succeeded.

Sometimes the chains actually sagged and you free-floated through the air, that’s how high you were going. Even centrifugal force couldn’t keep up with you.

Nobody ever told us not to do this. We just pushed each other on the swings as hard and high as we could. And then we let go and flew through the air to land on the ground somewhere else.

Sometimes we’d even stand on the swings!

I have many happy memories of playing on swings and slides and animals on springs. I can still be persuaded to this day to hang on a monkey bar, and in the right mood I’ll even swing upside down for you.

Before I conclude this, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention a game that Kevin and I played on the swing set in our backyard. There were two sets, actually. One with some monkey bars and rings, and one with a horse, the gondola where we used to capture Stephen, and some swings.

Our game was called, ironically enough, Monkey Island. The entirety of the play area was the island, and the goal of the game was to traverse it from one end to the other without letting your feet touch the ground. Because lava.

This typically involved climbing up the ladder to the monkey bars on the first set, then swinging over to the edge where you could throw yourself onto the supporting beam of the second set, shimmying up to the top bar and dragging yourself across, hopping from swing to swing and then finally sliding down the far supporting beam, safe and unmelted on the other side.

If you want the definition of happiness, try crossing Monkey Island without hitting the lava. It’s about as close as you can get.

 Photo: our back yard swing sets, with a little brotherly fun.