I am now a respectable height of 5 feet 4 inches, but I didn’t reach that until my junior year of high school. Up until then, I had always been the shortest person in my class. That had some advantages. Because I was so short, I was always put in the front of the classroom and it took me a long time to discover I needed glasses. When we lined up by height, I always got to go first.
However, my height(or lack thereof) was a definite disadvantage in some playground activities. I always lost, for instance, at tether ball as the taller girls hit the ball around and around the pole over my head. On the school girls volleyball team, which had all the girls on it, I was so short that when I rotated to the front line the coach always pulled me out. I could serve the ball, but my spike capability was nonexistent. He did give me a letter, however, for my tenacity if not my skill.
At our yearly Field Day, my long jumps were always short jumps. My high jumps were low jumps. But in activities that didn’t depend on stature, I did fine. I could carry an egg in a spoon across the field with the best of them. And once I partnered with a very tall girl in the three legged race. She virtually picked me up as she raced across the field, winning us a red ribbon!
As I reflect back on my summers as a kid and talk with other friends my age, I am struck by a common theme. We all spent a lot of time outside without any parental supervision with a lot of other kids. I was thinking about my fourth grade photo above and realized that I don’t think any of my classmates was an only child. Families in my grade ranged from two to seven children, with four being the average. That meant that at least one sibling and usually more were around at all times.
We all walked to school, so we were used to the distances around the neighborhood and how to get to each others’ houses. When we wanted to play, we would get together at the school or at someone’s house. We walked or bicycled there. Our mothers were busy at home and we didn’t expect rides.
That means that at all times mothers were home and kids were roaming the streets. When people say that kids don’t have the same freedom today, I think that is because so many homes are vacant during the day and there are fewer kids in the neighborhood. On my street, however, there is still one vestige of my kind of childhood. We live two blocks from a city pool and during the summer groups of kids walk and bike together, without parents, to go swimming. At the pool itself many children swim happily for hours under the lifeguards’ watchful eyes.
And sometimes, in the dead of winter, a small group of kids materializing from who knows where, arrives at our door offering to shovel our walks.
At my feet is the round lawn sprinkler that would soon be linked to the hose. It looks as if I am demanding that my mother attach it right now so I could play. Now that summer is suggesting that it may just possibly arrive in New England, I am remembering the joys of running through the sprinkler.
In Western Oregon, there was never a lack of water, so we could play in the sprinklers as long as we wanted. One of them went around in a circle, and we could chase it. Another threw out a large arc and you could duck under the water for fun. For some reason, we never had one of those little wading pools, so we contented ourselves with sprinklers. No one I knew had an above ground pool, though one very wealthy neighbor had a full in ground pool with bathhouse. The water was never heated, however. In fact I don’t remember ever encountering a heated swimming pool until I was an adult.
A second badge of honor besides skinned knees as a kid was what we called “summer feet.” My siblings and I had a contest each summer to see who could get the toughest bottoms on our feet. We spent all summer barefoot, and it was important not to wince when stepping on a rock or twig. Eventually we would demonstrate our achievement by walking up our gravel driveway.
When they say kids can make up their own fun, I think of sprinklers and summer feet.
I am in the middle of a series of posts about things that have disappeared from today’s world. I am enjoying remembering these, sharing memories with other readers, and introducing younger readers to earlier times. However, I do not mean to imply that the old days were the “good old days.” I am not nostalgic for the past in the sense that I wish I were living there. Instead, I am highlighting pleasures and activities that were common then.
I think it is too easy to look wistfully back on earlier times while forgetting some of the sober realities present then too. One of the biggest dreads when I was child was polio. I remember once having my legs ache when I was 9 and fearing I had contracted polio. It was a terrifying disease with no cure and devastating consequences for those children who survived it.
I remember very clearly going downtown to the local high school with my brother and sisters and swallowing a sugar cube with vaccine to prevent polio. I believe I was 13 or so. My littlest sister was only 5. My parents could not believe that they no longer had to fear summer gatherings of children, potential sources for the spread of polio. Dr. Salk and Dr. Sabin had made the future brighter for children.
That is to remind us all that that the “good old days” had many perils today’s children are spared.
In my childhood, boys played marbles and girls played jacks. These were a set of 10 little metal objects and one red rubber ball. While it was possible to play jacks alone, the only reason I ever did that was to hone my skill. The real fun was playing with an opponent.
Reading up on the subject, I learned that there were actually a variety of ways this game was played. All I remember was THE way jacks was played in my neighborhood. You would find a flat surface and drop the jacks from your hand onto the ground. Then you would bounce the ball, pick up one jack and then catch the ball as it came back. If you were successful at that you went on to pick up two, then three, and so forth. When you erred, the other girl got a turn.
Of course, the wider you scattered the jacks and the higher you bounced the ball, the more likely it was that you would be unable to achieve the perfect ten pickups. I mostly remember gales of laughter as the ball went flying or jacks went spinning.
A few years ago I tried to find a set to teach my granddaughter. I could only find plastic ones, which felt all wrong in my hands. I see that now they are available in very expensive “retro” packaging. Apparently they are after the “nostalgia” market. I am not particularly nostalgic about jacks. I just think they were a great inexpensive way to spend an afternoon.
If you can recite the poem that follows the title, you will also remember the jumps that went with each verse from “climb the stair,” to “say your prayers.” If you have no idea what I am talking about, this was the most common jump rope rhyme with its requisite hand and feet gestures made while one jumped.
I love the photo above because it accurately captures the way we waited in line to be the next jumper. We would have been wearing dresses, saddle shoes and white anklets too. Group rope jumping was a favorite morning recess activity. Afternoon recess usually had us playing other games. Two girls would swing the rope and another would run in from the side, perfectly timing her entrance to the arc of the rope. Then the chanting would begin as the girl tried to do all the moves and not trip. If a girl tripped, she became one of the rope swingers and the game went on.
A challenging variation of jump rope involved two ropes swinging in opposite directions. This was especially hard to time. First one girl went in and having established a pace was joined by a second jumper. I learned that it was important to simply run in and not think about the challenge ahead.
Jump roping was done on asphalt, so falls hurt and were another reason to get skinned knees. Fortunately, the school nurse always had plenty of Mercurochrome and Bandaids. Now not only were our knees banged up, they were also orange!
Why would an eleven year old girl have one of these on a string around her neck all summer long? I think you have to be a certain age to answer this question, though I am not sure what that age might be.
My grandparents’ house in Buffalo, New York had blocks and blocks of flat sidewalks. I lived in an area without them, so I was thrilled by the joys opened to me when we went East. I particularly fell in love with roller skating up and down the walks for hours.
In those days, roller skates went on over your shoes and were adjustable to fit various shoe sizes. That was certainly practical when there were so many children in families making it prohibitive to buy skates for each one. The object above is a skate key, allowing you to adjust the sliding sections back and forth by first loosening and then tightening the nuts. The other end was needed to tighten other parts on the skate, especially over the toe.
The skates were bone jarring, since the wheels were metal. They constantly loosened and had to be retightened. I continually fell over, skinning my knees. But in those days, every one I knew had skinned knees. There were a sure sign that you were a kid and it was summer!