I took my 8-year old son to the local playground and reminisced about my own playground experiences at that age. Today’s children have it so easy. Nothing seems to risk life and limb any more.
It was surreal to watch children walk away from the playground with all of their limbs intact. I felt like breaking out war stories from my own playground days…like a salty ol’ war veteran desperate to prove just how sissy-ish today’s generation is in contrast to his own.
How school officials approved the contraptions we climbed on back then is beyond me. I remember how strange it was that the size of my elementary class kept dwindling over the course of the year, but I assumed families had simply decided to relocate between third and fourth period.
It never dawned on me that the missing children were probably among those left behind after recess…entangled, maimed or impaled by the various medieval instruments of death that dotted the landscape.
There was no code of honor amongst us elementary folk. “No man left behind” didn’t exist. Are Bobby’s legs caught in the Chains of Despair? Leave him. Is Suzie laying in a crumpled heap at the bottom of the slide? Drag her as far as you can and then save yourself.
We were like Pavlov’s dogs when that bell rang. We’d drop whatever we were doing (or whoever we were dragging) and immediately scurry back to our classrooms.
Slides of Agony
As I watched Michael glide comfortably down a soft plastic slide with siderails, I experienced flashbacks of the leg burns I suffered from sliding down big panels of molten sheet metal that had spent the day baking in the blazing sun.
While Michael was able to start at the top and slide all the way down to the bottom in one fluid motion, I remembered that I never had the luxury of such a smooth descent.
I had two options…and both were equally painful.
One, I could raise my legs high into the air like a birthing mother so that only my cut-off jeans were touching the slide. The problem with this approach is that the denim of the 1970’s had supersonic properties when it touched metal. Speeds would approach 150mph as I careened uncontrollably down to the blacktop, and if the landing wasn’t perfectly timed, I’d suffer immediate road rash.
Or two, I could endure a painfully staggered ride as my skin defied the laws of inertia when it came into contact with the searing metal. The entire ride consisted of painful two-foot bursts.
Bars n’ Scars
I then watched Michael climb around on what today’s softies would call a “jungle gym”. Again, I felt like standing at attention and bellowing, “You call that a jungle gym you prancing little sissies? Come here and let me tell you about MY jungle gym.”
I’d then gather the children around and explain that while they get to climb around on luxurious plastic tubes and properly sanded wooden beams, we veterans of the 70’s had to navigate thin metal pipes, sharp bolts, and railroad ties that could double as cheese graters.
And we didn’t have smooth little rounded bolts either. The metal piping we climbed on was held together by sharp hexagonal bolts that were pre-soaked in tetanus.
Think I’m exaggerating? Here’s a picture of my third grade class.
And if we fell? Do you think we landed on soft recycled rubber or sand? Heck no. We landed on concrete, baby! If we were lucky we’d have blacktop to break our fall because it was more malleable in the heat. I honestly remember feeling relieved if I stumbled on blacktop instead of concrete. How sick is that?
One of the most popular playground contraptions kids flocked to was a circular metal wheel with deathgrip handles that spun children like DNA samples until they suffered cerebral hemorrhages.
Kids would pile onto this creaking, uneven, metal death plate and then three or four other kids would grab the sides and run in circles to spin it faster, faster, and faster.
Sadly, third graders were oblivious to the laws of momentum and the disc would end up spinning faster than their little legs could handle. Even as our eyesight faded in and out, we watched in horror as blurry little figures disappeared from sight and either got wedged beneath the spinning skin scraper or cast off into a nearby tree.
Once the merry-go-round came to a rest we’d all jump off and try to run in a straight line. Kids were running head first into fences, knocking themselves unconscious on tree limbs, tripping over fallen comrades, or puking off to the side, all while other kids were begging to be next.
Blades of Fury
Today’s school grounds are mowed on weekends when the masses aren’t at play. Back in my era? I vividly remember playing football in a field of milk thistles while an industrial lawn tractor pulled a few dozen unshielded rotating blades nearby. Stones and dirt clods could be heard ricocheting off the metal yet we were allowed to play amongst the shrapnel.
One day while playing football I remember hearing my friend Jimmy scream out in pain as blood poured from his face. A rock had been launched from the blades and smacked him square in the nose…breaking it. I helped him to the office and by the time we got there, he was completely covered in blood. The nurse took him into one of the many playground triage rooms and quietly uttered, “You need to be careful out there while they’re mowing.”
Stairway to Vertigo
Anyone else remember the super tall slide? The one that everyone revered but few dared to experience? You’d walk up a set of thin metal steps two stories high until you reached a narrow platform with knee-high railings.
If you dared to look down you’d see itty bitty children scurrying around like ants on the concrete below.
Assuming you overcame the sudden onslaught of vertigo, you’d settle in for a nice long ride…on a jointed slide…where the sheets of metal were obviously tacked on upside down.
Every four feet you’d feel a nice sting in your buttocks as you slid over creased metal edges. You had two choices…leap to your death or go home with welts and tetanus.
Wheels of Dysentery
Not everything they gave us to play on was made of metal. For those who sought a more forgiving activity, the school administrators had buried huge recycled tires about a foot into the ground.
This way, pools of stagnant water could accumulate and attract worms and bacteria. Rotting bugs and the smell of pee would help finish off the pleasant aroma.
Kids would try to wedge themselves in the tires which ultimately resulted in them falling into the smelly toxic waste below. Ivan Bauer…I can’t believe I remember his name…he loved playing in the tires. Nice kid. And his mom made killer popcorn balls. But man did he stink.
It’s Time to Recognize
Enjoy your frilly little playgrounds, kind children of the new millennium, but never forget those who slid and climbed before you. For we, the hardened men and women of the 70’s, endured concussions, broken bones, and skin grafts all in the quest for playground safety.
The next time you slide in comfort, the next time you go to bed without smelling like Bactine, and the next time you notice that cinders aren’t embedded in your kneecaps…remember who helped make this possible. Remember the children of the 70’s.
We await your thanks. We await your salute.