It seems I was born with a naturally nervous disposition. Since my earliest memories, I have always had to be moving. As a two or three year old, I had an old spring horse as my release. I can remember sitting in the saddle and taking long rides back and forth, the springs squeaking out the rhythm. When I was bored with that, I would switch to a hopping pattern, slowly jumping the horse across the living room floor. When not on my horse, I could frequently be found rocking in a rocking chair. This is a trait I carry to this day; if there is a rocking chair in the room, that is where I will be seated. In fact, I am sitting on my front porch, in an all hickory bentwood rocker made by an Amish man in New York as I write this. Rocking chairs don’t really stand a chance with me. I am a vigorous rocker, and the toll of my exertions is usually soon apparent. As a toddler, I would rock so hard I would tip the chair over. My parents then switched to an antique platform rocker that for many years had sat in the poultry house where my grandfather worked. Many springs were broken on that poor rocker before I moved on. For years I would rock myself to sleep in it each night. The chair has followed me into my adult life and keeps a vigil next to the piano in our living room. Traditional wooden rockers separate at the joints, and even the tough, curved hickory runners of the chair I’m now sitting in are worn and splintered.
Even in my sleep I move. There were six of us growing up in a three bedroom home, which meant we slept two to a bed. My brother and I shared a bed for several years. The only way I could go to sleep was to tap my foot or rock my leg. Over and over again, my poor brother would grab my leg to stop me. The rocking of the bed probably made him seasick, but for me it seemed the only way to burn off the last vestiges of that day’s energy and relax. The same pattern continued in school, church or any other situation in which I was forced to sit for extended periods. Even now, if I must sit through a movie or a lecture, my foot is tapping or my leg is gently swinging. I must be in motion at all times.
But for many years the main outlet for all of that nervous energy was my backyard swing set. In the early days my swing consisted of a glider type swing and two traditional metal swings. The glider was easier for me to use in the early days when I had not yet learned to pump my legs, but once I learned to master the other swings, I was hooked.
For me the swing was more than an energy outlet, it was the center of my world, both real and imaginary. Very early on I learned a swing is a great place to think. Some people meditate, but I would lose myself in the rhythm of the swing, the squeak of the chains being my mantra. There I reviewed the day’s school lessons in my head or plotted my future plans. In May, I would bask in the sweet perfume of my family’s peony bushes, and in the summer I would watch my father mow the lawn as I breathed in the smell of the freshly cut grass. I can remember swinging and singing, my repertoire being an eclectic mix of Nat King Cole and country music. I can recall having many heart to heart talks with robins and mourning doves, encouraging them to nest in my yard. I would also swing and talk to Gigi, the intimidating German shepherd who lived in the yard adjacent to us. Gigi was probably a nice dog, but she scared me to death, and I was always trying to convince her I was worthy of her friendship.
Speaking of friendship, the swing was something to be shared. How many times did my next door neighbor, Julie, and I try to swing and touch the telephone lines with our feet? Obviously, there was no chance of that, but to a pair of five year olds, the sky’s the limit. As we swung, we became aware of our individual rhythms and would adjust our pumping until we were totally in synch. Sometimes it would become competitive, and we would see who could swing higher, leaning our bodies back and kicking out legs straight out to gain momentum. Eventually, we would reach the point where the swing would stall in mid-air, the chain would slacken and we would snap back towards the earth as gravity took over. Julie’s sister, Becky, as well as other neighbors, would also join in the action as we switched to jumping games. There were variations on this theme ranging from who could jump the highest to who could jump the farthest. Then there was the statue game where one would leap off the swing and strike a pose in mid-air, trying to maintain it on the ground. Eventually, one of the metal swings wore through and broke, and my parents replaced it with a white plastic seat. The seats were the same width, hung at the same height and traced the same arc, yet the white swing never felt right. Only the old black swing felt comfortable to any of us. So the battle cry as we ran into the backyard was always, “Dibs on the black swing!” I was not very chivalrous, so I usually claimed the rights of ownership
The swing set was the perfect stage for my active imagination in those early years. It served as boats, planes, racecars, rockets, caves, etc. I survived many shipwrecks on that old swing. It was the time of Gilligan’s Island, and I sang out the theme as my adventure began. The rise and fall of the swing became the S.S. Minnow riding the ocean swells, and with a leap from the seat, I was suddenly tossed onto a deserted island. As I explored the island, the frame of the swing set became trees and hills. The end supports were shaped like the letter “A” and by climbing up and over the cross bar, I could imagine myself entering a cave or climbing still higher in a tropical tree.
The swing naturally lent itself to the role of a fighter jet. The constant dragging of my feet through the years had left the ground below barren of grass and with a fine dust layer. The poor unsuspecting ants became the enemy vehicles I was to take out. With proper sound effects of jet engines, rattling machine guns and explosions, I repeatedly strafed the enemy below. By tapping my foot in the dust, I could raise a small cloud which looked to me like bombs exploding far below. I usually emerged victorious, but on occasion, my plane would be hit by artillery and I would be forced to bail out.
I’ve written before of my wonderful years at Raccoon Lake. I was not without swings there, either. However, there I traded the traditional swing for tire swings. There were two different tire swings through the years, but they were both suspended from tall trees in the woods. If you had a good push, you could enjoy quite a ride; however, there was always the fear that you would get off track and crash into one of the supporting trees. Even before the tire swings, there was a large rope swing behind what would eventually become our third and final trailer. It was a thick rope attached high into a large poplar tree. You had to stand on a small tool shed to mount the rope, but the ride was well worth the effort. It carried your across the lot and into the woods before gently bringing your back to the shed. It could almost take your breath away. The family who at that time owned the property did not appreciate our playing on their rope, so sadly one weekend it suddenly disappeared! Occasionally, we would find a large grapevine that someone had cut, and we would do our best Tarzan impersonations by riding it through our Midwestern “jungle.” The problem with grapevines is that once they are cut, they begin dying and sooner or later they break. My sister, being older and larger than me, was the usual victim of these vine failures. It was a two phased problem. First, the vine would break sending Sheila sailing to the ground below, but that was not the end. The second phase was the long vine falling to the ground from the tree, peppering her with chunks of wood and vine.
As with all things, time marched on and I outgrew the little swings, moving instead to porch swings and gliders. I still give them a run for their money because I am anything but a subtle rocker. But I enjoy them no less than those early days in my backyard when Gigi and the mourning doves watched a small boy trying to swing high and touch the telephone lines, and the squeak of the chains rand out all day long.