I grew up in a much simpler time. There were no computers, no videos or video games to distract us. Televisions were mainly black and white and got three or four channels, at best. For my generation, you spent your free time outdoors, and your best friend was your imagination. And I will admit, my imagination in those days was very well developed. That is not to say that we didn’t have toys with which to play, we just didn’t have the great bulk of “things” that kids seem to accumulate these days. I’ve already written about my favorite accoutrement to play, my swing set. But the swing was not the sole attraction of my backyard.
First and foremost, given that I am from the great state of Indiana where basketball has always reigned supreme, there was the basketball goal. Early on after my parents moved into the house in which I was to grow up, my dad hauled in an old telephone pole and sunk it in the ground in the back corner of the yard. He then fashioned a wooden backboard and hung a rim. There was no official court, just lawn and hard packed dirt. The free-throw line was where the grass was most worn away. I tried and tried to become a proficient basketball player, but somehow that skill (as did most athletic skills) eluded me. However, it did not prevent many fun games of horse or 21. In later years as various trees were planted and grew large, new twists were added. We started trying to make baskets by throwing the ball over the apple tree. Or there were three point contests from the edge of the garden. A few years ago, after nearly four decades of standing vigil in the back yard, the goal which had seen the family grow up and move away finally gave way to age and the elements. You wouldn’t think there would be much emotion with such a thing, but it was like clipping the umbilical cord to my youth, and it also marked the point in my father’s life where he admitted he was getting too old to play basketball any more. I am proud to say, he stuck it out into his 80’s, however. There is a brief aside to this story. When the goal finally came down a few years ago, you could have found a particular knothole a few feet up from its base that was filled with some light colored material. It was my chewing gum that I had stuck in there in 1976 and into which I had pressed the number “76” into with my fingernail. That was the country’s bicentennial year, and wanting to mark its passage and looking for a way to deposit my worn-out gum, that was my solution. I never dreamed it would remain for almost 30 more years.
For a brief period, a tether ball pole was added. I can remember only a few games, more with my sister and her friends than myself, but the tether ball pole held a different fascination for me. At some point the ball snapped off the rope, and rather than replace it, the pole was left as is, with just a fragment of rope hanging from it. This is the period I most enjoyed because it gave me something other than my swing set on which to climb. I enjoyed shimmying up the thin, metal pole to reach the top. It might have served as the mast of an imaginary ship, or perhaps it was the palm tree I would climb to look for signs of civilization once I had shipwrecked. Or it was simply a test of my strength and ability, but regardless the purpose, the pole was still fun to climb.
I can also remember all the time I spent playing in our sandbox. It was made from an old tractor tire that my father had re-purposed for his then growing family. It was very large and could easily seat a few children around its perimeter. It is so early in my life, that much of its memory is lost to me. I can vaguely recall going with my father to buy sand for it. We did not go to a store, but rather to something more like a strip pit, I believe. I don’t recall how we got the sand home, but I do remember the trip to get it. I recall a few little toy figures that “lived” in the sandbox. They would be buried in the sand and finding one was always like digging up buried treasure. Not being fine beach sand, it had a way of forming hard clumps that I would break up with my hands. These often formed in the deeper recesses of the tire itself, which is also where the buried toys most often lurked. My neighbor and I made many mud pies and sand cakes with sand and a little water, but it was my goal to create a formula to turn it into concrete. I don’t recall what I would add to the sand and water, but I was always confident I would succeed. As much fun as playing in the sand was running around the tire’s perimeter. I seem to remember having wrestling matches where the goal was to shove your opponents off the tire while remaining standing to become “king of the hill.” When we had all outgrown the sandbox, Dad cleared it out and took the tire to a friend. That is when I learned something I had never noticed in all the years we played in it. My father had carved his and my mother’s initials into the hard rubber sides when they had first gotten the tire.
One of my favorite areas, yet the most dreaded, was our toy chest that sat under the old elm tree. It was quite large and constructed of wood and thin strips of metal, with a curved lid and a latch which gave it the appearance of the classic treasure chest from every pirate story I had ever read or watched on television. And that is what seemed so magical about it. For me, it was a true treasure chest, and I think I always half-expected to open its lid to reveal piles of gold coins and jewelry. What was revealed when the lid was opened was what I least liked about that chest. It made the perfect home for dozens of spiders. When we would go to retrieve something from its dark interior, the lid would be lifted and spiders would scatter, their webs and egg baskets would clinging to its underside. You would make a quick survey of the contents, then reach in and grab your toy as fast as you could before running away from the trunk and allowing the lid to fall closed with a loud “thunk.”
|Ours were blue and red.|
Inside was the sports equipment and outdoor toys with which we played. There was an ancient football actually constructed from pigskin, with a smooth suede feel to it. And there was our basketball which eventually went over the back fence into the pen with Gigi, the German shepherd who lived behind us. Gigi was large and loud and scared us all. She lived in a garage but had a short, enclosed metal run from her doggy door to the outside. The passage out was at a right angle, so you could never see in the door to know if she was headed out or not. When the ball bounced into her pen, you had to steady your nerves, make a quick leap over the fence, run to the ball, fling it back into the yard then quickly dash back to the fence before she emerged barking and charging. It was very frightening to me, so when I was alone and the ball bounced into her pen, I was usually too scared to retrieve it. This happened on one occasion, and I just left the ball there and went inside. I finally told my brother, and we were able to retrieve it a few days later, but not before Gigi had ripped the entire covering from the ball. It was still inflated, but it was just a soft rubber ball after that. Tossed in with these was our scoop ball set, a pair of curved plastic handles and a whiffle ball that served as a tame Midwestern version of jai alai. You could throw a wicked curve ball with that set, but I frequently used the handles as my peg leg when pretending to be a pirate. There were assorted other baseballs and softballs and a collection of bats which had been relocated here from my father’s old army bag in which he used to transport them to the little league games he helped coach. And finally, there were my brother’s old metal Tonka toys including a dump truck, a road grader, a flatbed trailer and an old Jewel Tea Company truck. You could always pull something fun from that old chest.
|Although not ours, this is how the Jewel Tea truck looked until I painted it.|
|My brother's Tonka road grader|
|The old Tonka truck hooked up to the flatbed trailer.|
The remainder of my entertainment sprang from what grew naturally. There were trees to climb. I had a small tree house in the old apple tree next to the basketball goal, but I loved climbing the large silver maple even more. There I would spread myself on a wide branch and try napping or sit and read a book. For fun one afternoon, I took a volume of our Compton’s Pictured Encyclopedia into the big maple and memorized the first half of the Gettysburg address. Iris leaves made wonderful swords, and we waged many a sword fight. Bugs were plentiful so we caught large grasshoppers, praying mantis, bumble bees and lightening bugs. We didn’t have to watch nature programs, we learned it firsthand.
Everything put together could not have cost much and most were hand-me-downs, but to me I was the richest kid in the world. I do not recall wanting for anything. I only wish my own children could appreciate such simple things. My wife and I are guilty for that, I guess. We have always given our children too much, and we encouraged technology at an early age. We never kicked them out the back door and told them to entertain themselves. Although they both showed those early bursts of creative imagination, I felt the seed never was allowed to hit fertile soil and take root as it should. Maybe when I become a grandparent in a few years, I will rectify my errors. I vow now to get them outdoors, to walk in the woods, to have stick races on the creek and to sit back and see what they can accomplish with a few simple toys and their imagination. I think that is one of the greater gifts I could provide. After all, sometimes a greater treasure than gold and jewels can be found in al old pirate chest.