You know what I remember most about being a kid? I remember that we were all hard. Not hard as in mean, or in cheap, but hard as in tough. And it wasn’t work or school or chores or church or sports that made us that way. Nope, we got most of our hardness on the playground, when the grownups weren’t looking. Or when they were smoking and chitchatting, and just wanting us to leave them alone, anyway.
For example: all the boys in my town played this game called “Smear the Queer” for hours every day after our school. (Yeah, I know the name was bad and you couldn’t call it that today, but that’s what we called it then, and that’s what I’m telling you about now). Anyway, we would all gather in a field — big kids, little ones, fat kids and skinny ones, some tough girls sometimes, too — and someone would just toss a ball in the air and then the game was on! Whoever ended up catching it would run and dodge and weave to escape from the others, until someone caught them, and then they got jumped on and all beat up by everyone else. Then they threw the ball up in the air and it started again. That was it. That was the game.
If we weren’t playing Smear the Queer, then we were playing “King of the Mountain,” where the only rule was to get on top of whatever pile of dirt you had handy, and stay there. No other rules than that. We were playing King of the Mountain one time, and this kid was on top and another kid hit him in the face with a stick and broke both his front teeth. He got them fixed, but they were always a different color than his other teeth. It was a reminder of how serious a game of King of the Mountain could be, and to this day, when he looks at those different color teeth, I know he thinks “That was the day I became a man!” Well, an eight-year old man, anyway.
Another fun game we liked was called “Chicken Fighting,” where two kids would square off at opposite ends of any pole or branch or monkey bar they could find at the right height and advance hand over hand until meeting in the middle. Then they would kick each other until one would let go and fall to the ground. The higher the bar or branch, the worse the cost of losing, and the harder you hung on and kicked. If you got hurt, you didn’t run crying home to tell your Mom to call a lawyer to sue the other kid’s parents, you just sucked it up it and walked it off, and you never let anybody see you cry. That was hard. We were tough.
Kids today though? They’re not tough. They just wiggle a little plastic do-jobber around in front of a television screen and eat potato chips and call that “playing.” That’s not playing! Playing involves noise, and dirt, and sweat, and sometimes blood. Playing is everything you can’t do inside, and it’s the main reason you want to be outside in the first place.
Our moms understood that point, and they had stories they wanted to watch on the television, so most days after school, we just got tossed out of the house with nothing more than a cracked old plastic football that we found at the dump, and that was all we needed to get some real exercise, with fresh air and everything. We would use our imaginations and get tougher and tougher each day by having crab apple fights with slingshots, or sword fights with sticks, or rock fights where you were supposed to aim close to rather than right at the other kids, but it didn’t always work out that way.
We used to make clay balls out of the muck down by the creek and throw those at each other, too. When they hit you, they’d flatten like a pancake on your chest or back. Hidden rocks would cut the heck out of you. We also shot bottle rockets at each other and used BB guns with a two pump limit, unless your target was “out of range,” which was a very blurry distinction. I can also recall using weeping willow branches as whips sometimes. That was a fun one!
Oh, then there was the Creek War! That was fun, too! There was this creek just outside of town, groves of trees on each side. One group of kids had one side, one group of kids had the other side, and for about two years after school, we all fought it out down there. Rocks, sticks, BB guns, boards, bricks, they were all fair game. Forts got built up on each side of the creek, and then forts got torn down on each side of the creek. Why, there were some particularly useful pieces of cement and plywood for building stuff that must have crossed that creek 100 times over the years, at least.
The Creek War petered out after sixth grade, I guess, when some of us started getting bused to middle school across the county, and some of us started doing after-school stuff like football or marching band instead. By eighth grade, though, most of us were back at the creek most nights before dinner time smoking cigarettes we’d stolen from our parents and talking about girls. We just didn’t beat up on each other as much by then, I guess.
Speaking of smoking, we were always burning things up. My first ever brush with the law was when a friend and I almost burned down our town’s general store. We used a magnifying glass to torch a pile of leaves that had blown up into a corner of the building, without making sure that our smoldering handiwork was properly extinguished before leaving the scene. That was probably the hardest whipping my father ever gave me, since our fool move could have cost us the only source of supplies there was within ten miles of town. We made sure we put our fires out after that one. But we didn’t stop lighting them.
So that’s what I can remember about the games of my childhood. It was rough. The blood covenants of the playground were built on scraped knees, busted lips, burnt fingers, and black eyes. We were able to take a BB in the chest or a stick to the mouth or a rock to the kidney, and then to get right back up and give the other guy a full dose of what-for in return.
And we grew up to make a difference in the world, by gosh, one busted lip at a time.