Today’s, Blast From the Past, brought to you by: The Grownups Wanted Us Dead
What a sweet name, merry-go-round. Ha! There was nothing merry about the injuries caused by that beast!
The merry-go-round is actually a huge steel wheel with its axel embedded in the ground. The children are the motors of their own destruction. They power the wheel with their legs.
This wheel-of-destruction, called “merry-go-round” and placed prominently on playgrounds across the world, has a steel rim and steel spokes. The object is to coax several unsuspecting victims to sit on the outer rim, while two or three unwitting accomplices (also children) climb into the center of the wheel, grasp the spokes and push. This pushing begins with a mighty heave, and soon the wheel starts to turn, slowly at first, then faster and faster.
Ye ha! That is the joyful cry of the children clinging to the spinning outer rim.
Wheeeeeeeeeee! That is the successful and gleeful shout of the child-motor who managed to leap onto a spoke and be slung by centrifugal force to the outer rim.
Oof! That is the sound of the air rushing from the motor-child who did not successfully leap onto a center spoke. Instead, said child fell to the ground, face first and is cowering there, trying to gasp for air, sucking in little bits of dirt and gravel and fearing: 1.) that a steel spoke will hit her in the head and bash her brains out, or 2.) a steel spoke will hit her in the head and NOT bash her brains out – but the ricochet to the ground will, or 3.) one of her well meaning friends will jump into the center of the wheel and heroically attempt to stop it – of course trampling her in the process.
Those are the most straightforward dangers the wheel imposes – but there are many much more subtle hazards. Some of them are seasonal. Like the slide, the merry-go-round is safest (but by no means safe) in spring and fall. In the summer those lovely steel bars burn any exposed body part they contact. If that exposed body part happens to be buttocks or thigh the child has a choice – sit and fry, or jump and die.
Summer was not a time for shoes. Jumping off a spinning merry-go-round barefoot could guarantee that last years school shoes would still fit you next year – that’s because you wouldn’t have to worry about trying to stuff your toes into them. After jumping from the merry-go-round barefoot you could just reach down, pick up your toes and carry them home in your pocket. If you somehow managed not rip your toes off, you probably embedded a rock or a piece of glass in your foot, or just grated a quarter inch of skin from the bottom.
And let’s talk for a moment about jumping off the merry-go-round. It wasn’t so much a jump, as a catapult. One threw oneself off the merry-go-round running at the speed the wheel was turning. Now, I believe the parents took turns at night sneaking over and greasing that wheel. The reason I believe this is because I was often the motor that made the wheel turn – yet whenever I tried to jump off, the dang thing was spinning faster than I could run. That makes no logical sense.
A graceful dismount left the child sprinting gleefully away from the spinning wheel. A standard dismount left the child lurching wildly away from the wheel, but regaining his or her balance within two or three strides. An unsuccessful dismount drove the right foot into the ground like a piston, then the left, then both elbows, the chin, the nose, the forehead – here the child balanced for a second – and the big finish was a back flop to the blacktop. These three dismounts could be seen in any season, but they were most spectacular – and deadly – in winter.
Ah — winter! Bare skin adhered to the frozen steel spokes, as did wet wool and the tongues of really gullible small children. (“Hey, Joey, go lick the snow crystals off the merry-go-round.”) There was nothing quite so thrilling as jumping from the merry-go-round and realizing your gloves – or the seat of your pants – had stayed behind.
What made winter dismounts dangerous – even the most graceful sprint – was diabolically clever on the part of the playground engineer. You see – as I explained when discussing the slide – ice lengthens the dismount. So, about 8 feet due east of the merry-go-round was the ladder to the slide; north of that were three tetherball poles, all lined up nice and neat; to the west was the teeter-totter, to the south was the flag pole.
One winter Birdy careened into the ladder on the slide, breaking a rib; Lilli plowed into the flagpole and broke her leg; and Heartthrob clothes-lined himself on the teeter-totter, chipping one of the caps on his movie star teeth. Apparently Heartthrob’s parents weren’t in on the plot to murder us, because after his accident the merry-go-round was off limits until spring thaw.
Now, there was one summer dismount that was actually a tad-bit more difficult than any winter dismount could have been. This summer dismount, when done successfully, looked truly spectacular. It was the roller-skate dismount. This stunt required an idiot (generally me) to clamp roller skates onto her shoes, get on the merry-go-round, and allow someone to push it to the speed of light. Next the idiot would step off the merry-go-round, on the outside, flex her knees, extend one leg and cling tightly to the bar. As the idiot flew in a circle the metal wheels on her clamp on skates would shoot furious sparks. Timing was crucial. If I – ahem – the idiot let go of the merry-go-round at the wrong time the force and speed of her dismount could permanently embed her in a piece of playground equipment.
Allow me to pause the story for a moment and give you some personal history. I am not athletic. In fact certain members of my family might describe me as moderately clumsy – while others often express total amazement that I can walk at all. However, I do have very strong legs and can be stubborn to the point of stupid. Those are both traits required to successfully execute the roller skate dismount.
At precisely the right moment I would – ahem, the idiot would – crouch, lean and release her hold on the merry-go-round. She would sail beautifully between two tetherball poles in a long sweeping arc and end in a graceful rise to her full height. The idiot (me) actually managed many, many times to perform that dismount with complete success. However the one time she failed she did so in full living color (RED – can you say road rash?). The clamp on my – oh yeah, her – skate released without warning. One moment the idiot is sailing along at top speed, then suddenly the rubber of her Red Ball Flyers grips the pavement and she’s kissing blacktop. To give the idiot some credit, that was the last time she ever performed the stunt.
You know, that day might have been the first hint I had that the grownups were trying to kill us. I eased my grime embedded, oozing body home. Gram said, “What happened this time?” I explained that I fell off the merry-go-round. She picked the rocks out of my body, scrubbed me in Ivory soap, painted me in Mercurochrome, and then suggested, “Why don’t you go do something safe, like roller skate?”