BFtP — The Merry-Go-Round

Today’s, Blast From the Past, brought to you by: The Grownups Wanted Us Dead

The Merry-Go-Round

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?”

BFtP — The Monkey Bars

Today’s, Blast From the Past, brought to you by: The Grownups Wanted Us Dead

The Monkey Bars

The same demented parent who designed the teeter-totter likely invented the monkey bars. I am certain his thought process was something like this: “What can I design that will make kids drop themselves onto the blacktop head-first?”

Our monkey bars were quite simple, think ladder: two parallel metal pipes with rungs came out of the ground vertically, after about seven feet they made a ninety-degree bend, stretched horizontally for six feet or so, then made another ninety-degree bend back to the ground. The rungs went half way up each vertical side and all the way across the horizontal side. The vertical rungs were there to help the kids climb up to the horizontal rungs, where they hung upside down until their legs grew completely numb – at which point they would fall off and crash head first onto the blacktop.

For the most part it was the girls who liked hanging from the monkey bars, while the boys preferred swinging Tarzan style. Now, most of the girls figured out from watching other kids fall that there was a limit to how long one should hang upside down. Most of the girls learned that we needed a friend on the ground to help us down if we did let our legs get too numb -– landing on another person is much less painful (for the faller) than landing on the pavement. Most of us also learned that if we were wearing a dress the monkey bars were not the place to play. Dee Dee was slow picking up that last lesson – which explained the presence of all those Tarzans.

I truly do not understand how Carman survived the monkey bars. She really wanted to hang upside down with the rest of us Jungle Janes, but she was afraid to venture into the middle of the monkey bars. She chose instead to stay safely at the very end of the bars, handing from the first rung on the horizontal span – with her head directly over the ladder. She didn’t need a spotter – after all she had five steel rungs to slow her fall to the blacktop.

Of course, fall she did.

Now, when I was a kid playground teachers did not yell, “Don’t touch her! Don’t touch her!” They yelled, “Well, pick her up and bring her here, you morons!” So we scraped Carmen from the blacktop. Her lip was split, her two shiny-white, brand new front teeth were gone and her nose was kind of smushed to one side. There was also a tad-bit of blood. It gushed from her nose, poured from her scalp, oozed from her hands and spurted from the spot where her right front tooth should have been. It was a wonderfully gruesome sight, we talked about it for weeks after – just about the amount of time it took for all of Carmen’s stitches to come out. The retainer holding her two front teeth remained a bit longer.

The monkey bars were not blamed for Carmen’s accident – Carmen was. “Maybe it’ll knock some sense into her,” an adult would respond when told Carman’s sad story. That summer we had a dozen or more sprains, eight times as many bruises, two broken legs, several broken arms and one dislocated shoulder. In every instance the kids were condemned, not the monkey bars.

You know, I kind of understand why we didn’t realize the grownups were trying to kill us. I mean — we were kids. Kids love and trust their parents far beyond what is rational or fair. What I don’t understand is why the parents didn’t figure out it wasn’t working. We were racking up hospital bills, but we stubbornly refused to die. However, that didn’t stop the grown ups from trying.

Dad: “Here’s a Band-Aid, kid. Shut up, paste it on and go outside and play.”

Mom: “Why don’t you have a nice ride on the merry-go-round, Cupcake? That’ll cheer you up.”

BFtP — The Slide

Today’s, Blast From the Past, brought to you by: The Grownups Wanted Us Dead

THE SLIDE

The slide claimed a lot of lives. It was solid steel. There were fifteen rungs to the top. The thing had to be ten feet tall. Every single kid that ever approached that slide knew only an idiot would climb to the top. We all did it anyway. Better to be labeled an idiot than a coward.

I can’t tell you how many kids made the climb, got to the top, and froze. They’d stand there screaming loudly enough to rival the six o’clock siren from the mill. At this point one of the neighborhood teens would climb up and allow the terrified tot to wrap them in a strangle hold. The teen would then slide on down and peel the kid off on solid ground.

However the small body peeled from the teen bore only a surface resemblance to the terrified tot. While the terrified child’s body remained unchanged, within was another child completely. This new child was single-minded. It had but one thought, “I must conquer the slide.”

Though never completely harmless, the slide was safest in spring and fall. In the summer it was blazing hot and seared any tender, exposed flesh. At least once every summer we had our rumps roasted by that slide. It was little Stinker who taught us wisdom. We used to taunt her for carrying her blanky – until we discovered it’s insulating powers. Then most of us carried blankies. Of course, we called them “slide pads.”

The slide claimed most of its victims in the winter. The swing set was placed about ten feet from the end of the slide. Ten feet is more than enough room to stop any headlong rush off the end of the slide. Most of the time within three or four feet of the end, the slider would have either regained his footing or fallen flat on his face. There was never any need to worry about colliding with someone on a swing – except when Jack Frost joined the game. Then a smooth, thick sheet of ice would form at the end of the slide, extending the dismount considerably; and even a fall couldn’t ensure safety because more often than not a prone body would continue to slide. On average every fourth or fifth winter dismount ended with a foot pump to the face as the swinger swooped west, feet extended, and the slider careened east, leading with his jaw.

CASEY’S SLIDE

Truthfully, for most of us riding the slide in any season was a lot less scary than the ridicule dished out by the neighborhood kids if we wouldn’t. There was this one kid though — I’ll call him Casey (not only to protect the identity of the real child, but because – despite how clearly this scene is engraved on my mind – I truly do not remember the child’s real name). Anyway, Casey never conquered the slide. Many times he climbed to the top. Never once did he come down unaided.

The last time Casey climbed the slide he actually managed to climb off the platform and sit down all by himself. What he couldn’t manage to do was release his death grip on the edge of the slide and sail down. Casey never wailed. He just sat there, stiff, white-knuckled, and sobbing. A group of neighborhood kids, probably six or seven of us, stood at the bottom of the slide shouting encouragement. “Come on, Chicken! Let go!”

Casey did let go. His hands still gripped the slide as tightly as ever, but a rivulet of yellow water streamed from his pant leg. We all took a step back. We watched the yellow stream waterfall off the end of the slide and then drip, drip, drip.

I remember looking up at Casey. He hadn’t moved. His eyes were scrunched closed. Harsh sobs shook his body. His knuckles were white and his khaki pants bore a dark streak from crotch to ankle. The next thing I noticed was that all the other kids were gone. Silently they had left the playground. I stood alone beside the slide.

I wanted to do something for Casey, but what? I was too much of a coward to go up that slide with him. Besides, I was younger than Casey, smaller than Casey, and a girl. Helping him would have been no help at all.

I thought about going to get his mother, but I didn’t want to leave him. I just stood there, talking to him – telling him it was okay, he wasn’t alone and I wouldn’t leave. I don’t know how long I talked, but finally Casey’s mother came.

When the car pulled up to the curb I was overjoyed. “Casey,” I said. “Casey, your mom’s here. It’s going to be all right. Just hang on a little longer.”

Casey’s mom hopped out of the car, slammed the door and came around the hood. She was shouting. At first I didn’t understand, then her words registered. “Get away from him! Get away! You horrible, evil, little brat, how dare you terrorize my son!”

She yelled other things even more foul. I remember backing away. Petrified, I kept my eyes on her until she was halfway up the slide. When I finally turned to run, her last words stabbed me in the back. “Run you little bleep. I know where you live. When I catch you I am going to kill you!”

Of course she knew where I lived. I lived pretty much across the street, and I didn’t think of running anywhere but straight home. I didn’t leave the house for days. I was sure she would find me and kill me. Even though I never saw Casey or his mother again, I spent a long nervous summer looking over my shoulder. About the only place I felt safe was the top of the slide.