As a principal, I enjoyed playground duty. I watched children chase one another about with no goal in mind, refereed arguments caused by the scarcity of swings, and sometimes thought about the games my generation played: pastimes now as unfamiliar to children as butter churns.
I remember grabbing a side bar on a merry-go-round, then running and running and running before jumping aboard for a ride as the other passengers cheered my effort. During every recess of our third-grade year, my friends and I took turns propelling, riding and falling off a merry-go-round. We never questioned the sanity of losing our grip and flying off the whirling platform, our bodies hop-scotching across the graveled yard, then climbing back aboard for another ride.
I marvel that my generation survived teeter-totters. If you ever notice looks of terror on the faces of older folks, they may be reliving the moment when a classmate jumped off the low end of a teeter-totter while they were soaring on high, making them plummet to a bone-jarring, spine-collapsing, teeth-crunching stop.
Sometimes the slide claimed us. It loomed over the playground — 12 feet high and made of metal with skimpy 3-inch sides, it dropped straight to the ground and the depression dug by our skidding feet. We fought for position on its stairs and enlivened the ride by descending head first, sideways, on our bellies, or flat on our backs with our legs and arms held aloft like dead bugs. Sometimes we propelled our bodies as fast as possible without braking or using our feet to land, so we could fly through the air as far as possible before thudding down. I never managed to capture the flight record.
We played unsupervised games of dodgeball, now frowned on by many schools, in a circle we scuffed in the dirt with the heels of our shoes. Having lived with Bob and Carolyn, I knew how to duck and flee to avoid being hit, so I enjoyed turning, leaping and dashing about. On occasion, glasses were broken or a hard-thrown ball knocked the breath out of someone, and our teachers would tell us we couldn’t play dodgeball at recess anymore, but they usually forgot.
Red Rover was another game not to be played by the faint of heart: we faced the opposite team in a horizontal line, linked arms tightly and chanted, “Red Rover, Red Rover, send Bruce right over,” which sent the classmate we called for running as hard and fast as he could to break through our line. Mayhem sometimes resulted: bruises, claims of broken limbs, and heaped bodies belaboring one another on the ground.
I didn’t realize the Lake Shore version of Mother May I differed from that played elsewhere until I visited my cousins in Provo, Utah, and played it at a neighborhood birthday party.
I caused consternation when I saw an opening and charged Mother without her permission, knocking her to the ground, instead of touching her shoulder. I leaped up to a shocked silence and horrified faces rather than the cheers and laughter that would have greeted me at home.
Aunt Mary listened to my tearful explanation before explaining that sneaking up on a defenseless Mother standing with her back to you and decking her was a special Lake Shore adaptation.
Although my childhood friends and I survived the mayhem of our play, when I remember the chipped teeth, embedded splinters, scraped knees and bloody noses that littered our lives, I understand why rubber chips now are spread below equipment that is designed for safety. And as I walk by Sunset Elementary School, I notice that children, unaware that their play has been made less risky, still have fun at recess.