Spring may be the most interesting season because so many things occur without intervention in a natural sequence. And that reminds me of the sequence of activities that we as children once observed during this season and through the summer vacation. By some sort of tradition there were games that came to prominence at a certain time, were then exclusively played, and thereafter were replaced by another, different game without conscious agreement. It just happened.
First came kites. Each year I made one from sticks split from orange crate wood, string, and the comics section of the Sunday paper (for color). Invariably, the newsprint tore in the wind and my father would bring me a piece of green wrapping paper from the sale room at the greenhouse; it was stronger and lasted longer but was heavier and required more wind.
One of my chores during the Depression was to periodically check the rear of the A&P store on University Avenue for discarded wooden crates then used to ship oranges or other citrus fruit. These I would bring home and my father would use the wood and nails to construct “flats” used at the greenhouse; I suppose that he made extra money in this way. The crates were rectangular, about two feet long, with thick, square wooden ends and center partition; the sides were relatively thin (each 3/8 inch thick), about four inches wide with narrow spaces between them for air circulation. When I needed wood for some project of my own, I was allowed to disassemble a crate for two for myself. All too often I would manage to split the side boards and more often bend the nails in the process. But, I learned to cope with frustration if nothing else.
I recall that marbles were played in the spring but not at another time. And in those days when boys carried knives without thought of them as weapons mumbly-peg came next. Mumbly-peg was played with knives with open blades flipped by action of the wrist/hand from various positions so that the open blade stuck in the ground after controlled flight. Soft ground was needed for mumbly-peg and so it was a spring game.
For a few years we made pistols from L-shaped pieces of wood and a spring-operated clothespin that could shoot rubber bands cut from discarded inner tubes. I do not know why this activity did not persist except that the pistols did not work that well.
Later came softball in the street (Chamberlin Avenue). Cars were parked in garages and traffic was almost nonexistent so the street was safe and allowed scope for action. For some reason we never played ball in Joss Court. The chief danger was the ball ending up in the storm sewer after a bungled catch of a hard hit. I remember my ever-patient father opening the steel lid of the catch basin on Highland Avenue to once again recover the ball that went down the storm sewer. And, before my time, Jim (Robert's older brother) broke his collarbone by running into a power pole while chasing a fly ball.
There was also a season for roller-skating and, for girls, hopscotch and jacks. We boys would avoid trying to do these because the girls always were far superior at them than we were. I recall a kind of secret admiration for the agility and coordination of eye and hand by which girls could scoop up jacks during the time the ball bounced, and the balance and concentration needed to jump in the proper sequence of spaces to pick up the object during hopscotch. (I bet that your [Hallie Lou Blum’s] brothers pretended that the jacks you and Stella played were beneath their lordly attention).
There was some sort of unwritten rule regarding which gender could participate in the different games. In our block, girls could play softball and hide-and-seek, as well as to roller skate when the boys did. Otherwise, each [gender] had its own, exclusive games.
I inherited from my brother, Jim, a coaster wagon made of wood except for the axle and wheel assembly. For several summers I attempted to convert this wagon to a “car.” First, I removed the low wooden sides and the tongue. Then I built a “hood” from orange crates and in the hood I inserted a broomstick fastened to a wooden wheel also fabricated from the thick end boards of orange crates. Finally, I connected the broomstick to the front axle with a length of old clothesline so that I could steer the wagon like a car. The whole contraption worked okay, but never to my complete satisfaction. Invariably, the clothesline stretched or otherwise loosened and steering became erratic.
Doubtless you remember tricycles. I refer to the steel velocipedes with large wheels, not the small plastic toys designed for the very young. In those days bicycles came only in one size suited for older children and adults. My tricycle (trike to us kids) had been Jim’s before me and was of sufficient size that I could cover a lot of sidewalk around the block in a hurry. And a friend could stand on the step welded to the frame above the rear axle to share the ride.
I obtained my first bicycle when I was about twelve; I paid fifty cents saved from money earned doing odd jobs for people. The bike was cheap because the brake did not work but that deficiency was overcome because it also had no fenders so I could stop by jamming my foot into the front fork and pushing on the tire. For some reason, I always used my left foot and soon wore a groove in the sole of my sneaker. The lack of fenders meant that in wet weather I returned home with a dirty stripe on the back of my shirt to the dismay of my mother.
Later, I bought a good, used bicycle with money earned from my paper route near Randall School. In due course, I obtained a driver’s license as did my friends in high school However, none of us ever had use of a car. Instead, we walked, rode bicycles, or occasionally took the bus to cover the ground our many activities and friendship entailed. I used the bike through freshman year at the UW and some after the war.
For some reason I was the only one along Chamberlin Avenue who was seriously interested in swimming. Whenever I could on a summer day I spent time in Lake Mendota. This season of bare skin always started with a sunburned back but I was too anxious to swim again to ration exposure. For several years I walked or rode my bike to the shore where the road from the Stock Pavilion reached the lake and turned abruptly west to begin University Bay Drive. I used the long pier (there was a shorter one about one hundred feet west for small children) that extended about one hundred feet into the lake and terminated in a springboard and diving tower. There I learned to swim in classes conducted by the Red Cross and in sequence earned metal badges to be worn on the swimsuit culminating in “life saving.”
I believe the land adjacent to the swimming piers belonged to the UW but the facility was operated by the city and had lifeguards. Later, the UW needed the land for dormitories and the swim area minus piers but with a float was moved west to the curve of the University Bay Drive that marked the beginning of the bay. There it was called “The Willows.” I thought it fine, but I missed the previous site and continued my obsession with water at a diminished rate as responsibilities for the paper route and lawn mowing increased, together with more extensive activities in Boy Scouts and interest in music for junior high band.
All of this sort of activity is extinct. The young now spend their time alone with video games indoors or interact through electronic devices. Little League baseball with elaborate rules supervised by adults cannot replace the extemporaneous games of a neighborhood group of youth who among other things learned from experience how to invent rules and follow them without adult command. I worry that the future may be occupied by a population of limited imagination/creativity and no experience at working together for a purpose.
Dr. Robert A. Rhodes