Games People Played – a story for summer as it rolls along

GAMES PEOPLE PLAYED

Did your first school teach you everything you needed to know for life?   Paul Bernard reflects here on his time in the schoolyard.   Adapted from Twentieth Century Limited Book One – Age of Heroes

Thinking back, some things that seemed simple and straightforward were anything but.  Complex, they were, and full of meaning, though at the time I didn’t appreciate this.  Take some of the games we played.

In our schoolyard near the first grade windows, two walls came together at a right angle, perfect for a game of Squeeze the Lemon.  When a classmate was spotted in this area, somebody would take a run at him, leaping and crushing him into the corner.  Usually one striker at a time, though two were better, if harder to manage.  Sometimes a reluctant lemon (most of them were) had to be held, which called for excellent timing since the holder stood a good chance of getting mashed himself.  After maybe half a dozen rushes, the lemon would escape to nurse his wounds and another victim was targeted.  Girls were excluded, of course, and while there was no reason they couldn’t compete in say, horse chestnuts or picture cards, they’d no sooner do that than a boy would be seen jumping rope.

We collected everything, traded everything.  Superman and Batman were the best comic books, the Heap the oddest.  Pepsi caps with state outlines under the corks, Hoodsie lids with movie stars beneath peel-off waxed paper (girls collected these) and chewing gum foil you’d roll up, trying to build the biggest ball.  What a sad day when packages of aluminum wrap started appearing in our neighborhood grocery, pretty much ending this important collecting art.  And they called this progress!

Some years the horse chestnuts were so abundant you couldn’t help skidding on them hiding under the leaves.  Chestnuts were prized because they made a terrific game.  You stuck a nail through the hard gray mantle of the nut where the stem had been, then forced it down through the meat, taking care not to crack the shell.  Next, a shoelace through the hole, a double knot, wrap the lace around your fist and you were ready.  Five whacks for you, five for your opponent, then back and forth until one of the chestnuts broke.

Every time the chestnut made a hit it suffered damage even if it couldn’t be seen, so it wasn’t just how tough the nut was – your strategy mattered.  When cracks began to show in the opponent you could go for it, or you could back off using glancing blows to preserve your nut, though of course with the occasional home run swing.  One piece would chip away, then another and another.  When so few crumbs were left you couldn’t even tell it had been a nut, the game was over.  Sometimes the skin hid an internal fault and a nut would disintegrate from a single blow.  Legend has it, two nuts once exploded at the same time but I never saw that happen, nor did anybody I knew.

The winning chestnut, whatever its condition, had to stand all comers.  After a certain number of wins – I don’t remember the number – the naked and gouged nut, no more than a chunk of grayish-yellow meat, qualified as a kinger.  Some kids soaked their kingers in vinegar to harden them, but nobody knew if that really helped.  Owning a kinger made you a celebrity.  I had a kinger in sixth grade, which was fitting since King was my dog’s name and when it came to dogs he was a winner.

Picture cards were an important collectable and a game, both. You’d drop to your knees behind a chalk line in front of a wall, and gently sail your card so it skipped and slid precisely to the base of the wall.  Closest to the wall won, unless covered by a later throw which won everything.  Even better than a toucher was a card that stopped upright at the wall, leaning against it.  Covering a leaner was excellent but very rare.  Beat-up cards only – you never saw one with crisp edges and corners, still smelling of the pink gum it came packaged with.  A few cards were off limits like Williams and DiMaggio and Musial – if only I’d known to keep them!  But Johnny Wyrostek, Eddie Waitkus – that kind of card was common, also football cards which were inferior even when new.

After dinner, my father liked to relax in his red leather chair, reading the paper and smoking his pipe.  Sprawled on the floor I would sort and resort my cards and place them in the glassine pockets of my album.  After a lot of thought I decided by team was better than by name so Williams and Pesky and Doerr would be together like in real life, Sain and Spahn of the Braves and so on.  Some players had wonderful names, especially Spahn – Warrrren Spaahhhnn.  Just like my bank, the Old Stone Bank, his name sounded exactly like he looked – slow, graceful, with a leg kick that floated up and above his head.  “Spahn and Sain and pray for rain,” they said the summer the Braves won the pennant, though Cleveland killed them in the Series.

The Yankees, the despised Yankees…okay, I admit it, I had Yankee cards too.  Raschi and Rizutto and Berra – staccato sounds harsh to your ear.  Our neighborhood originally had been Irish, but growing up it was mostly Italian and I had many friends and enemies with names like that.  Wops, my father called them sometimes – not my friends but their parents, and only when they weren’t around.  I didn’t know why wop was so bad but my friends went crazy if I called them that when we were having a fight – usually just names and shoving but sometimes punches.  Wop.  It got them going every time.

So you see, as the acorn possesses the oak, my schoolyard had much to tell me about life, even if I wasn’t listening at the time.

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