In 1950s Brooklyn, neighborhood games meant my childhood was action-packed
Let it be said, as far as medicine knew in the 1950s, I did not have ADD, ADHD, or any of those sorts of things. On occasion, I was goofy, and I was sometimes a little down in the mouth. But I was never inactive. So as oddly as kids today look at me is as oddly as I look at them, motionless except for their thumbs.
I had the unique experience of walking to both elementary school and high school. While I can’t really remember getting rained on, I’m sure I was. As we funneled out the front doors of our houses, a few of us here, a few there ultimately created packs. As school approached, the packs grew.
We were always fooling around. For a period of time, it was tripping people by sneaking up behind them and kicking their right foot into their left, causing them to trip.
In high school we had book bags. The ones we favored were little valises with metal stubs on the bottom. Instead of bowling for dollars, the game was bowling for people. We’d look for someone engaged in conversation or thought, get about ten or fifteen yards behind them, and swing that bag, sending it rattling down the sidewalk.
When it worked, it hit the target like a bowling ball hit a pin. What was exquisite was if there were enough books in the bag to give it real heft and enough distance for the bag to pick up steam. Hit someone in the heels and they’d get knocked over backward. Then began the chase as the fallen rose and tried to knock your block off. Gotta be more fun that an iPhone game.
Sidewalks were essential to life as a kid in Brooklyn. Someone always had a “spauldeen” (pink rubber ball) in their pocket or book bag. Impromptu games of box ball or stoop ball were always breaking out.
Invariably you passed a street where kids were playing punchball, so you joined in or maybe you heard the tell-tale sound of a basketball bouncing off a backboard. Investigation of the noise usually ended up in getting added to the list of players. It often seemed that school was the interruption of playing rather than the other way around.
Rowdy action games of Cowboys and Indians, often played with cap guns, were a staple on my block. One would carefully load a red roll of paper that held dots of gunpowder. With enough kids and enough guns, small clouds of smoke enveloped the street enough so it smelled like a miniature battlefield. If we were pressed for time and couldn’t run inside to get armed, fingers pointed at the enemy accompanied by “Bang! You’re dead!!” would suffice.
Remember roller skates with the metal arches that went over your shoes, tightened by a key that hung from your neck? We did that too, jumping sewers, falling, and either skinning our knees as we fell on the sidewalk or tearing innumerable pairs of jeans.
Jumping a sewer wasn’t all that hard but sometimes a skate came loose and in mid-air you found it hanging off your foot like a dying duck in free-fall. Sometimes you just miscalculated, and the wheels hit the sewer, topped with its raised inscribed tributes to the Public Works Authority. Normally that threw your skates out of alignment and down you went. And almost never did anyone cry.
Then there was the chase for the spauldeen that got away because of an error, or because someone wasn’t looking or just wasn’t good enough to catch the dang ball. Our street, duly measured at 110 yards, ended in a wrought iron fence that protected us from the BMT trains that ran above ground in that stretch of Brooklyn.
The fleetest of us would tear down the street in hot pursuit of the bouncing ball, sometimes sliding feet-first towards the fence while corralling the ball. That saved you twenty-five cents and gained you hero status. Sometimes the ball beat you and bounced between the stakes of the fence and onto the tracks. This presented a whole other kind of game. A dangerous one.
We were experts at knowing which rail was the third rail and what it would do to you if you touched it. Even with that knowledge, we were all heart. One person had to look for parents as another climbed the fence. What a sense of exhilaration, standing on the rocks that occupied the space between the wood ties upon which sat the rails. This was done with a death grip on the fence.
Hawk-like, one had to peer one way and then the other to make sure a train wasn’t coming. A vibration in the track produced abject terror. But with a deep breath and a surge of adrenaline, I remember slowly, ever-so-slowly inching towards the ball, it usually resting against one of the rails, snatching it, and almost impaling myself on the fence as I scrambled back to safety.
I didn’t do that a lot, even though doing it conferred an even greater hero status than stopping the ball before it went onto the tracks, as well it should have.
All good things come to an end. There was homework to be done, dinner to be eaten, dogs to be walked, chores to be completed. Yet on a nice spring or summer’s weekend morning we could be found on the street by 8 a.m. A spring or summer’s night often saw us playing by moonlight.
Life was a canvas of interaction. It was good the phone was attached to the wall and the TV too heavy to be portable. We’d never have answered the phone, never glanced at the TV. There was a Jello commercial that featured a little lady the size of Pac-Man. She scurried about the screen muttering “busy, busy, busy.” That’s what we were — busy.
Columnist and author Bill Gralnick was born and raised in Brooklyn. His latest book, titled “The War of the Itchy Balls and Other Tales from Brooklyn,” offers more memories. His writings can be found at https://www.williamgralnickauthor.com/.
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