Luke Boyd's Gray on Grey: The Playground: Then and Now
Schools have been back in session for over a month now. I enjoy driving by the elementary schools and seeing the children on the playground. The playground equipment is colorful and looks to be in good shape. There are always a couple of teachers or aides close at hand supervising, making sure the children are safe. I often think about just how much times have changed.
My education began when I entered first grade at a little first- through 12th-grade school in Mississippi in 1938. We bought our books. It was the Depression and we were lucky to have any playground equipment and what little we had was not in very good condition. There were two large metal frames for swings but only one had swings on it. The other just had remnants of chains hanging from the cross bar marking where the swings used to be. We used this one for climbing. We’d shinny up one of the angled legs, transfer to another at the top, and slide down to the ground. The more daring climbers would scoot across the cross bar and go down on the opposite end. Occasionally someone would fall off but I don’t recall any serious injuries. The set with the swings caused more problems. The long-link metal chains would pinch a plug out of your hand if you weren’t careful. And the thick board seat with metal framing could be deadly to a child who ventured too close. Then there was always the contest to see who could jump out at the highest level. It was not uncommon for the winner to have to be carried in for first aid.
The tall slide had some steps missing but we managed to climb around them. There was always a contest to see who could run up the slide without getting wiped out by those coming down. And with the seesaw the contest was to see how many kids could get on each end and still seesaw. We had to stop this when we managed to break one of the old boards in two. The old metal merry-go-round’s bushings were all worn out so that it rocked like a tilt-a-whirl at a carnival. We usually tried to push it so fast that the girls would be slung off.
You are probably wondering where our teachers were while all this misuse of equipment was going on. There were usually two or three classes out at a time and the teachers mostly sat over under a tree and visited. They pretty much let us create our own fun unless there was too much blood. And that’s what we did among all the debris behind the football field. The field had gotten new lights some years earlier and all the old poles, lights, and switch boxes had just been piled to one side. It had become overgrown with weeds and small trees and provided a wonderful place to construct forts and to invent all sorts of games. Right behind the piles of poles was a deep drainage ditch which, with its branches and large culverts, was a great venue for cowboy and Indian chases when the weather was dry. Many times when play period was over, the teachers would have to send out a search party to locate some who were out of earshot or who just pretended not to hear the go-to-class call.
The rooms didn’t have any ball-playing equipment. We played football when someone brought his ball from home. The same was true with baseball—ball and bat had to come from home. The girls never played ball. They stuck with the rickety playground equipment or played “red rover” or hopscotch on the sidewalk.
One baseball game is still very vivid in my memory. I was in the second grade and we had a spirited game going during morning recess when DeWitt wandered up. I’d never come across anyone with two capital letters in his name. DeWitt was sort of strange with a narrow face and a big skull topped by a shock of light blond hair. He loved Bit-O-Honey candy. It’s very good candy and still in production today. It comes in flat, rectangular pieces about two inches long which are packaged to make up a full bar. Anyway, I was batting when DeWitt wandered up right behind me. I hit the ball and felt my bat hit something on the follow through. I started to first but was stopped by everybody screaming. Turning around I saw DeWitt with blood all over his face and down the front of his shirt. What I didn’t know was that he had three or four pieces of Bit-O-Honey stuffed into his mouth. When he bent over and began to spit out his teeth and the bloody candy, I thought he was spitting up his guts and that he would fall over dead just any time. Fortunately, he didn’t but he had two split lips and four front teeth missing.
After getting DeWitt off to the doctor, the teacher lit into chewing me out for not watching where I was swinging. I tried to explain to her that you can’t see behind you when you’re batting and that DeWitt should have had sense enough to stay out of the way. She wouldn’t buy any of that which led me to conclude that women didn’t know anything about playing ball.
Next year in third grade a bunch of us wanted to play baseball but we had no bat or ball. So we got a can from the garbage behind the lunchroom and made up a game of kick-the-can ball. We’d set the can down on home plate then run and kick it.
To get you out, the team in the field had to hit you with the can while you were off base. Since they didn’t want to get hit by a hard-kicked can, everyone played back a ways. This led to some kickers bunting to get to first. They’d pop it out about twelve feet or so and make first before anyone could reach the can. One time I was running up to kick the can and one of the fielders decided that I was going to bunt. I wasn’t. He came running in close and my kick caught him right between the eyes cutting a large gash in his forehead. I’ve forgotten how many stitches it took to sew it up. Of course, I got another good chewing even though I thought it was the dummy’s fault for running up so close. Our game also got canceled.
Today’s teachers and administrators would be appalled at the things we were allowed to do on the playground. There’s a lawsuit lurking around every corner. But that’s the way things were then both at home and at school. We played in old barns and cotton gins and in and around abandoned farm machinery. If you got hurt, you just got put back together and went on.
I’m sure the kids of today are safer and much better supervised — and they should be. But I think my generation picked up a lot of creativity and survival skills in the maze of the old light poles and drainage ditches.
Dr. Lucas G. (Luke) Boyd is the retired principal of Battle Ground Academy. He lives in Franklin and may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Posted on: 10/1/2008