Unexpected memories pop up at odd times. Saturday afternoon, my mind drifted back to 1954 and the street games we played as kids in New York. While my apartment building in Rego Park fronted on 63rd Drive, the narrow side streets were only lightly trafficked. Disclosure: One, maybe two people were thrown off my building’s roof in mob-style murders some years after I left home. Second disclosure: The closing of Jack’s candy store affected me more.
In fall, we played touch football in the street. Winter brought sledding and snowball fights. Spring offered punchball and stickball with a pink Spaldeen or Penzy Pinky (Amazon sells high-bounce Pinky balls). They’re the size of a tennis ball but without the fuzz. We also played softball. A manhole cover served as home plate, parked cars as first and third bases, another manhole or a glove as second. As I remember, we never broke a windshield or even—maybe—dented metal.
We also played War. One kid was “It.” The rest each took the name of a country. We huddled together then scattered on the street as “It” counted to five. Everyone froze. “It” stated, “I declare war on…”—say, Russia. In the 1950s, the Cold War was a hot issue. “It” threw the ball at Russia, who could sway but not move his feet. If Russia got hit, he became “It.” If the ball sailed past, “It” stayed “It.” Risks were involved. Balls went down sewers.
We moved to the sidewalk to play Four-box Baseball and Box Ball. A small dirt patch allowed us to play Territory. We threw penknives to carve up smaller and smaller areas. Whoever couldn’t land his knife in the smallest territory lost.
We also went to the schoolyard at PS 174. Without parents! In addition to softball (as few as three kids on a side) and basketball, Johnny-on-the-Pony captivated us. One kid leaned up against the wall in a handball court. Another ran forward and jumped on his back. Then another and another until the “pony” collapsed. What was the point? Did we need one?
Then there was Moon’s Up. It involved Chinese Handball (you slapped the ball to the ground before it hit the wall). Each kid defended his space. If you couldn’t return the ball, you got a point and moved to the end of the line. When someone accumulated a given number of points—often because everyone else ganged up on him—we had a loser. The loser bent over at the wall with his backside up. Each winner got to throw the ball at him. What was the point? Did we need one?
We had indoor games for winter, like shoebox basketball played in a bedroom (which I kind of invented), but that’s another story. Urban life then placed a premium on imagination. Today’s kids, if they escape the pull of their video games, play ball in leagues with uniforms, schedules, adult coaches and cheering (sometimes fighting) parents. ESPN long has covered the Little League World Series. Ridiculous!
How did we turn out? My friends produced a New York State middle-school principal of the year, chemistry teacher/tech consultant, lawyer and neurosurgeon. There also was me. Four out of five ain’t bad.
Update — 4-1-20: One game, off the street, also needs a mention. The P.S. 174 schoolyard included a softball field. Concrete or asphalt, can’t remember which. We used to play Home Run Derby, seeing who could hit a softball from home plate over the twenty-foot-high left-field fence. Not always easy given that the balls we used were usually well worn and didn’t carry. But hit home runs we did. Unfortunately, the handball courts were on the other side of the fence. Handball and stickball players as well as younger children needed lookouts to yell, “Incoming.” Until the parks department worker who had a small brick building for supplies and equipment kicked us out.
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