Todd Hartley: Games people play (twisted people anyway)
Just recently, a charcoal grill mysteriously appeared on my front porch, complete with a can of lighter fluid, and even more recently we got the good rainstorm we’ve been so desperately needing. These two seemingly unrelated events can only mean one thing: The heart of summer is finally here, or else it’s already over and about to be replaced by monsoon season.
Being the cockeyed optimist that I am, I am naturally assuming that the former case is true, and the very thought of summer has been making me nostalgic of late for the carefree summer days of my youth back in Connecticut.
For those who think that the Nutmeg State (I have no idea why it’s called that) is just a short, inconvenient stretch of Interstate 95 between New York and Boston dotted here and there with some of the country’s worst small cities, you’re only partially right. Connecticut also has vast tracts of overgrown woodlands and swamps and ponds teeming with all manner of nifty forest creatures. (OK, it is Connecticut, where nothing is particularly vast save for some Indian-run casinos, but to a little kid like me it seemed huge at the time.)
I was lucky enough to grow up on an overgrown, one-lane road that paralleled a small creek and had roughly 20 kids my own age living along it. Our houses were all linked by a network of trails that wound through the woods and swamps, and at the center of it all there was a Nature Conservancy parcel with an algae-covered frog pond and a larger pond with some of the best bass fishing in town.
Given the profusion of kids on my street and the amount of terrain we had to explore, summers became endless series of made-up games and adventures, almost all of which left us bloodied, muddied or both.
There were, of course, the same sports all kids across America play: football, baseball and street hockey, to name a few. And there was that cruelest of games called smear the queer (or smear Jeremy, as it was more commonly referred to in my neck of the woods). But there were also a handful of games that I’ll wager were unique to my neighborhood.
There were as many ways to play flashlight tag as there were houses on the street, with the one set rule being that if it was your house, you got to make the rules. We had a host of makeshift BMX tracks, and when one wasn’t available we had sheets of plywood and a couple of logs to make a bicycle jump in the middle of our driveways, which inevitably led to glorious wipeouts and kids picking asphalt out of the abrasions on their arms. And David Wilson and I even played a sweet game called torch the little plastic Army men with a gallon of gasoline. Needless to say, that one was a big hit with our parents.
When it rained, as it does often in the Constitution State (don’t ask me about that one either), we would all head inside to the room my older brother and I shared. It was the size of a two-car garage, and all the furnishings had been shoved to the sides, leaving a perfect knee-football pitch in the center.
Our indoor games included Conehead, wherein those without the ball would hold pillows on their heads and dive at the ball carrier’s knees (there was also glow-in-the-dark Conehead, with the lights out and a glowing ball, just for variety’s sake); Over the Top, which involved throwing on full football equipment and trying to launch over a stack of pillows while two other participants waited to crush you in midair; and Anything Goes Basketball, wherein baskets were scored by stuffing a nerf basketball into a laundry hamper hung from the ceiling while the other players did whatever they had to do to stop you. In retrospect, all the games were pretty much variations on smear the queer, but we thought we were being very creative.
This involved getting everyone in the neighborhood together to climb up on the Finns’ jungle gym and spit the biggest loogies they could down onto the surface of a trampoline. Two contestants would then go wrestle, with the whole point being to take your opponent’s face and rub it in spit. It wasn’t enough that we all ended up with rug burns on our cheeks, we just had to add the element of other people’s snot to make things more interesting.
OK, so maybe nostalgia isn’t the right word for what I’ve been feeling. God forbid I should ever have to spit wrestle again. But I do remember that way back then we would leave our houses first thing in the morning and not come home until after dark, and our parents didn’t seem the least bit concerned.
Nowadays, in times as troubled as these, that sort of freedom to be a kid and go do something stupid for no good reason seems nonexistent in America, and that is something for which I really do pine.
[ Todd Hartley wants to send a shout out to the old Sawmill Lane gang. His column runs on Fridays. E-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org]
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