hen I was a kid there was a park we went to in the next town over. It was totally unlike any other park in a 60 mile raduus in that it had the absolute coolest play equipment you could ever imagine. When a buddy was having his birthday party at that park, you knew you were in for a great time. But the 70’s and 80’s were a simpler time. If my memory of the conditions at that park in those days is at all accurate, and if those conditions were present today you’d better bet the health department would shut that park down faster than you could say “Dennis The Menace”. The chief attractions at the park were a real (decomissioned) train engine, every inch of which was accessable for kids to crawl on and fall from. There was also a suspension bridge that made the one that Indiana Jones traversed look like a cake-walk, and a genuine hedge maze where all the teenagers came and hid after dark to drink (and vomit) cheep beer. Those of us with great memories of that place also remember that it perpetually smelled of old cigarette butts entombed in the sidewalk creases, industrial grade axle-grease used to keep the movable playstructures movable, and festering bird droppings from the duck pond surrounding the park on three sides. Of course the park isn’t anything like that now. It’s all foam-rubber padded and OSHA compliant. But back then we loved the thrill of it. After all, things are much more exciting when the risk of death or dismemberment is very real. Today the park has a whole new meaning to me. It’s a thrill to be able to take my own kids there and share with them a place that holds a very special place in my own childhood memories. They may never know the thrill of having their flesh flayed from their bones by a jagged, rusted, broken piece of cast-iron “playstructure”, but I guess that’s the price of progress.
The train... all cast iron and steel. 12 feet tall and not a safety net to be found.
This morning, after Episode IV went off to school and after the wife took Episode VI for a newborn photo-shoot, Episode V and I found the planets all aligned for a little father/son time. So off we went to the park of my childhood (where my big cousin once rescued a terrified little girl who got her foot hopelessly wedged in the equipment by pulling so hard you could almost hear her tendons snap, where we once had to leave and go home when the neighbor kid we brought with us inexplicably peed his pants 15 minutes after we got there, where I first tasted the panic-laced fear for my life when an older kid trapped me out of sight in an alcove and showed me his real switchblade) to make some memories of our own. As we pulled into the parking lot I noticed that the train engine, the first stop for every child who visits and the chief referral source for most orthopedic surgeons in the area, was roped off and inaccessable for the first time I could remember in all my 38 years. I couldn’t help but wonder if some kid finally fell off the thing and broke his/her neck (it stands roughly 12 feet tall). Statistically it was bound to happen, even if the odds are one-in-a-million. If that’s the case, and some poor kid did fall and break his crown, I think those of us in the million who DID survive that death trap owe that kid a moment of silence. Episode V got over it pretty quick though, and quickly moved on to whatever showed up next on his radar.
As we moved from station to station at that park, the “Wonder Years” flashbacks came at me fast and furious, so please indulge me and put on a little Van Morrison (requisite music for any flashback sequence) as I share.
“The Tunnel” is one of the few attractions at the park that is unchanged since my childhood years. At any given birthday party this is where the neighborhood bully stood (how was it he always got invited?) to smash all of us smaller kids against the concrete walls should we be stupid enough to try to get through. We all laughed nervously while he did it, as if to say “This is fun, right?” He laughed maniacally, as if he was enjoying knocking out our baby teeth a little too much. It was all fun and games until some got hurt (and someone always did). When that happened he dastardly started crying and pretending he did it in defense after someone else threw sand in his eyes — effectlively deflecting attention from the child who by his hand lay crushed and bleeding deep inside “The Tunnel”, out of sight of all the mothers chit-chatting at the picnic tables. As my son played there I forced from my mind the rumors that surfaced later in high school when what’s-her-name showed up pregnant and the rumor was that was the location where it happened.
“The Bridge” I can remember the boards on this bridge so warn that the heads of the nails/screws that held them in place undulated up and down out of the boards as the suspension bridge waggled and rolled. The big kids took particular delight in jumping as hard as they could and knocking the littler kids to their knees (and onto the protruding nail heads). The steel cable that held the bridge up was so old and frayed, if you ran across with your hand on the cable you inevitably got to the other side with a long sliver of metal imbedded deep underneath your skin. This is where most of the kids in my age group learned that the smell of rust and blood were virtually indestinguishable. Needless to say the bridge is now completely hermetically sealed and totally OSHA compliant.
“The Slide” In my day this slide used to be one long solid piece of polished sheet metal. When the sun was at just the right angle it would reflect back at you with such ferocity you spent the next hour trying to scrub the after images that were burned into your retina. The wise kids only went on it wearing long pants, because in the heat of summer inevitably one kid would sit down to the unsettling sound of sizzling flesh against the blazing hot slide surface. If you were foolish enough to try to slide down the thing, by the time you made it half way down your bare legs resembled that nasty, dying Voldemort from the final Harry Potter movie – and if you were unfortunate enough to slide down the entire length the experience could only be compared to that of crispy critters Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru from the original Star Wars.
“The Rolly Thingie” This is a new aparatus in the park since my time there. When we were kids we were never allowed to go to that side of the park. That was where all the broken glass bottles were, usually left there by the homeless people who used that area for other… unsavory… purposes.
The Lion's Head
“The Lion’s Head” This is one of the most recognizable landmarks in the park for anyone who spent any time here as a kid. It’s a water fountain, the premise being you have to put your head in the lion’s mouth to get a drink. It’s still totally functional and I’m happy to report that it no longer sports the 1/8 inch thick coating of algae (and god knows what else) that completely covered the inside of the lion’s mouth when I was a kid. I’m told the CDC tracked twelve cases of polio back to that specific water fountain in the late 70’s; just about the time me and my friends were maximizing our time there. Good times. Good times.
Tired little guy.
But eventually all good times have to come to an end. For me, I grew up and someone decided it might be a good idea to make the park safe for actual young people. For my son it was just the end of another fun day at the park. It’s good to know that even though he’s not the baby in the family anymore, he’s still my little guy. He crashed out in the car ride home, secure with the promise of more fun to be had at the park on future outings… without the blatant exposure to tetanus and botulism that I enjoyed when I was his age.
For those of you from my youth who read this blog, I’m sure this park’s location is obvious to you and I’m sure you have stories to share of your own. Please feel free to share in the comment section below. I’d love to hear them.