By Roger Barbee
On a recent Sunday afternoon, one of our neighbors hosted a cook-out for his grown children and grandchildren. The early June air was filled with a melody of delightful yells, excited screams, and peels of laughter. As afternoon worn into low evening, the energy of the trove of children seemed to grow and expand to fill the approaching summer eve.
Watching some of the older children race bicycles again and again down Scott's Lane, I thought of North Carolina summers long ago and another childhood where play was like what I was witnessing on Scott's Lane -- a group of children making their own fun.
An astute mother observed that the child who is sent out of the house to play at the beginning of the summer is not the same as the one let back in at summer's end for the beginning of school. Yet this observation seems to have been made in a particular time that has gone the way of ollie-ollie home free, hide and seek, Annie over, pop the whip, a ballgame played on any empty lot with just a ball of some sort and a bat of whatever worked, and countless other games passed down or made up by some kid to help pass the day until called in at dark by a parent. Reluctantly the small, tired, sweaty, and somewhat dirty bodies would trudge to a front door, sorry at having been forced to stop play. Yet, during those long summers, there always was the next day.
We did not need an adult to organize a ballgame. All we needed was a group of kids and an empty lot away from houses. If we had a store-bought ball and bat that was great, but if not we would sit down with a small rock and all the string and twine we could beg to make a serviceable ball or we would use a small rubber ball. An old broom handle worked great as a bat. Teams? Two kids took turns choosing and everybody got picked and everybody got to play. Gloves? If one was had, it was shared each time with another kid as sides rotated to the field. Bases? A rock, brick, whatever good-sized object found would do the trick. Rules? We made them ourselves as we needed and learned how to settle disputes without an adult. Sometimes an older sibling or the oldest kid would make the final decision. In this way we learned to live with decisions we did not agree with or like. Most of all, we came to realize that in the end it was only a game after all. Our egos were not that involved.
If there were not enough kids for a ballgame, we would play our version of stick ball where only a pitcher and fielder were needed for each side. Any small ball and old broom handle served as the necessary equipment. No large field was needed and the boundaries were set by mutual agreement, as were the rules which depended on the number of players and size of the space.
Or, as dusk approached, we would play hide and seek. One learned courage the first time he or she crawled under the dark forsythia bush in order to hide. The space was creepy, but going into it was better than becoming "it."
If for some reason we were told to stay in our own yard, we would play mother, may I on the front walk. An older sibling was usually the mother sitting on the porch and us younger kids worked hard at being the first to get to the front steps. In this game we learned the dangers of taking foolish chances and that being honest was the best way to play. If you tried to cheat in this game, "mother" would most likely catch you.
Looking back at those summer days, I realize how little material we had. Yet we did not complain about it as that would have only made the situation worse. We went out into the long, luscious days of summer and made our own fun. We did not have bottles of flavored water, store-bought equipment, or adults who organized it all for us. Just a need that we filled.
Roger Barbee is a retired educator who lives in Edinburg with his wife Mary Ann, four dogs and five cats. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.