Back when I was a lad life on the playground was a little more . . . tenuous.
Everything in the playground was more dangerous. And they were different and unique, seemingly put together by the neighborhood handymen who in a burst of creative energy one Saturday morning emptied their garages of old tires, 2×4s, and chains and just nailed it all together. – Old, dangerous playground equipment
There was little adult supervision during recess. A skinned knee or elbow taught you the limits of safe. Broken bones marked the less graceful or too-brave-for-their-own-good. Kids would devise new, often alarming, uses for the playground structures. This was time before product testing and lawsuits.
Behold the Witch’s Hat. This was a device at my elementary school in Connecticut. The people that made this thing thought the children (imagine boys in sky blue shorts with suspenders and girls in red gingham dresses) would hang onto the bar in a neat circle and playfully skip around like merry little Dick and Janes.
The reality was more edgy. 6th graders would offer to give the younger kids “high rides” lining up a few unsuspecting subjects and invite them to hang on to one end while they would then jam the other right up next to the pole, lifting five or more kids up off the ground. As they began to spin you around it was a thrill for the first minute or so, wind in your hair, legs dangling out from under you as you whirled round and round. Once you realized this ride wasn’t going to stop, an icy determination to hang on for dear life took over.
Suspended a good 10 or 15 feet off the ground (which, if memory recalls, was rough asphalt), the bigger kids would spin the ring around the pole, faster and faster, while keeping you, now terrified, high up off the ground. Sweaty palms start to lose grip as your legs swing out almost horizontal from the centrifugal force.
One by one your classmates would fly off, thrown into other playground equipment or even the fence, bodies crumple to the pavement like rag dolls. Seeing the image of the rusted device above I can still hear the screams. It was the stuff of prison yards. I survived my high ride and learned lessons about grit, determination, the frailty of life and the cruelty of mankind.
Now everything on the playground has rounded corners and is covered in plastic. The ground is a sea of vulcanized rubber. It’s a kinder, gentler world of helicopter parents and the safety council. Maybe, as Bill Cosby says, the grown-ups were trying to bump us off.