The trip down Memory Lane continues, taking us to the playgrounds of old. I started writing about this last week after visiting a play structure at a nearby apple farm. There was so much to talk about I didn’t get much further than a discussion on the monkey bars, an essential part of parks in the 1970s and ‘80s.
But how can you really have a comprehensive conversation about playgrounds without touching on the swings? They are, after all, the most whimsical of all playground equipment, offering the biggest potential of dropping your stomach way in the distance behind you.
The swings at the parks I most visited were all connected to the swing set via long chains and offered a flexible canvas seat for good-quality soaring. Usually upon arrival at the park, we would find most of the swings had been spun into DNA-like twists that needed to be undone before any swinging could occur. This had been done, naturally, by the “bad kids,” who I always thought were boys perpetually in need of a haircut.
So we’d spin them open and get to work lofting ourselves in the air. Using any equipment at the park, you hoped for dry weather, but especially while on the swings. This was because there were deep ruts underneath them, caused of course by running with the swing seat tucked on our bellies and then flying like superman. These ruts were perfect for producing puddles with even the smallest amount of rain. One wrong move and you’d find yourself with a shoe full of muddy muck that may or may not be a breeding ground for leeches.
But even this risk was worth it as the swings were as close to flying as you could get. The fanciest of us would be able to release from the seat at the very apex of the arc so to soar briefly before landing. I never perfected that move, but I did have a great time going “double dating” with my friends, which meant getting our swing rhythms aligned so we matched. I also loved performing the underduck, or underdog as it’s called in some regions, which involved running under your friend’s swing while it’s at its highest peak.
Moving on from the swings meant heading over to the slide. Oh me, but slides of yesteryear were sights to behold. Disguised as space ships and elephants, topped with overgrown teddy bears, featuring double humped descents or gradients that swirled like ice cream, there were no limits to creativity when it came to dressing up this classic ride.
Interestingly, what they all had in common is they were made of metal. And what happens to metal in the sun? Oh yeah, it gets hot. This resulted in an exquisite burn on the backs of your thighs as you zipped down that fiery descent at high noon.
And by zip, I mean zip, because all of these slides? They were steep, man. No way were you worried you might get bored halfway down. Oh no. Your only concern was getting your body to stop when you did reach bottom. Two out of five times, I’d skid right off, my poor, withered tailbone dragging like an anchor in the sand.
Of course, this precipitous slope never stopped us from trying to climb up the slide, did it? Boy, was this a fun game. We’d crawl up like crabs, jealous of the kids who’d already been taken back-to-school shopping because they still had healthy grips on their new shoes.
Then it was on to the seesaw. For a skinny kid, this, too, was not for the faint of heart. Get paired with a fat sixth-grader and you know you’re going to be flung to the top as fast as a bottle rocket. The only thing to hold onto was the actual, well, saw — no handles or seats for us 1980s kids. Should you ever reach ground again, you just prayed you were smart enough to put your hands high enough so they didn’t get crushed. You also hoped like hell that the fat kid didn’t decide to suddenly get off or you could say goodbye to your tailbone again.
But by far the most dangerous of playground equipment was the merry-go-round. They weren’t staples of every park, so if you found one, you nearly went into anaphylactic shock. Luckily, they weren’t hard to spot because they were always painted in hypnotizing swirls. So us little kids would jump on and one older kid would grab a bar and start pushing the ‘round around so it would start spinning on its axis.
And that was basically it: You either survived or you didn’t. If you stayed intact, that meant you felt the most joyous exhilaration possible, your whole body feeling like it was levitating on top of the world. That is until you puked.
If you didn’t survive, that meant you got your hands or feet tangled underneath the spinning wheel and they snapped in two like a twigs. This was highly likely because you had zero control of your limbs; you were so dizzy you couldn’t pick your nose if you wanted to.
And that about sums up the parks of my childhood. Looking back at that neutered play structure at Haney’s, I will say I think we 1980s kids were pretty lucky. Yeah, the potential for harm was big, but so was the potential for heaps of fun.