East Side, West Side, all around the town
The tots play Ring around Rosie, London Bridge is Falling Down
Boys and girls together, me and Mamie O’Rourke
Tripped the light fantastic on the sidewalks of New York.
This could have been the anthem of my childhood, although except for jaunts to Grammie’s in Jamaica, Queens, we did our playing on the streets, sidewalks, and grass of the more bucolic Williston Park, NY (and I wondered aloud just what “trip the light fantastic” was – “Is it some kinda game?”). The song was written in 1894, but 70+ years later, you could still hear kids on our street singing it, and up until 1996, it was used as the “parade to the post” song for the Belmont Stakes horse race.
We played the same kinds of games mentioned in the lyrics, and lots more, many of which were never formalized in any way, but somehow the gangs of Baby Boomers in our neighborhood knew the “rules” and how to participate. (Some enterprising soul must have decided to write them down, however; years back, when my kids were little, I was thrilled to find a book called “Hopscotch, Hangman, Hot Potato and Ha Ha Ha”, a compendium of instructions for lots of those old games.)
Frequently, our adventures were segregated by sex – either because we each thought the other had cooties, or due to the fact that some games were considered too rough or too prissy. We girls spent a huge amount of time on comparatively rule-free, very sociable activities – roller skating; jumping rope; acrobatic ball-bouncing games using a small, pink Spaldeen; Hot Potato; Hopscotch or Potsie; and Witchdoctor (a game where you joined hands and twisted, walked around and under each other’s arms, – then the “witchdoctor”, who stood aside with eyes covered, would try to get the circle back in shape without anyone breaking their grip). We could while away rainy afternoons in someone’s basement or screened porch playing Miss Mary Mack and a variety of other hand clapping games; we put on plays and had a lot of sing-alongs and noise-making contests using various body parts; Old Maid, Go Fish, and Crazy Eights were our favorite card games, and we’d scream with mock-horror at the Mystery Date board game, where the officially-titled “Dud” looked a lot like the type of guy we’d be most intrigued by a decade later!
When we had run through our usual repertoire and didn’t have enough girls to play one of the large group games, we’d troop up and down the street, one foot in the gutter, one on the curb, bouncing up and down with every step. Or several of us would sit on the curb while one person walked slowly down the line, offering her closed fists to each girl in turn, and we’d try to guess which of her hands concealed a pebble. The “winner” got to take the pebble-hider’s place.
And we generally did this all day. Our moms would send us out in the morning, and except for lunch, they usually didn’t see hide nor hair of us until the six o’clock siren rounded everyone up for dinner.
I don’t know everything the boys did because – as I said – girls were not usually privy to their secret world. When we showed up, there might be a lot of rolled eyes, snickering, and a chorus of “Ewww… girls!” But we did sometimes witness some of their more public rituals. We (and sometimes the worried and disapproving moms) watched with bated breath while they played Johnny-on-a-Pony, or Buck-Buck.
This painful-looking game involved two teams of boys who switched roles in successive rounds. The “pony” was formed by one team bending over and hooking their arms around each others’ waists (in a line), with the anchor holding onto a tree or other stationery object for stability. Then the “riders” would come running in, one by one, and with a flying leap, jump on the pony – the biggest kid was usually saved for last. If the pony’s back was broken, the riders won; if not, the pony team prevailed.
Boys also engaged in a lot of war games. The storming of the beaches at Normandy, or in winter, the Battle of the Bulge, were reenacted many times over, complete with aerial dirt bombs and all of those rat-a-tat noises that my brothers seemed especially adept at (I could never do it quite as quickly or convincingly).
Individually, ball games seemed to be most popular. One of my brothers was a stoop ball aficionado, and summer days echoed with the rhythmic ka-thunk-thunk of the ball hitting the stoop and/or door before ricocheting back off to his mitt.
Even though we spent most of our time engaged in separate activities, the ones we all joined in together seemed to be the most exciting. There were giant (20 or more kids) games of kickball, street soccer, Red Rover, I-Declare-War, Kick the Can, and many variations of tag. The best tag game, and one of the most fun activities of all, was Ringalevio, played with two large teams, a jail, and lots of shouting – “Olly, olly, all-in-free!” and “Tap-tap ringalevio one-two-three!” I recall one such game played at Alley Pond Park one weekend with a huge gang of my high school friends – I think it went on for 3 or 4 hours!
And one rather lurid memory is of a day we played what we forever after called “Slaves.” The girls (we were about 11 or 12 years old) were bored with our usual games, and probably starting to feel the boys were more interesting than we’d previously thought, so we sought out our brothers and their friends and begged them to play a game with us. They weren’t as thrilled with the idea as we were, but said OK, as long as we played by their rules. We gamely agreed, and soon found ourselves tied up in a bunch (probably with someone’s clothesline jump rope) in a rather dark garage. Then the boys went off to ride bikes, while we occupied ourselves chatting away and trying to guess what the boys were up to and when they’d be back. When they returned (probably a long while later), they hit us with tennis rackets before they untied us and let us go. Believe it or not, we asked to play this game again, but Slaves was a one-shot deal. I doubt that any of us was much affected by this activity, but in light of my later feminist leanings, it sure does seem strange!
As we grew older, hardly any of these games held the allure for us that they once had, and Chuck Berry’s “No Particular Place to Go” would be a good tune to describe the way our days started to feel. But for a short while, we were happy-go-lucky and innocent – the run of the neighborhood, a pink rubber ball, a few pebbles, and each others’ company all we needed to be thoroughly entertained.