There sure are a lot of chubby kids in America today.
You’ve probably read some of the attempts to explain the phenomenon. Too much time sitting around with electronic devices. Parents too protective to let the kids play outside. Big Gulp soft drinks.
Well, I have my own theory: Too many playgrounds, and they are too nice.
I know that sounds counter-intuitive. But hear me out. Yes I happen to live in Denver right now but I’m not stoned.
My point will make sense after I recount a little history.
Anyone over 50 will remember, maybe even 40.
We spent a lot of time playing outside as kids but that’s not the main reason we stayed lean. It wasn’t that we were allowed to play unsupervised in playgrounds. We also had to build them.
No, I’m not kidding. Tree branches trimmed like monkey bars and ladders in the sky. Holes in backstops mended with old garden fences. Batting cages improvised in grocery store parking lots.
I’ll bet at least one of our sloppily painted rectangular strike zones is still visible on one of those walls in the old neighborhood where we played “Rubber Ball Fast Pitch.” One pitcher. One batter. A $1 hard rubber ball and you had hours of one-on-one competition. So what if you had to chase foul balls to beat them to the sewer grate. Just made us faster; kept us from putting on the pounds.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I grew up without any parks at all nearby. There were some, but they didn’t get much tender loving care. We had to maintain them, soften some of the sharp edges, keep them from falling apart.
We didn’t just spend hours playing sports, we spent hours doing the pre-game work just to have somewhere to play.
We fixed bent basketball hoops. We shoveled snow off courts. We swept up broken RC Cola bottles.
A self-appointed municipal repair crew, we had to get creative.
We used wire and old metal signs or rusty backyard gates to repair holes in chain-link fences, to block off those ball-gobbling sewer drains or to mend — at least while the game went on — that pesky hole that could cost us so much time with every high throw to first base.
Fences, oh so many fences.
We were always crawling under them, climbing over them to retrieve lost balls or wrestling with them when they came loose.
With time and weather, sections of chain link would tear free of their galvanized-wire bonds and spring upward like scoops of giant backhoes interfering with anyone trying to shoot from the corner. Or, they would curl away like frozen surfer waves or cartoon octopuses trying to squish Olive Oyl and Popeye. They grabbed at your feet, your pants, your bike spokes, your rubber-coated hardball, your football, your bright orange smooth Spalding basketball that, after five years of sanding by the asphalt, really didn’t need any more challenges.
In our constant battle with chain link, we armed ourselves with Converse shoelaces, coils of wire, ripped shirts or used inner tubes.
You might think this exaggeration. Ask your dad or your grandpa, especially if they grew up in the city. I’m sure rural folks had their challenges, too, because some of them endured even tougher economic times.
It was not like today. Everywhere you look seems to reveal another perfectly groomed grass field, crater-free tennis court or castle-sized playground with — we can’t forget! — those protective ground surfaces, the soft interlocking tiles, the rubber mulch, the spongy turf.
We played on asphalt, a lot.
Closest to our house was the old tar field — it was notched into a hill and had high fences, high concrete walls, a baseball diamond (more like a trapezoid because of the very short right field) and two full basketball courts (usually with only two working rims and backboards). We had no grass fields within 10-or-so blocks and going to one was risky. That meant crossing into very different neighborhoods — different bullies, different mean dogs and old people whose demeanor you could only determine after your basketball rolled on to their front lawn.
Sometimes the trip to those more popular fields would be fruitless anyway. Far too often, some kind of organized finicky group had a permit to use those grass fields, and — we found out the hard way — strangers weren’t allowed to squeeze in alongside them.
Sometimes even the tar field was unavailable, either too crowded with older kids or used as a temporary parking lot by the nearby school.
Did we go home to watch cartoons? Play board games? Ogle Mary Tyler Moore on the Dick Van Dyke show? Nope, if it wasn’t sleeting, snowing or freezing, we moved our games to our backyards or the streets. The street where I grew up, about 20 feet wide, with one long curve straightening out just long enough in a couple stretches, became the field for touch football, rundown, freeze tag and all kinds of chase games.
It’s been more than 50 years ago, but I still remember seeing — and smelling — the city put the first tar on that street. It was just about the time the street became one-way. It was like a miracle, like Jesus himself had delivered a coal-black swatch of playground to our doorsteps. We only had to worry about cars coming at us from one direction and those slippery old uneven gray bricks were history.
It was like a holiday. For everyone on the street. Bicycles came out of nowhere. Skateboards. Old people tried out those collapsible metal shopping carts with two wheels.
Who cared if some errant tar, still bubbling in the heat of the day, stuck to your bike tires, your shoes or your ankles. It came off, eventually, or you could always grab an old rag and siphon a little gas from the lawnmower to do some cleanup.
If we wanted more Olympics-like competitions, we headed to the trees in the yard. We climbed with bull rope to hang swings and build Robinson Crusoe tree houses. We used old refrigerator boxes, broken down to flat, as sliding boards on sloping hills.
We learned how difficult it can be to pole vault. But we tried using any old pipe we could scavenge, or bamboo poles or the trunks of smooth Sumac trees, once they got thick enough.
In nearby woods, we dug underground forts. Talk about exercise.
As you might expect, we could not always find materials for our fix-up work. Sometimes, yes I can admit this now that the statute of limitations has passed, we had to resort to illegal means. It never felt like out-and-out theft, more like liberating supplies not being used.
Rope, pipe, steel signs, wire, lumber … all could be found unsecured in piles that were, technically, the property of our neighbors, the city municipal crews or businesses. The town dump offered limitless opportunities.
We also scouted playgrounds in richer parts of town for — well — unused supplies, or those not being used to their full potential.
Like basketball nets.
Getting them involved real exercise, shimmying the poles to reach the nets, holding on with just your thighs and calves to untie them, escaping when chased.
That led to the challenging and exciting game we played too often than I’d like to admit: Running from the cops.
Seems like someone was always ratting us out for something, especially when we had to stay close to home and create games. Touch football upset some neighbors if we happened to veer off course and run even a foot on to their front lawns. Playing with any kind of baseball in the street could lead to a broken pansy or two. And some traffic interruption inevitably came with the popular and rowdy after-dark game of Prisoner Release.
The corner, where our street curved in front of my house, was lit by a street lamp. It usually served as the jail, the center of the action. Everyone who was chased down and caught had to be forced into that area, with their already-captured teammates forming a chain to try to pull the captors inside. If any “captor” got pulled over the line, all “prisoners” went free and had to be chased down again.
It wasn’t the tamest game to play after the streetlights came on. But hey, we were kids.
Who knew the neighbors had such maniacal devotion to peace and quiet — or to keeping their Ford Falcons, Buick Skylarks and Pontiac Grand Ams totally ding-free?
We usually could see the cops long before they saw us. With kids living all along the now-one-way street, the warning would start almost two blocks away and filter down to the offending kids quickly, we were like outlaw cowboys lining a canyon to watch for the sheriff’s posse, or Indian scouts hiding in the rocks to whoop those tricky animal noises when they spotted the cavalry.
With all the study, money and energy being spent on how to make today’s kids healthier, maybe we ought to consider using the chubbiest little ones for police training.
Tell that sinewy cadet hoping to be a homicide detective that he or she has to catch Big Joey. He just ran through Mrs. Pack’s tulips, bumped into her car to trigger the alarm and gave her the finger while running away.
See if Joey loses a few pounds before his arrest.
Hey, this obesity crisis calls for extreme measures, right?
Given a little challenge, kids today would rise to the occasion, I think. What kid, even the chubbiest of today’s crowd, wouldn’t like to figure out how to make backyard javelins out of old PVC drain pipe or sharpened curtain rod?
Parents would have to stop hovering, though. And they’d have to prepare themselves for some injuries.
We did not escape our vigilante playground building without injury.
Trolling the dump, a hill of broken glass, old lumber, asphalt shingles and rusting metal, held its challenges. Seems like somebody was always getting a Tetanus shot after stepping on a nail or ripping a thigh on corrugated metal siding. Asphalt is not forgiving either, especially if you’re tripped by a Cyclone fence while going for a lay-up.
Trial-and-error construction of those backyard obstacle courses, forts and tree houses also led to some stitches.
Did you know that you cannot jump on a seesaw made of concrete block and a plank of old scaffolding without the free end flying up to hit you square in the face? Me either.
All in all, the payoff outweighed the risks. We were lean, lithe and quick, even if a bit hobbled from time to time. Stitches, though, were a badge of honor.
Of course, on second thought, our parents also had health insurance. A trip to the emergency room didn’t mean foreclosure on the family homestead.
Today’s kids? Who the heck knows? Maybe my idea here needs a bit more thought.
Rest easy, chubby little Charlie. At least for now, your Sony Playstation Pro 4 is safe.
At least until you’re too fat to flex your fingers.