The Seesaw

         I recently drove past a playground at an elementary school and was shocked. Everything was too safe. Giant pieces of ladders and covered platforms that were too low, sawdust on the ground in case a child took that three-foot fall, a slide that was eight feet long and covered. Covered! It looked like it would have been impossible for a kid to break an arm or get a concussion anywhere in that yard, short of another kid causing the harm. I found this unsettling in many ways. I recollected the playground apparatus of my day, back in the early 1970’s…

         The monkey bars. There were two kinds at Robert Frost Elementary. The first was a series of bars hooked together, rising to a height of about six feet. (It felt like twenty feet.) You could crawl through one of the bottom squares and then climb up through the middle. Another option was to climb up one of the sides. We would sometimes climb halfway up a side, then circumnavigate the entire rig, getting higher and higher until we met at the top, then we’d see just how many of us could fit up there. At least one of us lost balance and had to make a leap for it, which stung the bottom of our feet if we managed to land upright. Challenge: Standing on the top, no hands. The second kind was a square grid of rectangles that rose to a height of eight feet. I learned how to walk like a spider on this, even mastering the upside-down spider crawl. Impressive. Often we pretended to be monkeys. When in Rome.

         The merry-go-round. The type on our playground consisted of rails and boards coming together in a circular hexagon that could spin as fast as we could make it go. Sometimes one of us would hunker down in the middle and several of us would spin this thing as fast as possible. After stopping we’d laugh hard at the person as they stumbled off and tried to walk. If I tried that today I believe I would be quickly reviewing what I had for lunch. Another way was for all of us to be on the boards, holding onto the rails, and spinning together using one of our free legs on the ground. There were many other varieties as you can imagine. I learned about centrifugal force, sometimes the hard way when my grip came loose and I was launched outward. Then I learned about Band-Aids.

         The slide. We had two, but the tallest was the most fun. You’d climb a ladder ten feet and at the top there was a square bar you had to go through first before sliding. You could use that horizontal part of the bar to fling your body twice as fast as what gravity itself could do, with your butt usually hitting the slide after launch about a third of the way down. Aim was important, lest you shoot to the right or left causing you to become playground debris. Most of us would do the Apple Turnover which was flipping over that bar one time, landing on our butt, then sliding…all of this at ten feet over concrete. So fun. Observers on the ground often gave style points. It always felt safe sliding down that thing because of the two three-inch high “walls” that kept you from falling off the sides.

         The swing set. I remember getting so high in the air that the chains would lose tension and yank as I came plummeting back toward earth, only to be rescued as the swing gained control, the G forces at the time surely taking inches off of the height I would eventually become. Rumor was that a kid at Bradley Elementary could do a full circle OVER the horizontal bar. Never confirmed. A fun thing to do was to get going as high as possible, then jump off. Luke Davis broke his arm doing that one time. Sometimes we’d stand while swinging. That was challenging.

         The rails. Not sure what this was really called. It was a ladder that started attached to the cement and going straight up for six feet, the angled ninety degrees so it went parallel to the ground for eight feet, then straight back into the ground on the other side. We could climb up the outside then walk or crawl across the top and climb back down. We could climb up the inside and grab the rails to try and make it to the opposite side without dropping. The whole piece was a real test of balance and strength. I’ve seen a similar piece in pictures of military boot camps.

         The seesaw, sometimes called the teeter-totter. This was my favorite. It was simply a board that pivoted on a bar, with one person at one end, another at the other. It was my favorite, not because it was the most fun, but because I learned things on this one more than I did on the others. Science and sociology really. I learned the concept and beauty of the fulcrum. I was one of the smaller kids and I knew that with whomever I was playing, that person usually had to scoot a bit closer to the center so that we could be balanced. I applied this with mental experiments and understood that I could probably, using a very strong bar and a brick, lift extremely heavy objects depending on where I placed the pivot point, the brick, of my fulcrum. I learned the relationship between a fulcrum and the gears on a bicycle. That you could attach a larger gear to a smaller one and that, with the chain going one speed, the gears would be going different speeds. When my dad explained what a transmission to a car was, it was easy to comprehend because I’d already seen these concepts on the playground.

         I also learned trust. One time I was seesawing with Jimmy Isaacs and when he was at the bottom and I was at the top, he grinned and jumped off. I came crashing down quite fast without his weight there on the other end. After I got my breath back I reassessed the kinds of people that I could trust at the other end of the board. There were certain personalities that I knew would rather enjoy seeing the panic on my face rather than the give and take of the seesaw.

         Even getting on and off was an exercise in trust. In order to climb on you had to, together, move the board parallel to the ground, climb on each end together, find the balance together, and then commence with fun…together. Getting off of it carried a similar set of protocols.

         And there were always people on the playground who were overweight. That’s just how it was and probably how it will always be. I learned that even though they had to move REALLY close to the center of the fulcrum while playing with me, it was OK. No words were said in our acceptance of each other and the obvious adjustments that needed to be made in order for us to play. We just did what we needed to do in order to play together. These were very easy compromises. I learned how to compromise.

         Ultimately when the recess bell rang and we walked as fast as possible out onto the playground, there was an ever-present subtle sense of danger. We knew we would be having fifteen minutes of bliss, but we also innately understood the things we had to do in order to avoid injury to our friends or ourselves. Perhaps that is what’s missing today. We climbed, we swung, we bobbed up and down, we spun, we laughed, we argued, we made up, we got hurt, we healed, we learned. A teacher was always there with us, watchful eye, whistle spinning around a finger. Occasionally I’d hear, “Perry, don’t dangle off the side of the slide! That’s not what it’s made for!” I’d climb back over and slide to the concrete.

            We learned that the world was really fun and kind of dangerous. From time to time one of us would snap a bone or bump a head leaving a knot and bruise, but that kind of thing just happened and we learned what we needed to do to avoid it best as possible. Whenever calamity did occur it was always fun to see the kid’s cast a couple of days later. Then I would get to write my name on it with my Marks-A-Lot. It was a win-win!

2 thoughts on “The Seesaw”

  1. FAAAAAANTastic!!!!! This is my favorite part: “I learned about centrifugal force, sometimes the hard way when my grip came loose and I was launched outward. Then I learned about Band-Aids.” HA HA HAAAA!!!!!

  2. Liked this commentary, Per! Made me think of when Crissy was about two and we all went to Victory Park to play at the playground. I was pushing her on a swing and sort of lost my attention and gave her a really hard shove on her tiny baby back and she went flying out of the swing, airborne, until she did a faceplant on the ground. As I recall, there was sand but her whole little face was a mess. As Ann Wooten and I have said for so many years, “Well, we won’t be getting the Mother of the Year award again this year!” Hey, she healed, and only let her big sister, Leah, push her after that. You’re totally right, the playground is a learning experience. I find, when I push her little girls, Emily (3) and Jessie (5) in Texas swings that I’m very careful not to do that. Keep writing! 🙂

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