I Survived the Playground

Tales from a Baby Boomer


Are You Kidding Me? About this column: Stacey Gustafson writes humorous short stories based on her suburban family and everyday life.

Nothing guaranteed a trip to the emergency room faster than being a kid in the 60’s and 70’s.  Some say it was a simpler time for children; you could play outside until dark, catch fireflies and ride a bike without a helmet.  But I believe it was an era filled with danger and unbridled fun.  It could possibly kill you. 

Take the backyard play structure.  After years of being left out in snow, hail and rain, by summertime our swing set was a rusty contraption of frail aluminum with colorful, peeling paint.  And my parents never dreamed of anchoring it into concrete.  Its legs lifted two feet off the ground when we used the swings.  A death trap in disguise.  You needed a tetanus shot just to go near it. 

Old-fashioned playground equipment, composed of nails, old tractor tires, heavy chains, and arsenic paint, promised skull fractures and lacerations. By comparison, todays are made of plastic, soft surfaces, well maintained, eco-conscious.  Sissy stuff. 

Driving by Veterans Plaza Park, crawling with kids, I reminisced with my own children seat-belted in the back.  Pointing out the window, I said, “See that swing set. During my time, the playground meant hours of unlimited, unsupervised playtime.  If you weren’t kicked in the head, you weren’t at recess.”

Good times.

At home, I pulled out old family movies for my son and daughter.  They hadn’t heard of a glider and had no idea that it was yesterday’s killing machine.

“What’s a glider?” they asked, plopping on the sofa.

“It’s a swing with two benches that face each other.  You pick up a lot of speed and could knock someone right off their feet if they weren’t watching.  Pop in the old movies and let me show you what I mean,” I said.

In the 60’s, my dad had been one of the original owners of a Super 8 movie camera.  He collected hours of my childhood, first steps, Easter egg hunts, and birthdays.  But the moment I remembered the most I called, “Lucky to Be Alive.”  The scene began to run scratchy and fuzzy across the screen as I said, “Hey guys, here it comes.”

Mesmerized, we stared at my three-year-old self walking across my grandmother’s backyard picking daisies, inching close to the glider.  My cousins had rivers of dirt and sweat dripping down their faces.  They were laughing and swinging on the glider with the enthusiasm of a circus act.    My dad, behind the camera, never stopped yelling, “Hey, Stacey, look this way.  Smile.”

After all those years, I gazed in awe.  Back and forth like a scary pendulum, the glider nearly missed slicing off the top of my head.  My father’s laughter cackled on the tape.  Why didn’t he put the camera down to save me? 

When the horror movie was over, my husband shared his own glider memory, “Yeah, that was nothin’.  Kids in my neighborhood used to dig a hole under it.  Each of us took a turn underneath.  You were lucky to get out before your mom called you home for dinner.” 

Like a game of  Whack-A-Mole.

And did I mention the old fashioned slide?   Towering over 12 feet of shiny metal, it spiraled around and around, causing blisters, bruises and concussions.  Imagine August in the Midwest, 103-degree heat.  Wearing shorts assured a third degree burn.  Sometimes we would add a little water to increase the speed, causing us to shoot down the barrel like a cannon ball, landing with a splat on asphalt or concrete.  

Today’s slides are not higher than six feet, a smooth coated plastic surface with side rails, allowing children the luxury of a gentle descent with a cushioned landing.  Wimps.

At the worst, kids today end up with a skinned knee on the play structure.  Thanks to the lawyers and insurance companies, a higher standard is maintained.  Yesterdays play built character, made you tough.  Survival of the fittest.  A few more scars and trips to the hospital laced our childhood, but we were a generation of Baby Boomers who persevered.  Now, the youth are afraid to try new things, the bubble wrap generation.  Maybe it’s all because the playground turned too safe and boring. 

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