Once upon a long time ago, children played on asphalt or gravel playgrounds filled with tall metal swing sets and finger pinching chains. Those thick links froze little hands November through February and roasted those same palms July through September.
Anyone afraid of heights elected to play foursquare, jacks, jump rope, or cling to red brick walls every recess rather than get in line for a chance to test the laws of gravity. Those swing sets inspired the careers of many an astronaut and future jet pilot as boys and girls escaping wood and metal desks raced to be the first to claim a wooden slat or canvas sling.
Once on board, wannabe acrobats pushed off and began earnestly pumping jeaned or bare legs to launch themselves into the stratosphere. Little girls wore shorts under their dresses to prevent boys from seeing their underpants as they flew higher and higher. After a swinger achieved peak arc, you’d hear a shrill “Cowabunga” and see a frail body hurtling earthward before they assumed a last second untrained parachute landing fall position.
Wishful watchers stood beyond the contact zone, judging those gravity-defying acts with approving oohs and awes or derisive raspberries. Once that swing was empty, another brave soul got in position for an arms wide, leg-paddling leap toward the sun. Later in sophomore English, the myth about Daedalus defying his father to fly too close to that golden orb made perfect sense when I recalled my primary school playground adventures.
Swinging high enough to bail and twirling around metal side poles until we were dizzy enough to fall down were the extents of our daring while teachers were on duty. Once school was over and adults left the premises, neighborhood kids gathered to challenge one another to creative and dangerous feats.
More than once, I found myself first pulling and pushing monkey-like until I reached the horizontal support pipe that connected both ends of the swing set. Upon reaching that goal, our rule was to straddle the casing, inch the entire distance across, and slide down the other side, fireman style. It was doubly daring since girls often wore dresses that caught in swing chains or on peeling aluminum paint. I still remember friction burns on the inside of my legs.
I was luckier than some of my friends because I never experienced a bone-breaking fall. A few hard landings unnerved me and chipped a front tooth, but I didn’t require a cast. More than one buddy left school holding an arm chest-close while sobbing in pain. A day or two later, that little daredevil returned, brandishing bright white plaster that begged for autographs. Though I longed to have everyone crowd round me waiting to write names on my arm, I didn’t want to spend six to eight weeks standing against the wall watching others play.
It’s funny to look back on these adventures. Somehow, over the decades, I’ve lost every ounce of thrill seeker I ever possessed. In fact, standing on chair to dust a ceiling fan causes vertigo. Good thing modern playgrounds aren’t nearly as thrilling as they used to be. I’d hate to rescue grandkids from the top of an old-school swing set.