Playgrounds were once organic, earthy, built on wood chips. They were made of wood. Rusty nails jutted from the rickety wooden beams. Under the hot sun, tall, metal slides basked. Old tractor tires rested in the earth. We climbed on them. What was there was ours. Horses teetered on metal springs, lonely, waiting, paint chipping. The metal merry-go-round spun and creaked, rust-colored and always hogged by the other kids, jumping on and jumping off.
We got splinters on the beams and burned on the slides. We got gashed on the springs. Knocked around on the seesaw. We got sucked under the metal merry-go-round, which was like getting sucked into a meat-grinder with spikes underneath to mince our flesh.
Playgrounds used to be like the Wild West. Swings beckoned us with tetanus chains. Slides were unruly as we sped down them, hurling towards a wall of hard-packed sand. There were hypodermic needles on the benches, cigarette butts in the dirt, and lone psychopathic children on one end of the seesaw, daring us on the other end to trust them.
I ate sand, once, on the playground, from a cigarette receptacle filled with sand and butts. I had wanted to try sand. I think I had Pica, that disorder where you have an appetite for non-nutritive things, like chalk or paper. It’s often seen in autistic kids, pregnant women, and dogs. Also see: weird fucking kids. I used to daydream about eating the things that smelled good to me, like the plastic of new toys, the fresh pine needles on the tree, and especially the wax candle that smelled like strawberries.
I was playing around the cigarette receptacle. I’d eaten paper, chalk, dog biscuits, and glue. But now I wanted to try sand. Not dirt or soil—I could have gone in the backyard to pull up a fist full of that stuff. No, I wanted the soft, comforting stuff, like on the beach. It reminded me of shortbread cookies and sun tan lotion, which smelled like delicious coconuts.
My mother wasn’t paying attention. On the bench, she tended to my sister with a wound on the knee, a gusher. Probably from that rotting wire cable holding the tire bridge together, a bitch. This was my opportunity. I peered in. I grabbed a pinch and popped it in my mouth. Sand crunched on my back teeth. It was gritty and foul, laced with nicotine, saliva, ants, and ant poop. I spit and spit, but I still couldn’t get all the grains out. Some went down my throat.
I think my Pica disorder was cured after that.
This isn’t my only tale of lore from the old, yon playgrounds. Pull a seat up next to the campfire, then. Another time, a group of strangers approached me while I was alone on the playground behind our house. They were three men, and they had facial hair and guns. And they offered me candy. I was about to become an after-school-special.
But I was not afraid. I felt as though I had been training for this, all of my life. Stranger danger. Never take the candy, kid. It’s poison. It’s crack. It’s drugs. And dear God, stay away from guns. This stuff was regularly beaten into my head by teachers, PSAs, cartoons, my parents, and free coloring books from McGruff the Crime Dog. I had it down.
Now I was being confronted with everything, all at the same time. In fact, it made sense. I wouldn’t have been surprised if they asked me to get in the back of their van.
“Hey, you want a Hershey bar?” the fat one asked. The hairy one admired his gun. The skinny one just smiled.
I froze, in my mind frantically thinking over all of my options. REPEATEDLY SCREAM THE WORD NO was one option. Throw in a little high-pitched screeching for effect? Eh, maybe. Stop, drop, and roll? Oh, wrong PSA.
I made my decision. I ran. My heart raced. Exploded. It was a flight response, and I had never felt it, and it was a rush. I ran home, barging through our front door, where my father was peacefully watching the basketball game, until he saw me. Breathlessly, I told him about the strangers, the guns, and the crack-laced Hershey bars. He reacted instantly, leaping from the sofa, moving swiftly, not grabbing his jacket. A fight response from a man who was a prison guard at the maximum security prison. I was surprised. After all, I was safe. I beat the bad guys. Wasn’t he proud of me for dodging strangers with candy and guns? No—he was already thirty feet out the front door, bolting towards the playground, presumably to kill.
In the end, he only managed to scare the shit out of some strangers who were only teenagers, whose guns were only BB guns, and whose poisonous death-bait drugs really was just a bag of miniature Hershey bars.
Yes partner, you and I had some adventures in the Wild West. It’s a shame, today, playgrounds are plastic, sitting on artificial turf. The meat-grinding thrills of the merry-go-round are gone; so too, are the scalding slides. They’ve been replaced with round-edge climbing structures, bright plastics in purple and green, promoting physical fitness and social skills. Encourages cooperative play and interaction. Discourages litigation.
Most of all, we loved to swing. We wanted to go higher and faster. Having a swing set in the backyard was one of the ultimate kid dreams, somewhere next to going to Disney World, having a Power Wheels battery-operated car, and eating an entire bag of shredded mozzarella cheese in one sitting.
Swinging was an art, like everything else. I did it exceptionally well.
Legs out, legs in. Legs out. The wind picked up. I was headed towards the moon, and even that wouldn’t have been high enough. I was at the pinnacle. My stomach startled. Legs in. I swooped back. I dreamt of flying. I wanted to be the first kid to figure out how. I tied trash bags to my arms and jumped. I held on to the strings of balloons on windy days. I waited for Tinkerbell to appear on my windowsill with pixie dust.
Then there was the jump. It was an event of gymnastic proportions, the dismounting from the swing by jumping off in mid-air. If perfectly-executed, I landed simply, clean in the wood chips. Plunk. The imaginary judges held up tens. However, if poorly-timed, my release from the swing a little sideways, I landed hard. Hands-out. Wood chip-bits on my knees. Oompf. The imaginary judges looked the other way. I looked around to see if anyone else had seen.
Swinging was the feeling of flying. And somewhere in my mind, I knew. This was the closest I would get.
Today, even the swing is disappearing from the playgrounds. The old metal-and-chain structures have been yanked from the ground, never to be replaced. Swinging belongs to that Old Wild West. Swinging is an act of solitude. The lonely swing, it never stops. It just goes on.