That Old Wild West

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.

Legs out.

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.

Legs in.

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.

Legs out.

15 thoughts on “That Old Wild West

  1. So, it is no secret that I really enjoy reading your blog. But I’d like to note that this particular entry was exceptionally well written. I was a 90s kid, myself, but I totally remember the swing thing. Personally, my dream was to one time swing *all the way round*. We’ve all heard the urban legends, after all, haven’t we?

  2. *tear* Brilliant!

    I, too, seared my tender flesh on a slide that was over three stories tall. They don’t make em like that anymore, which is sad. Kids today are too soft. Our playgrounds made us the strong people we are today! I’m convinced of this!

    My sister had pica. She ate her shirts while wearing them. We called her a goat. Her wardrobe was full of holes! :D Thankfully, she outgrew it.

  3. These kids these days do not know what a real playground is. Plastic is for softies,but there is still this one playground near my house in the neighhood next to our where you can still enjoy the freedom of the swings from yesteryear no artifical turf it the real stuff baby, one metal monkey bar with rust included, a metal red and white merry-go-round with sand and cement and some cedar chips aroung it. I take my kids here all the time so that they can play on some of the remaining goodies of my childhood the real thing. Sometimes I see adults on the swings including my husband and myself sometimes we imagine we are flying and we swing high and jump off the thrill of childhood once again in our minds.

  4. Great writing. Well done, Pizza. You brought back a ton of memories playing in the death trap that was the Ballast Point Park playground.

    I was faced with a similar situation at a grocery store. I was probably 6 and passing the time by opening the automatic door for people leaving the store. My dad was browing the VHS rental movies a couple of aisles over. One guy stopped and asked me to come to his car outside–he said had a toy for me. My response wasn’t flight, but more of the fainting goat variety. I had seen all the PSA’s and GI Joe episodes telling you not to follow a stranger and I completely froze from fear. My dad, who saw the whole thing, came rushing in like Batman, grabbed my hand, and took me away.

  5. Excellent piece, Pizza(no pun intended). It choked me up a bit. It’s so sad how this world is ending up. And the only reason they’re making these ridiculous looking “safe” playgrounds now, is because everyone is “sue happy”. It seems as most everyone wants to make fast cash. Looking back on my childhood, there were probably many reasons my family could have sued. But we didn’t, because kids will be kids, and you live and you learn. It’s all part of growing up. But, at least we have fond memories of the days past, and maybe once again we will come full circle.

    P.S.- I ate paper once as well.

  6. I used to take my son to an old, neglected, playground that used as a kid. No parents would take their kids there because of the shiny colorful one just down the street. It was eerie, and made for some great pictures.

    My favorite old playground had tires half buried in the ground that had chipped paint all over them. We’d jump from tire to tire, often missing and fall flat on our faces, then get up and do it all over again.

  7. Man, swings are dangerous. One time I second grade I wondered what would happen if you leaned as far as you could, and put your head all the way back. I hit the back of my head on the ground on the way forward, thinking nothing, coming back..– next thing I know I’m in a crumpled heap on the ground.

    My forehead made first impact with all of my inertia, and I was yanked off of the swing, nearly breaking my neck (of course!). I had a goose egg scab stained with dirt and blood for more than a week. My buddy Stephen went to get help and a teacher nonchalantly called my mom to tell her about her son who almost died on the playground, but downplayed everything, leaving out the parts about “almost breaking neck” and “almost dying.” I think she mentioned “a small abrasion?” She wasn’t happy.. Scary stuff.

  8. My bf’s parents live in a small town in Ohio. There’s an elementary school in front of their house. Visiting for the first time, I was excited to find they had two playgrounds; the plastic one and the traditional, metal-with-peeling-paint one. Every time we visited his parents, I would run over and go for a swing and took many happy pics sitting on the swing, just enjoying the rush of air in my face.

    Last July, went back for a wedding. As usual, I ran over across the street to the swings. There were none. the chains were broken and the swings were no longer there. The only ones left were the little diaper swings which were too small for me! I swear I was heartbroken that day. I still feel very sad when I think about it.

    Til today, I will still get on swings, coz as a kid I used to stand on the swings and swing in, swing out, hoping to catch ‘the big swing’.

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