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  • K.L. Gore

Asphalt Jungle Gym

Once there was a see-saw. Three see-saws, actually, that strode across a bar wearing peeling red paint that exposed dull gray metal. Beneath each see-saw seat were indentations in asphalt where many a child was dropped, his seat slamming to the ground and more often than not sending a shock wave through the unfortunate child’s body, which usually culminated in a headache. That was the safest spot in this playground to play. Designed by a child-detesting sadist, this playground was built on tarmac. Not a smidgeon of dirt or grass in sight. We had all the best amenities: a self-propelled merry-go-round, layered monkey bars, a swingset, the see-saw, and a sandbox. All surrounded by a beautiful chain-link fence laced with rust. There’s nothing like hanging upside down, hands free, a good few feet from a concussion. Yet I did it in good fashion while others sat atop the monkey bars chatting as if they were sitting in comfy Lazy-boys and not with their bums pressed into thin metal bars. This was the 70s, the time before car seats were latched into vehicles and children were given cell phones so parents could stay in touch night and day. No, we were wild and free and lucky to remain alive after a day spent running around outside unchaperoned. Sometimes the sandbox contained broken glass. When we were forbidden to play in it for fear of cutting ourselves wide open, we made a game of running around the top of the wooden boards. This turned into a game of tag where “it” would take his or her chances standing in the middle of the sandbox, eyes closed, and “it” would listen for movement, lashing out at the child who was moving from corner to corner, hoping not to be caught. More often than not, “it” shoved a kid off the boards onto the asphalt where it soon became clear that if there wasn’t blood involved from the glass hidden in the sand, there was blood from scraped knees, ankles, and wrists. Perhaps the makers of Band-Aids invented this playground. When we weren’t getting cut to pieces in the sandbox, falling headfirst from the monkey bars, or being slammed into the ground on the see-saw, we were flying off the merry-go-round. We soon learned that dragging a stick while forcing the merry-go-round to rotate at maximum speed produced a spear that was not only fun to yield, but could do much damage. Within a week, all of us toted these spears, often pressing them into each other’s thighs while the sticks were still hot from production. I was the fastest merry-go-round turner and many a child tumbled off to hit the pavement in the name of courage. I sat leg bent beneath me on the edge of the metal platform grasping the bar in my hands, one leg off the side, which I used to spin the contraption. In time, one leg muscle became somewhat larger than the other, but to an eight-year-old, this was of no consequence. The best part of going faster than the speed of light (which was how fast I imagined we were going), was that if you moved off around the perimeter of the merry-go-round and grasped the metal bars at the top, you could drop your legs off the side and “fly.” Oh, the bruises and scabs that developed over time. My sister, however, did not have a good enough grasp, and in trying to stop the merry-go-round ended up underneath it. We stopped the rotation and bent beneath to rescue her, but it was the type of injury a parent is needed for, and so I went to fetch our mother. Of course, as was the usual, I was blamed for her injuries and not allowed to push her on the merry-go-round EVER again, which lasted about eight or nine days, I think. Last but not least was the swingset. It became common practice to try and walk across the top bar as if it was a tightrope. Although I dreamed of the day I could accomplish this, I never tried it and instead climbed the poles to the top where the swing chains met the horizontal bar where I’d move hand over hand from one end to the other. When we weren’t walking or hanging yards away from hard asphalt, we were swinging nearly high enough to send us over the bar, or playing a wonderful game where a person would attempt to walk straight through the middle of the swingset while trying not to be knocked over by swinging bodies. If you were socked by someone, chances were that the swinging person would be knocked to the ground and you would be propelled face-first into the chain link fence. These days I send my kids to a playground wearing bubblewrap. I stand beneath them as they climb the monkey bars, soft dirt beneath my sneakers, holding out my hands to catch them should they fall. And they do fall sometimes. And they cry even though they haven’t hit the ground. They cling to me when they slip on a rung and I grab them by the arm. They won’t swing too high, there’s no see-saw in sight, and sandboxes are for neighbor’s yards, not for the public where hidden glass might cause concern. Maybe we’re overprotective of our children now. Perhaps they won’t know when to take chances and when to leave well enough alone. I don’t know. What I do know is that last year I took my children to the playground of my youth, wondering what it looked like now. The chain link fence was gone. So was the see-saw, the sandbox, the swings, the monkey bars. All gone. A large grass plot of land, lush and green, was left in its place.

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