Totems of childhood

I had plenty of stuff to keep me occupied as a kid, but four things were particularly important: a Wiffle ball and bat, a bicycle, a sled (preferably of the plastic variety) and a NERF football.

Plus a basketball, but that came a little later, after my father built a hoop, first on the garage and then at the end of the driveway.

It was a time when if you wanted to do something outside in the small town I grew up in during the 1970s and ’80s, you just went outside, and with those, I was sorted all year long.

I basically grew up at our Little League field, but the Wiffle ball and bat meant we could play pretty much anywhere there was a random square to rectangular-ish spot of grass.

(And not even always that. The town hall building was across the street from my best friend’s house, and the parking lot wasn’t so much a lot as the space next to the building where cars could park, but hardly anyone did. It worked.)

The softball field behind the fire house was a bit much, but in front of it was a space bounded by the backstop of the softball field and the road on either end, and the fire house and someone’s garage on each side. In other words, it was the perfect size.

But even if we weren’t in town playing with the neighborhood kids, my brother and I spent hours in our back yard pitching to each other, with a folding lawn chair as the strike zone that was standard back then.

The remains of a barbed-wire fence between our property and the neighbors’ was the left field fence, while the woods took over in center and right. Although the distances were roughly the same, the slope of our yard meant my right-handed brother was basically hitting downhill, while I, being left-handed, was hitting uphill.

So of course, he always hit more home runs than I did.

The real joy came when our parents decided we were old enough to ride our bikes in the street. We had friends who lived exactly a mile away, and during the summer, we’d ride back and forth … without helmets, of course, because that wasn’t done back then.

The freedom was amazing.

I was one of the last kids of my age to learn how to ride a bike. But once I did, I turned countless laps in our driveway or the one next door, which was longer, with one house in the front and the other in back.

The problem was that when I first learned how to ride, the only way I knew how to stop was to slam on the brakes and skid (plus skidding was cool), so the neighbor in front wouldn’t let me ride in front of her house because I was messing up the gravel driveway.

So I improvised, riding down my driveway, then cutting across a thin grass strip to the driveway in front of our neighbors in the back.

I also eventually did learn how to stop.

The real joy came when our parents decided we were old enough to ride our bikes in the street. We had friends who lived exactly a mile away, and during the summer, we’d ride back and forth … without helmets, of course, because that wasn’t done back then.

The freedom was amazing.

Between sledding and school being closed, it was a time when winter wasn’t actually horrible.

Anywhere the ground wasn’t flat, we’d ride our sleds on it.

There was a little mound next to our house before the garden between us and our neighbors. It wasn’t the greatest, but we could run up, hop on our sleds and take a quick ride.

The neighbors had a drop behind their house, and their neighbors had a spot where the hill that rose behind everyone’s house wasn’t wooded, which was the best spot between our three houses because it was long and fast.

The friends we biked to in the summer had a dropoff from the road to their yard that made for a fast, plunging ride, often with a jump at the end, and my godparents’ kids actually realized there was a bit of a winding trail between the trees at their house, although it was kind of hard to stay on it the whole way down. (Plastic sleds aren’t the greatest for steering.)

Between sledding and school being closed, it was a time when winter wasn’t actually horrible.

My father didn’t care much for football, and still doesn’t, but if we weren’t tossing a baseball back and forth in front of our house, he’d play quarterback while I’d run 10 to 15 steps, and then cut straight across, catching his passes on the run.

The NERF footballs were the gateway, a way to play football when regular leather balls were still too heavy, too large or too hard to properly catch, kick or throw.

The same yards, parking areas and firehouse lots where we played Wiffle ball during the summer — plus the occasional road, provided no car was coming — gave way to football during the fall and winter.

My father didn’t care much for football, and still doesn’t, but if we weren’t tossing a baseball back and forth in front of our house, he’d play quarterback while I’d run 10 to 15 steps, and then cut straight across, catching his passes on the run.

I had to be a little careful, though, given that there was a tree on one side and a road that made a pretty decent drag strip on the other.

Between the natural wear and tear that comes with foam toys and my tendency to pick at things with my fingers, I beat the crap out of those NERF footballs, so I’d need a new one every year or two.

I hadn’t realized until I read his recent obituary that Fred Cox, a former kicker for the Minnesota Vikings, invented the NERF football. I recognized the name from stuff I read about football in the 1970s, but other than that, there was nothing to keep from acknowledging the story in my brain, maybe stopping to read, and then moving on.

Instead, it’s the story of a man who helped give millions of kids like me hours of enjoyment.

Oh … hell yes!

If you think about it, the Nestle Quik container is a triumph of bad engineering, unless you think it’s intelligent to design something with a lid you need a kitchen implement to pry open.

But although I drank more chocolate than strawberry milk — even though I do love strawberry milk — my brother and I pried those suckers open on a regular basis.

We went up to our grandparents’ every week — she lives five to 10 minutes away, and my parents and sometimes my brother still visit my grandmother weekly — and when we weren’t playing video games or doing something else with our uncle, we’d sit around the table with the adults.

A lot of it would be town gossip, but there would always be talk about the Yankees — in case you ever wonder where I get it from — including my grandfather lamenting those “high-priced ballplayers” and Dave Winfield only hitting home runs when the Yankees were winning or losing big.

We’d eat spaghetti if we happened to go on a night my grandmother had made it for dinner, and there would frequently be cake or pie.

But there was always, always chocolate milk.

Once our mom said it was OK, we’d grab the milk out of the fridge, get glasses out of the cabinet, pry open the Quik and go to town.

Believing that anything good enough to do is good enough to overdo, the spoonfuls would be no ordinary spoonfuls, but rather heaping mounds of chocolate powder that were balanced precariously before being dumped in the cup and stirred.

To this day, I love chocolate (and strawberry) milk, and have no issue with making it by squeezing syrup from a bottle.

But nothing beat those cans of Nestle Quik at my grandparents’ house.

Note: I took the picture of the sleds at our local KMart, which I just learned will be closing. It was probably inevitable — way too much property for way too little business and a company that’s not doing well, anyway — but still kind of sad. I just hope they replace it with something good.

5 thoughts on “Totems of childhood

    1. Thanks!

      I’m pretty sure the KMart in our town was hanging on mostly because there was really nothing like it in the immediate area — no Target or Walmart within a half-hour or so — but it was always going to happen.

      Like

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