The games were bliss. They were joyous diversions, as if we truly needed a “diversion” from an existence that was so nearly perfect. The games we knew were not nearly what we would know in years to come, when, as chagrined and laconic adults, our frenetic existence allowing space only for serious games—mind games, head games, money games, so manipulative and determined they mock being categorized as a game at all. Yet then, in long gone summers, the games were a set piece of our everyday world, a cornerstone to the path that turned and twisted from early childhood through adolescence. And they were as varied as they were wonderfully ubiquitous.
In camp each day we played softball. Often a choose-up game amongst just us, and then, on special occasions, a match set against a rival colony day camp. The morning air still held a touch of chill, and a slick coat of dew clung to the ball-field, dampening our Keds as we raced to our assigned positions in the field. Standing at shortstop, halfway between second and third base, I would lift the glove to my face and savor the scent of the leather and the glove oil I had furiously worked into the pocket the previous evening. Our counselor “fungoed” ground balls and pop-ups, line drives and bunts, and we’d race to intercept the path of the softball—always a Clincher—and then, having snared the hit, we’d rocket the ball to the first baseman. The morning wore on, the sun moving center to the cobalt sky. No sunscreen for us; it didn’t yet exist. We baked on the field, fair skin turning crimson, save for one or two guys—especially Howie Tech, who bronzed and browned so fast and deep that no one would have believed he was a Jewish kid from Flatbush.
We took our turns at bat, which, in truth, was the purest delight of the morning. A counselor pitched and we got our cuts—ten, fifteen, maybe twenty swings—run the last one out. You wanted that last one to go a long way, so you could race around the bags, the wind in your hair, your breath certain and sure, your young legs unacquainted with stress or tiring or strain. You could run forever.
Practice now finished, alongside the road a station-wagon slowed, then stopped, and a dozen unfamiliar faces piled out from the rear tail gate, much resembling your own motley crew—cut off shorts, tee shirts, sweat socks, Keds or PF Flyers, baseball caps. They carried their gloves and a few splintered bats (who’d ever even heard of an aluminum bat?). You watched with a certain detached indifference as they took infield practice, then a fast round of batting practice, then the counselors decided who would call balls and strikes, and the game commenced.
The game underway, you are lost in the glorious timelessness of baseball. Here the day will not end. As long as the last man refuses to make out you can freeze the clock, resist the pull of the hourglass, you can stay forever young. In the best of all worlds, on the finest of all days, in the prism of a perfect summer, your team wins on a base hit in your last at bat, a slow, sinking line drive punched between the outfielders. Your friends whoop and holler and laugh as you circle the bases and thrill at the prospect of having your name cited as a “hero” over the colony PA.
Softball was a staple, but, then, so was stickball. We played “steam”—the version that flourished away from city streets, where a Spaldeen was fired against the a wall, hopefully into the center of a rectangular box you had crayoned on charcoaled onto the whitewashed wooden surface of the handball court.
Your bat was a broom handle that had been wrapped in masking tape, or, better yet, in shiny electrical tape, usually at both ends. The bat is long and lean and you can whip it through the summer air with remarkable speed, and you are confounded and awed at how far and fast the pink ball flies off the wood when you make contact. One lost summer afternoon you even manage to clear the far off roof of the colony candy store, losing the ball somewhere across the country road, near the chicken coops. You and your friends keep records for the summer—statistics meant to rival those of Mantle and Maris and Mays and McCovey and Musial. By late July you count your home runs at just past 40. Can you hit 62 and eclipse the great Roger?
The handball court was a favored venue for games of all sorts. There was a set of lights above the court, the rusting on/off switch on the rear wall of the court. At night there was just light enough for handball, or slap ball, or, better yet, Chinese handball, played with the loser dictated to receive rebuke from a brutal ritual called “Asses up.” Here the loser in the game would squat near the wall, his rear propped heavenward, as the winner would fire the Spaldeen towards the loser’s buttocks. Seldom did the rubber ball find it’s intended target, as “asses up”, or “A’s up” as we called it, was more about humiliation then corporal punishment.
Paddleball, the precursor to racquetball, was played day and night, using a shellacked wooden paddle and a small, black handball. Of course, games of all sorts that required possession of the handball court were interrupted and thus delayed each weekend by the presence of the colony dads. By divine decree—a bungalow colony version of eminent domain—the dads occupied the handball court at will and discretion, which was fair, after all, because on Monday morning they would return to Manhattan’s swelter, while we would be blessed with yet another glorious summer week rolling out before us.
While most of our games were grounded in sports—softball, stickball, volleyball, tetherball, slap ball, kickball, basketball, paddleball, punch ball, handball—they hardly defined the parameters of what we considered games, or play. There were marathon games of cowboys and Indians, played throughout the span of the colony, and far beyond, well into the densely wooded surrounding property that we called, simply, “the woods.” There, within the dappled shade, where it was cool and dark and wonderfully mysterious, we became Buffalo Bill and Davey Crockett, Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse. Sometimes we were American paratroopers in the forests outside Cherbourg or Anzio, quietly and carefully finding camouflage from German troops. We built forts and encampments, and plodded circuitous routes from one spot to another, always careful to both cover and mark the trail, least we either be captured, or, worse, lost.
The evenings came late—the daylight refusing the surrender to encroaching dusk. Yet, as the sky turned indigo, our mood brightened, because darkness beckoned a ritual that was sanctified, sacrosanct and revered among bungalow kids. Nights brought ring-o-leevio. Ring-o-leevio, not merely a game, but a passion, filled the hours between dusk and bedtime. On weekend evenings, with a camp-free day ahead, we played deep into the night, sometimes into the next morning, pausing only for refreshment—ice cold Cokes and greasy concession fries, or chocolate milk and a sleeve or Oreo’s.
Board games were relegated to rainy days and frigid evenings, yet they were a part of our existence as well. We played Monopoly and Clue, Chinese checkers and Chess, Checkers, and a wonderful game called Risk—the board game of world domination that could drone on for four or five hours or more. Remember marathon games of Risk? Attacking Kamchatka with seven armies?
We fed quarters into the undersized colony pool table where the cue sticks were always warped and there was always a shortage of cue chalk. We played Ping-Pong and Nok-Hockey, and languished for hours at a time around the pinball machines, first at a nickel a game, now, I am told, an outrageous buck a game, when you can find one. Pinball was indeed a game of skill—and remember the disclaimer on each machine, “no wagering.” Pinball did not merely require superior hand-eye coordination, but surely involved practically all muscles in the body. You moved, gyrated, bent, spun, slipped, twisted, turned and churned for the correct body-english that would keep the small steel ball “in play,” and prevent the dreaded light on the machine from appearing, that horrid of all four letter words—TILT. An authentic pinball wizard, the colony champions, were almost as revered and renowned as the best swimmer, or softball player. To own the “colony high” on any machine was truly a mark of distinction, somewhat akin to dating the best looking girl, or hitting a game winning home run.
We played cards. As young kids it was confined to Old Maid, and Crazy 8s, and maybe Casino. Soon after, though, we graduated to blackjack, gin, acey-deucey, hearts, spades, and, of course, poker. Poker was usually a game of “high-low” resulting in a split pot, and a 50% better chance of sharing some coin. Our games began as penny and two, progressing through the years to nickel and dime, quarter and a half, and then to areas limited only by the green in our pockets and the borders of our fantasies. As an “adult”, together with my family at the bungalow colony, there were more than a few Friday evenings of poker that turned into Saturday mornings. Hunkered down with friends in a smoky room, around a round felt topped table, ingesting malteds and egg creams and sandwiches, I tossed clay chips into the pot, until we adjourned for the night, or morning, the daylight creeping against the darkness in the eastern sky.
As teenagers we knew other games—games that marked rites of passage. We played Post Office, Spin the Bottle, Seven Minutes in Heaven, Truth or Dare. But these games possessed a heavier weight than those that had come before—as if we were somehow cognizant of the passing of childhood and the loss of true innocence. We thrilled and delighted to the burgeoning of sexuality, and the first touch of a girl’s soft tongue, or the supple feel of skin to skin. Still, was that rush ever truly tantamount to the amazing charge we’d received by getting the winning hit, or being the last survivor in a torrid game of Musical Chairs, or remaining the last man standing in a fevered round of dodge ball?
Well, then again…
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