Stolen Play

Stolen Play

We had these things called Jarts. Lawn darts. Maybe a foot long, pointed metal tip; might have been lead. Plastic fins. They came with two plastic hoops which you set so many feet apart, divided the red and blue Jarts into teams, and using a smooth underhand motion, shot the Jart toward its target.

If your opponent was deserving, you could launch it toward him, too. Since Jarts were usually played a barbecues, and barbecues involved beer, there was often a holocaust of Jarts victims. It never made the papers.

Another one. Cap guns. Faux pearl handles, shiny barrels, etched with manly lines and bas-relief bulls. The barrel opened and revealed a post onto which a roll of blasting caps on red tape was placed. The tape was threaded up through a slot onto a plate, which the hammer would hit on every trigger pull. Bang! Bang! Bang!

The caps wouldn’t always explode in the gun because the hammers could be weak. Smacking them between rocks worked. We used to take five-pound sledgehammers and whack an entire roll at once. BANG! If you did it right, you split ear drums. The largest caps manufacturer was a prominent sponsor of the American Sign Language Institute.

This did not exhaust the caps’ inexhaustible uses. There were these solid lead grenades in the shape of badminton shuttlecocks. The tip was heavy and separated from the body which opened up enough space for one cap. You stuck the cap in, slid the body back down, and whipped the grenade into the air. When it came down the shaft would whack against the tip and explode the cap. POP!

You had to throw them real hard to get them to pop against a fleshy body. But practice makes perfect. This was when trauma surgery became a distinct field, the other branches being overwhelmed with casualties of neighborhood wars.

This still wasn’t the end of the caps’ great glories! The bravest would put a roll between thumb and forefinger and scrape their thumbnail across a cap. With just the right English—SNAP! BURN! This is the origin, incidentally, of the word forefinger, which was originally spelled fourfinger.

Then there were the monkey bars. A tangle of metal pipe soaring into the sky, with impossible twists and turns. The idea was to climb this structure and discover new and interesting ways of hanging on with minimum contact. We played tag on them. Just one slip was doom, the body falling down through the maze, the bars wreaking their horrors. Historians tell us Thomas Mayne Reid got his idea for The Headless Horseman by watching recess at his local kindergarten.

We’d line little plastic green army men up and wage war. Bombs were simulated with rocks. Machine gun fire with BB or pellet guns, though the odd slingshot was not unheard of. These wars were in the vein of other conflicts of the Twentieth Century: they were brutal, devastating, and total. No soldier was ever left standing. Psychologists are still dealing with the after effects, most of the kids who played this having become serial killers or terrorists.

Don’t get me started on the fireworks. Ah! Fireworks! The smell of seared flesh, the rending of limbs, the choking fumes. But the glorious colors and explosions! The trick in throwing a bottle rocket was to wait until the flame had just about hit the rocket fuel so that you had enough time to arch back and sling it forward. This gave it extra impetus so that it really stung when it hit your victim. Throw it too early and the shot into the ground; too late, and you had a handful of flame.

If you thought life back then was scary, you haven’t heard the worst. I warn the squeamish to skip ahead to the next paragraph. Parents would send kids outside, far from earshot, and without cell phones. There was no way to track the kids down and gather them up, save the sun setting. Since parents could not supervise the children at every moment, every one of these children died.

All gone. Safety first. What about the children. It’s all probably an app now so that kids can exercise their swiping muscles. And share their scores on line for others to envy. We’ll all die fat and alone, but we’ll have the strongest swiping muscles and the highest meaningless scores of any people in history.


  1. bill_R

    Swimming in sand pits. No Life guards. Dunking each other. Using large rocks to see how deep we could go.

    Placing things on the railroad tracks to watch them get squashed and shattered. Playing chicken with trains…

  2. BB gun wars on the shale cliffs, playing Iwo Jima, Navaronne, and Pointe du Hoc.
    Catching crawdads in the creek.
    Trying to get that one apple waaaaay up there at the top of the tree.
    ‘Bungee jumping’ with young trees.
    Playing with snakes.
    Stomping trails through the prairie grass.
    Playing kick the can. Eventually learning why to put on your shoes first.
    Playing outside all day, no shirt, no shoes, no adults.

  3. Bruce

    An interesting article suggesting that modern playground design is all wrong:

    “Vox has released a great video about playgrounds and why we’re building them all wrong these days. The quest for safety has resulted in sterile play spaces that are almost as boring for kids to play in as they are for adults to supervise. As risk has been removed, so has the fun and, more importantly, the opportunity for kids to learn actual life skills.”

  4. Hmm, that sounds like the 50s and 60s play of Boomer’s childhoods :); even the pennies on railroad tracks. Hmm, come to think of it; I never asked mom (dad died very young) what child’s play was like in the 30s or her older sisters what it was like in the 20s.

  5. Richard A

    You neglected to mention that those monkey bars were built over asphalt, or concrete in wealthy neighborhoods.

    And mumbly-peg …

  6. Faith

    Those cap guns were beauties and almost, but not quite, enough to make me want to be a boy. Banging on the rolls with a rock was a poor second as far as I was concerned.

    Nowadays children (that is the ones who make it alive out of the womb) are protected from dangers of all the varieties we enjoyed and learned from…………. but the dangers to their souls.

  7. DAV

    We live in a world where even pop-tart guns are banned so of course, cap guns are too.

    The things we did as kids would put a modern parent in apoplexy.
    Walking to and from school — ALONE!
    Climbing 100 ft rock faces without safety equipment.
    Playing in junk yards.
    Sledding down steep streets in the winter or racing down them on bicycles in the summer.
    Oh, speaking of cap gun ammo: for times when we couldn’t get hold of cherry bombs and M80’s, those caps threaded on a needle with matches taped on the ends made ersatz firecrackers.

    But times do change. Recently, after some neck surgery, even though I was discharged, I was not allowed to go walk to the door and get into my Uber unsupervised. But then, I’m really just an old kid — and the hospital was in the same town as the kid with the pastry gun.

  8. DG

    Yeah fireworks are fun! I Still like to use them. When I was younger I would build these cardboard forts and put plastic army men inside of it and blow it up one after another with firecrackers around the time of the Fourth of July.

  9. Plantagenet

    Spud guns which shot out the potato with all the velocity of an asthmatic bumblebee.


    Being sent to spend summers way up in northern Ontario with my Uncle who ran a lumber mill, and my Aunt who taught in a two room schoolhouse. Actual conversation follows;
    Uncle Bob: Where you been all day
    Me: Walked down the old Cree trail and through the burnt swamp to Sand Lake.
    Uncle Bob: That’s gotta be 23 miles you must be tired?
    Me: Didn’t seem that far. Saw a bear near the lake.
    Uncle Bob: Hope you didn’t startle it or do anything dumb!
    Me:(in a tone of aggrieved intelligence) Naw!
    Uncle Bob: Sound lad. Nothing good comes of scaring a bear.
    Me: Wanna go out to Ojibwa Point near the falls tomorrow, can I?
    Uncle Bob: Help your Aunt clean up and go where you like it’s your summer.
    My poor uncle would likely be chucked in prison nowadays.

    Then there was our habit of hitching a ride. Modern parents might care to look away. Went like this. Almost no one had a car, or wanted to burn money on a bus, or (God help us) a taxi so what we did, I swear this is true, walked up the road with our arms out, and thumb up or in the direction we wanted to go. Complete strangers would slow down, hope you still haven’t fainted, and say;
    Complete Stranger: Where you headed?
    Me/Us: Trying to get to the high school for the (game/dance/fair).
    Complete Stranger:Hop in
    Then…they would take us there!!!

    Of course all this walking through the forests and hitch-hiking meant we were killed or,murdered on a fairly regular basis…I had a friend named Dave who was murdered 14 times hitching rides…some people never learn!

  10. Ray

    Remember the Gilbert chemistry sets that taught you how to make explosives?

  11. Dirt clod fights. “Kill the guy that’s got it” (called “Pig”) in other locales – I remember Ornie getting his arm broken playing this, it was a badge of honor. Descending into and exploring city storm drains – I can’t count how many times we drowned doing this. Ah yes, Gilbert Chemistry sets with the alcohol burners. “I’ll show you mine if you’ll show me yours” – I’m sure that game has been eliminated by the #metoo (pound me too) movement.

  12. Paul Penrose

    This brings back old memories.
    How about building “cars” out of old lumber and some lawnmower wheels, then racing them down the sidewalk on the steepest street around. Built one out of some surplus soapbox derby wheels once. Had to make a parachute to slow it down at the bottom of the hill or I would have worn out my shoes in no time trying to stop before I flew into the busy intersection just a half block down.
    Yeah, the good old days.

  13. Alan

    We used to put those caps in between two bolts held together with a large nut. Throw it on the ground and watch out. Another option was to wrap a roll of caps around a large coin then wrap the lot in sellotape. Again, throw it on the ground. Good times.

  14. My fave was the 60’s Wham-O air blasters, which came in oversized pistol or bazooka variants. No explosives, just a stretched rubber diaphragm that, when released, shot a wave of compressed air out the front. Intended for knocking over paper targets, but usually repurposed for shooting your friends in the face or ears. An entire generation was rendered deaf, leading to the withdrawal of this coolest toy from the market. In my family, we loaded a handful of flour into the muzzle to get a blast that would handily whiten the target, usually your little brother or sister. Great fun, until Mom caught you doing this in the kitchen.

  15. @Ray,
    Why, yes I do, or something similar! Those gave me a life-long love for chemistry; and its uses (both good and bad).

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