This is a post about what once was, what still is, and what might be. Sorry if that sounds a bit Tolkien-y, but the other route was to begin this with a “Back in my day…” manner. So I went Gandalf.
We live near a mall. There are not one, but two, playgrounds in its confines. One inside, the other outside. On any given day, both are ringed with a battalion of strollers. Kids crawl over plastic caterpillars and butterflies while one parent watches intently. The other parent goes to eat a cinnabun in a brief moment of clarity sans child. Then the parents trade places.
The mall playground parent swap program is as old a convention as malls themselves. They have, of course, evolved tremendously over time. When I was a kid, my parents used to take us down to the good ol’ Florence Mall. It’s still there, parked right next to I-75, under a water tower that says “Florence Y’all” because they had originally written “Florence Mall” but had to change it since you can’t advertise commercial property on a public utility. True story. Kentucky is weird.
Inside the mall, your grandmother really loved this store called Kirkland’s, this little boutique shop full of potpourri, generic paintings of flowers and gold vases. As a mother of three boys, she thoroughly deserved this time to be completely and unabashedly female, so your grandfather would take me and your uncles outside into the main plaza. We didn’t have a playground. Instead, we had a concrete crocodile that was equally good for climbing and breaking front teeth if you climbed improperly.
That was a different era, Blue. In addition to the mall playground, we had a kicking schoolyard. I would take you there to see it, but sadly, none of it no longer exists. They tore down my grade school to build a retirement home. Sort of backwards, right?
In our playground, we had all the amenities. There was the jungle gym, a series of metal toothpicks welded together in vague cube shapes, stacked ten feet high over asphalt. We had a merry go round, loosely held together by a few rusty bolts. When we spun on it, it wobbled precariously up and down. We thought it was a theme park ride. There was a thicket of woods behind the swing set. Once, while on recess, a man reeking of Jim Beam came stumbling out of them, walked across the yard and down the street. Our trophy, our piece de resistance, was the slide. Built out of air-conditioning vents, it stretched fifty feet down a hill. On a rainy day, when the metal was lightly slicked with condensation, those fifty feet flew by in 3 seconds flat. At the bottom, it hurled you out into a pit of gravely sand. On a sunny day, those fifty feet took a lot longer than 3 seconds. The hot metal took some skin, too, if you were either brave or stupid enough to wear shorts. The slide taught us there was a fine line between the two.
None of this exists anymore, Blue. And I don’t just mean at my grade school. I mean it doesn’t exist anywhere anymore. Corporate America figured out how to McDonald-ize the playground scene and now, everywhere is the same. The same plastic twisty slides. The same spongy flooring. The same bridges with the “loose” logs. Everything is the same.
And you know what? I originally wrote this letter to describe how utterly boring these playgrounds, but that’s simply not true. They have an entire pirate ship playground, with CANNONS, in a tucked-away corner near the Rose Bowl. It’s a zillion times better than my grade school death slide.
Still, I can’t escape the feeling that we had it better. Maybe that’s the rose tint talking, but back then, the thrill of impending danger made things more fun. Going to the playground wasn’t just about playing on the coolest equipment. It was about learning the proper relationship between gravity and ground, between centripetal force and cement. We climbed high, but not too high. We spun fast, but not too fast. We knew that being safe had nothing to do with our surroundings. It had everything to do with us. If we weren’t safe, we quickly learned to be that way, or lose skin, blood or consciousness as a consequence.
I worry that the art of survival is lost on a generation that doesn’t know the perils of the jungle gym. This isn’t the first time I’ve written on this theme, and it won’t be the last. I want to have the best childhood possible, and while often the word best is synonymous with safe, that is not always true. Sometimes, being alive is more important.
But you shouldn’t worry, Blue. You’ll have ample opportunity to discover this. Your daddy knows about a cool playground that’s just a few miles from our house. It’s called nature, and it’s amazing.