1. Hide and Seek
Very simple, really. Somebody was “it”, and that person had to close their eyes and count backwards from a designated number. Everybody else ran like hell to find a hiding place, preferably within the same county, but some people took this game very seriously and you never knew. Once the countdown was done, Phase Two of the operation would kick in, with “It” trying to find all of the escapees. In turn, the escapees would try to sneak past “It” and touch home base without the humiliation of being tagged or tripping over something stupid that some fool had left in the yard.
I never really cared for being “It”. That was too much work, unless all of your little friends were uncontrollable gigglers and you could easily track them down with sonar. I preferred the Anne Frank role, because I loved discovering the perfect hiding place and driving everybody else crazy with bafflement, with fools wandering right past me and having no idea that I could bite their ankles if I felt inspired to do so.
Of course, your hidey hole couldn’t be too perfect or people would never find you, especially if “It” was one of the younger kids you were forced to play with because their parents were drunk and needed an impromptu baby-sitter. Those little urchins just didn’t have any gumption, half-heartedly looking behind one tree and then giving up completely, crying and sniffling as they sat their lazy asses down right on home base so that you couldn’t sneak past them without their grubby little fingers touching you.
An additional downside to a premium hiding spot was the potential discomfort. Almost invariably, the best hiding places were cramped and stuffy. It was a hoot of a good time for the first few minutes you were in there, but it didn’t take long before you were sweating to death and unable to get a decent amount of oxygen. You didn’t want to just give up, of course, but sooner or later you would start to get a cramp or lose consciousness, and you wouldn’t have any choice but to suck it up, pop out of your hole, and signal for a medic.
2. King of the Hill
This one required at least a minimal amount of preparation, in that you had to have a mound of something that would support the weight of several youngsters essentially trying to kill each other. A volcano-shaped hill was optimum, but nature didn’t always cooperate so you often had to resort to man-made structures, such as a large pile of sand or a stack of abandoned tractor tires. (This second option was readily and abundantly available in rural Oklahoma in 1975, which should come as a surprise to absolutely no one who has been in rural Oklahoma.)
In any case, someone was anointed the initial “king”, and as part of his coronation procession he had to clamor to the top of whatever had been designated as the hill. Once there, he would review the peasants gathered below him, place his dominant hands on his hips, and loudly proclaim that he was now the absolute Ruler of All, forever and ever. (Or at least until everybody had to go home for lunch.) Providing your own dialogue such as this was something that children often did back in the day, because we didn’t have video games that did all the playing, thinking and imagining for us.
Then the more exuberant aspect of the game would commence. This entailed all of the dissatisfied peasants at the foot of the hill suddenly forming some type of labor union, taking a vote that a new and vicious change of leadership was in order, and then storming the hill with cries of determination and battle. End game? Knock that fool off the top of the hill and make the crown your own.
Now, that may sound very festive and such, but in reality, this could be a brutal and bloody experience. Ever take somebody’s bony head to the gut and then find yourself flying 20 feet through the air and landing on your back? Had somebody hurl themselves into the backs of your knees so that you fell on them while they fell on your lower legs, putting enough pressure on your shins that you screamed in an octave range that hadn’t been invented until that very moment? Slid on your face down the side of a pile of gravel while somebody stomps on your head as they rushed to take the place of your sorry, felled ass?
If I had a brochure entitled “Fun Things That I Really Love About Life”, none of the above options would be in it. I felt impelled to make that clear.
But the true dynamic of the game is that the “king” was really in a position of power, based on the laws of physics and the overwhelming disadvantage of the eternally-suffering peasants. It was very hard to topple the bastard at the top. Many a time the insurgency would wear itself out and the kingdom would remain in the hands of a single monarchist until Mom would holler from the back porch that it was time to wash up for supper.
3. Red Rover
This was another essentially pain-based form of entertainment, although it required a rather sizeable contingent of rowdy hooligans for there to be any type of success. This high-population requirement probably explains why it was popular on community playgrounds. In my own case, however, it was also a requirement that we play this sadistic mess as part of our Phys Ed classes in elementary school. (It also didn’t help that our P.E. “coach” was a twisted sociopath with authority issues and a love for inflicting pain on youngsters wearing Garanimals.)
You split into two teams, with each team holding hands in a straight line and facing the other team. One of the teams would go first (I don’t recall how this was decided, but it was probably drug-based, since it was the 70’s), and that team would target someone on the other team by bellowing “Red Rover, Red Rover, let Billy Joe come over!”. Billie Joe, gulping, would then haul ass toward the other team and try to break through one of the little hand-holding segments. If he bounced off like a rag doll, he had to join the other team. If he broke the chain, he got to pick one of the probably-injured breakees to join his own team. Play continued until there was only one person left on a team or somebody was killed.
Now, as I’m sure you can imagine, there was a lot of cheating in this warped exercise that basically taught you that you have to hurt people to succeed in life. You had the hefty farm boys targeting the linked hands of dainty little girls, knowing they wouldn’t survive any better than bugs hitting the windshield. Said dainty girls would often scream hours before the rutting bull got anywhere near them, voluntarily breaking the chain and allowing themselves to be carted away as captured flesh and having visions of being turned into slave labor or harem personnel, depending on which books they had checked out of the school library.
And you had the survivors of attempted chain-breaks. Whether you won or lost the round, you were basically out of commission. If you were the defending chain, your arm was probably torn out of its socket and hanging limply. If you were a runner, you took a serious blow somewhere on your body, with possible outcomes ranging from gastrointestinal damage to sterility.
And if the runner was subjected to “clothes-lining”, the supposedly-banned but still-practiced ploy of raising your linked arms to the neck-level of the runner? That runner was no longer breathing. He had just enough time to crawl off to the side and scratch out his last will and testament in the playground dirt before expiring in dusty ignominy.
4. Crack the Whip
You know, I’m starting to wonder if we ever played anything that wasn’t dangerous. Was this just an Oklahoma thing? Or did kids around the world gleefully participate in activities that could maim or cripple them? Do kids still do that these days? Well, probably not at public schools. You know, those places where there’s so much restrictive legislation now that a teacher can’t even say “good morning” without a consent form signed by God, yet so many modern “parents” fully expect that teacher to completely raise their own children without the parents having to lift a finger.
Anyway. With this festive game, everybody joined hands in a single line, assuming you were still physically capable of doing such after playing Red Rover earlier in the afternoon. Then the “head” of the snake would start running hither and yon, all crazy-eyed and preferably zig-zagging. End result? The increasing pressure on the people at the end of the line would soon become so great that they would go flying through the air and slam to the ground in a far field. Good times.
Now, one of the rules was that, even if you had been flung, if you could somehow manage to rejoin the chain and hang on, you were officially back in the game. But seriously, once you’ve crashed through the front window of the Five & Dime two blocks over, why would you go back? Why?
5. The Quiet Game
Okay, maybe not all of our youthful entertainment pursuits were dripping with blood and intense peer pressure. But even though this game was relatively tame, from a physical-damage perspective, it’s still tainted by the fact that it isn’t actually a game, but rather a coping mechanism invented by parents who were waiting for their Valium prescriptions to be refilled.
The object? Sit your ass down and shut up. For a very long time. Don’t talk about anything, don’t file oral reports about what your sibling may or may not be doing, and don’t provide commentary about who was whisked away in an ambulance from the playground at school. If you speak, you lose, and Mommy has to start drinking again. But what do you win, if you don’t engage the vocal chords until you’ve graduated from high school? You get to continue being raised by your parents and not Child Protective Services…
Previously published in “The Sound and the Fury” and “Bonnywood Manor”. Minimally revised and updated with extra flair for this post.
Story behind the photo: Image by Arthur Leipzig, 1943.