Harvey Dershin, Evanston, Illinois, March 23, 2020
I spent my early childhood, zero to five years old, in the Bronx but was raised after that in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn. All I remember of the Bronx is tall apartment buildings and steep hills. I used to have bad dreams about riding my tricycle down one of those hills and rolling into traffic because I couldn’t stop at the bottom.
Brooklyn was different. The residential streets were much like those on the north side of Chicago or in Evanston. Lots of trees with small buildings. Kids could play in the streets, because there was not much traffic. And the streets were paved with asphalt, which was smooth and great for roller skating. At first, we lived in a red brick, two-flat, upstairs apartment. Then, after the war, my folks bought a single-family, two-story home with a stucco exterior and a nice side-yard. I lived there until I got married.
When I was a boy there were, of course, no TVs, internet or video games. Nor were there many organized sports for kids. But there were lots of games.
When I was six to about eight, and still in knickers, we played games in the dirt:
Marbles (two kinds: 1. Knocking the other kid’s marbles out of a ring and, 2. Rolling marbles into a shoebox that had openings cut in the side). We also played Jack Knife, sometimes called Territory.
In larger groups we played Cops and Robbers, Cowboys and Indians, War, or just Guns.
We played games on the sidewalk:
Box Ball, Stoop Ball, Hit the Penny, Pitching Pennies, Johnny on the Pony and we rode homemade scooters
And we played games in the street (by this time I was in long pants):
Punch Ball, Stick Ball, Touch Football, Ring-a-levio, Tag, Hide and Seek, Kick the Can, Roller skating (for speed and through mazes), Roller Hockey, and we rode bikes (those who had bicycles) Then there were sandlot games (where a “sandlot” was any vacant field or park):
Baseball, Tackle Football and “Catch-a-flyer-up” (street talk for Catch a Fly and you’re up at bat)
And we also played games in the schoolyards:
Mostly Basketball and Softball
(And there were occasional fist fights to see which boy would be dominant.)
When there was snow on the ground, we would pull out our battered flexible flyer sleds (mine, rescued from the trash somewhere, was painted green) and do “belly-flops” in the streets or, if a hill was nearby, we’d go downhill at breakneck speed. Some of the braver boys (not me) would hitch rides on the rear bumpers of cars to get pulled along the street. Winter was also a time for building snow-forts and having snowball fights. These took place between groups of boys or we might lay in wait for passing groups of girls and let them have it. We delighted in their squeals
When we got into our teens, (now in jeans, leather jackets, blue suede shoes and motorcycle caps) weight lifting became important. We started out lifting the metal bus-stop signs that were in use then in New York. They weighed exactly 75 pounds and had to be lifted with one arm because the weight was all at one end. Later, pooling our funds, we were able to buy a set of regular weights, which were stored in one boy’s basement.
We didn’t need a lot of expensive equipment for these games. Of course, we had to buy the marbles, or “mibs” as we called them. But, since the games were essentially gambling games, the better players soon accumulated cans loaded with mibs. I wasn’t very good at this game, had only a handful of mibs, so I played rarely and carefully. I recall that some mibs were more important than others. A “purie” was a crystalline marble with no color. They were supposed to have magical powers and were often used as strikers. A “cabola” was a big, fat, marble with great striking power. Although hard to aim, they were prized because they were good at knocking other kid’s marbles out of the ring. Come to think of it, I was never much good at games that involved getting a ball to fall into a hole. That’s probably why I never took up golf. In my teens, I did shoot pool for awhile but, again, was not terribly good at it
As young boys (6 – 10), we made hand guns from the ends of orange crates and attached rubber bands to fire squares of scrap linoleum. These zipped through the air and could take out an eye if one were not careful. (As I recall, none of us was careful.) We also made scooters from whole orange crates and old skates.
Balls were an essential item. These were manufactured by Spalding & Co. They were hollow, made of pink rubber and were very “springy.” If you hit them with a stick, punched or bounced them, they would fly off. “High bouncers,” we called them. We also called them “Spaldeens.” They could be bought in any candy or sporting goods store, if one had the money. Since we played in the streets, the key thing was to keep them from rolling down through the storm-sewer grates. We could also help ourselves to free “Spaldeens” by “fishing” them out of the sewers with bent up wire hangers. I still recall the smell that lingered about me after a day of “ball fishing” in the sewers. When I returned home, my Mom would take one sniff and quickly send me to the showers and my clothes to the wash.
Games like Tag, Ring-a-levio, and Hide and Seek required no equipment or special venues. The streets were the only thing we needed. Parked cars and alleys were a plus for these games because they could be used for hiding. These games were best played at night because that allowed them to be wilder and more challenging. Johnny-on-the-Pony needed a wall to play against, but those were easily found. I was good at these games because I could run fast, was big and hit hard. Walls were also useful for stickball because we could draw an outline of the strike zone on them. Then there were fewer arguments about whether a pitch was a ball or strike.
Johnny-on-the-pony Stickball (in the street)
Punch Ball was also played in the streets. The only equipment needed was a “Spaldeen.” Somehow, on those narrow streets, we were able to lay out four bases. When parked cars lined the streets, we used their fenders for bases and their running boards for dugout seats. This didn’t please the car owners. I was very good at this game and could hit “two sewers,” a measure of distance. When teams were put together, I was generally chosen first.
We needed special gloves for baseball and softball, but these were often shared between opposing teams. Usually, one or two bats served both teams. We never had more than one baseball or softball, and, typically, these were taped over because the seams had split
Basketball was different. This game required a special ball and a hoop mounted on a backboard. Some kids had basketball hoops mounted on poles or garage doors, in their alleys. But, more often, we played in school yards or after-hours gyms. Sometimes the schools provided the balls. I loved this game, played it a lot, was never very good at it and usually ended up under the basket pushing and shoving for rebounds.
I would be remis if I didn’t include one memory that cheers me, even now. It’s about playing softball in the school yard at PS 206, in Brooklyn. I was in the 6th grade, about 10 years old, big for my age and quite heavy. A typical pre-teen, I was uncomfortable with myself and awkward around girls.
As I recall the situation, my class was in a runoff for the championship of the 6th grade in softball. When we went out to play the opposing team, both classes turned out to watch in force. It was the bottom of the last inning and my team was behind by 2 or 3 runs. I had been up twice so far in the game and (maybe) got a single in one of the at-bats. My teammates managed to scratch out three infield hits or walks in this, the last, inning and had loaded the bases. There were two outs. It was my turn to bat.
To say I was nervous, would be a massive understatement. My knees were shaking. It was all up to me. I was the big guy, the cleanup hitter. Would I come through? Our side was cheering like mad and I could see the girls bouncing up and down as I let a few pitches go by. I don’t recall the count, but then the opposing pitcher put one right down the middle.
I swung without thinking and with all my might. I heard and felt that soft pop that happens when bat meets ball just right. I looked out and saw the ball flying over the head of the center fielder. I dropped the bat and ran the bases as fast as I could. It was a grand slam home run and we won the game. What a feeling. I fairly flew to home plate. Then…pats on the back, nice words from my fellow students and some smiles from the girls. The teacher even mentioned it when we got back to class. I hadn’t let them down. Whew!
I had a mis-matched football helmet and set of shoulder pads and used them for playing Tackle Football in sandlots. We played Touch Football in the streets without equipment. I loved both games and thoroughly enjoyed the rough and tumble of it. I generally played a position on the “line,” blocking and tackling and, as I just realized, got a great kick out of plowing into other players
I recall one game played at Marine Park (in Brooklyn). There was no special field there and we just played on the grass. I was positioned as left tackle. When I saw my opponent, I gasped. He seemed twice my size in height and weight. How could I possible stop him from crushing me and our running backs, who were little guys. There was no way I could hold or overpower him. The only possibility was to take his feet out. And that’s what I did, for the entire game. Threw myself at his legs and tripped him. Play after play. I was pretty banged up after the game, but he had been neutralized.
I was also good at Roller Hockey, which we played in the streets. I was a fast skater, could turn on a dime and, again, enjoyed the rough and tumble of the sport.
Most important, all this took place without adult supervision, organization, or planning.
Our parents were too busy working- at home or in an office or factory. There were no leagues. Games were all played on a pick-up basis. Somehow, we survived. We learned how to:
Chose leaders and team members
Make up the rules
Schedule our time
Acquire equipment and supplies
Here’s one side-story about leagues.
Because the kids on my block were good at Roller Hockey, we were once invited to play a team from another neighborhood. We were not really a team, had no uniforms, plays or even consistent equipment. Everything was ad hoc. But we went anyway. The other team was a real team, with uniforms, organized by the parents. Since we had no parents in attendance, the other team’s parents served as referees. Of course, they were completely biased in their calls and we lost the game. We were furious and looked forward to going back and annihilating the other team. But we were never invited back
So, what to make of all this? In those days, parents never had to think about their kid’s playtime. We took care of that ourselves. If I told my mother I was bored she’d say “shlug zuch kup in vant” meaning, in Yiddish, “go hit your head against the wall.” If I came in off the street with a shiner, or was otherwise banged up, my father would say “what does the other guy look like?” I didn’t tell him but, often, not as bad as me.
We were responsible for our play time, including settling problems. Of course, this did not make for perfect solutions, but it gave us some experience in self-reliance and interpersonal relations. I wouldn’t have dreamed of asking my parents for help solving a problem I might be having with another boy. It was up to me
There was, also, a down side to this. In most games, the bigger or more athletic boys had an edge. This was not a world where a high IQ helped. When we did get into “intellectual” debates, they were usually ill-informed and colored by prejudice. The one exception was board-games. Monopoly was the most played, usually on rainy days. This required non-athletic skills. Size and speed didn’t help. I was a marginal player in this arena. In fact, it was not until college that I realized that mine was going to be a life of the mind, not the athletic field. It took me a while to get used to that and I had to work hard to learn how to deal with it. But, after some pain and failures, I worked it out and have come to enjoy it
We also learned lessons from street games, e.g.:
You can’t win all the time
A person might be good at some things, but not at others
Sometimes aggression helps, but not always
If you want something you have to go after it
Don’t be afraid to try new things, you might like them
Teamwork is important
Pick strong people for your team
Teams need leaders
Physical skill is not everything. Teams also need people who are clever.