The playgrounds of today do not look like the playgrounds that I played on, when I ran around with my jacket unzipped and in blissful ignorance of the fact that I would one day have more conversations with Time Warner Cable than with my parents. Gone are the monkey bars, the jungle gyms, the pieces of metal welded together in the shape of something that was at the same time a slide and a medieval torture device. No longer can children test their courage and their parents’ coronary strength by climbing to the summit of iron structures, where one slip would send a child pinballing down to an unforgiving concrete surface in an indifferent universe.
Playgrounds today are made of single pieces of plastic, their summits so low that children can eat on them without having to sit on telephone books—not that there are any telephone books left to sit on. The concrete ground has been supplanted by rubber foam, and the swings are allowed a maximum swing of five degrees in either direction, and even that much requires clearance from air traffic control.
Look hard and you will see the city of wood and metal that once was there. See the tiered wooden maze with splinters and exposed nails. Run your hand over the rubber ground, and you will feel the sea of pebbles that once washed over Velcro sneakers, and drove little rocks into the soles of little feet as those feet dropped from the monkey bars. Sniff the air, and you will smell the charred pieces of wood that littered the playground, with which the children would draw pictures of bison and of teachers they despised, just like their ancestors did on cave walls some 40,000 years ago.
And along the perimeter of the southeastern quadrant lay a line of giant rubber tires, each one the width of three children, or one and a half of the children we have today. The tires had been implanted into the pebbled earth on their sides, forming a tunnel that the children could crawl through, and catch their Champion sweatshirts and scratch their rosy cheeks on the wires that protruded from the tires as a testament to the thousands of miles that those tires had traveled before being retired to the playground where they could bring joy to all children.
Crawl through that tunnel of tires. You are led to a three-story rusty metal cylinder in the shape of rocket. Children climb up to the top of it with only cold metal rungs to keep them from falling to death or paralysis. At the top of the rocket there is the opening to another tunnel. This tunnel is horizontal and is made of the same wooden planks as the charred and splintery maze. In that tunnel three stories above the world, a boy can meditate on what it means to be young, and dream of one day having a television in his room.
Listen! Hear the cries of a child who slipped off a giant metal sea horse placed on a spring. The child split his lip when he hit the pebbles, and he leaves a trail of blood as he is led to the nurse’s office. The other children observe a moment of silence out of respect for their fallen comrade, and after that moment go back to their wanton cruelty.
Here, in this playground whose spirit will not leave, is where blood was spilled and teeth were lost, knees scraped and ankles sprained, skin pierced and lockjaw contracted. And where heroes were born.