My brothers and I grew up in an age where being poor made us that much more resourceful when it came to entertaining ourselves. Fortunately, as imaginative as we got, we never managed to permanently injure ourselves or kill anyone. But I think that was mostly luck.
We were poor enough that store-bought games were not very common. We had our own brand new sets of Parcheesi, Monopoly, and checkers, but mostly things came to us used. Our athletic equipment (baseball bats, gloves and balls) were hand-me-downs from other parish families whose kids had outgrown or abandoned sports. Our second-hand bikes came from police auctions. Even our playing cards were used– casino decks with a hole punched through the middle.
But this didn’t stop us from having great, albeit life-threatening, adventures.
Another family once gifted us a pair of ancient roller skates. They were so old, the skates had steel wheels and delivered a bone jarring ride regardless of whether you were trying to kill yourself on the cement sidewalks or on the asphalt streets. No one in our neighborhood knew how to skate, and living on a steep hill didn’t make learning to skate any easier. Too dangerous to use as intended, my younger brother and I used the skates’ leather straps to secure one of the skates to a discarded oven rack. We would sit on the rack, heels up on the two front corners of the rack, and slalom down our street. By the time we reached the bottom of the block we were usually going frighteningly fast. The most important rule to this fun was to avoid shooting through that intersection at the end of the block because that street was fairly busy. Being so low to the ground, cars were never going to see us in time, though thanks to the steel wheels, drivers probably knew we were coming from two blocks away. We had two options for stopping. The safest way was to plant our feet down on either side of our toboggan and use friction to stop ourselves, but that wore through the tread on our Keds pretty fast so we tried not to do that too often. The better way was to lean hard to one side and cause the toboggan to do a hard, sharp turn uphill. If you’ve ever skied, you know this technique. Every so often things wouldn’t quite work out, particularly if both of us were riding it at the same time and we didn’t get our breaking coordinated correctly. It was not a coincidence that more than one of the parked cars in our neighborhood had dents in their doors, way down low where it didn’t show too much.
Lots of kids play cowboys and Indians. My brothers and I either played Indians and Indians or Army and Army, though I think neither game had any kind of actual name. We just played. The latter was a simpler, ready-to-play game. The two anemic apples trees my parents had planted in our backyard produced tiny, nasty apples the perfect size for hand grenades. No matter where you got hit, an apple the size of plumb hurt like hell. Usually this game ended fairly quickly and almost always with someone yelling, “No head shots!”
If we had more time, we would make our own bows and arrows and shoot at each other. Using a pair of pliers, we’d snip off the long, straight length of a wire coat hanger and then bend each end into a small hoop. Hook a rubber band through each loop and our bow was ready. Arrows were a lot more work. My parents had hung a bamboo blind over an attic window. Each round segment of bamboo, about the diameter as a piece of spaghetti, was an arrow waiting to be born. Just break off a piece about 8 inches long, tape a pin (stolen from mom’s sewing kit) to one end, and you were ready to roll! Speaking from experience, we know we could shoot those arrows with enough force to embed themselves in exposed thighs and calves. Or a skull. My oldest brother was the genius who thought up this game.
My older brothers also taught me a game called “Spread”, which is a variant of the old knife throwing game called Mumblety-peg, which Tom Sawyer played. The version Mark Twain wrote about involves throwing a pocket knife end-over-end into the ground, ideally, so that only the handle (the peg) shows. Your opponent’s challenge is to free the knife, using only his teeth. In Spread, two opponents face each other, taking turns throwing the knife just to the outside of where the opponent’s feet are placed. Each time the knife successfully sticks, the opponent places his foot where the knife stuck. Eventually, someone’s legs are spread so far apart that he falls over and loses. Besides the obvious danger resulting in blood loss, since none of us owned pocket knives, we ran the risk of getting caught using the steak knifes for, as my mother called them, pendejadas (god damn stupid things).
My younger brother and I played a lot of miniature golf when we were young– all of it in our own backyard. This wasn’t a particularly dangerous game, but it, too, came with a high risk of scoldings. My mom hated this game for lots of reasons. Damage to her roses, peonies, and hydrangeas was usually the result of soccer games rather than miniature golf. Home-made water hazards were quickly outlawed. Mostly, she got tired of us stealing the caps to her cans of Pledge, hairspray, spray-on deodorant, and oven cleaner, to use as golf holes. Borrowing caps from toiletries was much riskier than cleaning supplies, but they came in more interesting sizes. We’d bury these caps upside down in various places in the yard. The hard plastic sides worked great as golf holes and the various sizes added to the complexity and variety of the game. Golf balls were found balls from nearby golf courses. Golf clubs were wooden mop or broom handles, sawn in half, with a piece of scrap wood nailed on at just the right putting angle. More than once we misjudged how attached my mom was to a particular broom or mop.
As near as I can remember, none of us ever ended up at the emergency room as a result of our invented games, though I do sport a several inch-long scar along one arm from catching a sharp edge when I jumped from the couch to an armchair (to avoid lava), causing the chair to flip over. Proof that my childhood left me scarred for life.
All in all, it was a great childhood. Not a single fatality.