The temperature was a still bearable 90 degrees before beginning its inexorable climb into double digits. Soon, the park would nearly empty during the midday heat, only to refill in late afternoon for an evening of barbecues, patriotic music and fireworks. For now though, the sights and sounds of children at play filled this green oasis in a desert city.
Not far away, little girls played jacks on a sidewalk meticulously swept of any foreign particle which might affect the bounce of the ball. Well away from the dainty young ladies, some boys chose to set up shop in a less pristine enclave devoid of concrete or grass. Playing marbles “for keeps” from a circle scribed in the powdered dirt, they whooped and hollered as a player's favorite aggie fell victim to a well knuckled shot.
A paper bag and bits of cardboard formed the diamond for a pickup softball game. The teams had only six players to each side. One of the batting team's players acted as catcher – actually, more as retriever of pitches until a ball was hit, then the pitcher became the person covering home plate. There was no umpire, so there were no walks. A batter either got a hit or struck out swinging. Having only two outfielders caused another defensive problem. Any ball hit past the outfield players became an almost automatic home run as an outfielder chased it down. No ground rule double in this contest.
The rolling scrum moving toward my lair drew my attention. A solitary youth bolted from the pack carrying what looked to be a volleyball. The others quickly turned in pursuit until he threw to ball up and back over his head. The former runaway then rejoined the group in chasing down the bouncing orb. The cycle repeated several times as each person grabbing the ball ran as if being chased by the Devil himself, tossing away the ball just before being tackled. Here was a game I recognized from my own preteen years, the outcome was inevitable.
From my distance I couldn't determine if it was bravado or terror as one runner, refusing to relinquish his prize, tried to run through the closing crowd. He was quickly enveloped to a chorus of “Dog pile on the rabbit!” The boys fell back in laughter and cheers as they unwound until the “rabbit” was no longer buried under a writhing stack of humanity. The hapless “rabbit” stood to brush off dirt and bits of grass, then performed an end-zone dance and spike worthy of Neon Dion. After a few minutes of rest, one daring soul snatched the ball, and the game continued.
Everywhere I looked, children engaged in the type of politically incorrect endeavors now prohibited in most schoolyards. Little girls continually raising their own measure of success at jacks, with each pass more difficult than the last. Little boys risking their own capital in that dirt circle for the opportunity to increase their holdings, putting their marbles where their mouths were, so to speak. Batters swinging to succeed or fail on their own, with no free passes. Outfielders hustling to make that put-out throw without benefit of a fence safety net or regulations designed to hobble their competition.
The roughhouse bunch, again coming my way, demonstrated a concept required for prevailing in life's conflicts. There were times when people must turn and face their adversity. The runner this time was quick and nimble, executing sharp turns to maintain his advantage on the pursuers. A shoe came off during one of these maneuvers and he spun toward them with index fingers crossed. “King's ex!” The others obliged while he retrieved the wayward footwear and tied it firmly in place. Once he was ready, they buried him. Yes, even the budding warriors, engaged in mock combat, still had respect, chivalry, and a sense of fair play.
I was surrounded by Americana on our nation's birthday and couldn't help but think, “Children are such wonderful teachers. Why can't we learn from them?”
Dennis P. O'Neil