As the end of the school year approached, I found myself in league with other parents - making arrangements for almost back-to-back summer activities for my young son, lest he find himself with a moment's free time on his hands with "nothing" to do.
Sometimes, as I pored over brochures for swimming lessons, soccer camps, and summer softball teams, I'd find myself asking how this came to pass. I mean, how, in a single generation, did America make the leap from a culture in which summer meant true freedom for a child fresh out of school, to one in which the summer had to be every bit as structured as the school year?
Whatever happened to street games? In my New Jersey childhood, summers seemed endless and anything but rushed because we kids were as busy as we wanted to be. We controlled our time because we were given the freedom to.
The games we played in the streets of my neighborhood were legion, taught to us by our own parents: stickball, dodge ball, hopscotch, bottle caps, hide-and-seek, red rover. But preeminent among these games was one called "stoop ball" or "points."
What a game! All that was required was a rubber ball and a set of front steps. The beauty of the game was that it could be played with as few as two people, on those days when families were away and playmates were scarce.
The idea was this: The person with the ball stood in front of the steps while the other kids - the fielders - strung themselves out from sidewalk to street and onto the opposite sidewalk. The "batter" would then wind up and slam the ball against the stoop. If a fielder caught it, you were out; but if you hit the step just right, the ball would fire out with lightning speed - its distance determining whether you got a single, double, or triple.
I was a solid "double" man myself, but Sal Briguglio had a great arm and he'd get that ball to sail high and fast over the street and into the front yard of the house on the other side.
The important thing about stoop ball was that you had to find the right steps. My house had gray painted cement ones with rounded edges. That was no good. But Mrs. Strenger had brick steps with hard, sharp edges. If you hit the riser, you could count on a base hit; but if you hit the edge, you had a good chance at a homer.
During those long, hot, brilliant summer days we'd be out on the street by 8 or 8:30 in the morning, and within 15 minutes would have some game or other going. By 11, there'd be so many kids in the street and on the sidewalks that it's still amazing to me that we could decide upon anything. But we did.
In between games, we'd sometimes repair to Mr. Riley's corner store, where the sweaty lot of us would line up along his counter for 7-cent cherry sodas served up in shapely little Coke glasses. After chortling the last of our sodas through paper straws, we'd stampede into the street again and line up for dodge ball.
Other than those soda-fountain breathers, the only breaks we'd take were a brief soup-and-sandwich lunch, and a supper preceded by the ululations of our parents from the windows of our homes. They would shout for us (in four languages!) to come and eat while it was still hot. After supper, we'd be back outside for an evening stickball game, thanks to the donation of some dad's broom handle.
I remember my father once wrapping the end of one with electrical tape while we looked on in wonder at the precision work. "The grip is everything," my father told us as he handed over the stick. "Everything."
NIGHTFALL meant little to us, except as a signal to break out the necessary tools for flashlight tag. Our parents would be sitting in lawn chairs on the front porches of the all-but-conjoined homes, cautioning us every so often that it was getting late. Almost time to come in.
"Just five more minutes!" we'd plead, and they'd nod. After an hour or two of this they'd finally draw the line and all but haul us into the house. We'd wash up, sleep, and in the morning awake once again, every child competing to be the first on the street to get the first game going.
What has happened to all of this? Why has the broom handle been replaced by the basketball camp that costs $385 a week?
I think there are two reasons. One is that the mid-1960s of which I speak was the acme of the baby boom. Kids were everywhere, and families with four, five, six, or more children were not uncommon. This guaranteed ample playmates.
Second, life then was still more of an external phenomenon. The lack of air conditioning in most homes meant that families got relief from the heat on the front porch. Television offered only a few channels, and there was nothing on for kids during the day. Neither were there computers or video games shackling children to the living-room floor. In short, the inside of the house was where a kid ate, slept, and took baths; the street was where you had fun.
There are still kids around, of course, but now, with the privatization of summer activities, it costs money to play with them. It is a sad loss.
The other day, my son caught me knocking a rubber ball against our modest New England stoop. "What're you doin'?" he asked.
"Stoop ball," I told him. "Wanna play?"
"Nah," he frowned. "It looks boring."
Hauling back, I took steady aim and slammed one out and over the street. A homer! "Tell it to Sal Briguglio!" I shouted after my son as he tooled away on his bike.
Boring? Not by a long shot.