Monday, February 7, 2011

This Used to be My Playground

If you drive up to Lake Hefner in Oklahoma City, and turn into one of the lakeside parks, you will see, at least I think, a playground of immense size and stature, towering over the lake. I am sure that the rocketship that was built at the park was not as big as the one in my imagination, looking back at those days, when my grandmother would take my brother and I the many blocks to this amazing structure. It was the fusion of man's understanding of the child's imagination. I have seen very little, before or since, that blended together steel and matter with the underlying dreams in a child's mind. To me, it was an arduous rampway to the top of the rocket. In my mind, the ramp was closed in, usually filled with children, and actually a bit scary. In the photos I've seen, it was an open walkway, much like the breezeways above interstates. It's amazing how memories change, mold themselves into something larger and more ominous than what they truly were. And how sad it made me, to look down from the satellites of Google's all seeing eye and zoom into the playground I once played in, and see the rocketship gone.

Same state, but drive, then, to the school I went to as a child, Mustang Valley Elementary, and there you will find monkey bars of various shapes, including a rocket-shaped one. So many battles were fought on that rocket ship, of Thundercats and Transformers, with my friends, Timothy and Drew and all the others, amazing times. And come to think of it, I probably got more exercise in those days than anything else. I wasn't all that overweight then, although you would never have known that by the Presidential Physical fitness tests scores I had. What fun is there in running around a gym field, with asthma threatening to creep in and the dandelions and the wasps and whatnot always lurking about? It's no fun. But being that is something different. It was our own little world then, and I loved it.

[Addendum... looking for pictures of that place, I find that Mustang Valley renovated (read, took all the fun out of) the playground, taking the slides, the swings, the huge teeter totters, the beloved rocket ship, everything away, and replaced it with safer, more boring play toys. Curse them for taking away such treasures. Now children will not be able to use their imaginations and play on the dangerous wonders that truly made us children. And looking at Google, all the trees around the school have been cut down to make room for neighborhoods and houses. At least we still have our memories.][If we have to be safe all the time, we will never face danger. Climbing to the top of the Monkey Bars and standing upon the zenith of the rocket ship... it is like conquering a mountain. And if we fall... our skinned knees will have been well worth it.]

One more playground story, before I get to where I really want to take this entry. There still is a quaint little playground located just to the west of the dorms of Georgia College in Milledgeville. Nothing special about them, except for the memories I had of the swing sets there, where in my Freshman year the Ramsey twins (whom I have not heard from since then) and some of our other friends, would go and swing under the shade of the giant pine trees. It really was refreshing, the cool winds going down into the river valley, even in summer. So it was a great shock to me that one year, after returning back to campus, I wandered over to the park to see that every pine tree had been cut down, leaving a brown, ugly surface around all the playground equipment. During the hot days, the sun would beat down upon the metal fixtures and make them too hot to touch, especially for the little children that played on them. I could easily see them getting 1st degree burns from the heated metal. What good is a playground without the trees around it? The shade is metaphor as well as real. The real world cannot get to you for that little while you are on the swing sets. To see those trees cut down and the park destroyed, in spirit, was depressing.


Now, I venture, these playgrounds lay barren and empty for most of the time. They become hangouts for gangs and drug dealers (that was a problem, apparently, for the Stars and Stripes Park). The innocence leaves and is left only by the leftovers, by the people longing to get back to that time, but never making it through chemicals and violence. No, the playgrounds are empty. Schools have had to cut back the recess time to provide more education for failing test scores (and not for the children that take them), and city budget cuts have made replacing old equipment impossible, so the grass grows up between the iron monkey bars and cracks form on the pavement. It reminds me of Ray Bradbury's "The Pedestrian," which, if you haven't read it, go find a copy on the Internet, it should be there. I'll wait, it's only a 1.5 pages long.

For in that story, the citizens of that fictional country lived within their houses, fixated on the moving lights of the television screens, and the lone walker outside is picked up by a robot police officer and taken to the asylum as if he was a crazy person.

Our playgrounds today are no longer the steel beams of playground rocketships or, in another since, of the rocketships that are made of the words in books. Rather, they are the images of those forms in computer games, on television. The playgrounds we visit to escape reality, to stretch our imaginations across vast spaces, those places exist only within our minds. They exist as bytes and pixels on a computer screen. Whereas we might have fought against real imaginary dragons on the school playground, now people slaughter virtual dragons in the caves of Warcraft or other games. We chase girls (or gossip about guys) not on the pavement of a schoolground playplace, but rather on the public grounds of Facebook. It's all the same in reality. Why shouldn't we all just spend our recesses texting each other and saying nothing? Not long are the days when the playful screams of children will fall silent on school playgrounds as they talk more through the keyboards on their cell phones than with their mouths. In future times, when I am old and gray, and children who may be quite used to space travel, will ask me if I've ever been in space, I will say, "Yes, although my feet have never left the ground."

[Okay... now I'm just ticked... all the playgrounds I played in as a child are gone, replaced with safer, more boring pieces of plastic. Damn the lawyers and their litigation. I want danger! I want to climb to the top of the monkey bars and look out over the cement playground and watch people skin their knees! I'm gonna scan pictures from my yearbook of the playground, and also provide links of sites I find that deal with preserving playgrounds and monkey bars and all the things we loved as kids. ]

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