Time Out: August 22, 2012

Denis Hamill’s column in Sunday’s New York Daily News took me back in time. Hamill’s column took root as part of an extended response to Mayor Bloomburg’s call to ban soft drinks in the war to slow exploding rates of childhood obesity. Rather than focus on limiting soft drinks, Hamill suggested the mayor take his obesity battle to the streets by getting kids to play stickball again.

Three particular paragraphs early in Hamill’s column tickled my funny bone and took me back to a childhood that in modern times seems almost otherworldly.

Here’s how Hamil said it: “When I was a kid, only one kid in every gang was fat. The rest of us were like human greyhounds, lean, fast and all tight muscle from playing stickball from right after breakfast till your ma hollered out the winda for ya to come home for supper. We didn’t belong to day camps equipped with nurses, nutritionists and child psychologists. We collected empty deposit bottles, washed out the roaches, brought them to the local candy store and traded them in for a 25 cent Spaldeen – that magical pink orb that was the world in your dirty bare hands.
Ready for action

We’d steal our mother’s mop handle and go out and choose up sides and thwack that Spaldeen in endless summer games of street baseball, through blistering heat, unbearable humidity, and traffic, every single day.”

I never remembered myself as a lean, fast greyhound as a child. In fact, for most of my childhood, I considered myself the one fat guy in the gang Hamill wrote about. When my parents passed and we were closing down the homestead, I was surprised to find old pictures that proved I wasn’t fat at all and the lean tight muscled guys in our neighborhood were simply scrawny.

And, we rarely played stickball. We were country kids never confined to city streets and free to roam. But, oh, I do remember that pink Spaldeen ball. I do remember scouring the sides of the roads collecting bottles to trade at Dunnigan’s General Store for the pennies we would need to purchase a Spaldeen. And, I do remember picking sides early in the morning and batting that Spaldeen around the field behind my house from morning until night.

Hamill goes on to report that as a child he never knew a kid with diabetes, asthma, or heart murmurs. The columnist remembers knowing absolutely nothing about nutrition except eating everything in sight, vegetables included.

Time for your vegetables
That got me to thinking hard and I couldn’t recall a single childhood schoolmate or a neighborhood kid with those diseases or conditions either. I sure know, I ate anything and everything. With six kids and my parents crowded around the dinner table, a supper meal was more like grab and run.

After the dinner platter passed there weren’t too many opportunities for second chances.
Hamill’s retro review was even more compelling at the conclusion. Here’s what he said: “We only had seven TV channels. There was no air conditioning, cable, DVDs, Pay Per View, Netflix, or Internet. We had only each other and that was better than all of today’s technology combined. And so we shouted each other’s names from the sidewalk every morning until you came running out to play stickball.

Substitute baseball for stickball and a country field for city streets and Hamill has aptly described my summer days as a kid. In fact, my dad and several of the dads from the neighborhood, built a television antennae high on a mountaintop overlooking the valley where we lived so we could get television reception from five New York City stations and one from Binghamton. It was my job to visit each house once each month to collect the television fee.

On the diamond
We played baseball from morning to night. At first we established our field too close to the house. Worn patches of dirt or shrubs served as bases. Broken window after broken window ( I remember the family eating dinner to the sound of windows smashing as the neighborhood kids continued to play when we weren’t even there) forced us to transform a former corn field behind our house into a genuine baseball diamond.

Every game was like the seventh game of the World Series. Everyone was included, no one left behind. We fussed, cussed, spit, and squabbled like any self-respecting group of kids from any neighborhood during that era, but we solved all our own dilemmas without the negotiation skills of a single adult. If things got too hot, we would break temporarily and scramble to Julia’s, a section of the creek, near Julia Bryan’s farm we had dug, dredged, and dammed so the water was chest high for some swimming fun. Then, of course, it was back to baseball.

Those were the days my friend, we thought they’d never end…until we starred at Yankee Stadium!