Sunday, June 29, 2014

Band Aid Park

Parents are so overprotective of their kids these days, they would shudder if they ever visited the playgrounds of my youth. It's not that our parents didn't worry about us, they just had to make do with the places available for kids to play. Our most frequented playground was in Callahan & Kelly Park, which lies at the northern edge of the Brooklyn neighborhood of Brownsville on Truxton Street, beneath the elevated "Broadway Line" subway. (For the record, "elevated subway" is an oxymoron.)

The park was large for a neighborhood playground, with baseball diamonds, basketball, handball and bocci courts, horseshoe throwing pits, picnic tables and of course the children's playground. Also, the park was lit at night, which made it great for summer evening activities. The playgrounds of today are designed and built to be "child-safe". The play areas are constructed of plastic with no sharp edges; hand rails are on every raised platform; even the floor is rubberized in case, heaven forbid, a child should fall down.

The Callahan & Kelly playground was a minefield of dangerous activities. Everything was made of steel that heated up in the mid-day sun; wood filled with skin-piercing splinters, and unforgiving concrete floors that did not treat kiddy knees and skulls kindly. The typical things to play on in every Brooklyn playground included swings, slides (called sliding ponds), see-saws and of course every parent's favorite, the dreaded monkey bars. There was also a wading pool, basically a concrete enclosure surrounded by steel bars, that was flooded by a series of sprinkler heads that surrounded the pool.

The swings were of two types, "kiddy" and what we called "the big swings". Except for being made of stainless steel, which on a hot day could nicely broil a small child in about five minutes, the kiddy swings were relatively safe. The big swings were another matter. Typically, one did not sit on them as intended, but rather stood up and pumped one's little legs to propel the swing higher and higher. There was no limit to how high the swings could go, and in the process of trying to impress one's friends, kids were known to fly well above the horizontal bar from which the swings were suspended. Another daredevil stunt was to have a friend sit on the swing while you stood on it and pumped the both of you into the stratosphere.

The slide or "sliding pond" as it came to be named by immigrants who remembered sliding on the winter ice in their native countries, was a big source of emergency room visits. Besides being able to make pancakes on its surface on a hot day, the slide featured other hazards. If the slide got sticky, say from someone spilling a Coke on it, the kid would slide a few feet, stick on the tacky surface, and tumble down the rest of the way, or worse, off the edge of the slide onto the friendly concrete floor. Climbing up the slide instead of using the ladder also resulted in frequent "owies" and souvenir band aids.

The see-saw (or teeter totter as it is known in Westchester) seems harmless enough. One child sits on either end and laughingly enjoys going up and down. Not in our playground. One fun prank was to quickly push down on your end just as the other kid was straddling his end to get on. This contributed to the steady flow of boys entering the priesthood in my neighborhood. It also kept our local dentists supplied with orthodontia work. Another gag was to first lower your end all the way, which naturally elevated the other kid as high as he could go. And then the fun part of suddenly jumping off your side and watching the kid on the other end come crashing down onto, you guessed it, the concrete floor. It is thought that the term "pain in the ass" originated from this practice.

And now, the king of kiddie playground injuries, the monkey bars. In ancient Egypt, Pharaoh sought to eliminate the Israelites by killing all their first-born sons. If only he had known about the monkey bars. The designer of this apparatus must have been horribly teased as a boy, and his vengeance was well wrought upon the sons of his tormentors. A pyramid-like structure about twenty feet high, built of steel pipes made to be climbed or swung from. Again, if used carefully, the monkey bars were safe enough. A rite of passage in our group, however, was to climb to the uppermost bars and stand on the top bars without holding on to anything. There are definitely kids walking around today who can't do long-division because their attempts to accomplish this feat failed miserably.

As for the wading pool, other than falling on the concrete floor, or getting hung up climbing the pointed, wrought iron fence, this was a relatively low risk activity. Of course if the park attendant or "parkie" as we called him didn't thoroughly sweep out the broken beer bottles from the night before, there could be stitches in your future, but on a hot day, we were prepared to take our chances. Kids in their bathing suits enjoyed sitting on the gushing sprinkler heads. If you haven't done this, it's hard to understand the feeling. It's why, even as adults in the jacuzzi, we gravitate to the inlet water jets just to recreate that thrill.

Disneyworld and $5,000 vacations were off in the future. All we had were wood and steel and concrete, and we sure as hell made the most of them.

(Originally published  12/28/08)


LOOKING FOR A WORTHY CHARITY? TRY THESE FOLKS: Children's Craniofacial Association


Joseph Del Broccolo said...

Jim, Great description of what was a real place to play. The monkey bars, the big and little swings, even the water fountains come rushing back to my memory. I can recall standing in the park entrance, that tri-angular lined walk of benches that started the park. Thanks for the grat memories!

Happy New Year to you and your family. Keep writing!

Jim Pantaleno said...

Thanks Joe, so glad you enjoyed the post. It was you who inspired me to start writing this stuff down. We had such a great childhood; I hope our second one will be as much fun.