Kick the Can

Judging by some old 8mm family home movies, I must have been about two when my parents bought a house on what was then the Eastern edge of Laramie, Wyoming.  There I am in grainy glory, sporting a topknot of blonde hair. Wearing droopy short pants, I am balanced precariously on little bow legs, trying to pull a wagon across the grass in front of this house.

Our house on Kearney Street had been built on a double lot. The house and garage were all built on the West side of this lot, leaving the East side for a huge expanse of grass. It was good for Freeze Tag or flying balsawood airplanes with rubber-band motors, but I think my three brothers and I spent more time mowing that big side lawn than actually playing on it.  Most of our growing-up time was spent on the West side of the house, on the other side of the lilac hedge that separated our property from a vacant lot.

The Vacant Lot featured dirt piles, rocks, broken glass and big, tall stands of ragweed. In the back, next to the alley, was an empty foundation where somebody had once tried to build a little house and then given it up. The foundation walls contained piles of cracked flagstones and broken chunks of concrete. In short, the entirety of the lot was a boys’ wonderland.

Some of my life’s Great Lessons were learned in that lot. I learned, for example, that if you and your brothers fill a glass jar with every strange and smelly thing you can find in the kitchen – vinegar, mustard, dish soap, Molasses, and Crisco among other things, then stir in toilet paper and call it Crushbones, don’t try to get rid of it by burying it in the vacant lot. Two months later when you and your friends decide to dig a foxhole, you will start digging right in the same place where you buried that jar of Crushbones and then forgot about it. The shovel will break the glass and the suffocating smell will be almost overpowering.

On the subject of foxholes, I would guess that over the course of my boyhood, any number of them were dug in that vacant lot and then filled in again. Since this all took place during the Korean War and the McCarthy era, these were invariably fortifications against “The Commies”. This designation usually included whatever rabble of neighborhood kids that hadn’t helped dig the foxhole in the first place. Some of these excavations were just simple holes in the ground where my friend Tommy D. and I could scrunch down with our broomstick rifles and try to catch a glimpse through the ragweed of the Chinese Hordes bearing down on us. Others were more elaborate.

One summer the annual foxhole became deep with a sloping entrance and a roof overhead. A nearby construction site had yielded boards and scraps of plywood which we put over the hole then covered with dirt. Four of us could jam inside and congratulate ourselves on becoming completely invisible.  Some of the other neighborhood kids came over and demanded a look inside. We called them “Commies” and drove them away with a barrage of dirt clods thrown through the entrance tunnel.

Our defenses became immediately suspect when they got on the roof and started jumping up and down. Boards began to bounce and shift. Rocks, dirt, and weeds fell on our heads and down our necks.  We scrambled out of the foxhole coughing and shaking the dirt out of our clothes. Harsh words were exchanged, threats made, more dirt clods were thrown. In short, a good time was had by all.

It is difficult to ponder the vacant lot without the phrase “bike jump” coming to mind. Long before custom-made BMX bicycles, we had our old fat-tire Schwinns with fenders over the wheels and chrome kickstands that were never used. Instead of designer concrete skate parks and ramps we had a board and a cinderblock. And instead of protective helmets and pads, we had only skin  – much of which was left on the gravel of our landing zone.

But the vacant lot truly came into its own on summer evenings when the neighborhood kids would gather to play “Kick the Can.”

To play the game, an empty tin can was set in the middle of a clear space in the vacant lot. One person was chosen to be “it” in a procedure that usually involved catching a tiger by the toe. While “It” would cover his or her eyes and count loudly to 100, the rest of us would go hide. Then “it” would begin to search, always keeping a sharp eye for lurkers. When someone was seen, “it” would run for the can, leap over it, and yell “One, two, three on Tommy N. behind the garbage can!” Tommy N. would then have to go sit in “jail” – usually inside the old foundation. The only way to avoid this was to get to the can first, and kick it. At this point, everybody in jail was set free and given time to hide again. Then “it” set out, once more, to “One, two, three…” all the players. If and when he succeeded, a new “it” was chosen and the rest of us scurried off to find the absolute, best hiding place in the known world.

At some point, the game would end, usually because someone’s mother was calling or it had gotten too dark to see. Then the “End Call” would be chanted. When the first group of kids who played this game in the fading twilight a long, long time ago called for the game to end, perhaps they yelled, “All In Free!”. By the time it had been passed down to the kids in my neighborhood, it had become the meaningless but melodic, “Ollie, Ollie Oxen Free-oh!”

When my time is finally up and I draw my last breath, I do not hope for a long, dark tunnel with a bright golden light at the end. I am not dreaming of Teutonic goddesses wearing bronze brassieres and riding flying horses appearing to bear me away. I want it to be a Summer evening in a little town in Wyoming, the last pink and purple light of sunset fading in the West, and a clear but far away voice chanting, “Ollie, Ollie Oxen Free-oh!”

22 Replies to “Kick the Can”

  1. Absolutely love reading about your memories and remembering my own. How similar they are, even though we didn’t know one another when we were young kids. Those were good times . Keep your stories coming!

  2. Oh I loved reading this. There was an old shack on the side of Spring Creek Drive with no houses — out near the end of Spring Creek (at the time) where my friend Penney Crawford lived — I think it was out about 26th street. I remember spending hours in that old shack with friends using our imaginations to create the latest day’s fun. I have no idea what that shack really was, or why it was there. The digging holes reminded me of the huge hole in the back corner of Mathison’s back yard that all of us worked on for hours — and then had fun playing in. The Mathison parents were both English professors, and it’s funny to me to think about that in conjunction with that big deep hole that let us have and enjoy for years. And then there was always playing IN Spring Creek under the Corthell bridge, and how wet and muddy we became, and how crazy fun that was. The bike fun you talked about reminded me of those hills on the south side of Spring Creek between 15th & 17th streets, where we spent hours riding our cool old bikes, before someone decided they needed a grocery store and more houses over there. We played Kick the Can in my neighborhood too. Base was always our family’s back yard (because it was fairly central), and one year my folks gifted all of us with a flood light for the back yard, so we could keep playing even after dark. It was so amazing to me to read your post and to experience all of my own similar memories. It’s actually striking to think about how much fun we could make out of so little, and how far we could spread that fun. And your last sentence — well thanks, just thanks!

    1. When I’m writing I like to picture someone reading the story and having feelings and reactions just like you describe. To hear that some of my little jokes and stories are actually landing is very inspiring for me. Thanks, Jan.

      1. You might write something about snow forts, eh? Remember the ice-rink stockade in the park near Nellie Iles Elementary? I once heard Conway Twitty perform there for the skaters.

        1. Absolutely. The skating rink at Undine Park. And snow forts and homemade skating rinks. Or how about packing a sack lunch and going on a bike hike with your friends out to the Stock Farm pond to catch pollywogs?

          1. Yes, sak lunches for a day on our bikes!
            And fireflies ?
            The prairies were magical for us in the 50’s. I lived in scottsbluff/Gering, NE, just over the border from Cheyenne ❤️

  3. I had to grow up in North central Texas, although not by choice. My heart was in Wyoming from the time I was 5 years old. I, too, grew up in the 60’s, and we played many variations of tag, including kick the can, flashlight tag, and many others. Almost always a mother’s bellow was what ended the game, and either one or the other was called out: “Ollie, Ollie oxen free”, or “Ollie, Ollie In Come free”. I have no clue where we got either one. I, too, loved vacant lots, but I was banned from them for a time as I kept coming home with nails through my foot. My mother got tired of the doctor’s bills.

  4. These are the memories that remind us of a time when life was simpler and untroubled. Thanks for this.

  5. As a kid growing up in Fairfield, IA in the early 60s, we also said “Ollie Ollie Oxen Free” only that was before we would throw the red kick ball over the house for the kid on the other side to catch it. I, too, think of Heaven as having that pink and gold glow on our front lawn after a rain storm where the ditches were full of rain water and we’re screaming & laughing with rain water up to asses. What bliss!

    1. Just talked to my wife Nancy, who grew up in Sheridan. She remembers playing kick the can and ‘everyone home free.’ I admit, having grown up in Riverton I lived a more deprived childhood and grew up with less sophisticated games without actual rules. We built tree houses but the end of each play experience ended as you said with a call from a mother or evening where you couldn’t see well enough to safely exit the tree house. Keep this up Tim…fun to read!

  6. I didn’t move to Laramie until my sophomore year in high school, so I missed kick the can in Laramie. But I can assure you that all the kids in Manderson played – usually in the school yard – and always until after dark when a mom called us in. And, same rules applied.

    1. I could easily do a whole story about snow forts and homemade ice-skating rinks. In fact, I’ll put it on the list. Thanks, Jo.

  7. Looking forward to the continued reading of your writings! They have brought back memories of living in Laramie as a child. I will definitely want to read your novel once it is finished!

  8. Very nice. I was always really serious playing Kick the Can, and although I don’t remember the particulars, I think I just stayed near the can so I could always kick it first. Way too serious for a little kid.

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