When I was about two – so I am told, I remember nothing – my parents bought a house way out on the East edge of Laramie, just across 18th Street from a City park.
The land for the Park was reserved in the early half of the 20th Century. At first it was just sagebrush and occasional tufts of wild grass, indistinguishable from the prairie land that surrounded it. But over the years the brush was pulled out, the land was graded, water pipes installed, and trees and grass were planted. By the time we Peltons had moved into the house at 1717 Kearney, the big, empty space had become Washington Park.
As I grew, the City Parks Department made just the improvements that I needed. When I got old enough to hang by my knees from a horizontal steel pipe, a playground was added with monkey bars, teeter-totters, a merry-go-round, and swings. When I got to be ten, Little League came to Laramie and the Eastern end of Washington Park was turned into two back-to-back baseball fields. I was to spend the better parts of the next three Summers sitting on benches next to batting cages and chanting, “Hey batta batta! Swing batta batta!”* When the baseball season ended we scrounged up a football and choose sides for games after school and on weekends. Obligingly, the Parks Department flattened out the hump that had run down the middle of the park where the old water lines had been laid.
I started to wonder if they had an employee keeping track of my friends and me just to see what the next thing we might need would be. The air went quickly out of that pompous theory when they put in a six inch-deep wading pool.
In the Spring, “a young man’s fancy may turn to thoughts of love” but a young boy’s fancy turns to kites. For 15 cents you could buy a kite kit – two balsawood sticks and an elongated diamond-shaped piece of paper printed with a loud, colorful design. Fifty cents more for a couple of balls of string and some strips of cloth from the rag-bag and you were ready to become the Master of the Skies. It took 10 or 15 minutes to assemble a kite – there were always instructions printed on the kite itself – and this included the time to tie together those 4 or 5 strips of cloth for a tail. Once it was together you were off to Washington Park to get that puppy airborne.
The picture or cartoon of a kid holding onto a string, running like a madman, and dragging a kite behind him on the ground is pretty much a cliché in most parts of the country. If you have little or no wind, you try to make do with muscle power. In Laramie, lack of wind was never a problem. All you had to do was pay out about fifty feet of string and then have a friend pull the kite back until the string was taut and let it go. The ever-present wind would immediately lift the kite into the air. The main concern was that a sudden, strong gust could snap the string or wreck the kite. Then you would find yourself running and shouting, “No, no!” as your kite fluttered toward the trees and power lines at the far end of the park.
Getting the kite into the air was exciting, but once it was up there, well, things got pretty monotonous. You could pull the string this way and that, hoping to get the kite to dive, or pump the string trying to make it climb higher, but all that had little effect. The kite just floated up there waving at you stupidly. Now when one is standing there, bored and holding onto a stick to which one end of a kite string is attached, one of the best things you can hope for is too see a Young Father walk into the park with a little kid or two in tow and a kite in his hand.
Young Fathers always seem to have a problem reading directions. Perhaps they don’t want to let their offspring know that The Old Man is, in truth, not some variety of omniscient god. To make a kite fly properly, you must tie a piece of string to one end of the horizontal cross stick, then pull it tightly enough that this stick bends into a bow before you tie the string to the other end. This is explained in detail in the instructions that the Young Father disdains to read.
Once the Young Father’s kite, minus the necessary bow-string, is in the air, it spins around in a couple of big circles before crashing into the ground. We ten-year-old kite-flying veterans, stony-faced, sidle together and give each other elbows. After several of these whirling crashes, the Young Father comes up with a solution – add more tail! I have seen kites whirling helplessly in circles with twenty feet of torn rags tied into a long tail, one end of which is attached to the kite and the other end is dragging on the grass. And the Young Father is looking speculatively at his son’s T-shirt.
When kids get together, some type of game will almost invariably start up. In our end of town, if it was a game that didn’t require a lot of real estate, like “Swing the Statue” or “Freeze Tag,” someone’s front or side yard would usually suffice. But if you needed space, you went across the street to the Park. If you didn’t have enough kids for a pickup baseball game, you could play “500.” One guy would hit balls fungo-style to two to five kids standing about 100 feet away. Catching a ball on the fly was worth 50 points, a one-hopper was 30, a two-hopper was 20, and a grounder was 10. Whoever got to 500 first took over the bat.
If there were enough kids to put together two teams (a minimum of five on each side) then we’d use the concrete-and-stucco structure known as the Bandshell as a backstop.
In 1940 the Works Progress Administration, the largest and most ambitious of FDR’s New Deal programs, built an Art Deco-style bandshell on the Southwest Corner of Washington Park. The structure consists of a 3 foot high semicircular concrete platform with a curved back wall like a section from an egg shell (hence the name). A high elliptical arch fronts the shell and acts as a proscenium. The whole thing is sturdily-built and faced with a thick, white stucco. That this structure was built nearly 80 years ago by mostly unskilled men using only hand tools is something of a marvel.
When I was 11 and 12, I played baseball in two different areas of Washington Park. On the Eastern, Little League, end of the Park I learned not only the rudiments of the game, but also some of its nuances. I learned things like hitting the cut-off man, bluffing the runner back to the base, and the Infield Fly Rule. On the Western, sandlot-style end of the Park I learned how to cuss. I learned what adjectives went with what nouns, what words would get you a laugh, and what words would get you a fight. Now as an adult I can watch a game on television and thoroughly enjoy the subtleties of a game that others might find tedious. And if an umpire makes an obviously terrible call against my favorite team, I can scream at the TV set in Technicolor.
Every Summer, from June through August, Tuesday night was Band Concert night. The Band consisted of male volunteers who had played instruments in marching bands in High School and College and though they were engaged in a variety of other occupations, still had that itch to play. I should say that I don’t remember ever seeing a woman up on the bandshell stage tootling out her part of “Lady of Spain.” More than likely, when it came to brass bands and social norms of the time, the only instrument a female participant was allowed to hold was a baton.
As the sun was setting on a typical Tuesday afternoon, people carrying blankets and picnic baskets began staking out areas of grass in front of the bandshell. At the same time, musicians appeared on the bandshell stage setting up chairs and music stands. As the last warm light of the sunset faded and the blue of the skies turned to purple, the musicians, in black suits and white shirts, were in their chairs and ready. The Conductor raised his hands and the music began. Out on the lawn, about 200 people sat quietly and listened. Behind them, 30 or 40 kids did neither.
When you’re an adult, it requires a certain amount of self-discipline and responsibility to stop sitting quietly and to get up and run around. When you’re a kid it’s just the opposite. We had just spent an entire Winter trying to sit quietly in school and it was finally summer. We ran everywhere. While the adults sat on their blankets and listened to “Oh What a Beautiful Morning” and “The Blue Danube,” behind them the kids were running the four-minute mile with Roger Bannister and being American jets dive-bombing the Commies. Being ever agreeable to us kids, the Laramie Parks Department had scheduled Monday as the day the grass on the West end of Washington Park was to be mowed. A small tractor pulling a gang of reel-type mowers reduced the quickly -growing grass to a level surface. And all that recently-cut grass was left lying on top of it. By Tuesday night, these clippings were perfect for scooping up and throwing.
That a handful of grass would not pack together like a snowball meant only that a kid had to be much closer to his target. Two or three feet away and running at full speed was optimal. During all this, a cheerful attitude was important. Anyone who got angry or vengeful could find himself being held down while his T-shirt and pants were stuffed with itchy clippings.
Finally, and always too soon, the band would strike up “Stars and Stripes Forever” and the concert would come to an end. While the adults folded blankets and picked up sleeping toddlers, we kids would be shaking the grass clippings out of our clothes as we headed for home. As we walked, we talked about the next day- what we could do for fun and how we could avoid the chores that our parents were undoubtedly scheduling for us.
*Watch for an upcoming post called “Little League”