We always arrived at least a half hour early to the hot concrete schoolyard with its two sad hoops. There were loads of us, boys and girls from six to the teens, waiting for PS 154 vacation playground to open and its counselors to throw out the softballs and bats, the volleyballs and pink spaldeens for the games that would last through the Brooklyn heat until closing at 4pm. Inside the school lunchroom were the misshapen ping pong tables, the knock hockey games, the chess and checkers sets missing a piece or two. For this was our summer vacation in the late 50s, early 60s before we grew up quickly in November 1963, before anyone in our neighborhood had air conditioning, before we learned of the soft sand beaches of the Hamptons or the Jersey Shore.
We were street kids after all, living, playing stickball and off-the-stoop and the hundreds of different games played on the narrow Windsor Terrace streets with car tires and sewers for bases and the huge limbs of the sidewalk London plane trees “in play.” But in the summer, red brick solid PS 154 with its windows protected by metal screens was our world. Softball bases and lines were painted in one corner and hopscotch and skelly boxes in another. New York City hired four counselors, two for the boys and two for the girls, to keep us out of trouble, I guess. Our parents with small, sweltering rooms and too many kids were happy to send us every morning “down the schoolyard,” returning for dinner, dirty and exhausted.
And of course we loved it. There were organized softball games–if you were 5’2” or under–against other local public schools, a volleyball net strung between the basketball pole and the wire fence which protected the houses next to the schoolyard. Dodgeball, punchball, slapball, running bases and so many other games. Best of all was the sprinkler, really just a metal pipe with holes in it attached to the brick wall. The sprinkler was the barometer of our behavior. If it was turned on for an hour or so in the afternoon after the girls finished their softball practice, you knew we behaved–no cursing, smoking or bothering the girls. If we acted up, Ben or Joe, our counselors, really teachers earning a few extra bucks, would punish us by not turning it on no matter how sweltering the weather.
When on, we would run through quickly, sprinkling our clothes. Of course, we would then drag a girl or one another into the water until we were soaked jumping around in the little puddles like Gene Kelly in “Singing in the Rain.” Once you were soaked, you and a friend or two looked for any passing kid to grab and drag into the spray until his sneakers squished. It was cool and wet and all we had much more fun than any water park or pool at some fancy resort.
When the weather was bad, we stayed inside, played slapball amid the hanging pipes and cement pillars. I played ping pong for hours and Raymo Masella, a big tough guy, taught me chess. On occasion, free sodas were handed out but only if you sat through a boring film by the company about how the sodas were made and how great they tasted. Watermelon eating contests meant a free slice which most ate slowly since our mothers would yell at us if we came home having swallowed the pits and stained our tee shirts. And after the counselors went home, Jimmy Sheehan would climb the pipes, the fences like Spiderman to retrieve the balls hit on the roof of the school and the houses adjacent to the schoolyard. We would then begin the games all over again.
If we were bad, we were punished, our parents told and we were punished some more. One kid had his mouth washed out with soap for cursing. Our softball team’s season ended abruptly because we painted our names on the front steps of the school. And it didn’t matter that we only had one loss and could end up in first place. Discipline was part of the program, our culture actually. If you stole or fought or destroyed any property, you were barred from the schoolyard, from your friends, for a day or a week. No questions asked.
In those early years, summers were long and slow, but eventually passed and soon I outgrew PS 154. Just after that, the City ended the program probably because of some phony budget crunch, and the once teeming schoolyard remained empty of laughter and noise. A shame actually, for we learned simple truths: bad behavior was punished; teamwork is important; you don’t need to be rich to have fun; if you were good at a sport, you played, if you weren’t you didn’t; get along with others; compete fairly; good teams win, bad teams lose; if you don’t like these games or aren’t any good, use your imagination and make up another.
We were blessed we were. In our ignorance and innocence. We were happy and our world was tiny and fulfilling. We had everything: family, faith and friendship. It was a simple life, full of laughs and a bit of sorrow. We were young and our only worries were whether we could get a hit, win the game. And it was never as simple or as much fun again.
Kenneth P. Nolan is a lawyer who lives in Brooklyn.