It was the summer of 1968. A summer known for many things in Chicago. It was also the last time I played kickball.

We played a lot of kickball that summer. In the alley of the 700 south block between Taylor and Lombard. We never played kickball before that summer. Never played again. It had something to do with love. Something to do with kickball being an acceptable way for boys and girls to play a game together when we hadn’t played together since we were five. It was a reason to hang out together that involved only accidental body contact.

Wiffle ball was our game on South Taylor. We, the boys, played wiffle ball every summer day. Every single summer day. Summer after summer, until I turned 13. We’d throw curve balls and knucklers, wasting our arms for the major leagues trying to make that plastic orb hop. We’d take furious swings, followed, for some of us, with home run trots as the ball flew beyond Mrs. Coffee’s sidewalk, an assumed four-bagger.

But baseball was for boys. The girls on the block never asked to play, never watched us play. In truth, I kind of lost track of the girls on our block along about 1961, after a fascinating game of doctor under a front porch. When my patient moved out of state shortly after her final office visit, I turned my attention full time to baseball, my bike, and black-and-white television programs.

Along came the spring of 1968 and everything was different and perplexing and astounding. I turned 13 in March. Dr. King and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated before summer arrived. The West Side burned just down Madison Street from the safe moorings of my childhood. The war in Viet Nam was being fought here and there. And the Democratic convention was coming to Chicago in August.

Somewhere in that tangle, it occurred to me that girls were a lot more interesting than they’d been just the summer before. One girl in particular. Wonderful, kind, funny, smart and, it turned out, a champion at kickball. Where had she been all my life? Turns out three doors south. Playing dolls.

But in one of those twists that I never liked in books or movies either, something was about to change. No, she didn’t have a dread disease. But she did, at the close of summer, move to the Northwest suburbs. Argghh.

So, most every night after supper, this new co-ed, multi-aged group would gather in the alley for kickball. I’m sure the little kids were wondering why suddenly the big kids were letting them play. We didn’t even know exactly that we needed them for cover to make it acceptable for the big boys and the big girls to play together.

Kickball was giant fun. It was competitive in a goofy, ball bouncing off the telephone pole sort of way. We’d play until the alley light came on and then the littler kids would gradually be summoned home, leaving reluctantly, as if they knew that the true work of the evening was still ahead. That was when three, or four, or five of us would shift to the curb in the front yard for remarkably easy and important conversation.

We talked about politics in that summer of extreme turmoil, and of the war. We talked about growing up together and apart on the same block. And, night by night, as we knew summer was fading and big change was coming, we understood that we had made something special and fragile.

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