When I was in the middle grades, I was friends with eight neighborhood guys. Four of them went to Holmes School and four went to parochial schools. Our neighborhood was a friendly one, and most adults knew the kids, but there was no adult interference with our games.
My friends and I got together most days after school, but in the summer we played every day, weather permitting.
One day after school, we were playing ball on the corner lot at Chicago and Oak Park Avenues, and the opposition batter hit a fly ball that just fell into fair territory in right field. I chased after the ball, picked it up, pivoted, cocked my arm, and like Mickey Mantle prepared to cut down the runner.
Unfortunately, I slipped in some mud, fell on my posterior, dropped the ball and watched the runner cross the plate with the winning run on what should have been, at best, a double.
The neighborhood guys played seasonal athletic games. We played field games on the corner lot, but we also played basketball on Eric Bourne’s driveway, where his dad had attached a basket over the garage door. Many times we played three-on-three.
We didn’t play touch football because tackle football (without protective equipment) was the game for us and, yes, we all sustained many cuts and bruises — but no broken bones — over the years.
Intentional roughness, however, sometimes caused tempers to flare.
The only time I ever saw my pal Eddie lose his temper was when Eric Bourne tackled him harder than necessary and Richie Schue flopped on top of him. Eddie was gasping for breath while lying on the ground, and we thought that he was dying, but he was simply trying to get air into his lungs.
When Eddie regained his breath, he got up and pushed Richie to the ground and then threw a roundhouse punch at Eric that narrowly missed his jaw. If the punch had connected, Eric would have heard the birdies sing.
We also played warrior on battlefields and ranges that were really playgrounds and vacant lots. Our swords were rollers from window shades and our revolvers were six-shooter cap guns. We were so well armed, it appeared we were ready for a full-fledged battle.
When we played out cowboy dramas, not only did we have our trusty pistols but we also carried lassos that had once been clothes lines. We then ran around the neighborhood setting up ambushes and raiding our enemy’s hideouts.
We were not good at roping our foes with lassos, and we quit this technique of capture after Denny Douglas almost strangled Richie Schue when he lassoed Richie around the neck and tugged on the rope.
When we reached the junior high grades, our interests turned to different things, like school-sponsored sports and exploring Oak Park and River Forest by bicycle.
Though we all drifted apart, and the years have been many since we last saw each other, I will never forget those days when play was the thing.