Zen and the art of disorganized play

Author: Walton R. Collins '51

Eyes narrowed to mere slits, I hefted the sawed-off broomstick, took a confident, fluid cut, and sent the half tennis ball soaring straight down the alley, well over the head of the outfielder. Home run!


Next time up, I did it again. That afternoon more than 50 years ago, in the alley behind my house, I racked up two homers, a double, and three singles. I was hot.


Normally I was not. Under the fluid rules of alleyball, if the missile landed more than two feet to either side of the alley proper, you were out. The rules varied, of course, in part because they depended on how many players we could round up and in part because we tended to forget them from one contest to the next. On an average day, I was lucky to manage a single. No team captain ever chose me first for his side.


I have no idea why it all came together for me that day, but I’ll never forget the feeling. I was Mighty Casey in his prime, basking with engaging humility in the awe and respect of fan and teammate alike. I think I tapped the broomstick-bat against my sneakers a couple of times, and I remember spitting. Favorite phrases from the fiction I was addicted to, like “eyes narrowed to mere slits,” felt right at home in my mental monologue, though I’d never utter such a phrase aloud.


I grew up in the days of disorganized play. We never heard of Little League in West Philadelphia. Baseball meant taking a bus and a trolley six miles to Shibe Park to make fun of an aging Connie Mack sitting on the end of the A’s bench and feebly fanning himself with a program while his hapless team struggled to climb out of the basement. Or visiting the same ballpark to watch the Phillies when that even-more-hapless hometown nine was in town. Or playing alleyball whenever we could scrounge a bruised tennis ball to cut in half.


Or else it meant shooting hoops behind Dick Dougherty’s garage or playing pick-up football in the vacant lot at the corner of Bobby Kane’s street, playing well into the autumn dusk and ignoring the “time to come in” calls from our mothers until we could ignore them further only at great peril.


Or it meant losing interest in touch football, when half the gang had struck out for home, and climbing to the roof of the garage next to the vacant lot and daring each other to jump. It was only a nine foot jump but it was almost as scary as leaping off the high board at the swimming pool. A garage jump took some time to work up to and demanded a shouted “Geronimo!” when it finally happened.


By the time my children were growing up, play seemed to have become more complicated, and now, observing my grandchildren, it appears so complex and adult-ridden that I wonder where the fun is. The great thing I remember about play is that we did it in an adult-free environment.


There was a shallow pond a couple of blocks from my house, and on winter nights a bunch of the kids would build a fire and put on ice skates and play a roughshod version of hockey with no refs or penalty boxes. Or we’d just skate in circles around the pond’s island, feeling the glory of the cold wind on our faces. For some reason, we always went clockwise, and to this day I am more comfortable skating clockwise than counterclockwise.


Seldom did we see an adult, though one night a man came and chased us off the ice because the cold snap was young and the ice dangerously thin. That hadn’t worried any of us kids, for we knew the pond was nowhere more than four feet deep and one of us had more than three blocks to run before we’d be warm and dry at home.


When more strenuous games paled, playing cards attracted us. We played poker a lot, and since most of us had better things to do with our nickels and pennies than lose them at cards, we usually played without stakes. If we could talk a girl or two into it, though, we’d play strip poker. That didn’t happen very often, and I don’t remember any of us shedding more than sneakers, socks and maybe a windbreaker before our games broke up. The possibilities, of course, were always tantalizingly present.


Without adult direction, we invented games that occasionally turned bizarre. Over at Dick Dougherty’s house one afternoon, somebody pulled out a newspaper clipping about a man who had drunk so much water, he drowned. That excited much debate, the scoffers insisting it’s impossible to drown yourself, the rest of us inclined to believe any words in print but still not quite certain.


We decided to put it to the test, and Dick brought an empty quart milk bottle out of the house, filled it from the hose, and we took turns chugging it down. Pretty soon there were so many trips into Dick’s house to use the bathroom that his mother got suspicious and demanded to know what we were doing. By then we had tired of the experiment, and to this day I am uncertain whether or not one can drown oneself.


Occasionally we got into trouble with a spur-of-the-moment game. The house next to mine had a slate roof pitched at almost 45 degrees. One of use threw a clod of clay up there one afternoon, and it made a lovely tan splotch on the blue-gray slate. For the next hour we took turns hurling clods – until the owner of the house came outside and we ran.


Soon thereafter, a police car pulled up in front of my house and a patrolman walked to the door.  My mother saw him coming and, guessing that some malfeasance was the cause, shooed me down to the basement while she dealt with the problem. When the policeman was gone I emerged to face familial punishment, the worst of which was my mother’s disapproval. The next rain, of course, washed the slate roof clean.


Sometimes play was as simple and as solitary as reading books. The last summer before I started, at the age of 14, to spend my vacations working “downtown,” I divided virtually the entire summer between reading and painting our house on a contract from my parents. One book that slowed the pace of my painting considerably was about a boy my age who stowed away aboard a tramp steamer, remained undetected until the ship was well out to sea, and then emerged to experience a series of breath-catching adventures that implanted a lifetime of wanderlust in my soul. I’m sure I didn’t spend that whole summer reading and painting. There must have been some alleyball games and some visits to the swimming pool and probably a couple of fistfights. And I’m certain I spent a few days with my family at the seashore, where the boardwalk lamps, in that World War II summer, were blacked out on the side toward the sea so they wouldn’t provide a navigational fix for the Nazi U-boats said to be patrolling the New Jersey coast shipping lanes.


But my memories of that summer are mainly of the play of imagination in a time before TV or Sega: the plot of exciting books, the delicious chill of listening to “Lights Out” on the radio, the elaborate baseball league I managed in my room with a pair of dice and a meticulously kept scorebook.


More than anything else about the games we played, I remember the delicious irrelevance of time. We didn’t have to be at league practice at a particular time and no parent had to drive us there. We didn’t have to get up at 5 a.m. to attend hockey practice or suffer enforced after-supper fun at Boy Scout meetings. We just played.


Walt Collins was editor of this magazine from 1982 to 1995.