Sometimes in the space between worrying about the high cost of living and what are we doing about world affairs, I wonder what's become of children's games. If kids play the same games we played when I was young, when there weren't any manufactured games. When maybe somebody had a set of Monopoly with all the tens missing or a set of checkers with a split board. When there was no Uncle Wiggly or Candy Cane Land with its two-steps-up and three-steps-back and zonk! you land back at zero for no reason.
Games were things we played in the middle of the street, on porches or steps, or on the way to schools and stores. "Step on a crack, break your mother's back." "If I get to the corner before a blue car passes, I'll find a penny today."
Or "straw hat," one of the most complicated, nothing games possible. It began when you spotted a man wearing a straw hat. You licked your thumb, touched it to the palm of the other hand, made a fist with the licked-thumb hand, and slammed it into the wet palm. You did this until you spotted a hundred or a hundred and fifty straw hats, or some wild number, and then you were supposed to get your wish. I never understood why it was a game and I never got my wish, but I always played it until men stopped wearing straw hats.
There was a variation of "straw hat" called "Yellow Cab." When you spotted a taxi you said aloud, "Money, money come to me before the day is over / I spy a Yellow Cab, one, two, three./ If it's a nickel, if it's a dime / if it's a quarter, I hope it's all mine."
I didn't like this game too much, either, because my brothers told me that the sing-song rhyme meant they had "divvies" on anything I found except a quarter. And of course no one ever lost a quarter!
Those were afternoon games; the hard stuff started sometime about twilight in early April. That was the time of "odds and evens," "kick the can" and "buck, buck, number one is coming."
Once you played "red rover, red rover for green to come over," you could never forget the shrill shrieking as "green" attempted to maneuver across the street to the opposite sidewalk without getting caught.
Or getting hit by a trolley car. That was the standard adult warning -- "Don't get hit by a trolley car!" Not once do I remember any "greens" getting hit by a trolley. So much for adult warnings.
There was fun on those hot, sultry summer August evenings when the tinny sounds of a dribbling "kick the can" reverberated down the streets. Or the shouts of "one, two, three, redlight" as you hid behind steps, cars, or "big people" whose ample figures shielded a ten-year-old stick-figure frame.
Sure, we got hot and sweaty, but then it was time for the quiet games. Nine o'clock in the summer meant "which hand?" a game that defied the step-sitters to guess in which of the four hands of two "its" lay the magic charm of a rusted bobby pin or a discarded gum wrapper.
Eight or ten of us would sit on the bottom steps of our porch trying to choose correctly. When we did, we moved up and down the six or seven steps as our reward. And then came the classic demand to the one who reached the bottom step first -- "Boys, girls, fruits or flowers, ice cream, cake or candy? Movie-star boys or movie-star girls?"
Invariably we chose movie-star boys, and the two partners holding the magic charm were either Clark Gable or Robert Taylor. Robert Taylor always won, although once, after the local showing of "The Sea Hawk" Errol Flynn had a brief summer fling with success, South Philadelphia-style.
After school, and Saturdays after the house chores were done, were especially good times for us street kids. We'd shoot marbles from one side of the street to the other and giggle when the little net bag holding the "aggies" would swell with the losers' marbles. To this day I remember the sensational feeling I had when I beat two older boys at their own game. Then they switched to "steelies," and I never won again.
Everyone jumped rope. Boys were best at "hollyhocks," a rope game that required no jumping. All we did was raise the rope higher and higher until finally someone -- usually a boy -- was the last person to jump the height. The reward was being first in the next round, while the first two losers got to hold the rope.
Girls liked "hot pepper," "double dutch" and "down the Mississippi where the steam goes push!" Sometimes we pushed a little too hard, and someone might stumble and skin a knee, but no one cried in those halcyon days -- if they cried they might have been made to hold the rope for a while as a "permanent ender," and no one wanted to be a "permanent ender."
There were the bumpy, funny, dirty-white rubber balls. "One, two, three O'Leary, I spy Mistress Mary, sitting on a bump-o-leary, one, two, three O'Leary," still doesn't make sense to me, but when I was ten years old it was pure joy to swing a leg over the ball on the rhyming words.
Roller skates, the metal kinds with the straps that kept coming loose, and big beautiful skate keys, were part of every family. If there was only one pair of skates you either shared with your brothers and sisters, one skate at a time, or took turns with the pair, for an hour. God help the sibling who overskated that hour.
And, of course, the chalk games: "Hopscotch" was the best one, where you did all sorts of contortions, feet together, feet crossed, up on the left foot, hop on the right foot. After the game there was more fun as you used your crepe-soled shoes to erase the chalk lines from the street.
If all else failed us, there was always the fireplug to be turned on in the summer, even though the police usually came by and turned it off. They would yell at us, but it was worth it -- walking in bare feet on a clean, wet street rivals, to this day, the sunny beaches of Atlantic City, Rehoboth or the Virgin Islands.
Winter games were all snow -- balls to be thrown and made, igloos, men with coal eyes, shoveling and fun. When it melted, ice would form in the gutters and we skittered acrross the maybe-six-inch patch of ice in our winter leather-soled shoes. We didn't own ice skates, but we improvised on that ice. For one brief moment we were Sonia Henie, and that small patch of ice as a frozen lake in Switzerland.
I do wonder if kids play the same games we did years ago, and if they're having as much fun or using as much imagination. I don't think I'd've traded all that time spent playing those games for all the paper dolls in the five-and-dime.
That is,if they still have five-and-dimes and they still sell paper dolls.