There is a brief transition from being a kid playing on the playground to using the equipment as lounge furniture while stepping into tweenhood. It’s subtle; the swings go from being a thrill to simply a thing for you and your friends to sit while you talk. Oh sure, you occasionally swing back and forth, but mostly no movement is involved–you just sit. The importance of the words being spoken replacing the importance of the motion. It’s a natural evolution, but somehow it goes more or less unnoticed. For me, that memory is indelibly etched in my psyche, but for a different reason.
My family was on an extended camping vacation at the Lake Elmer Thomas Recreation Area on Ft Sill, Oklahoma. The campground had an expansive playground with many sets of swings, a couple of slides, and an old-fashioned metal merry-go-round. During the day, younger kids owned the place, but as sunset neared, those of us in those in-between years took it over.
In July (I only recall that because it was shortly after the fireworks of the 4th), we were all lazing on the merry-go-round when we heard a war cry and immediately sat up. In the distance, one kid’s older brother, Joey, who had just finished Green Beret school and was home on leave was running full speed toward us. He was huge, about ten feet tall, and three hundred pounds of muscle — well, that’s how it seemed. In unison, we all turned to look at his little brother for guidance, but he only gave us a confused look and a shrug–then came the jolt. Massive hands grabbed hold of the rail as Joey ran the tight dirt circle around the piece of equipment.
I think five of us were there that day and as he completed the first lap, the first kid slid off the platform. Joey was picking up speed and the rest of us tried to secure ourselves to the surface. I was calm; I had a leg wrapped around an upright and thought there was no way for me to slide off. Then another war cry as our tormentor picked up speed. I felt a hand grab my leg momentarily before it vanished as another kid exited the ride. Then the g-forces kicked in and gravity truly worked against those of us still holding on.
In shock and unsure of what to do, I was fairly sure if I let go I’d go flying into a tree trunk. Somehow, I held on, with no way of knowing when this would end. The heat rose in my body and I felt like I was about to puke, then my body was suddenly covered in sweat. My fear was compounded when I felt my now sweat-soaked fingers slipping. Another war cry echoed in my brain as I felt my body go weightless and I watched the merry-go-round fade into the distance as I went flying.
Gravity caught up with me moments later and I was thrown onto the hard, rocky ground, sliding a few feet before coming to a stop. The world was quiet as I floated there in between the crash and the rapidly approaching reality. Then I heard the laughter. First from the beast who managed to beat all five of us, then we laughed along as well. Joey was probably laughing at the way we looked flying off; we laughed that nervous laughter that comes from surviving a near-death experience. None of us spoke and in the silence, we all heard the buzz as the streetlight came on and we quickly departed to our separate destinations. No one said anything. I arrived back at our campsite, even though I was covered in dirt and both my knees were scraped up.
The next day, we decided instead of going to the playground we’d hike to a spot we’d found previously on the back side of the hill that bordered one side of the campground. There we sat on the edge of a stream that fed the lake and told jokes and talked. I can’t speak for everyone, but it was the last time I went to a playground for years. Life had moved on by throwing me off at high speed.