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Original Issue

When Games Were for Fun

When I was an undergraduate at Georgetown University a young historian named Carroll Quigley offered a course called Development of Civilization, a one-year survey of human activity from roughly 10,000 B.C. to date (the date then being the Truman Administration). Though the course officially traced the development of civilization Dr. Quigley was actually more interested in its deterioration, a process he felt was particularly visible today. He had a great talent for using homely examples to illustrate this thesis. One morning, for instance, he limped into class and gave what had to be one of the more provocative explanations for a pulled muscle. (My old Dev Civ notes have only the cryptic entry, "Quig-kick-can," but I think I remember the incident clearly enough to give a fairly accurate paraphrase.)

"One night a week my wife and I have a class for neighborhood children in street games," he said. "I slipped trying to kick the can"

We responded with a tentative laugh, having learned not to commit ourselves hastily to emotional outbursts with this sardonic man.

"My falling on my rear is amusing," said Quigley with a grin, "but the reason we are playing these games is not. It is alarming." And he went on to explain how children are forgetting how to play. When he started his neighborhood course, he said, not a child on the block-knew kick-the-can, mother-may-I or crack-the-whip, and most were shaky on the rules of hide-and-seek. "They are accustomed to buying recreation in kits," he went on. "They imitate professional performers, being entertained rather than entertaining themselves. This is, of course, analogous to the situation in postrepublican Rome." (Quigley could find a precedent for any sort of moral degredation in imperial Rome.)

"In periods of decline recreation becomes an exhibition to promote docility and take people's minds off public calamity," he said in 1948. "As our amount of leisure time increases so will the temptation to replace private games with public spectacles. That is why we're teaching kick-the-can and that is why I am limping."

I have thought about this lecture a lot lately, most recently in connection with the one-mile-brick-pull, a private game I had never heard of until a couple of weeks ago. Percy Polley, a shrewd, prosperous octogenarian who lives near me in this small central Appalachian village, was talking about it one day in the barbershop. Just previously there had been a teen-ager in the shop who was telling us about a newly acquired set of weight-lifting devices, including what they had cost him. Later Percy commented mildly, "When I was young we had a good game, a test of strength."

"What was that?"

"We would put a brick down on the track out at the station, a mile from town; just a common building brick. We would tie the end of a big roll of binder twine around it and, paying out the twine as we went, walk back into town. Then we'd see if anyone could pull that brick off the railroad track. That was work. You would pull and pull and pull. It felt like you were tied to an oak post. But it could be done," said Mr. Polley with pride.

The one-mile-brick-pull is an entertainment which, if he is still thinking about such things, Dr. Quigley would identify and recommend as a private, old-style game. Old-style games are essentially free-form, do-it-yourself exercises, their objective being to excite, please and occupy the time of the participants. They are competitive, have rules, strategic ploys and traditions, but these are passed along from individual to individual, generation to generation, rather than being codified in handbooks or enshrined in halls of fame. Old-style games do not require elaborate facilities nor expensive equipment. (Brick-pulling used a lot of string, but what's a few balls of binder twine?) In contrast, if you are going to be a Pee Wee Golfer you need, among other things, clubs that you cannot improvise or safely steal, a course that you cannot build yourself, fees you cannot afford and a national tournament (with press tent) that you cannot organize.

Some other fundamental differences between old-and new-style games can be illustrated by comparing knockout-and-laydown, a game I wasted hours of my precious youth on, with Little League baseball. Knockout and laydown is played with a bat and ball—any old club and any old ball will do, and any number can play. The first batter, chosen by lot, argument or fistfight, throws the ball up and knocks it out, fungo fashion. He tries to hit it as far as he can and where the fielder ain't. He then lays the bat on the ground, and the fielder tries to hit the bat with the ball from the place he catches or runs down the ball. If he misses, the batter gets another turn. Knockout-and-laydown can be played anywhere, and in fact we preferred rough terrain to take advantage of hidden bumps and ridges that would divert the ball on its way to the bat.

Little League is another matter. Instead of three or four kids deciding on the spur of the moment—having between them a bat, ball and the inclination—to play knockout-and-laydown, Little League takes almost massive preparations. Parents, recreation directors and such meet as early as March to plan fund-raising raffles, spaghetti dinners and the purchase of uniforms. Fathers work nights to prepare fields, insurance forms, injury waivers. Eventually coaches are selected, umpires signed and teams picked by parents in a draft, not by kids hand over hand on a bat handle.

I have no intention of denying that nearly all adult organizers, supervisors and some of the players enjoy Little League baseball. My son Ky was a Little Leaguer one season. He is chiefly remembered for playing a butterfly into a triple. During a July game a handsome tiger swallowtail drifted into Ky's right-field position. While Ky was trying to sneak up on it, the batter hit a pop fly into the area. Intent on the chase and being partly deaf, Ky had no idea the ball was there until the second baseman ran out and retrieved it. Ky got the business about the incident for a long time. One enthusiastic momma, whenever she met Ky that summer, would advise him unsmilingly, "Don't be chasing bugs tonight. You've got to concentrate if we're going to win." In knockout-and-laydown nobody cared whether you chased balls or butterflies.

If old-style games are so good, one might ask, why have they almost disappeared? Mostly the loss can be attributed to certain social and psychological pressures, a kind of mass brain wash. The pitch goes: Your children deserve organized recreation. Let's give them the proper facilities. Keep them off the streets. Keep them off riots and marijuana. It is as if old-style games were wasteful, uneducational and vaguely unsavory. It ain't necessarily so.

One such largely forgotten game that comes to mind is mumblety peg. Four boys could while away an afternoon, even days and weeks, given nothing but three square feet of turf and a jack-knife. The preferred knife in my day was the black-handled scout type given away free with every pair of new high-top boots. Mumblety peg was not a physically vigorous game, but it exercised the mind, vocal cords and nerve. Could you get three fingers between the handle and the grass? Did you have to use three fingers? Wasn't the rule two fingers? It also had built into it the potential for disaster. A lot of the excitement came from anticipating the moment when somebody flipped the knife through his shoe and into his foot. Bold players actually courted risk rather than wait for accidents. One version of mumblety peg required the nonthrower to spread his hand flat on the ground. If the knife man while trying to flip—say from his knee—misses and cuts his opponent, he loses his turn and must start over at the first position, the overhand throw.

Less well-known than mumblety peg but in some respects a better game, richer in violence and aggression, is one I have played for 30 years without knowing its name. Call it the paper-rock-scissor game. The players (usually two) make fists, bang them into their open palms three times in cadence and on the count of three hold up one of three signs. If the fist remains closed, it's a rock; a spread hand is paper; two fingers extended represent scissors. The rule is: rock breaks scissors, scissors cut paper and paper covers rock, i.e., a player with a rock wins over a scissors, the scissors man beats paper and paper beats rock. Ties don't count.

The winner of each such square-off gets to smack the loser across his wrist as hard as he can. If the loser flinches, the victor gets another shot. Wrist slapping is traditionally regarded as an effete form of violence, but not in the paper-rock-scissor game. The object is not only to hit hard, but to hit exactly where you hit before, where you have been hitting for an hour or so. I have come back from school after a bad day at this game with a wrist as big as a bicep, as red and burning as if I had laid it on a barbecue grill.

Among other things, paper-rock-scissors is the best car game there is, entertaining a back seat full of kids for miles, allowing them to work out their travel aggressions on each other instead of the adults.

The pleasure of many games, both old and new, is laced with sadism. A lot of people, especially a lot of growing boys, like to hurt their fellows or pretend to. In old-style games these facts are openly admitted, untainted with subterfuge or twinges of guilt. Games like king-of-the-hill, capture-the-flag, pioneer-and-Indians are really nothing but loosely organized rumbles. In all of them the idea is to knock down or beat up other players. The advantage of these games is that they release hostilities and reduce the chances of après-play unpleasantness: blood feuds, parental or legal retaliation ("Yeah, maybe I did break his glasses, but I didn't mean to").

A big knock against old, disorganized street and field play is that it is unsafe. This assumption is not necessarily true, overlooking (as it does) the fact that while freestyle gamesters do indeed have a taste for violence, they also have well-developed survival instincts.

In modern, adult-chaperoned games there is the temptation among players to forget their reasonable prudence. Thus in vacant-lot football if a kid gets a bloody nose, he is, nine times out of 10, going to yell, moan, sit down immediately and watch the satisfyingly heroic drip of blood. In midget football a trainer is going to stop the blood flow, a coach is going to tell him to be a man, stop yelling and get back in there to do or die for the Shady Grove Tigers.

In some competitive games the violence has been reduced to pure symbolism. Old-style marbles, for one. Young spies tell me that marbles are rarely played these days, except by a few hot-shots who practice assiduously in hopes of advancing through local, regional and state contests to the national championships, sponsored, of course, by some adult group or other. I know how all this came to pass. Adults just don't like kids to be shooting marbles. They complained in my day that we spent too much time at it, wore holes in the knees of our pants and that the competition led to fights. Mostly they disliked marbles because it was a form of gambling, lean still remember Miss Barton, a sixth-grade teacher, keeping all the boys after school and lecturing us about the evils of marble playing. She said we were wasting our parents' money, that poor boys were spending their lunch money for aggies and probably would get rickets as a result. To correct this, society has organized marble shooting, replacing the amateur gamblers with professionals, who contend for trophies rather than lunch money.

Another old-style game in which violence was muted was duck-on-a-rock, pastime that now seems to be as rare as jousting. All you needed was a big, flat rock flush with the ground, upon which to balance a smaller one (the duck) and a roundish rock for rolling at the duck. The object was to knock the duck from the flat rock and if possible split it, which gave you a bonus. Simple though the rules were, there was a good bit to it. It often took several weeks of geological prospecting to find a bowling stone with just the right heft, and even then the chances were that it, rather than the duck, would break up on the second pitch. Also, since duck-on-a-rock was played on rough, makeshift lanes, figuring out the roll could be tricky.

As to a comparison between duck-on-a-rock and its modern, Establishment equivalent, the Saturday morning Junior Bowling League, I think we got mere exercise our way, and it certainly didn't cost us anything. And there is a satisfaction to smashing a stone to smithereens that you do not get throwing a smooth plastic ball against indestructible pins that are lined up for you by a machine you cannot touch or understand.

I am not prepared or equipped, as Dr. Quigley was, to argue that the one-mile-brick-pull or duck-on-a-rock will make the world safe for democracy. All I know is, there are a lot of good old games lying around streets, alleys and weedy lots going to waste. If this is not sinister, it certainly is silly.