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Friday, June 24, 2016

Chapter Twenty Five - The Playground

***

The Internet is a playground. It is a playground where fortunes have been made and lost in seconds, a playground where reputations have been built and destroyed. It is the playground where predators seek victims. Where people have been bullied to death.

It is my playground. It has been since 2001. But I learned all I needed to know about playgrounds before the invention of the home computer.

I had it all figured out by the end of my first semester in Kindergarten, when one of those mean-ass Slaughterbach kids annihilated his fellow Kindergartener with a snowball in the ear at point-blank range... Never turn your ear on a Slaughterbach, that's what I learned.

That was only the first of so many lessons, the first of so many acts to which I was a party or a witness, that took place on the hallowed grassy field behind South Westnedge Elementary School in the 1970s. And after.

***

It's a charter school now, called Paramount Academy. A sizeable extension on the West end of the building, and its parking spaces, took up some of the yard, but it remains a classroom unto itself for the general population of pupils in attendance.

Never mind my stories about it; my sister and I mined the playground for its importance in Charlie's life, too. We live more or less across the street from the school.

He didn't go to Paramount - he was enrolled in Kalamazoo Public Schools, which would have paid for his college tuition through the Kalamazoo Promise (another example of Stryker philanthropy). But he played there often, on that yard with sloping hillsides coming down from the North and South.

Charlie went to Parkwood Elementary for Grades One through Five, whereas we Heller kids all went to South Westnedge for First, Second and Third Grades, and then to Parkwood for Grades Four through Six.

When Charlie 'graduated' from Parkwood at the end of Fifth Grade, before moving on to Middle School, the keynote speaker at their ceremony was hometown hero T.J. Duckett. That's a pretty good keynote speaker!

The Ducketts grew up on Clover Street, one block over from us. They were all great athletes, but T.J., the youngest, had the best career out of them all. He was a first-round draft pick of the Atlanta Falcons after a record-setting career at Michigan State, and he went on to play also for the Seattle Seahawks and the Detroit Lions.

T.J. told the kids that day to hold on to what they had learned on the playground  at Parkwood, where he had scored his first touchdown... Remember, he said, to look back at all these things right now that might seem hard, and to understand later that these most important lessons, learned out on that playground, were actually the easiest ones they will ever have to learn.

So Charlie knew that playground, too. He knew them both just as well as I ever did.

***

When I moved back here, I was mortified to find out that my nephew was unable to ride a bicycle without training wheels. Our Dad, of course, made sure that we knew how to ride a bicycle at an early age. He would push us up to riding speed across the lawn and hope that we could master Newtonian physics in time enough to avoid catastrophe; fat chance.

Theresa didn't really want her son to learn the hard way like that - pushing a kid on a bike across the lawn is hard, y'know? So we dressed Charlie up in his helmet and knee pads and elbow pads, like Jeff Bridges in "TRON", and took him to the Paramount playground where gravity could do all the work.

From the South slope, we sent him coasting down the grassy hillside; it is actually quite a steep grade, so he could get a good head of steam going before crashing. We did this until he got it figured out, and he was an expert pedal-pusher thereafter. He learned how to use his brakes, too.

***

I cannot claim to have been a perfect Uncle to Charlie. There was one instance, at the school yard, where things went somewhat awry. I came across a couple of boomerangs in 2012, a bright red plastic one that worked perfectly well, and a wooden one that did not (see also, "a stick").

Here at the house, the risk of property damage became quite clear in the first couple of throws with the red boomerang, but I was intrigued. One summer day, I decided to take it to the school yard, and I brought Charlie with me.

We found a number of children already playing there, all of them a bit younger than Charlie, who had just turned 11. They wanted to play with the boomerang, too, and that got the attention of their parents, who wisely shepherded them indoors. Charlie and I had the whole yard to ourselves.

The Sun was shining brightly that day, so it was pretty easy to lose sight of the boomerang when it flattened out against the sky. That is how Charlie discovered that he was in fact very good at throwing a boomerang. By that I mean he threw it perfectly. It came right back to him... With a thud.

Medically speaking, he was all right, but he said he wanted to do something else, so I took him to Nana and Granddad's for lunch. Lesson One of the playground: You can't stay out there all day.

***

July 4th 2015. The family gathers to do our patriotic duty. Between us all, we probably detonate $500 worth of fireworks in the skies above Paramount. This is the result of recently relaxed restrictions on fireworks in Michigan, one of the only good things our idiot governor has done.

As the skies darken, and our big show begins to draw competition from the other ones going off around us, we all revel in and marvel at the smoke and the glow and the noise. I was very happy to see my nieces and nephews taking part in the grand American celebration marking the anniversary of our Independence.

How were we to know that Charlie only had 22 more days on this Earth?

***

Absent the light, the playground grew larger, no longer just a few dozen strides from end to end. It reverted, reverberated back to the size it had been when I was five years old, struggling to cross its vast expanse through the knee-deep snow, Slaughterbachs in hot pursuit...

I could not cross it now if I tried.

pH 6.24.16

1 comment:

  1. I was just thinking of the last 4th July at the school yard and hoping that we could pick up Lori and watch you and Larry shoot off more fireworks this year. Jim, Lori G'dad and I loved watching the displays and the kids race around picking up the debris - nothing was left lying around when we left that night! Bittersweet memories. Let's do it again!

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