Wednesday, February 23, 2011
Take, for example, school playgrounds.
Nowadays, there are all sorts of rules and regulations that dictate proper monkeybar height, mandatory woodchip depth to cushion falls from the slide, and the scheduling of inspections and routine equipment maintenance. Due to this wussification of our nation's playgrounds, kids of the 21st century have to put forth quite an effort if they want to injure themselves.
Such was not the case for kids of my generation.
For one thing, all of our playground equipment was built on rock-solid asphalt. No woodchips, no synthetic rubber cushioning. If we fell, we bruised. We bled. We didn't have much grass on our playground, either. The area that wasn't black-topped was simply a large area covered with stones. Most of the time it served as our kickball field, but let's face it, it was basically a rock garden. Did we throw these rocks at each other? Of course we did. Our only rule was "don't aim for the head", with the emphasis on "aim for". By the time I hit third grade, our school nurse was so good at stitching up gashed foreheads she could've given the Toronto Maple Leafs' trainer a run for his money.
All of which brings us to the Parker School Merry-Go-Round Incident of 1973.
You remember those playground merry-go-rounds, right? A circular bench on a vertical axle, anchored in the asphalt? Parker School had one, and it was pretty popular with the second and third grade crowd.
One morning in particular, a bunch of us were in the mood to spin till we puked. To that end, we recruited Big John to supply the elbow grease.
John Pizzarelli was a fifth grader who was old enough to be in seventh. His poor reading skills combined with his blatant disregard for the mandatory attendance policy led to him being held back a couple times. He was enormous but also a real sweetheart, and he could be counted on to make recess a more enjoyable experience for everyone. You need someone to push you on the swings, higher than you ever imagined? Big John was your man. A fall guy to start the rock fights? He's ready and willing. And, of course, he was the perfect source of power for the merry-go-round.
I took my seat and hung on tight. I should add here that this particular merry-go-round did not have any sort of safety straps or restraining bars. There was a bench and a bar to hold onto, and that was it.
It wasn't enough.
John got the ride spinning, beyond any speed that would be considered safe. Mistaking our terror for excitement, John redoubled his efforts and soon we were pulling four G's with our innards in turmoil. My palms started sweating, and I could feel my fingers slipping from the metal bar.
The next thing I knew, I was flying through the air. There were no woodchips to absorb the impact, no fancy padding to cushion my descent. Just the old-fashioned thunk of head against blacktop. A crowd gathered around me, and when I regained my bearings, I managed to stand up. The bell rang, so I headed to class.
Halfway through roll call, I became engulfed in a wave of nausea. Mrs. Fedak called my name, and when I tried to say "here", all that came out was my breakfast. Pop Tarts and chocolate milk, if I remember correctly. I went to the nurse, who called my dad and suggested that he take me to have my head examined.
Not the last time someone would make that suggestion, by the way.
It turned out that I had a mild concussion, and the doctor sent us home with ice packs and instructions to not let me sleep for a while.
In the aftermath of the merry-go-round incident, the Parker School administration took a crucial step in improving the overall safety of the playground. Oh, they didn't lower the monkeybars, replace the stone field with sod, or install woodchips and padding. They established and enforced one simple rule:
John Pizzarelli was no longer permitted to push the merry-go-round.