Norris Chambers Old Timer's Tales

Playtime Of Long Ago

by Norris Chambers

   I suspect that kids raised in the cities of long ago had a different play style from those who started their lives in the country. But I would bet that those whose families were struggling with the depression in the cities found novel ways to entertain themselves.

  Since we were familiar with raising crops and handling livestock, we naturally turned to games and activities connected with things with which we were familiar. Some of my first endeavors included planting pennies to harvest a money crop. It didn't work. I also tried planting candy to produce an abundance of sweet treats. When an adult cousin told Clifton and me that we could catch a bird by putting salt on its tail, we carried a pocket full of salt for several days until we discovered that we couldn't get close enough to place the condiment where it belonged. The cousin later told us that if we could get close enough to salt the tail, we could pick up the bird. I guess that made good sense.

  Probably one of our first home produced toys was a stick horse. These first steeds were nothing more than a long stick with a string tied to the front end to serve as reins. There was no provision for a saddle. Later, as we grew older, we carved a board into a rough resemblance of a horse's head complete with leather reins and some sort of wheel on the back end to make the ride smoother and easier. We provided hitching racks at most places where we regularly hung out and tied our faithful mounts when we arrived. We rode them back to the house when it was time to return. Stick horses played a very prominent part in our everyday life.

  In the transportation department, as automobiles became more plentiful, we graduated to stick cars. These were made by taking a board about three or four feet long and placing a wheel on one end and a wooden wheel or cross piece on the other. To navigate, you grasped the wheel with your hands and pushed the vehicle like a wheel barrow wherever you wanted to go. Some of us could imitate the sound of an early day automobile as we toured the farm. A lot of horn honking was required. We also had home built wagons that we could load with various commodities, such as fresh cut weeds and stove wood.

  That just about took care of our transportation needs. We had soil tilling tools, such as sharp sticks that we called plows. These were equipped with rope pulls so that another kid, or even a dog, could serve as a mule while the one behind the stick did his necessary plowing. We had dull hatchets that we used as axes to cut wood or remove a small tree. We did real farming when it came time to dig potatoes or pick cotton.

  We did a big livestock business using beetles, mantises (sometimes called devil horses), red ants and just about any other small body that moved as our cows and horses. We built pens and fenced fields with sticks pushed in the ground. Sometimes we even went so far as the use the sticks as fence posts and attached string as wire. It took a pretty good fence to corral a beetle. Ants required an even tighter fence. We used pieces of glass to fence for ants. An ant cannot climb glass. A large number of ants confined in a play field will begin digging and will construct an ant den within its confines. When we put grain or weed seed in the ant enclosure they would carry the food into their new den.

  We discovered that we could bury a glass jar near an ant den and it would soon fill with ants. They would fall in and couldn't climb out. Sometimes we would take several ants in a jar and turn the jar upside down over a suspicious looking hole in the ground. The ants would immediately enter the hole and prepare to take up residence. Often a mean looking spider would come running out and the ants would attack it. The ants always won. At other times some sort of ground wasp would emerge. Nothing that ever came out was a match for our ants.

  Another ant diversion was to take a jar with many ants in it and carry it to another ant den. Dumping the jar in the den created terrible confusion, not only for the forced visitors, but for the unprepared and surprised hosts. A vicious fight occurred between the home team and the invaders. The invading ants apparently surrendered as soon as the original confusion began to wane. The invaders would stand still and a home protector would catch him around the waist with his mandibles and carry him a long distance from the den. He would then release his load and return to his den. The released invader was confused and wandered around aimlessly. We never knew if they found their way back to their own home.

  We placed ants in all kinds of containers that we had filled with dirt. As we grew older, we used window glass for one or two sides and watched the ants as they dug tunnels and rooms. When we put food in the box they carried it to store rooms. Of course we had to drop an invader into the den occasionally. That was a cruel thing to do because the ants dismembered them and either carried the remains underground for food or hauled them to a far corner where they piled all unwanted rubbish.

  When we grew older, we took wooden paddles and fought wasps, yellow jackets and bumble bees. This sport took a fast swing and a quick get away. We would approach the nest with out paddles and as one of the enemy approached we would swing the paddle. This was a substitute for tennis or racquet ball. Of course, if you missed you paid the penalty. The result was painful sting somewhere on the face. Ordinarily, we were successful unless several attacked us at the same time. If this happened, we immediately retreated. But many times we were stung on the back of the neck. Bumble bees made the best targets and we seldom found a bumble bee nest that we didn't have to attack. We killed a few bees but after a sting or two we grew tired of the sport and left them to pursue their usual activities.

  Most of the time there was a fighting cow or two that we could do battle with. We found out early in our battling career that a cow could not turn very fast. If we could find a big tree we would get behind it and keep it between us and the cow. This irritated the animals and they would snort and paw the ground, but they just couldn't reach us. A fighting goat also offered some pretty hectic sport. They would butt you or rear up and come down at you with their front feet. The only defense we found against a goat was to manage to grab him by the neck and wrestle him to the ground.

  As early in March as the weather would permit, we started swimming. There were good swimming holes on the creek. At the deepest point it was probably six feet deep and the low banks made excellent diving points. A sloping bank, when properly wet, made an excellent slide into the water. During the summer we had work to do on the farm and had to do our swimming on Saturday afternoon or Sunday. The creek was about two miles away, so sometimes we rode horses. But the horses were not always available, and on those occasions we walked. I remember one very hectic swimming episode. Clifton and I and two other boys had walked to the creek and started enjoying the water. We left our clothes on top of some high bushes nearby and entered eagerly into an afternoon of playing in the water.

  We had fastened a swing to a high tree over the deep part of the hole and had a lot of fun swinging out over the water and diving eight or ten feet straight down as we swung toward the middle of the creek. Of course no one wore bathing suits in those days.

  Suddenly we heard galloping horses and saw three girls approaching. Two were riding on one horse and one on another. We quickly got under the water with just our heads protruding. I didn't recognize them.

  "Get out of our swimming pool!" the girl riding single on the horse said. "We want to go swimming."

  Clifton answered promptly, "What do you mean your swimming pool. We've been swimming here forever. This land belongs to Uncle Alf."

  "I know," she returned, "he's my Uncle, too. He said we could swim here any time we wanted to." Clifton answered, "We'll be through in a while. You can swim then."

  "How about now?" The argument continued for awhile and got a little hotter all the time. The other two boys and I chimed in occasionally with some uncomplimentary dialogue.

  The girl urged her horse over to the bushes where we had laid out our clothes and hurriedly gathered them up under her arm. I saw at once what her strategy was. We were so surprised we couldn't think of anything to say. Both horses and riders started trotting away.

  We hollered and threatened and begged a little, but they kept going. The belligerent girl turned and yelled to us: "We'll leave your clothes at Miller Crossing." Then they started galloping away. Miller Crossing was at least three miles up the creek and about another three miles back to our house.

  But we had no choice. We struggled up the creek, sometimes wading and swimming and sometimes walking over sharp rocks. Eventually we came to Miller Crossing and found our clothes stacked by the side of the road. (An old two rut road crossed the creek here on a bed of flat rocks.)

  I suspected that the girls were enjoying a good swim at our private hole, but we felt that we had done enough creek work for the day. We finally got back home, tired and weary.

  We found out who the girls were later. Apparently they told the story often because we heard about it several times in the next few years.

  I haven't mentioned what girls did for past time. They did many of the same things we did. They made corn shuck dolls and imaginary furniture from just about anything. Acorn shells made cups and muscle shells served as dishes. They set up rocks for tomb stones and conducted simulated funerals. They also rode stick horses when they wanted to go somewhere. They pretended to be mothers of smaller girls and bossed them around realistically.

  They also went swimming and chased boys out of the swimming holes. Some of them snatched clothes and carried them far away.

  The moral of the story (if it has one) is that kids can play with anything, whether it is an expensive toy of today or what could be found sixty or seventy years ago. It's not what you play with, but how you play!


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