Playground Antics

Powell School Recess

“What’s Your Favorite Subject?”


Friedrich Frobel, the father of modern kindergarten, once said that “Play is the highest expression of human development in childhood, for it alone is the free expression of what is in a child’s soul.”  When I was a child attending elementary school at North Baltimore, I never sensed that recess was that profound but I do recall how much fun it was.

I attended Powell School through fourth grade.   Powell School was blessed with ample green space so there was plenty of room for running, kicking a ball, playing tag, swinging and even catching caterpillars on the undeveloped area just east of the playground.  There was a wooden fort on that playground that the boys fiercely defended.  When any girl approached the fort, a chorus of “Join in, no girls allowed” was sure to follow.  I honestly don’t think I ever explored the inside of the boys’ fort.  I guess I will chalk that up as one of the unsolved mysteries of my life.

The highlight of fourth grade recess was playing marbles.  Do you remember how we each had a little homemade cloth sack to carry our treasured marbles?  On the playground, we played marble games that resulted in the winner seizing the loser’s marble.  Once the recess whistle blew and we returned to the classroom, the marble bags had to be safely stowed in our desk.  The worst case scenario was dropping the marbles on the floor during class because the teacher confiscated every marble that hit the floor.  My teacher, Emma Apple, ended up with some of my best marbles, but she did kindly return them to me on the last day of school.

In fifth grade, we transitioned to Hammansburg School and recess became even more fun.  Hammansburg was also blessed with a huge playground.  By that age, the boys were playing more organized games of touch football or basketball.

The highlight of fifth grade recess for the girls was click-clack balls.  Clackers, as they were often called, consisted of two hard plastic balls attached to a long rope.  By placing one’s hand in the middle of the rope and making an up and down motion, the balls began to swing and meet the other ball, creating a loud clacking sound.  Some girls were quite adept at this skill.  Soon, almost every girl had a set of clackers at recess.  At that juncture, someone within the school administration decided that clackers were dangerous and they were no longer allowed at school.  Apparently recess rules were a high organizational priority in North Baltimore schools that year;  another funny recess edict of that school year was “Girls can wear jeans, but only under their dresses.”

Sixth grade at Main School was the last year of recess for us.  Unfortunately, the Main School had no grass, just an asphalt playground with a monkey bar and a swing set.  Luckily, it had a foursquare court.  I spent my entire school year playing foursquare.  It was a great activity for pre-teens because it allowed for plenty of time to chit chat or to sing the current number one hit, Don McLean’s “American Pie,” while waiting in line for another turn.   “Bye, bye Miss America Pie, drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry….”

Do you ever wonder who decided that we no longer needed recess after sixth grade?  I would contend that I might be more productive at work now if I took a break to play a few minutes outside.  Mr. Frobel said that play is “the free expression of what is in a child’s soul.”  Well, what about our grown-up souls?  I just spent last weekend at a retreat to refill my well.  I wonder if my soul would have felt so depleted if I had just snuck outside for a little recess each day.  I think I will talk to my boss about that during my annual review.  If you happen to see a mean game of foursquare on the corner of Main Street and Sandusky Street in Findlay, you will know she granted my request.


Sweet Caroline

Recently, I’ve been picking at a thread that runs through the fabric of my life.   Just like a loose thread in a snagged sweater, it seemed insignificant until I pulled on it and was reminded that it is an integral piece of the cloth.  My particular loose thread is usually located in the periphery of my awareness; probably deep in my subconscious, but recent national events have given it a tug, and just like the sweater, I am surprised to learn that this seemingly irrelevant thread is long and tangled throughout many years of memories.

After the Boston bombings, one of the first signs of national unity happened on April 16 when baseball fans in Yankee Stadium sang a rousing rendition of Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline,” a Fenway Park favorite, to show support for Boston citizens.  The Red Sox have been playing “Sweet Caroline” at home games in 2002.  Charles Steinberg, senior advisor to Boston Red Sox President says, “I believe the song has transformative powers. It would take a melancholy crowd and lift its spirits. We started playing it each day and the crowd responded beautifully. No one had asked the crowd to sing along, they just did.”

On April 20, only one day after the Boston lockdown and during the first Red Sox game played at home after the bombing, Neil Diamond made a surprise appearance at Fenway Park and led the Red Sox faithful in “Sweet Caroline.” I happened to catch the Fenway sing-along on television and instantly sensed it would be one of those defining moments of early 21st century American history.

“Sweet Caroline” is the loose thread that my mind continues to tug on.  It is a soft pop hit that was originally released in 1969 as a single.   Neil Diamond has re-released it several more times and it has never made it to the top of any chart.   I doubt a critic ever praised “Sweet Caroline” for either its lyrics or music.  For decades, it was simply an oldie that many Americans could hum along with until it re-burst into the national spotlight in 2011, when Neil Diamond announced that he had written it about a picture of nine-year old Caroline Kennedy that he had seen on the cover of Life Magazine.

Research shows that music affects memory by stimulating the limbic part of the brain, which is responsible for long-term memory.  My very favorite songs are still those that I heard playing on beautiful summer days at the Wixom Quarry. I first heard “Sweet Caroline” there so it evokes special memories for me: the raft, the high dive, guys in cutoff blue jeans, girls in bikinis, and many teenagers enjoying the sun.

My next encounter with “Sweet Caroline” was as a member of the NBHS marching band.  I remember how exciting it was to finally play a piece that we had actually heard on the radio as opposed to an old march or patriotic song.  I still recall that the band members who played the trombone and baritone loved how much their instruments belted out the harmony in this arrangement of “Sweet Caroline.” It was our favorite song to play in the bleachers other than the Fight Song.  In this way, “Sweet Caroline” also takes me back to memories of the cool, crisp autumn evenings of NB football games.

After high school, Neil Diamond and “Sweet Caroline” faded out of my life for a few decades.    By the late 1990s, my young son was playing youth hockey and both he and my husband are avid Detroit Red Wings fans.  As we have watched the Red Wings win four Stanley Cups since 1996, “Sweet Caroline” has became part of my life again.  In a hockey game at Joe Louis Arena, once “Sweet Caroline” begins to play over the public address system, the entire crowd begins to sing along signaling that the game is safely in hand.  “Sweet Caroline” is Detroit’s version of the fat lady singing.  

As Boston heals from last month’s tragic bombing, “Sweet Caroline” oddly became the rallying cry for a nation to show unity.  I immediately connected with the energy around a tired old pop hit because it is intertwined with so many good personal memories of the past 44 years.  Based on the responses at Yankee Stadium and Fenway Park, many other Americans apparently share similar ties.  Who could have predicted that this simple song could bind us together?

“Sweet Caroline! (Bah-bah-bah!) Good times never seemed so good! (So good! So good! So good!) I’d be inclined (Bah-bah-bah!) to believe they never would!”


Briar Hill Golf Club: A Great Place to Grow Up

Snapping Turtle

My husband, Byron, and I were lucky enough to grow up playing golf at the Briar Hill Golf Course in the mid 1970s. We recently read a quote from professional golfer, Annika Sorenstam, about the benefits of golf for children and teenagers: “It teaches patience, focus, determination, and how to listen to instructions.” We are not sure that golf strengthened any of those traits for us, but as we reminisced about our days at Briar Hill, we had a lot of laughs remembering all of the fun we had there.

My grandparents, Ed and Betty Slaughterbeck, lived across from Briar Hill and they kept a gas-powered golf cart in the garage for us to borrow. The best thing about that golf cart was its ability to backfire on demand when the driver rapidly accelerated. As you might imagine, a significant amount of effort was spent trying to perfectly time the acceleration so the backfire happened during another golfer’s backswing. It rarely worked but when it did, we laughed uncontrollably.

Another highlight of our time spent at Briar Hill was golfing with our younger brothers, Garry Brown and Gary Slaughterbeck. One time we saw a huge snapping turtle in the pond on Number Six and, for some reason that we can no longer remember, we caught it. We used our golf clubs to pull it out of the pond. Its shell was as big as a bushel basket. We examined the turtle and luckily released it with no damage to either the turtle or the golfers. With nearly forty years of hindsight, it no longer seems like a good idea to grab a snapping turtle with only a pitching wedge and golf cleats.

Byron and I chuckled a lot about golf clubs that we saw launched in anger at Briar Hill. I remember one round where a fellow golfer threw his putter in the pond at Number Eight. We both remembered a three-wood hanging over the tee box at Number Seven for several days before it fell from the tree. No names are being shared here to protect the innocent, but you know who you are.

Golf is a sport with many specific rules of etiquette. In our recollections, a group of teenagers at Briar Hill during a fun round of golf didn’t usually follow those rules. We are still smiling about Jim Tatham’s ability to tell a detailed story without hesitation during his own golf swing. We also think Adam Sandler might owe us royalties for the Happy Gilmore running golf swing that we performed nearly forty years ago. And who could forget the tee shots using a putter?

We also reminisced about some of the kind older golfers we knew at Briar Hill: Lowell Sewell, Kenny Judd, Ken and Peg Adams, Don Miller, Bruce Hillard, Ed Wheeler, and more. One time, a golfer in my foursome used way too much club for his approach shot on Number Nine. Luckily, Slim Longfellow was sitting in a rocker on the back porch of the clubhouse after completing his own round of golf. The approach shot was headed directly for the large plate glass window on the back porch and Slim calmly reached up and snagged the ball barehanded while still sitting in the rocker. When I later told my Grandpa Ed what had happened, he said that Slim had always been a good baseball player. I’m sure that he was a good fielder!

As teenagers, Briar Hill Golf Club was a great place for us to spend our free time. For the cost of a season membership, we had endless hours of entertainment. We were outside in the fresh air. We became acquainted with older adults who golfed there. We spent quality time with our younger brothers. Byron and I even went on many dates at Briar Hill. Best of all, we had a lot of good clean fun there and even forty years later when we were talking about this article, we laughed for several days about amusing Briar Hill memories. Interestingly, not once did we discuss what score we shot or where we placed in a tournament. In the end, it’s not about how well we golfed but about how fully we enjoyed the golfing experience. It seems like we were both winners in that category.