We had these things called Jarts. Lawn darts. Maybe a foot long, pointed metal tip; might have been lead. Plastic fins. They came with two plastic hoops which you set so many feet apart, divided the red and blue Jarts into teams, and using a smooth underhand motion, shot the Jart toward its target.
If your opponent was deserving, you could launch it toward him, too. Since Jarts were usually played a barbecues, and barbecues involved beer, there was often a holocaust of Jarts victims. It never made the papers.
Another one. Cap guns. Faux pearl handles, shiny barrels, etched with manly lines and bas-relief bulls. The barrel opened and revealed a post onto which a roll of blasting caps on red tape was placed. The tape was threaded up through a slot onto a plate, which the hammer would hit on every trigger pull. Bang! Bang! Bang!
The caps wouldn’t always explode in the gun because the hammers could be weak. Smacking them between rocks worked. We used to take five-pound sledgehammers and whack an entire roll at once. BANG! If you did it right, you split ear drums. The largest caps manufacturer was a prominent sponsor of the American Sign Language Institute.
This did not exhaust the caps’ inexhaustible uses. There were these solid lead grenades in the shape of badminton shuttlecocks. The tip was heavy and separated from the body which opened up enough space for one cap. You stuck the cap in, slid the body back down, and whipped the grenade into the air. When it came down the shaft would whack against the tip and explode the cap. POP!
You had to throw them real hard to get them to pop against a fleshy body. But practice makes perfect. This was when trauma surgery became a distinct field, the other branches being overwhelmed with casualties of neighborhood wars.
This still wasn’t the end of the caps’ great glories! The bravest would put a roll between thumb and forefinger and scrape their thumbnail across a cap. With just the right English—SNAP! BURN! This is the origin, incidentally, of the word forefinger, which was originally spelled fourfinger.
Then there were the monkey bars. A tangle of metal pipe soaring into the sky, with impossible twists and turns. The idea was to climb this structure and discover new and interesting ways of hanging on with minimum contact. We played tag on them. Just one slip was doom, the body falling down through the maze, the bars wreaking their horrors. Historians tell us Thomas Mayne Reid got his idea for The Headless Horseman by watching recess at his local kindergarten.
We’d line little plastic green army men up and wage war. Bombs were simulated with rocks. Machine gun fire with BB or pellet guns, though the odd slingshot was not unheard of. These wars were in the vein of other conflicts of the Twentieth Century: they were brutal, devastating, and total. No soldier was ever left standing. Psychologists are still dealing with the after effects, most of the kids who played this having become serial killers or terrorists.
Don’t get me started on the fireworks. Ah! Fireworks! The smell of seared flesh, the rending of limbs, the choking fumes. But the glorious colors and explosions! The trick in throwing a bottle rocket was to wait until the flame had just about hit the rocket fuel so that you had enough time to arch back and sling it forward. This gave it extra impetus so that it really stung when it hit your victim. Throw it too early and the shot into the ground; too late, and you had a handful of flame.
If you thought life back then was scary, you haven’t heard the worst. I warn the squeamish to skip ahead to the next paragraph. Parents would send kids outside, far from earshot, and without cell phones. There was no way to track the kids down and gather them up, save the sun setting. Since parents could not supervise the children at every moment, every one of these children died.
All gone. Safety first. What about the children. It’s all probably an app now so that kids can exercise their swiping muscles. And share their scores on line for others to envy. We’ll all die fat and alone, but we’ll have the strongest swiping muscles and the highest meaningless scores of any people in history.