Red Rover by Bill Diamond

When I started working at the US Environmental Protection Agency, people asked me how I could work in a boring bureaucracy. It even sounds boring – bureaucracy. A bureau is a drab piece of furniture. Functional, but mundane. Whose favorite piece of furniture is a bureau? Nobody’s. A sofa, a recliner, a lounge chair – yes. Not a bureau. Recruitment at EPA would be easier if they renamed it the sofa-cracy. The Agency slogan could be: “Join EPA and save the environment in the sofa-cracy.”

Yet, one of the attractions of a bureaucracy was because it was safe and low risk. It had structure and rules and purpose. Growing up in the 1950’s and 60s was the opposite. There wasn’t a lot of parenting, or restrictions.  

Today, parents are insistently ‘interested’ in their kids. They engage and supervise to keep them busy, entertained, developing and nurtured. Sometimes to the extreme.

In contrast, we were like wild animals roaming the woods. Almost literally. When the four of us siblings got too noisy, my mother would say, “Get out of my house and go play.” Not ‘our’ house. ‘My’ house.

There was no talk of safety or security. Like millions of families, we’d moved to the suburbs for affordable housing, fresh air, and better schools. As opposed to the city, Framingham was assumed to be safe. Parents imposed no constraints appropriate for the hazards inherent in this new environment. They had fulfilled their responsibility by getting us out here. Now, we were on our own.

The Baby Boomer generation was a fortunate cohort. We didn’t, from our early years, spend our days working in the family business. Those situations had their own harsh consequences. But, at least there were adults around to monitor a kid’s antics. Not so in the Burbs. It was an Eden of unrestrained liberty.

So, out of the house we’d tumble. The door would close and we’d be on our own. You could imagine the lock clicking to prevent our re-invasion. I’m not sure what Mom did while we were gone. Probably Mom things. For all we knew, she could be running an opium den.

There were no soccer leagues, art enrichment or piano practice. No food, no water, no plans. Just ‘play’. So, what would we, mostly feral boys, do? Since we were financially stretched, lower middle class, there weren’t many toys. Usually, we’d turn to, “Let’s play War.” Which was an excuse to brawl.

We’d grab a stick and have at it. A stick is a perfect toy for young kids. It’s free, available, hard and sharp. Let’s all whack at each other with these things. Fun, fun, fun.

A stick was timeless and versatile. Depending on the latest television show we’d seen, it could be a sword, a spear, arrow, truncheon, tomahawk or gun. A pine cone or rock might become a bullet, a hand grenade, a cannonball, or, a bomb.  

When fighting, someone would hit you and shout, “You’re dead.” This was appropriate and realistic, because, with these weapons, you really could get killed,

Accidents happened. An injury was a cause for concern, but not panic, so long as the wound was not terminal or permanent. It’s amazing that every child of that generation didn’t have grotesque Frankenstein scars, indented skulls or deformed limbs.

We received bruises and lacerations, but most healed with only minor marks. I can attest to the risks. On separate occasions while playing in my early youth, I broke an arm, and later, a wrist. One time, a spear I threw hit my brother in the face an inch from his eye. These were part of the cost of growing up unsupervised and free.  

There were attempts to balance the mayhem. When my older sister, or the other neighborhood girls were around, they’d try to organize safer games. These attempts at organization were often lost on the male species who rarely had patience for rules. Thus, the appeal of War. War is chaos. The expression “All’s fair in love and war” was invented by boys because they didn’t listen when the rules were explained. No rules, just fight.

These more civilized pastimes were supposedly less dangerous. Oftentimes, that wasn’t the case. Consider Red Rover.  

In the abstract, Red Rover was a crackerjack game. Especially, in a poor neighborhood. It required no equipment and could be played anywhere. And, it encouraged social interaction.

But, analyze this ‘game’ a little. This amusement might more accurately be named Red Death.

The first thing was to pick teams. This exceeded the short attention span most boys could manage. In War, the organization never went beyond, “You guys are the Germans or Indians or Rebels. Let’s fight.”

Girls had an abundance of patience and assigned teams one person at a time. “Sally, you pick first.”

“Hmmm. Let me think.”

What’s to think? You’ve grown up with these same kids, on the same block, your entire life. Do you think someone developed a superpower overnight?  

“Now it’s Nancy’s turn.” It dragged on forever. During this eternity, mini-wars inevitably broke out among the restless troops.  

Once that tedium was done, it was time to line up in the street. It would have been safer to play on the grass. After all, we’d moved here for the grass. But, in suburbia, Dad’s grass was sacred. It was to be seen, not touched.

So, we played in the middle of the hard, hot and cracked asphalt of Wood Avenue. The better to trip and get concussed on the unforgiving surface. It’s as if the inadvertent plan was to maximize injuries. 

Any elementary school teacher can tell you getting a bunch of fidgety kids to hold hands and make a straight line is one of the world’s great challenges. It’s the reason nuns carried three foot rulers. Those sticks were never used to measure, or draw straight lines on the blackboard. They were to herd the little beasts. Hercules had it easier with his Twelve Labors.  

Once semi-lines faced each other, it was time for the payoff. Visually, it was not that different than War. At least in War, everyone participated. Not so here. One person was called to penetrate the opposite line. Most everyone else was standing around.

“Red Rover, Red Rover, send Joey right over.”

The simple purpose was to capture Joey. If he crashed through the enemy, he returned to his team a hero. If not, he joined the other team.  

This is where safety goes South. In its fundamental design, the game is hazardous. One team forms a wall by connecting their extended arms. An individual is chosen to run into that wall as fast as they can. The hope is to break past those thin twigs of arms.  As the charge begins, both excitement and fear builds.

“Break” is the critical word here. If the arms are strong and the child small, smashing into an immovable object is a recipe for disaster. On the other hand, if the arms are fragile and the irresistible missile is large, some bones will snap. In addition, the arms are placed exactly at the height of a child’s vulnerable neck. The risk is increased because before the collision with the garrote, fear makes Jane close her eyes. On contact, if her windpipe doesn’t crumple, she is still flailing on the tar gasping for air.  

I don’t know what sadistic demon invented this fun, but, I’d bet it wasn’t a physicist, nor a physician.

How were serious injuries not more frequent? Evolution provides even ignorant children with a flicker of common sense. When tiny Tim sees a mountain of lard racing toward him, at the last second, he releases his hand and Joey roars through. It’s a basic survival mechanism.  

But, is Sally happy with Tim’s reasonable action. No. She screams at him. “You let go. Why did you let go? You’re a useless coward!” Then, she pushes him to the ground.  

This is very negative reinforcement for a smart decision. Timmy is confused and, later in life, ends up in therapy.   If there were a teacher around, they could say, “Children, this wasn’t a game, this was a test. Tim, congratulations. That was a good choice. You get promoted. Sally, you’re going to have to repeat the grade until your brain develops.”

Alas, there were no teachers present. No adults. Entirely different life lessons were taught.

If you doubt the savagery of this kid’s diversion, imagine adults playing it. Maybe as an icebreaker at the office picnic. It would never happen. They’d be lawsuits filed before the first ambulance reached the emergency room.

No wonder as a kid I preferred to hide in my room, read books and avoid the insanity outside. It probably explains how I lived to reached adulthood.  

And that is how I ended up in the bureaucracy. Sure, there is office intrigue and vicious backstabbing. But, when you grow up dodging sharp sticks and suffering road rash injuries, verbal backstabbing is like a pleasant massage. Boring? No. It was a refuge of tranquility after a youthful sea of mayhem.