How did we survive childhood?

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By Art Trujillo

Martha Johnsen’s morning program on local radio often has quite interesting topics. One morning she discussed childhood games of the past. She invited KFUN listeners to phone in to provide input on what used to occupy them in their youth.

Johnsen re-called that girls used to play jacks, boys marbles. People called in with accounts of having played Red Rover, Tag, Hide-and-Seek, Hopscotch (without Scotch), and Jump Rope.

We denizens of Railroad Avenue barrio for stickball. And we loved bombarding girls on bikes with water balloons.
We needed no encouragement to get out and play. The alternative — being put to work inside — made the great outdoors seem quite appealing. And the time and weather didn’t matter. We’d toss footballs or ride bikes until the curfew siren sounded, or until a by-then-invisible football whacked one of us — whichever came first.

One listener Martha mentioned making shoes out of tomato juice cans. In those days, we’d stomp hard on a can (my brother, Severino, should have been thoughtful enough to remind me that the can of juice first ought to be empty) to create a shoe.

 Properly stomped, the can cradled our regular shoes, gave us a couple of inches of elevation, and annoyed the girls, as we dragged our new footwear across the sidewalk, where they played jacks.

We also liked to clip playing cards to the fenders of our bikes to give them a motorized sound. Then we just knew our bikes had suddenly become more powerful, thanks to the jack of diamonds.

For games that require someone to be “it,” we’d all face inward and place our right foot in a tight circle, with the largest of us hoisting a large rock and dropping it where we’d planted our feet. The first one to move his foot out of the way was “it.” Simple.

We used to play Mother, May I? New Orleans, Andy-Over, Frozen Tag and Dodgeball. Regrettably, all I can remember about some of the games is their names, and possibly whether they involved a ball, a pet, a stick or a rock. I recall that most activities involved half the neighborhood. We seldom played a baseball game without some 20 people involved.

One of the games, Andy Over-Kick Stays, now means little to me. My very vague recollection is that one team would gather on one side of a house with a pitched roof. We’d throw a tennis ball over the roof and the team on the other side would catch it and (readers, please help me out here) chase us and try to hit us with the ball. We’d holler “Andy Over” as we threw the ball, but if we failed to throw it hard enough and it bounced back to us, we’d yell out “Kick stays.” But why?

Martha Johnsen also mentioned the imminent risks of joint-dislocation as we chose up sides to play Red Rover. I recall that the fastest, most muscular guys always chose the other team. On my side, I usually had Nina, Irene, Bella, Dora, Tillie, the Pillsbury Dough Boy, Plastic Man, Tiny Tim, Helen, Bingy and Liz.

We’d agree on whom to invite over. “Red Rover, Red Rover, let Johnny come over.” Johnny was the smallest of the other team; we didn’t dare beckon people like Don, Paul, Scotty, Tony, Leroy, Rafael, Abran, Johnny or Roy. Like a fullback, Johnny would charge into the weakest link on our team, usually dragging a couple of Lucys, Helens and Doras with him and leaving only detritus.

The fact that nobody ever needed urgent medical care to re-locate our joints must say something about our youth, and it makes more poignant the oft-repeated declaration: “It’s a miracle we survived our childhood.”

Before the government located the Employment office, the 800 block of Grand was our grassy playing field. We played football there, and not the touch variety. No. We went after the other guys in the manner of Lyle Alzado and others, like Brian Uhrlacher, whom we later watched and admired on TV.

Waldron, Trankie, David, Leroy, two Freds and I would usually take on some of the Grand Avenue crew. There were Jimmy, Clyde, Agapito, and Sammy. But what we failed to take into account is that our opponents had played organized football, with the Castle Junior High Longhorns.

Though we were bigger than some of the Castle crew, they had practiced organized football and used some sophisticated routines, beyond the simple “run for a pass.”

When they had us down about 60-0, we decided to call the game on account of darkness. We probably would have beaten them had the night not come so early that mid-summer evening.

What makes today’s activities different from those of yore is the location: games now are inside, and they involve more digital dexterity than our old games, which required catching, tagging and sometimes tackling someone.

But quite recently, I’ve learned about an activity that can provide the best of both worlds: exercise and indoor activity. But that’ll have to wait for a future column.

Last week, in a tribute to Ruben Cobos, the author of a northern New Mexico dictionary, I mentioned words we norteños use.

One was “flate,” our term for flat tire. One reader, Oneida L’esperance, whose grandparents once owned a grocery store in Old Town, reminded me that “flate” (pronounced flah-teh) is also the term for a “small flat bottle of whisky.”

I’d never heard that term to describe a flask of liquor, which Oneida says used to sell for 45 cents when she was a child.

One of the reasons we might have avoided the Spanish dictionary’s choice for a flat tire — pinchazo, reventón and llanta ponchada — is that one of the terms sounds like fighting words.

Art Trujillo is a copy editor at the Optic and a contributing member of the newspaper’s Editorial Board. He may be reached by calling 425-6796 or by e-mail to artbt@rezio.net or atrujillo@lasvegasoptic.com.