Milk Boxes, “It” & Summer Recreation

An Early Memory from Summer Recreation

Where elementary schoolboys and schoolgirls tagged one another “it,” consumed prepackaged meats with savory chocolate milk, and dared each other to do devilish deeds––that’s where I first learned that historical matronly mandate: that ladies, especially “young misses,” must cross their slender legs anytime they sit down, for it is risqué to display one’s clothed crotch to the world, I supposed.

As a quasi-undefiled youth, I never understood that imposing demand. “If boys could sit with their legs open, then why not the girls?” I would ask myself. “It’s uncomfortable anyway!” But the Summer Recreation program at my nominal grammar school, Anna L. Klein, on the fringes of New York City in Guttenberg, NJ, would over time teach me many things I could not understand.

Summer Recreation, by far, was my favorite childhood pastime, a fulltime, a 9-to-5 gig of playground jollification and field trips for which I showed up at 8:00 A.M. In the morning, a tranquil drove of pupils would arrive in Guttenberg’s only outdoor play place, which hosted a thrilling tire swing, monkey bars (on which we’d play “Monkey Wrestling”), and several yellow and orange slides, the tallest of which was best to slide down after running through the playground’s sprinklers, since the water significantly reduced friction, or, as I said back then, “The water made it fun and fast!” allowing brave kids to first experience the frights of gravitational force.

Around 12:00 P.M., before students really cranked up their hysteria, staffers––usually older high school students––walked us over to the town’s Recreation Center, a spacious community center built tough for school dances, senior citizens’ bingo, and the yearly trophy awards for Little League Baseball and “IYB,” Klein’s basketball league. I don’t know exactly what age I was, but I remember one awards ceremony where I received nothing.

The whole center was adorned and trimmed with streamers of every color and banners boasting the different sports teams in the town. Teachers and parents (except for my own) chatted and praised my praiseworthy peers, who all, for some reason, got trophies engraved with their names. “David Meyers,” called Principal Robert Tholen, the emcee of the evening. “Joshua Cabrera…Thomas Hopkins,” he continued as, one by one, they ran giddily with smiles as wide as an ocean to claim their respective prizes at the podium.

My brother Dario was there, too. He’s a few years older than I and, at the time, much cooler and more athletic. He and his seventh- or eighth-grade teammates eagerly waited for the Principal to broadcast their names, confirming their skills to one another and showboating their up-to-date masculinity to any wary and watching lady friend, who, more than likely, had her legs crossed and hands folded at a nearby table.

“…S-f-orza,” Mr. Tholen pronounced into the podium’s microphone, attached to a miniscule podium-speaker, loud enough for half the audience to hear, capturing my attention, though, and shocking me to the core. “I won a trophy,” I thought. After allowing a surfeit of pent-up resentment towards my friends and coaches over not receiving one, I finally got a prize!

Soon enough, though, my hopes were quashed. “D-d-ario S-f-orza,” Mr. Tholen confirmed. I never resented my brother, but man that did hurt.

My pangs of that day were mollified when my friends and I stood in front of the roaring wind tunnels that were the rec-center’s air conditioner exhaust. The moderately warm, intense blow of air would always dissolve us into laughter, as our loose shirts and shorts flailed and thrashed about on that hushed urban street.

After devouring our boxed lunches, back to the oft-torrid playground we went, where dozens of footballs, bats and baseballs, soccer balls and basketballs were unleashed into our barbarous hands. I routinely stuck with playing stickball, for which we taped a strike box against a nearby wall. The rules were simple: if launched over fence one, there was to be a man on second; if hit within the second fence and not caught on a fly or on one bounce, there was to be a man on third; fouls were to be determined on a case-by-case basis, and, finally, that all-too desired hit: the homerun hit was only deemed a homerun if, and only if, that little yellow tennis ball was catapulted over the farther, second fence, where only bulky staffers and pompous high school kids could hit a ball. One day, I knew I would, too.

It was a brilliantly sunny day, that time. I woke earlier than usual simply because I was in a grand mood; my mom sent me off refreshed with toast and my dog barked goodbye. Frank Guzman, who was about a year older than I, congenially challenged me to a baseball duel. I think it was about the third inning in our deadlocked matchup when it happened.

My arm was feverishly strained from over-pitching, and he, well, incessantly missed the strike box, but every time he wound up to hurl that yellow tennis ball down my way, I readied up, flexing and lifting my left leg as I had been taught, keenly scanning the ball’s movement and viciously wanted to smack it over the second fence, out onto the street and maybe onto a driver’s windshield.

And there it went! Up! Higher and higher into the sun’s field of vision, nearly blinding all who tracked it, until it reappeared––angling itself further right than I had hoped––descending over the second fence. I felt accomplished, until Guzman, furious that someone swatted his pitch into the hardly touched homerun zone, challenged the hit as a foul. I became equally furious, arguing that it clearly flew within the designated “fair” poles. We consulted a nearby staff member who had been watching. He thought for a moment, looked at my thick, moist eyes and said it was a foul. Choked up and frustrated, I kept on playing, not as nearly as committed as before, though. I think Guzman won that game.

Another time, to my chagrin, I had to shamefully leave my animated playground behind because my whole backside, from the ends of my hand-me-down jeans to the cusps of my scrawny shoulders, was muddied after gliding down the largest slide in the park, only to thud down on an already mud-caked landing zone. As a punitive drawback, I was never able to impishly thrust myself off that slide again. I know I was dirty, but I was also a spirited child.

Where there were upsets, there were also times of great joy at Summer Recreation.

At the close of one long day, one staffer, Jeff O’Connor, who was putting everything away in the playground’s shack, unremittingly quipped with everyone, intentionally including any with “lesser” reputations. His mother, Mrs. O’Connor, was an ironclad teacher’s aid in Klein, always shoeing students into class and hollering at us to behave. The obvious disparity in their characters was always strange to me, a rather inconsistent occurrence.

Most of the steadfast students who developed a reputation were crowded around the shack, where they stored all the sports items. My friend Unnamed, who was always a little selfish, brought a bag filled to the brim with flavored 10-cent ice pops that he had bought from the corner store. He began to pass them out to everybody there, except me. Jeff O’Connor looked me in the eyes and saw the dismay of being excluded, like a maimed bird being left to suffer alone amid hundreds of others. He shouted for another ice pop, opened it and handed it to me. I smiled appreciatively and sunk my teeth in so quickly in fact that my brain froze over. I started respecting and obeying Mrs. O’Connor after that.

Summer Recreation was just a slice of my childhood. Although I share some of my more personal and poignant moments here, I was most often a carefree and mellow boy, with plenty of friends to go around and an excellent upbringing by my mother, who was always willing to receive me into her bosom if I came home teary-eyed at having been emotionally scarred while away at Recreation. It was she who taught me the art of confidence, albeit seldom felt. It was she who continually told me Biblical bedtime stories and made me warm milk before bed. And although it she imposed that matronly mandate mentioned earlier on my sister, I never once doubted her instruction, even if it confused me.

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