wasn’t very old when I saw my first game of checkers being played by some men that were truly into the game. It was at a local barber shop and the two gentlemen were laughing one minute and ready to fight the next. Wow! I watched a number of the games and they were kind enough to teach me some of the rudiments. Over the years it seemed to me that they held championship matches as a daily event. There were other checker games going on at other barber shops, in front of the courthouse, and on the benches that were in front of some stores on Main Cross Street. There always seemed to be a gathering of men playing or encouraging others at the Rexall Drug store, or Doc Skagg’s.
The men played, chewed tobacco, spit, and used colorful language (cussed) if there were no women around. Come to think of it, women didn’t seem to be around those places much unless it just couldn’t be avoided. It was then that I began to see a difference in how men acted when they were alone, and when women or tender children were nearby. This helped teach me how I should behave, especially around mixed company. As for the game of checkers, I was never good enough to think more than eight or ten moves ahead, so knew I wasn’t going to be all that good. I won my share, but I’d never be in a championship game.
I think I was around twelve when someone gave me a chess set. I thought the little pieces were cute, if gothic, but I had no idea of the various moves they could make. I read the rules and it helped. Today, we can simply Google and learn more in a few minutes than I ever learned by just playing the game. The instruction booklet tucked under the board gave me more insight. I learned how to set the board correctly, and that the white corner square was to be at the bottom. White had to ‘go’ first to start the game. I got to learning how each piece, or character, could move about the board. I studied and studied and finally felt I was ready for a match, but there was no one I knew that could play against me. RATS!
Out of desperation I taught my cousin George how to play. That wasn’t much fun because he tended to have an attitude that he already knew everything. Finally, he was not only playing but beating me. I had little left to do but look around for new victims. Luckily, in time, I discovered others around the neighborhood that could play a little. As with all games, whether baseball, track, golf, football, or whatever, you are only as good as your competition. It is very hard to polish your skills if fair was ‘good enough.’ I read about some famous chess moves and learned to use entrapment methods to win games within just a few early plays. In the end, all that did was make the game more unpopular with my opponents. I finally became bored with chess and pretty subsequently stopped playing.
There was solitaire and picture puzzles, but playing with others was where I saw the real fun. Not always winning, but having companions with which to bond became my real focus. Winning was an over-estimated value. I figured out that in life we enjoy those with whom we share experiences. These kinds of friends remain friends forever.
As I got older, I played the usual ‘choose-up’ games of tag, dodge-ball, softball and baseball, football, and basketball. On those days when weather or a minor illness forced us to do something less vigorous, many of us turned to board games. Of course, the single most popular one was Monopoly. We played that for hours and in spite of the hidden messages of how to handle investments, we enjoyed the calamities as much as our victories. Our very conversations were full of clichés learned from Monopoly. Even today I’m apt to tell someone to ‘pass go and NOT to collect $200.’ I’m reminded every time I get a tax bill, or need to donate to Community Chest, that the game imitates life.
I think as I got to be in my mid-to-late teens I began to work on my pool game. It was great to hang out with the guys, smoke cigarettes, tell jokes and shoot pool way into the night. The problem was that it was about this time that I was growing fond of being around the fairer sex. I had to face it, the girls simply didn’t hang out at the pool hall. That was, of course, a good thing because we’d have to clean up the language and stop spitting on the floor. Why, we’d even have to stop smoking and telling off color jokes. In my naivety I imagined girls wouldn’t understand the rough talk, but cussing was nonetheless insulting to them even if maybe they didn’t understand. Well, I was pretty naïve in those day and doubted girls ever had a bad thought. I was gradually dragged out of that mindset. My dear great-aunt told me once that every girl was a lady until she proved otherwise. As I grew older I came across a few who did prove otherwise. It was shocking to hear a woman swear, wear pants, and even chew, or smoke! Suffering thought disillusionment I began to see females were people, too. It didn’t matter because by that time I was hooked by their sweet angelic images anyway. Oh, I still think girls are a mystery and they remain clearly sweeter than most of us guys.
Whether it’s Tic TAC Toe, hangman, jacks or hopscotch, games were a big part of life back then. Some boys threw jack-knives or played marbles. The girls played with paper dolls or baked cookies in their little toy kitchens. We all played in the sand, whether a real, official sand box, or a dusty place in the yard, but we played. We romped all around, usually hollering, until we couldn’t play anymore. Life was good. I never admitted it, but sleep was sweet after a hard day of play.
We didn’t know much about the real stuff going on in the world. We left that to the grownups. It was their job to pay the bills, prepare the meals, buy new clothing when it was needed, and to keep up the house. No one told us that if a marriage was in trouble, or a cousin was deathly ill. We had no idea all those things we experienced playing Monopoly was really going on all around us. We might have heard of someone out of work, or being transferred, or losing a grandparent, but it wasn’t life-jarring to a kid unless we personally knew the person. Still, we were aware that life has its hard times. It wasn’t always about ‘happy’ ever after like the Disney movies we saw at our local theater, the ‘Garden’.
We heard some stories about some ‘poor children,’ that needed help. This was especially true around Christmas. Most of us would chip in their pennies to make life a little better for hurting folks. We were uplifted by the stories of kindness and thoughtfulness of others. We learned that there can be a ‘dark side’ of life, but like the folk song, we preferred to ‘Keep on the Sunny side.’ It was better to think positively, and to try and give hope to those around us.
Whether bonding through playing games, or just keeping a positive outlook, I still see kids doing the same things, but with new tools. A handheld device gives them access to far greater opportunities for good as they communicate constantly with each other. They can play electronic games and network with large groups of their peers. They can share a moment yet not be together. They can see an event from the safety of the home. They can also be lured into the ‘poolrooms’ of life where they should not tread. Yet, many will explore at their own peril. Lucky ones will recover, but some will find it costly as joy is sucked out of their lives.
Games meant less when we got older. Slumber parties or birthday celebrations were a time that boys and girls played games or pared off into couples. I went to a few where the games were ‘Spin the Bottle’ or ‘Post Office.’ These were kissing games. Some chose not to play, others did. We learned a little about kissing then, and became a little less shy with one another, but that could have gone overboard or put someone in a position of having to kiss someone they didn’t want. It would soon enough be time for real dating and parking the car in a lonely spot. Some fell in love and later married.
Growing up, life was simpler. The risks were there, but not as accessible as now. We could still play too close to the tracks or highway, and we could cross the wrong pasture in sight of a mean bull. We could tempt fate with secret behaviors and we could try the forbidden. We could smoke ‘life everlasting,’ or try a chaw of tobacco. We had much of our innocence because much of life was still a mystery. The web, social media, and even the conversations of today take that mystery away and replace it with temptation. Who can stand such an assault? So be in prayer, my friends, and be positive. And when you have a chance, teach a kid to play checkers, or maybe chess.
Happy July 4th, too !!!!!