"The Wisconsin Years," from
My First Eighty Years (and then some!)
Lyle Arthur Seefeld
Copyright Ralph L. Seefeld and Carol
Howman. This book may not be reproduced or copied
in any manner without the written consent of Ralph L. Seefeld
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Chapter 9: Backyard "Olympics"
When I was a boy, there were practically no "ready-made" activities to keep us kids occupied after school and during vacations. Boys' Clubs were unheard of, and the Boy Scout organization (started in 1910) was just getting under way. There was a movie theater, but it showed movies only at night, and, besides, who had money for movies? So kids were left pretty much to their own devices.
Whenever a few of us boys gravitated together somewhere in the neighborhood, the first game usually suggested was baseball. There were no designated playgrounds, so we played in the streets. And there were never enough of us to play regulation baseball, with three bases, a pitcher and catcher, so we modified the game to fit the number of players. There was one baseball game which required only three players! One had to be the batter, of course, and there was a pitcher who didn't really pitch. He stood just across home plate from the batter, tossed the ball up in the air, and the batter swung at it as it fell to the ground. After three strikes the batter was "out," and became the fielder, while the "pitcher" batted next. The erstwhile fielder was now the "pitcher." If by some strange circumstance the batter hit the ball, he ran to the only base and tried to get back to home plate without being tagged. If he made it, he got to bat again, otherwise that three-player rotation took place, and he became the fielder.
Of course, if we had more players, the game was changed accordingly, more bases added, maybe a real pitcher and catcher. Sometimes the type of game changed so often that somebody lost track and was in for some good natured ribbing. Who had a baseball? Usually someone whose mother had donated a ball of store string to the cause. And sometimes the owner was lucky enough to have access to enough black electricians' tape to cover it. This tape kept the ball from disintegrating during the game, but also made it quite sticky until it had been properly initiated with dust and sand from the street. Sometimes someone had a regular baseball bat, but most often we had to use a narrow board or some other kind of stick, which made batting even more unpredictable.
Baseball was the only kind of ball game we played. Basketball was new, was being played in the high school gym, but hadn't yet made it to hoops on garages. After all, who had a garage? Football was being played by high school teams, but we didn't know much about it, and besides, who had a football?
Quite often when we tired of baseball, we turned to "track and field." As in baseball the events were modified to fit conditions, and we made up our own rules as we went along. Always impromptu and spontaneous, they sometimes started with "I'll race ya to the corner." Of course, we tried all of the jumps, the running broad jump, the standing broad jump, high jump, and sometimes even the pole vault. In the running broad jump, someone drew a line in the sand, and contestants started from a position of their choice, ran lickety split to the line and jumped as far as they could. Standing broad jumps were easier, and consisted of standing on a concrete curb and jumping as far as possible out into the dirt street.
Pole vaulting and high jumping required more equipment which we didn't always have. High jumping took the least, which often consisted of two sticks or poles stuck into the ground, with a piece of bamboo fishing pole supported at various heights by nails in the uprights. As in broad jumping, contestants started as far away as they liked, ran to the bar, and with much awkward flailing of arms and legs, jumped over it. I became quite good at high jumping, and often won those impromptu foot races, also. A couple times that I can remember, someone had supports, a cross bar and pole for pole vaulting. Under our conditions, the height at which the crossbar was set was determined as much by the hardness of the ground the jumper landed on as his ability to jump! We didn't have foam rubber pads to land on, not even a mattress.
Of course, we tried the shot-put. And of course the equipment was improvised. No circle to stay within, just a line in the sand. And the roundest rock we could find with what we thought was the proper weight became the "shot." No measurements were made. Instead a line drawn in the sand recorded each contestant's distance, and the one with the line farthest from the starting line won, naturally. No medals or prizes of any kind, just the grudging admiration of the other kids.
Once in a great while, one of the kids, in a burst of enthusiasm, fashioned a bow and some arrows. When it came to making arrows, I had the edge, having a lot of beautiful straight-grained cedar to work with (left-over scraps from Dad's boat building). Come to think of it, I had access to good bow-making material, too, in the form of left-over oak strips from the same source. Our "archery" contests were strictly informal and impromptu. The target was anything within bow-shot, except that sometimes one of us drew a circle on the wall of a shed (or other building) and the competition became a little more organized.
I don't know how the kids in our neighborhood were introduced to stilts. Suddenly, one summer, it seemed that all the boys I knew were obsessed by their ability to make themselves "taller" by walking around on blocks of wood more or less securely fastened to the sides of long poles. The height of these blocks above the ground depended as much on the user-builder's competitive spirit as on his ability to master the art of stilt-walking. Most stilts had no straps for keeping boys' feet on the wooden blocks, and I guess that was a mixed blessing. If he lost his balance or had to shed his stilts for any reason, all he had to do was step off, and would most likely land on his feet, with no harm done. With foot straps, abandoning the stilts was difficult, if not impossible, and I know of at least one broken leg sustained while stilt-walking.
Not all of us kids' vacation activities could be called sports. There was a lot of roller skating, on concrete sidewalks of course. There was no sidewalk on our street, so I had to walk a block before I got to where I could skate. I clearly remember my first pair of roller skates. They came from either Sears, Roebuck or Montgomery Ward, and when they came I was extremely disappointed. They were "plain bearing" skates, which meant that they didn't roll as easily as the "ball bearing" skates all the other kids had, and made skating hard work. So they were sent back to Chicago, and in a short time I had a pair of good skates.
Of course, these skates were of the adjustable "one size fits all" variety. They could be lengthened or shortened to fit the skater's shoes, had an ankle strap to hold the back end on, and an adjustable clamp in front which hooked on to the sole of the skater's shoe. These clamps were tightened and loosened with a "skate key" which could be found in almost every boy's pants pocket. These skate clamps must have given many parents headaches, because over-zealous tightening could easily separate thin, worn soles of shoes from their uppers, making repairs necessary.
As I mentioned before, our street didn't have any sidewalks to skate on, so I skated on other peoples' walks. Most of my skating was done on Lincoln Avenue between Second and Third streets. I sometimes skated down town for an item or two from a store, but I preferred skating where kids that I knew were skating too. After I had skated a while, I began to notice differences in the sidewalks I was skating on. The walks in front of some houses were as smooth as glass, and were a pleasure to skate on, while others were rough and produced a vibration that seemed to rattle my bones. But not all the smooth ones were the same. Some produced a flat, solid sound as the skates rolled on them, but others had places that sounded hollow, and probably were. So if you want to test your walk, put on some skates!
Most people didn't object to our skating on their sidewalks, but I have to tell you about one family that did. Mr. and Mrs. Bohmsach and their daughter lived in a big two-story house on the north side of Lincoln Avenue. The Bohmsach's had a ladies' apparel store down town, weren't home much of the time, and didn't mind our skating. But then, they moved out of this house to an apartment above their store, and the F_____s moved in. We were told that Mrs. F_____ had an illness which confined her to her bed, and skating noises disturbed her, so we were cautioned not to skate in front of their house. But neighborhood gossips, who must have been watching the windows, maintained that sometimes when Mr. F_____ was at work, they had seen Mrs. F_____ walking around, seemingly normal! Nobody knew except the family, and of course their doctor. Then suddenly Mr. F_____ died of a heart attack, and the story goes that after his death his widow left her bed, and resumed a normal life!
As we grew older, the excitement of roller skating wore off, and the skates were either discarded or handed down to a younger brother or sister, which I didn't have. It wasn't long, though, before one of the neighborhood boys improvised a new means of locomotion, the scooter. To make a scooter, you needed one good roller skate. With the ever present skate key, you loosened the screw which fastened the part with the front wheels to the back part and pulled them apart. Now you nailed, screwed, or otherwise fastened the front section to the bottom of a board about four inches wide and perhaps a foot and a half to two feet long. The rear section of the skate was fastened to the other end of the board. Begin to sound familiar? This scooter, though, had to have a handlebar. So another four inch board was nailed to the front of the "skate board" and braced somehow so it would remain upright. To finish it off, a stick about a foot long was nailed to the top of the upright, and you had a scooter with handlebars. And, with right foot on the board with wheels and both hands firmly grasping the handlebars, you propelled it by pushing backwards on the sidewalk with your left foot.
Some scooter builders weren't satisfied with the basic scooter, and painted or otherwise decorated theirs. One had a little windmill on the front which whirled as it whizzed along. And one had a bicycle bell, to warn pedestrians before he plowed into them! And there was one which had fastened to it a small wooden box with a hinged cover. A glove compartment on a scooter!
So now, while skate clamps no longer removed soles from shoes, a different shoe problem was created. Many boys wore a right shoe which was practically brand new, having been practically idle on the scooter, while the left shoe of the same pair had a hole worn in its sole from its constant contact with the sidewalk, both in making the scooter go forward and in scraping it on the sidewalk to stop it. More work for shoe repair people, like Mr. Osero.
In the winter, of course, we shifted to a whole new category of sports and pastimes made possible by the plentiful snow and ice. Living near the river gave me a distinct advantage in winter because not only was there ice to skate on, but the river banks ranged from low and gently sloping to high and steep, providing sledding hills for kids of all ages and experience levels. The best and fastest sledding hills were those that were steep and packed down hard by much use and the tramping of many feet. One hill in particular seemed to be the center of sledding activity in our neighborhood. It was the south bank of the river between Tomahawk and Second Avenues, almost the exact spot where I had seen that airplane crash! This hill was high and steep, and very fast, certainly not for beginners. But it wasn't fast enough for some people, though, so once in a while someone would go out there late in the day and pour water on the ruts. The next morning, after a sub-zero night, a sled would go down that hill as if jet propelled, and if the ice on the river was clear of snow, would coast almost out to that semi-island of weeds I told you about earlier.
You remember my "Flexible Flyer" sled. It's the same one I rode on in a box when I was little. It really was flexible, and could be steered! The runners were steel, slim and "springy", so arranged that by turning a wooden bar at the front, they could be bent. Not enough to go in circles, but enough to perhaps avoid another sledder who might not be able to steer his. Sledding down hill could be done two ways. In the beginner's way, the child sat upright on the sled, his feet on the steering bar, and his mittened hands desperately clutching the side of the sled. The older, more experienced sledder did what was called the "belly flop." He started standing up, with both hands holding the sled upright in front of him, ran as fast as he could to the start of the ruts, slammed the sled down on the hill, deposited himself on it (on his stomach) and held the steering bar with both hands while sled and rider whizzed down the hill.
Sometimes the hills were used for skiing. Most of us were satisfied just to ski down the hill and out on to the river ice, happy to remain upright! Some adventurous skiers, though, wanted more thrills, so they fashioned a pile of snow near the bottom of the hill into an improvised ski jump. I never tried ski jumping, and was just satisfied to remain standing after a "schuss" down the hill. Going downhill wasn't the only way I enjoyed skis. Being able to navigate over snow drifts which would have buried me if I hadn't been on skis gave me a lot of satisfaction.
Then winter was finally over, and my skis were put away until the next snow season. So, the next year, when there was enough snow for skiing I retrieved my skis, and immediately noticed something different about them. The front tips turned up only about half as much as they had the year before! I hesitated about using them, but they seemed to work all right on level snow, so I got brave (and foolish) and tried them on a downhill run. Everything went just fine until I reached the bottom of the hill. Then the only slightly bent up tips couldn't negotiate the transition from snow to ice, stuck in the edge of the ice, and I went sprawling flat on my face on that hard ice. I picked myself up and hurried home with a bleeding nose and a very sore face, not to mention a severely bruised ego! I never knew what happened to those skis after that, but I bet they made excellent kindling!
The ice on that part of the river between that "weed island" and the south shore was thick enough to skate on during most of the winter months. Whether we could skate on it, though, depended on nature's whims. If it remained free of snow, it was generally smooth and perfect for skating. If it snowed, and was cold enough that the snow was loose and "dry" it could be swept or plowed off, and skating was fine. But when the snow was the heavy wet kind, it froze over night and was impossible to remove, so we didn't skate.
My ice skates were the same as those belonging to everyone I knew, the clamp-on variety. I didn't even know there were such things as "shoe skates" until long after my skating days were over. These clamp-on ice skates had something in common with the clamp-on roller skates. They could both remove the soles from shoes! Girls' ice skates weren't quite so destructive, since they had ankle straps to hold them on the heel. There was even one type which had straps on both toe and heel. One of the necessities for any kind of ice skating is sharp skates. If the bottom edges of the blades are dull or rounded, they can slip sideways on the ice and deposit the skater on something other than his feet. I sharpened my skates with one of Dad's files, giving then two sharp and more or less square edges to "grab" the ice. Some skaters had special sharpeners which one pushed back and forth along the edge of the runner, eventually giving it the preferred "hollow ground" shape. That was a luxury item which I never had.
When the weather and the ice were good, there was usually quite a lot of skating activity on that part of the river, since. being away from the main channel, it was believed to have the safest ice. So there might be an impromptu race: "I'll race you to the boathouse!" Or maybe a few boys played a form of hockey, using bent sticks and a block of wood which served as the puck. And sometimes there were pairs of skaters gliding along with arms interlaced, oblivious of the others, just enjoying their shared activity and togetherness. Sometimes I actually enjoyed the winters in Wisconsin!