The Games--How we Played Them
It was a clear and sunny day one summer, forty-five years ago. Any day will do. At first light my street came alive with activity. Within the confines of a single city block in the Bronx, the kids emerged to play the typical street games we all knew and loved. The scene was set.
ACE-KING-QUEEN (KING-QUEEN): Usually four or more players each occupying a sidewalk box facing an apartment building wall. The ranks were Ace, King, Queen, Jack, all the way down to the lowest position or breadbox or breadbasket (sometime the ace would be lowest, hence the name KING-QUEEN), The person who was in the Ace box or King box would start the play by hitting the spalding (spaldeen) with the palm of his hand against the wall on one bounce into the adjacent box. The ball must bounce to the ground only once. The receiving player would have to hit the ball on the fly or after one bounce into another adjacent box, it didn't matter which one. And so on in the same manner. If a player misses or if it bounces more than once before he can return it a point against was charged and he was demoted a to a lower ranking square. If the King or Ace missed, no point was charged, he simply moved down to the lower rank. When a player accumulated a certain number of points (usually 11 or 21) he is eliminated from the game. The last remaining player wins.
ASSES UP: In certain games if a player lost, his punishment was to face a wall, bend over making his bottom the target. Each member of the team would have one chance to throw a spaldeen at his backside. They would line up around 30 feet away and take aim at his butt. King-Queen losers were usual targets. Worse things happened to you if you tried to run off. You had to stand there (or rather bend over) and take your medicine.
BASEBALL CARD FLIPPING: Cards were flipped one at a time to the sidewalk. Anywhere from one or more (no limit on the number) could be flipped. It was how many cards you were willing to risk losing. The opposing player must match the obverse or reverse of the card on the ground otherwise he'd lose that card he flipped. Many techniques were employed to try and match the cards. A quick motion with the wrist, or a swing your arm back then forward for a fast flipping release. Another was to hold your arm stiff at your side and let the card tumble slowly to the ground.
BASKETBALL: Aside from playing in the local schoolyard, we'd improvise and use the bottom rung of a fire escape ladder as the hoop. Using the lower rung of the ladder we'd run and toss the ball through scoring the usual points, however since there was no backstop we'd approach the "basket" from both sides.
BOX BALL: Using two sidewalk squares, two players would face each other. A spaldeen would be served by slapping it into the opponent's box. The lines on the concrete define the boundaries and the crack in the middle is the imaginary net separating the court. You would win a point with a successful volley, that is, when your opponent misses a shot.. Twenty-one is normally a winning score. You must win by two or more points, so the score could range higher than twenty-one.
CAT'S CRADLE: A girl's game normally. Using both hands, a string or elastic was employed to make shapes passing them back and forth between two persons. Some designs I remember were the Cat's Eye, the Manger, Diamonds, and the Army Cot. You need two people. A string long enough had to be used so intricate shapes can be made, taking turns developing the shapes. "You" is the first person; "she" is the second person. Each person taking a turn making a series of loops, scoops and twists, pinching and pulling the string until the desired shape is achieved. My sister and her friends played cat's cradle. I watched them, fascinated. I tried to do it once, but gave up in total frustration. I left it for the girls to figure it out!
CHALK-IN-THE-SOCK: Taking any colored chalk place it inside a knee-length winter woolen sock. Then you would crush the chalk until it was a fine powder at the toe of the sock. Tie the open end and use it as a mace, swinging it around hitting a wall, the sidewalk, each other and leaving chalk marks everywhere. Instead of wooden swords we'd use chalk-in-the-sock in street battles, taking ash can lids and using them as shields. What mayhem ensued!
CURB BALL: Hit the spaldeen against the sharp edge of the curb causing it to fly up as high as possible. The fielder must catch it on the fly to get an out...otherwise the amount of bounces determines if it was a single, double, triple. Four bounces is a homer. There were no bases to run. You just take turns when the inning was over. A regular nine-inning game was played.
COWBOYS AND INDIANS: I was all of six years old wearing my Hopalong Cassidy outfit. It was black from ten-gallon hat to my boots. I had two fancy six shooters. The girls had their Annie Oakley and Dale Evans outfits. Some of the kids spanked themselves on the butt running up the street pretending to be riding a horse. Some children dressed as Indians and the battle began.
ERRORS: Two players face an apartment wall. Each takes turns throwing a spaldeen against the wall toward each other. The player must catch the ball on one bounce without dropping it or a point was scored against him as if an error was made.
FORTUNE TELLERS: This was one of the names we called these paper-made creations. Take a piece of blank white paper, square it off to 8 1/2 x 8 1/2 fold it at the corners inward then back again. Four pyramid shaped pockets are the result with flaps on the inside. Some of these inside triangles had to be cut with a scissors to open the flaps up. You would then number the outside pockets, and inside flaps and write either a funny saying under them or a fortune.
HANDBALL: We had no handball court on our black so we went to P.S. 59 where we played Three-Wall-Handball. There was a configuration of one corner of the main building that cornered on three sides, one long two short. Two or four players could play. Rebounds off a three-sided wall made for interesting returns. Each miss was a point until the loser scored 21. After each game (using the good old spaldeen) my right hand was swollen twice its size. In regular handball many players used a fingerless padded glove and a harder black rubber ball.
HANGMAN'S NOOSE (aka HANGMAN, GALLOWS) (This could be played indoors as well as outdoors). Using chalk or a pencil and paper, begin by drawing the beginnings of a gallows. It will look like a figure seven with a diagonal line at an angle. The hangman selects a secret word (any word) and draws a blank line for each letter under the gallows. The condemned man seeking a reprieve asks the hangman if a certain letter is in the word, for instance, "a" (we'd usually start with vowels). If the letter is in the word it was written on the proper line if not the hangman would add to the gallows. Each missed letter another part of the gallows was constructed, then the noose, then the stick figure of the condemned man. If all the body parts were reach, arms legs etc, it was curtains, and the condemned man was hung. If the word was discovered before all parts of the gallows and victim was complete, the condemned man was freed.
HIT-THE-STICK: Using a Popsicle stick (after the Good Humor man sold his ice cream) it would be placed on the seam in the sidewalk. Players stand at either end of the sidewalk box behind the line defining the box. You could not step over this line. The object was to hit the stick with the bouncing ball scoring a point. The first person to reach 21 wins. Many times the players would try to flip the stick over! This can also be played with a coin.
HOPSCOTCH: (aka POTSIE): Normally it was a girl's game. It was the pick up the stone or marker variation. Tossing a rock or marker or any heavy object into a numbered box you would hop up the court turn and pick it up after making a round. A hopscotch court was drawn with chalk or painted permanently in the asphalt street. Each box was about 18 inches square numbered from one to eight or nine with a home box at the far end. Some were the straight box style; some were the straddle numbered type. The player tosses the marker into box one. It must land directly inside the box without bouncing out or touching the line. If the marker is in the wrong square, the player loses her turn. Side by side squares are straddled, singles squares are hopped on one foot. Each time through the course the player must pick up the marker or stone without missing a square, stepping on the line or losing her balance.
HOCKEY (STREET HOCKEY): We played with roller skates, a hockey stick, puck and some uniforms, using the manhole cover as the goal. We played far enough up the center of the block so we never lost any pucks down the open sewers like the balls lost in stickball.
JACKS: (Pick-up-sticks was a variation). Another girl's game it was played indoors as well. Two players sit face to face. There were 15 Jacks and one small ball. Jacks were thrown into the air, whoever caught the most went first. Then the first player gathers up all the Jacks in one-hand tosses them gently to the ground inside a circled space. She then tosses the ball in the air...with the object being to pick up a designated number of jacks with the same hand. It starts with one jack till a player misses. The game continues until someone succeeds in picking up all the jacks at once. I watched my sister play this game and never remember anyone ever being able to pick up all the jacks. No one ever won at this game!
JOHNNY-ON-THE-PONY (RIDE THE PONY as we called it): This was a two-team game. One team forms the horse. The lead person would stand erect against a wall, bracing himself. Each person as part of the horse would bend over. The first person would bury his head in the stomach of the lead or upright party (sometimes called a " post"). The other team members would bend behind one another
JUMP ROPE: Strictly a girl's game in my neighborhood. Either a single rope was used or two held by a girl at either end, while other girls jumped in the middle. Double Dutch was most popular form. Sometimes a song or a rhyme was started as the girls jumped. Jump to the beat then jump out when the song or rhyme was over.
KICK THE BOX (CAN): Get a cardboard box usually around twenty inches square and kick it back and forth at each other trying to touch your opponent. The object being to dodge each attempted kick. I've played this in apartment house basements, in the alleyways, even on the roof. Played with two persons, normally.
LANYARDS: These were plastic strips usually four to a set, each a different color. The kids would weave them together to form braided strand to be used as key chains, bracelets etc. there were several different types of stitches...box stitch, diamond or snake stitch, barrel and braided. Kids spent hours in the streets or at their homes weaving these things.
MARBLES: (Archboards): This is the only version of marbles we played on my block. Taking a cigar box or shoebox three different sized holes or doorways (archways) were cut at the top spaced equally apart. Each doorway represented a difficulty level at for which you would win a certain amount of marbles if your shot entered that doorway. Finding a seat by a curb, with enough space between two parked car, the marble maven would set up by turning the box over exposing the hole toward the street. The shooter would then take aim at the smallest box hoping to have his marble enter there and win the most amounts of marbles from the box holder. If he missed, his marble was lost to the box owner. Again many kids had special techniques to try and gain an advantage...but like a gambling casino, the odd were with the house.
OFF-THE-WALL (THE WHITE WALL): The west end of 184th street ended at Park Avenue because of the sunken railroad track. There was a 15-foot long four-foot high white concrete median erected there to guide cars away from the tracks. We used it to play Off-The-Wall. Each corner had an open sewer, which we used for bases. There were three bases ... first, third and home only. A square box was painted in the middle of the wall. We would slam the ball against the box and run toward the first sewer. The fielder would throw to the first baseman for the out...and the game was under way. That section of Park, which paralleled the tracks, was still cobblestone surface, so when the ball bounce on the ground it took all sorts of crazy hops and spins. It made for a real interesting game. Kids from other neighborhoods came there to use OUR wall.
PADDLE BALL: The small rubber ball was attached with an elastic stapled to the wooded paddle. You would simply hit it back and forth slapping it with the paddle over and over again. This was a fad that was made popular after the 3-D movie "House of Wax" with Vincent price appeared in the theatres. Remember the pitchman outside the Wax museum. He paddled the ball into the audience's laps with the 3-D illusion. Everyone had to have one of these. And like all fads it didn't last long.
PEA SHOOTERS: Dried peas shot through a straw with the velocity of a blowgun made for great fun.
PITCHING-IN: This is a derivative of stickball. A painted square was targeted by the pitcher throwing a spaldeen toward a batter with a broomstick. This was played across the street, not up the street, so the height of the ball against the opposite wall determined the bases or runs scored. This could be played with only two players.
PITCHING PENNIES: Toss a penny as close to the curb as you can from an agreed upon distance. The next person in order to win that penny had to come closest to the curb inching ahead of the first penny tossed. I've seen instances where a penny actually leaned against the curb in a vertical position!
PUNCH BALL: Played with a spaldeen and a fist in the middle of the street. Similar to a stickball game except that there was no pitching- in or use of a stick. The "batter" would throw the ball in the air and punch it toward the fielders, running the bases which were usually car door handles, tires or sewers. It was scored like a regular baseball game.
RINGOLEAVIO: Choose up two teams of any number of players, usually 10 or more to each side. One team is the "hunters", the other team "the Prey or the Hunted," A "pen, or "den" or "jail" as they were called was established as a holding area for the captured team members. These pens were located in front of building or garages, or nearby stoops. It couldn't be enclosed; it had to be exposed with imaginary fences.
ROLLER SKATING: We had those adjustable steel roller skates with the leather straps and metal buckle. Flipping the skate over there was a nut to adjust the length between the toe and the heel to make the skate shorter or longer depending on shoe size. The clamp up front secured your shoe or sneaker. A skate key was needed. Many kids, especially the girls, wore their key on a string or chain around their neck so they wouldn't misplace it. Many a sole was torn off eventually because of the tightening of the clamps at the toe. The ball bearings in the wheels didn't last that long either. The wheels would flatten and I'd be asking my parents to buy me another pair within a year or so,
RUNNING BASES: Running back and forth between two manhole covers (bases) two fielders would throw the ball ahead to the person at the base trying to tag us out. It was simply an exercise in running ability, beating the throw before you got tagged. We'd never slide on asphalt.
SCOOTERS: The scooter was a popular substitute for a bike and probably more versatile. It was made from a four foot long 2" x 4" piece of lumber. A single roller skate was separated and the wheels nailed under the plank of wood. Next a milk or vegetable crate was nailed at one end; wooden handlebars were attached to the top. The crate was adorned with soda cans, bottle caps and flags and anything else to give it distinction. It was hard to steer, but it served for running errands for our parents, using the box to haul back groceries. We raced the scooters many times. Friends of mine even raced them down Snake Hill (184th between Tiebout and Webster). It was a windy, curvy hill; also Convent Hill (185th between Washington and Bassford.) was another popular site for the scooter. It was called Convent Hill because the Dominican nuns had their Convent on that block).
THE SHAM BATTLE: This might be considered a forerunner of Paintball! This was a war game played among adolescents. Equipment consisted of plastic helmet, (some kids had authentic steel helmets their fathers brought home from WWII), a rifle that shot rubber bullets, any sidearm would also have to shoot rubber bullets, a rubber knife, canteen, binoculars for some a back pack with some food, and a lot of boys. Usually we would meet at the Snuff Mill Restaurant in the Botanical Gardens. The surrounding woods, Bronx River and open fields served as the terrain we'd used to conduct the war games.
SKULLY (SKULLSIES, as we called it): A skullsies game board was painted permanently in the middle of the street. It was around five to eight feet square with numbered squares at the corners on each side and in the middle. A diagram and very detailed rules can be accessed on the Internet. The numbers ran one through thirteen (thirteen being the dead zone or skully). The boxes are about 4" square (This version is much smaller that other boards). There wasn't much room on the street in my block. The board size varied. The game was played by flicking bottle caps into the numbered squares. Two to six players were needed to play. I normally played with a friend of mine early on Saturday mornings when we had the street to ourselves. The surface was the asphalt street. It had to be smooth and unobstructed, no cracks, bumps or depressions. The center box 13 was the dead area, the skull.
STICKBALL: This is THE game played on most city streets. Everyone played stickball. The equipment: A broomstick and the Spalding High-Bounce Pink Ball (the Spaldeen), three manholes and a lot of kids. Bases were car door handles, car tires, manhole covers, and Johnny pumps, anything that served as a practical base. The walls of the apartment buildings were the foul lines. If the ball hit them it was foul. Parked cars were ignored except if they were used for bases.
Choosing Sides: An important aspect of playing to win was selecting the best players. We all knew who were the best and the worst, so choosing sides became crucial.Several methods were:
After the selections were made and the sides were established the next step was to determine who got last licks. A broomstick was used in this instance. The stick was thrown into the air and caught by one of the team captains. The other captain then placed his palm or fingers about the person's hand holding the stick. Each took a turn up the bat until the top was reached. Whoever remained holding the bat won the home field advantage. Sometime the person holding the bat was using barely two fingers. So a final test was administered. The opposing team captain got one shot to try and kick the bat out of his grasp. If he could, the bat holder's team went last, the he was able to kick it loose, and his team would have last licks. Simple, fair and square.
Fishing balls out of the sewer. Occasionally during the course of the game a ball or bat would fall down the open sewer at the corners. Using a coat hanger was the answer. It could be stretched out and a loop made at one end. It was lowered down the sewer to fish out the ball and anything else worth salvaging. This saved a lot of "chips on the balls", for those unlucky souls who lost the balls. Had to pay to buy a new one. The game progresses through the nine innings or more if necessary. The line score was kept with chalk near the side of the curb. It had a very unique shape. A triangular box for team names and square boxes delineated each inning. We all took turns keeping score. There were three manholes up the block so we called it a three-sewer homer.
STINK BOMBS: Rolled up pieces of photo film tightly wrapped and sealed inside loose-leaf paper or shopping bag paper was the essence of the "bomb". You would set both ends on fire, toss it on the ground or inside a hallway and stomp on it, creating black, acrid, pungent smoke that stunk to high heaven. Boys will be boys!
STOOP BALL: Played against the steps on a stoop. The sidewalk and street is the field. Providing there was no parked car obstructing play, the game could be played. Throw the ball (spaldeen) against the steps. Agree on amount of points. If the ball bounces back the player catches it on the fly, it's worth a certain amount of points. There is a chalk line the player cannot cross. it is called the "short line." If the ball bounces more than once, you're out. All players get to finish a turn. The term "last licks", comes into play here a lot ... it is the final attempt to get a better score.
TAG: The player who is "it" attempts to tag (touch) one of the other players and when successful runs away, so as not to be tagged in turn. You cannot duck down alleyways, Fences and high stoops, like my courtyard are boundaries. You were confined to the block.
TOPS: A chalk circle was drawn and tops were spun one against the other trying to knock your opponent's out of the circle. Some kids lifted them up in their palm and layed the spinning top down as close to your rival as possible.
TOUCH FOOTBALL: This game is normally played during the winter months. Three or more players are needed. An agreed upon amount of touchdowns is determined before the start of the game. The field is from one manhole cover to the farthest one. These are the endzones. The parked cars are out of bounds. Score is kept by counting each touchdown; there are no points. After choosing sides and determining who receives the ball, the "kicking" team captain THROWS the ball to the opposing team. The "tackle" is made when a defensive player touches the ball carrier with BOTH hands or fingers. Blocks can be made to protect the ball carrier just like regular football. Play resumes at the line of scrimmage.
RAINY DAYS AND WINTER MONTHS
We were just as active indoors as well as out on the street. When the weather prevented us to play outdoors, we had plenty to kept us busy in our apartments and houses.
I'm including some frequently used and recognized expressions popular with the kids in those years.
Playing "for fair," "for keeps"
"Finders keepers, losers weepers." If you were unfortunate and lost something it was picked up immediately by a "friend" who kept it and said these lines in spite.
"No Fair. Do Over."
"Chips on the Ball" (if you lost a spalding ball in the course of a game, you had to buy a new one)
"I'm Larry" Getting a final turn, last licks, going last in card flipping.
"Dibs" Same as chips on the ball
"Red Light green Light, 1 2 3"
"Dare", "Double dare"
"Black, no backs," Say this while touching something black. The person you're talking to cannot talk back with a sassy remark to something you've just said, an insult or accusation.
"That's Boss," "She's (he's) Boss." Praising the person or object, extolling its virtues, cool, groovy.
"I'll sound you so low you'll be playing handball off the curb." There were many of these types of sordid remarks.
"He's got more nerve than brains."
"Go stamp chestnuts."
"Take a long walk off a short pier."
"Tell the truth and shame the Devil."
In a Foot Race often times someone would shout, "Last one to the stoop is a rotten egg." Then the reply would come from the last runner: "And the first one takes his place."
"You left me flat."
"Shake a leg."
"Put on your thinking caps!"
"Go fly a kite."
Murray the "K" Kaufman and the Swingin' Soiree began his show with a chant that went something like this:
We were told it meant "Come let us pull" in Swahili.
"Last Licks." Getting up last in a street game.
"He's a real Susie-Mary" meaning a sissy.
"Liar liar pants on fire,"
"Spring for it." Buy me a soda.
"Gammanucce." A deriding term tagging a person as not very bright.
"Indian Giver." This is a familiar term signifying a person who gave something away as a gift but later asked for it back.
"Mau Mau," meaning a really physically ugly person. I believe the term began to be used on my block after an episode of that TV series Ramar of the Jungle (Jon Hall). After a while we seemed to apply it to anyone we didn't like ... "You're a Mau Mau,"
"Four Eyes." Any kid unlucky to be wearing eyeglasses we labled "four eyes."
"You stink on ice," or "He stinks on ice." Used in street Hockey expressing dismay over a poor play or inept player.
There are many other expressions, some unique, some well known. These street slang words were used constantly throughout the day.
ADDENUM: Not Quite Games
In the course of the day there were many activities that were borderline games. The children interacted with each other in many ways; here are just a few.
Indian Wrist Burns: Grabbing another kid's wrist, this person would use both hands and twist in opposite directions causing a "wrist burn," not very pleasant, but it happened quite often, and for no good reason.
Knucks: We corrupted this version of a marble game into two quite painful uses. The normal version of "kuncks" was to place a small marble between the knuckles resting the hand on the ground. His playmate shoots a larger marble at his knuckles and scores points everytime a shot hits the marble held in the knuckle. We never played this version, instead, we'd take a marble, place it firmly under the middle finger so the knuckle stuck out, then used the knuckle to whack someone on the head! Almost the equivalent of brass knuckles, except it was a single finger that was used.
Chinese Hand Cuffs: This was a little more fun, if not frustrating. The Chineese Hand Cuff was a three or four inch long wicker tube, narrow in the middle, flaring at the ends. If you stuck your index fingers inside either end it was impossible to pry your fingers loose. The trick was to push your index fingers into the device as far as they would go then pull apart in one mighty yank. This would release the fingers and you were free. Funny thing, you weren't forced to lock your fingers inside this thing. You hand-cuffed (rather finger-cuffed) yourself. Quite a silly predicament. You should have seen many of the kids struggling to get themselves free before thay figured out how to get loose.
Flexible Flyer Sled: I mentioned earlier we used these sleds down favorite hills or were pulled along by a playmate.
Radio Flyer Steel Wagons: Remember the red steel wagons everyone seem to be pulling a friend along? These were in constant use for many years.
* * *
I had fun compiling this information and hopefully it will kindle some fond memories for you as we travel back to those special years.
Gregory J. Christiano
Comments or questions, share your own recollections?
©2002 MyRecollection.com. and Gregory J. Christiano