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Survival of the fittest: Before springing into the playground season, reminiscing about an old school park

Even at 37, Thomas Sellers Jr. can still appreciate the upgrade and technological innovations of today’s playgrounds. Photo by Thomas Sellers Jr.

Have you noticed the days getting a little bit longer?

The weather is getting inconsistent in that way warmness makes us long to go outside. Spring is officially a couple of weeks away. Several area schools will be on spring break over the next couple of weeks.

Get ready, local parks, here we come for the playgrounds. It is almost time to go back to these sanctuaries of fun and physical activities. The rite of passage for children and the child at heart, parks are one of the best contributions to U.S. America the government has ever made.

While most of us enjoy the smaller-scale parks, back in the turn of the century, then-President Theodore Roosevelt was one of the park system’s greatest patrons. During his administration from 1901 to 1909, five new parks were created, as well as 18 national monuments, four national game refuges, 51 bird sanctuaries and more than 100 million acres of national forest.

National Parks are awesome and provide us with breathtaking beauty. But several U.S. Americans never get a chance to visit Yellowstone, Glacier, Olympic or Rocky Mountain national parks.

Despite that, I guarantee you sometime throughout March you’ll see dozens of people at your local park down the street, enjoying the playgrounds.

For us over the age of 25, the look of those mini theme parks have changed tremendously. The playgrounds we survived are gone. Now the children of today are much safer.

Some would say modern-day playgrounds have made our youth soft, weak and devoid of learning how sometimes having too much fun has tough consequences.

Playgrounds today feature plastic slides, foam landing surfaces and equipment no taller than 10 feet. And we wonder why children have a false sense of invincibility.

Growing up in the 1980s and early ‘90s, I’m proud to say I’m still standing strong after many trips to my local park to play at the playground. It’s time for me to rank the top 10 contraptions I overcame during my childhood. A quick shout out to the tire swing, parallel metal bars and witch’s hat. Both involved me flying around for several minutes until I was dizzy. Once I had to vomit, it was time to finally stop the fun.

10. Seesaws

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A seesaw is a long, narrow board supported by a single pivot point, most commonly located at the midpoint between both ends. The object of this game is one end goes up, and the other goes down. When I was younger, the worst sight in the world would be an older kid coming over and telling your friend, “Move!”

The kid twice your size would jump onto the other end sending me into the Frayser sky for several minutes. As I cried to be let down, the random child would be safely on the ground laughing at me.

I have never made my peers or younger children suffer that feeling. Seesaws are a bully’s dream come true.

And yes I have taken a seesaw to the chin. So be careful standing near one of these around a person who thinks it would be funny to jump on to see if it will crack your face.

9. Oversize climbing apparatus

If you grew up in the Frayser part of Memphis around 1986, you remember Ed Rice Community Center and the huge structure located in the middle of the park in the playground area. It was known as “The Rocket.”

This huge tower of metal was the centerpiece of the entire playground. When you couldn’t get on a slide or grew tired of the swing, you headed to “The Rocket.”

It was the perfect place to get lost from your parents. But once you heard your Momma calling your name, just pop your head out of one of the many windows. You were safely 30 feet above, shouting back, “I’m right here, Momma.”

The funny part is your Mom never said come down or be careful. She must have had faith in God since her child was so close to Him in that moment.

8. Spiderweb dome

Some genius saw a spiderweb and thought, “Hey, it would be cool to flip this upside down and create a climbing structure for children to play on.”

So many of us got a chance to live out our inner Spider-Man. We tested our skills on this structure with the goal to get on the top or wrap our legs around a metal beam to hang upside down for a few seconds. We also climbed upside-down on the inside of the metal rig before heading up and over on the outside. We just simple dangled over the ground just one slip away from a trip to Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital.

7. Hanging rings

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Now if you just wanted to dangle and put your safety in even more danger, just head over to the hanging rings. You would have thought we were Olympic gymnastic like Mary Lou Retton, Dominique Dawes or Bart Conner.

I can’t even lie, this was so much fun. For some reason, we all had tremendous upper body strength. We dangled, flipped and performed stunts on the gripping devices.

But if there was a line of children at the hanging rings, we simply started a caravan of love across them from platform to platform.

6. Cement tunnels

You know the thing that allows our water to flow underground? Imagine it as one of your primary parts of your trip to the playground. Known also as the concrete tunnel, cement tunnels were a common part of a park’s playground throughout the 1980s. No foam, rubber or plastic was necessary; it was pure cement. Our of nowhere, the cement tunnel would be there for children to race to and from for several minutes. The device was tall enough for a 4-foot child to run through. It was wide enough for two and a half kids to roll around in.

What was the objective of the cement tunnel? I still don’t know. It was fun to play on top of it as well as inside of it. It was perfect during a game of war or was the obstacle you have to overcome to save the princess.

But trust me, this thing caused its share of headaches, facial wounds and broken bones. It is a CEMENT TUNNEL!

5. Animal rockers

The closest I came to a broken arm was a seahorse. It just threw me off as I was starting to really have some fun.

The metal horse created enough energy to transform my 4-year-old body into a projectile to the hot ground. I started wailing in pain with my face burning. My Dad rushed over to make sure I was OK.

Riding the bouncy horse almost killed me. A few minutes later and watching my sister Shay still having fun, I got up and headed back to the duck next to the horse. Surely the duck wouldn’t hurt me. With my Dad distracted, I rode the duck for several minutes until it happened again.

These rocking animals are now made of plastic and other safer materials. Now the days of rust and second-degree burns are gone.

4. Metal slides

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Let’s take a moment to salute those brave boys and girls who were the first to head down the slide on a Memphis summer day. Their thighs and buttocks transformed into beet-red areas of inflamed pain, cooling off the slide for many others to have a good time the rest of the stay at the park.

Our metal slides baked in the sun for hours until our parents got off work at 5 p.m. About 5:30, the temperature was still about 105 degrees. It didn’t matter to us – it was just time to get to the playground and rush to the slide. Who would be the first to suffer first-degree burns?

If you have an older sibling, the answer is easy. The younger child would be forced up the top of the slide and pushed down it in unbearable pain.

I know you remember those times, SHAY! Kids, be thankful that plastic cools quicker than metal.

3. Monkey bars

Today an adult uses the monkey bars for exercise or a test of how strong he or she has gotten since starting up weight training.

But as a child, the monkey bars were a simple test of kissing death in the face. While most children stood no taller than 5 feet, the monkey bars loomed over the playground between the range of 8 to 15 feet. There were at least 10 beams to swing from to reach the end. It took ninja-like skills to overcome the device. The monkey bars were no-joke ruthless. But our innocence allowed us to have hours and hours of fun in the face of danger.

Now you couldn’t pay me to even go near monkey bars. I’m too old and big to make it across. And most importantly, I’m aware of all the dangers.

2. Merry-go-rounds (pinwheels of death)

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The official name of this device is the merry-go-round. But the more appropriate moniker is pinwheel of death. Imagine this, millennials: In the middle of playground is a huge metal disc with metal arms sticking out from the disc. The disc is perched about three feet above the ground so it can spin.

How fast does it spin? Well, that all depends on you and your friends. As many children as possible jump onto the disc and grab the arms to set the disc into motion.

You’re wondering two things at this point: First, who would place that device at a playground for children? Or you’re thinking, why are they no longer a part of parks’ menu for children to enjoy? Because the “merry-go-round” only stopped once it launched children off of it, you were pushed off or you did a suicide dive. Those methods of dismount resulted in many injuries.

1. Concrete

So the No. 1 thing my generation had to survive on the playground back in the day was the surface. If you didn’t land on dirt, rocks or grass, your other option was concrete. Growing up in Frayser, I left pieces of skin at Ed Rice, North Frayser, Whitney and Denver parks. The bloody knees, elbows, forehead and random spots on my body wouldn’t let concrete be victorious.

I ran over to my Mom for a kiss to make it better and headed back into the jungle. I now know why my Mom allowed me to be a brave toy soldier. It wasn’t to make me tough. She didn’t even do it so I could bond with my friends. And her objective wasn’t those little life lessons.

My Mom sent me back out there so she could have a moment of rest after work and before she took us home. So I know it was God watching over many children during that era. Because it was by grace we survived our playgrounds.

THOMAS SELLERS JR. is the editor of The Millington Star and both the sports editor and a weekly personal columnist for Journal West 10 Media LLC. Contact him by phone at (901) 433-9138, by fax to (901) 529-7687 and by email to