When I was a small boy, in a ramshackle Pennsylvania coal-mining town just as the coal was petering out for good, we had a few playgrounds, though they weren’t fancy, and there is no chance, none, that the one that held my heart would be tolerated anywhere now. I wish to describe it as a way to meditate on what it really means to have a Front Porch, so to speak, and a Republic.
Imagine a vacant lot set off a back street and bounded on its other three sides by private properties. The area was cleared, and the borough put up a swing-set, two deeply dented slides, monkey bars, a seesaw (in our linguistic region, a teeter-totter), and a merry-go-round—not the thing with horses, but the whirligig you sat on while somebody gave it a push. In the middle of these there was a smallish field for playing wiffle ball, which we did, all the time. Past the “outfield” sat the ruins of an old house, a small thing mostly smashed to pieces, peeling plaster, no roof, a lot of graffiti, nails sticking out, and a rotten cellar accessible by a door falling off. I loved it.
Archbald Borough had assigned two teenage kids, a boy and a girl, to work at the playground, mainly to hang around and play with the smaller children. There was a sandbox up the hill toward the back street, and the girl—one of my three or four first crushes, though I didn’t understand it at the time—helped us make things. What I remember most were the rubber casts into which we poured plaster-of-Paris, not too soupy and not too grainy, and waited for them to dry. Then we peeled the mold away, and we got our “sculptures”: I remember a rabbit, the tablets of the Ten Commandments, and a bust of John F. Kennedy, who had been assassinated not long before, and who, in Archbald, was considered a martyr. Then we painted the sculptures and took them home. I painted my President Kennedy in gold.
The grounds swarmed with children, ages five to fifteen, all from our small neighborhood. On an ordinary summer day there would be around thirty, just showing up now and then to play. My own extended family, still growing, accounted for nine, with my cousins’ cousins, who moved into a house right across the street from the playground, adding another four. One of the girls in that family—another crush—set up a “store” in her front yard to sell cookies and lemonade. That was great fun. But if you wanted soda or candy, you could walk up the street and duck into one of the small grocery stores our borough, depressed as it was, abounded in. The proprietor, “Joe” or “Joby,” was an old Italian man with a few teeth in his head whose voice sounded like that of Crazy Guggenheim. Being an Italian, Joe had planted flowering bushes around his shop, and he set up a couple of benches in front of his door for kids to sit at. That was, you might say, a trace of old Italy, where you expect people to hang around in front of any café or pastry shop. My older boy-cousins played cards there, some game in which the loser got scuffed with the pack across the knuckles a certain number of times, depending on the points he still held. They also played “chicken” there, with jackknives. After our Little League games, my uncle Bobby, who was our coach and who lived on that same back street opposite the playground and Joe’s, would take the whole team there and treat us to soda and pretzels. Even when I was five years old, my mother might say, “Go up to Joe’s and get a half gallon of milk,” giving me a little change to pick out some candy from his glass display counter. Nobody thought it was out of the ordinary or dangerous.
At the end of one summer—1967, on the verge of the great collapse—the two teenagers proposed taking us on a hike. There were two suggested destinations. One was The Slips, a reservoir at a dammed-up creek far in the woods behind the other side of town, about three miles away. Kids often swam there, unsupervised, of course. But we ended up going to the Pothole, two miles away and on our side of town, uphill to get there along disused mining paths and deer trails. Ours is the largest glacial pothole in the world, about forty feet deep and forty feet in diameter, ground out of hard rock by the slow whirlpool action of a glacier. The state had set a small park there, with a privy, a parking lot, and a fence to keep people from doing silly things and falling to their death. There we went, two teenagers in charge, with a couple of dozen kids, and snacks and cold drinks. It took us most of the morning to get there, and we didn’t get back till the middle of the afternoon. Nobody worried about it.
Our playground, though, was not long for the world. The old lady who owned the property behind home plate—a weedy field, never used—didn’t like the noise and didn’t want kids stepping foot on her ground to retrieve a foul ball. So she bought our grounds from the borough, which as always was hard up for money. The borough promised to build us another playground nearby. By the time they got around to it—on a lot too small even for wiffle-ball—something fine and ordinary was lost for good. I’ve walked past that “new” playground hundreds of times, and hardly ever seen anyone there. That’s not because children play outdoors elsewhere. We did—there were still plenty of us to do the playing. But not now. Children are too few. Joe died, and so did his store. You can go many years and never see a casual wiffle ball game, a daily thing in my young life. And who’s home, anyhow, in case you do hurt yourself, as I ripped open a finger one day while poking around the ruined house?
We had a real neighborhood, then. It’s children that make the neighborhood, and when children are outdoors, you’ll want porches in the front of your houses, so that you can see the streets where they often play, as we did. I thought when I was a boy that there would always be such things as we enjoyed, and I suppose everyone else thought so too. But we were on the edge of a change that no one suspected, the shift into an anti-society, made possible for the first time in human history by wealth, the abandonment of home life by both husbands and wives, child-poor marriages, and mass entertainment consumed almost entirely indoors. What to do about it now is one of the three or four most pressing questions for those who want a real culture and a real republic to live in.
Cultures have a life cycle, just like their constituent humans and other living creatures. The advantage of a culture, though, is that it operates on a different time scale, so that decay can be followed by regeneration. Stasis can be a prelude to new inspiration. As we know from the story of Ezekiel, you can connect all the “dry bones” of old wisdom, but only the divine spirit can breathe new life into it.
I recall similar playgrounds in my own youth circa 1960. My community was more affluent than Anthony’s, so the playgrounds really did get renovated every decade or two. Nearly half a century after I enjoyed one, I took my own kids to play there while visiting my parents. There were still swings, but also other types of “playthings” that had been constructed, like a footbridge suspended a couple feet above the ground.
Various historians have pointed out that cultures get more nervous as prosperity increases and they feel they have more material possessions to protect. We saw one aspect of this transition about 15 years ago when the elementary school I had attended decided that nobody could use the grounds after hours, a restriction that didn’t exist when my kids played there as toddlers a few years earlier.
I don’t know where it will all lead but I’m optimistic. There are always useful things people can do. If robots replace most of the work force, humans can still help each other by caring in various ways.