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RSVPhillippi | March 2019

Dennis Phillippi

Games of Chance

Recently I saw a commercial, I have no idea what it was advertising, that featured people competing in a sack race. When I was a kid, sack racing was a relatively common activity at picnics and other outdoor gatherings, but the only place you’re going to see one today is on a commercial. For one thing, burlap sacks are an increasingly rare thing to come across. For another, encasing your legs inside a burlap sack and then attempting to race one another is a quick ticket to an Emergency Room visit. Think about it, hopping competitively while your legs are wrapped in a bag is one simple and effective way to face plant in gravel. It’s like it’s a game that was invented by orthodontists.

As we all get older there seems to be an almost irresistible need to claim that the world of our youth was a better place than the one we live in now. As it turns out, the world of our youth was a minefield we somehow managed to survive. No one I knew when I was a kid wore a bike helmet as a preventative measure. If a kid wore a helmet to ride his bike it was because he had already suffered some kind of head trauma. Not only did we not wear bike helmets, bike safety itself was considered the refuge of cowards. Bikes were for jumping. Bikes were for racing. Bikes were for showing up for school on Monday with a patchwork of road rash and a few missing teeth. Bicycle injuries were a badge of honor. Today, rightly so, bicycle injuries are a solid reason for a visit from Child Services.

Sack races went hand in hand with three-legged races, wherein each pair of competitors had their inside legs tied together forcing the team to operate in perfect tandem. Unfortunately three-legged races always seemed to be held at parent/child events and the teams always consisted of an adult and a child bound together. This size inequity made for great hilarity, and epic falls that couldn’t be broken by the use of your two good legs. My memory of three-legged races are almost completely composed of a montage of adults landing on me.

No one seems to remember the impossibly unwise game Red Rover. Red Rover consisted of two teams, each lined up a few dozen feet apart, holding hands, or if you were really determined, wrists.  The object of the game was for one team to single out a member of the other team, ideally the weakest, and chant; “Red Rover, Red Rover, send Emily on over.” At which point little Emily would screw her courage to the sticking point and charge full speed toward the opposing line in an attempt to break through the linked arms. Take a second and picture what we’re talking about here. This is a child, running full tilt at a braced line of other children of various sizes and ages, with the intention of physically impacting them with a maximum amount of force. Imagine trying to sell this idea to today’s children.  “Sure, there’s a good chance one or more of you are going to end up with a sprained or broken wrist, and others very well might clothesline themselves resulting in God knows what injuries. Fun huh? Let’s go.”  You’ d be lucky if they tore their eyes away from their phones long enough to roll them. My friends that still have small children shelter their little snowflakes like they’re made of fine porcelain. If they found out I was trying to scare up a game of Red Rover they’d have me institutionalized.

One of the great joys of my childhood was climbing trees. Not just getting up on a limb and sitting 10 feet off the ground, but tree climbing. Scrambling up to the top of a tree just to do it. We’re talking 50 or 60 feet in the air. And when it was dinnertime our moms would just yell up into the tree that it was time to eat. They wouldn’t wring their hands and tremble with fear. They would just yell for us to get down. Not because they thought we were in terrible danger, but because they wanted us to come eat before Bonanza came on. If kids did this today there’d be an entire line of Tree Climbing safety equipment. No child would climb a tree without their tree climbing helmet.

In the summertime I used to spend hours goofing off in the creek behind my parents’ house. No one knew where this creek started or ended, and certainly no one had any idea what had been dumped into it along the way. Nonetheless, my folks completely ignored the fact that I was splashing around in it barefoot. That’s another thing; do kids even go barefoot any more? When I was a kid, the day school ended my shoes came off and only went back on for church until school started again. The bottoms of my feet during the summer were as solid and rugged as the bottoms of a pair of work boots. They were also the same color as the bottom of a pair of work boots.  Climbing around in creeks, and trees, and Red Rover games had made them indestructible.  

This was not a better world. I can remember perfectly the experience of losing the grip with my knees on a branch I was hanging upside down from and watching as the ground rushed towards my face. One of my brothers received dozens of stitches after a bike jump gone terrible wrong. One of my sisters went over her handlebars and eventually had to get a brand new set of teeth.  It’s easy to think of yesteryear as the Good Old Days, but the truth is, today’s world is infinitely safer than the one we knew. Yes, it’s also kind of boring, but dull over deadly is always the better option.