When Our Occupations were Playing Outside

I grew up in a suburban pocket of a big inner city – Philadelphia. The area was a working class section, but the residents were upwardly mobile and the neighborhoods and schools were a source of pride.

I know I am not the only one who sees the reminiscing on social media sites such as Facebook that remind us that our youth was a far simpler time.

It’s summertime here in Houston. The schools are out, and it reminds me of what summer meant when I was growing up. Most of us who did not go to day camp or sleepaway camp (I finally went in middle school – junior high and loved it) just hung outside no matter what the heat was, day after day. We rode bikes, went to the neighborhood playground (mine was called Tarken) and at least twice a week there was a free city-run pool at another playground called Max Myers, where we would don our swimcaps, and swim all day long until we were absolutely waterlogged. (We could only go on Girl’s Day to swim with other girls. I believe boys had M-W-F and we had Tuesday and Thursday, but correct me if I am wrong).

At Tarken, there were very basic and almost primitive sprinklers that we used to run around in since there was no pool. (And in the winter, there was a skating rink there – not free, but we used to go there almost daily to skate.)

It was unstructured play and fun all day every day. If our moms were home, the soaps were on and with one TV per household, there was no choice to sit in front of a TV all day.

So we were outdoors. It was hot, humid, and muggy most days and we never cared a bit. We conjured up things to do. There was a local hill (a luxury in the concrete row-home jungle we lived in) that we brought picnic lunches to as it was the closest thing to a park we had that was walking distance.

The simple equipment at those ancient playgrounds were less safety conscious and probably did not have to meet stringent codes like they do today. Here is a photo of me at the primitive monkey bars, where I would climb straight up them (standing upright) and then perch on top of them. They weren’t that entertaining but we found our own entertainment on them.

Tarken1

I even took advantage of the playground while a teen when others might have given up on it. In fact, we had just as much fun there as teens, knowing we were still kids at heart.

The aforementioned Max Myers playground, blocks further away, was a much fancier playground that we utilized from time to time. Aside from the free pools, it had a climbing giraffe, and a special sliding board we called the “Wiggly Waggly Sliding Board.” (It didn’t have a name marker but no one called it anything else). It was a sliding board that spiraled down in a circular fashion and we loved that metal sliding board that burned us when it was super hot outside.

That’s how the summer days went by: entertaining ourselves outdoors all the long summer day with whatever means were available to us. We didn’t come back home until dinner hour. We didn’t have watches, but kind of knew when to head home. We didn’t bring bottled water but used public fountains when we got thirsty. If we were lucky we brought a quarter for the day with us and got a treat of a water ice (Italian ice) and soft pretzel from the trucks parked at the playgrounds, for snacks. The ice cream man was there too.

Since I was also a reading nerd, I joined the library’s book club. I was fortunate to grow up with a library right at the beginning of our street – less than a block away – and I was in the cool air conditioning there doing book club at least one of the mornings each week. I read those books every night, never missing an opportunity to read.

It’s amazing to me how structured my own childrens’ lives were in comparison to my own, and now that they are grown and some of their peers are having babies, it is even more the case.

Yet for us, it was just unstructured play, all day, every day. That’s what summer meant. I would love to hear your own reminiscing here in comments below!

9 comments

  • Hi Arlene,
    What a Great Memory that your Photo on the Monkey Bars brings back to me. I too hung in Maxies all summer long, both Day and Night in my Teens!! Mainly playing Tennis from Morning till “Late Night” just about “Every Day”!! The Swimming Pool was another reason, aside from learning to swim over at Boulevard Pools in my younger years, it was Fun Swimming with my Friends at Maxies every other day thereafter!! As a teen, I knew a lifeguard there, that I played Tennis with, and she would let us in the Pool late at night, since they watched the Pool late nights also, even though it wasn’t open. In fact, she grew up in your area, closer to Tarken, where we played Tennis also once they put Brand New Courts down over the old ones, in the early 1980’s. Her last name was Zahner, maybe you knew her or her Brothers.? A walk up to Roosevelt Mall was also always lots of Fun too!! Air Conditioned stores, plus the Galaxy Arcade, we were in Heaven!! And never looking for trouble either! Your attire reminds me so much of my youth, and Max Meyers!!! You know, when I was really young, My Dad used to carry me on his shoulders over to Max Meyers to watch Softball games, or teach me to catch and hit!! Then he’d take me up to the Pool, with the different Diving Boards, and deep 12-16 Feet of water under them. Eventually by the 90’s the City filled in the Deep Part of the Pool and the Diving Boards were removed as well, making it all one Pool, with 6 Foot at it’s Deepest Point in Middle!! But at the Time that My Dad took me as a Kid on his Shoulders and for years to follow, Max Meyers Playground was so “Well Kept” that it really looked like a Country Club, between the Pool-Dives, Basketball and Tennis Courts…..Beautiful Tree Shaded Picnic Areas with very nice Concrete Tables and Chairs built into the ground!! I remember the Pool, Boys and Girls Days, and the Mixed Day in between where both could go same day……even had a Family Day, maybe Saturdays or Sundays, and they enforced it too. The Nice Brick Walls that surrounded parts of the Pool were almost Artsy!! What a shame that “Respect for Property” was to come after our time, and now Max Meyers looks like a War Zone!! Those Playground Rides and Swings, Slides, Giraffe, etc….may not have had Inspectors for Safety like certain Playgrounds do these days……BUT……The Rides-Playground Slides, Swings, etc….were Built Far Superior than anything made today!! The Giraffe has still been there straight to last time I went by there a couple years ago, and despite all the years, and the Abuse that would eventually come his way in later years, The Giraffe was Still Standing “Tall and Strong” as Ever!!! You really brought back some Great Memories!!!!

  • Loved your story. I spent a lot of time at Maxies. My father ran Bushrod and subsequently the NE Regional Library.

  • I feel like I am providing my kids with opportunities by including them in organized activities and spending time with them. This is great for them but I am sad to think that they haven’t gotten to experience the freedom that I had when my parents just let me run free all the summer days. There was such joy in that. Tarken, Maxies, a journey by bicycle to Tookany creek park via Old Soldiers road; the steepest scariest hill to coast down with a bike. Venturing along the old railroad tracks behind the Oxford Village all the way down to the old Sears building. Such wonderful adventures with my friends that I’ll always remember. Are my children going to have vivid memories of their activities like I have? Is it an adult perception disconnect when I look at their life’s experience versus mine as a child? I sure hope that’s the case.

    • Don’t worry Bob, your children will look back on those days as the sweetest even if they are not as unstructured as ours were. It was a different era, never to be again. Thoughtful comment, thanks for sharing.

  • I remember Tarken playground and the monkey bars pictured above and the climbing wall of chains that g-d forbid if anyone had ever fallen from there surely they would have cracked their heads open – but no one ever did. I remember watching them build the ice-skating rink and how Friday nights were never the same after that. I also remember a wonderful swim club my parents belonged to for a few wonderful summers in Somerton. They don’t build them like that anymore.

  • I also remember those long long days of being outside. It seemed as though the sun would never go down. We came inside only to eat lunch and dinner and go to the bathroom at the library or at home.
    Though the place might look like a wasteland to our kids, brought up in manicured suburban neighborhoods, it seemed like Eden to us when we stayed out all day long in the heat, a water ice in one hand and an eggroll in the other.

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