Wednesday, January 9, 2019

These Childish Things

Not too long ago I found at the back of a drawer filled with miscellaneous junk one of my old pocketknives.  I hadn’t seen it, or any other boy’s pocketknife in years, and it started me down a path of remembrance of things past that is becoming for me a familiar itinerary.  How very different were the “old days” of even a single lifetime!  A fortnight ago it was Christmas.  Because of the diverse travel plans, housing arrangements, commissary assignments, and social priorities of the three families of our adult children, our Christmas morning gift exchange was, by common-sense general agreement, a scaled-down event to be achieved as modestly and expeditiously as the presence of several small, excited children might allow.  But even if one stuck with the “one gift” policy, which not everyone did, our sitting room was soon overflowing with piles of hastily removed crumpled wrapping paper, and the carpet already littered with unprepossessing bits and pieces of brightly colored plastic, constituent parts of various games and gizmos designed to ignite a temporary excitement among their recipients and, in the longer term, swell the trade deficit with China.

I remember no plastic from seventy years ago.  Our infantile amusements were, for the most part, self-designed and their implements home made.  We actually made our own sleds, skis, and wheeled carts.  Living on a run-down farm mainly consisted of fixing broken things and making do with what could be whittled out of ash and cedar blanks.  A corner of the barn was always full of old metal rods, gears, and wheels patiently awaiting their inventive recycling. Nor was this phenomenon limited to the economically marginal in the American sticks.  I don’t read a lot of political biography, and seldom long retain much of it when read; but I do remember a small detail from an autobiography of Harold Macmillan, who had been the British Prime Minister during my Oxford years.  He had been born in the final years of the nineteenth century.  The style of his upper-crust upbringing—a straight line from a nannied nursery through Eton to Balliol College, Oxford—avoided ostentatious displays of affluence; but the family was quite comfortable.  He makes the point, nonetheless, that as a growing lad he and his peers always made their own toys and rarely saw a store-bought one.  My Uncle John, though not an Etonian, shared this spirit.  One day he found a cache of old iron horseshoes under a chicken shed he was repairing.  That same day between dinner and sundown he had created a horseshoe pitch that gave pleasure for the next thirty years.

Most toys needed wooden parts, and this is where the pocketknife came in.  I am not talking about the portable workshop that was the old Swiss Army knife, nor some sturdy, potentially lethal Opinel.  I mean a fifty-cent flat piece of gun metal, three or four inches long and clad in faux antler, possibly sheathing but a single blade of high quality carbon steel that would accept, through patient honing, a super-keen edge and hold it.  All cutting tools had to be kept sharp, but the goal for a pocketknife was a blade that could effortlessly slice though a piece of notebook paper.  Everybody whittled, all the time—except when honing the blade with an Arkansas stone, also carried in a pocket.  You got to be quite good just by eyesight at shaving things straight, and to a fairly fine tolerance.

The knife itself was a toy.  Can I be writing these words? I am a modern parent of hyper-modern parents who carefully read all warning labels, ingredient lists, expiration dates and allergy alerts.  But we boys once played Mumblety-Peg endlessly.  Mumblety-Peg was like Country Ham.  All aficionados of it knew its exact rules with dogmatic certainty, and no two sets of rules agreed.  Essentially it was a game of considerable skill involving precision in knife-throwing at a defined or imagined target on the ground.  Often the thrower adopted a contorted bodily posture to create a novelty feat that his competitor in the game had to match.  The knife-throw could also have a role in another all-consuming pastime—“keeper’s” marbles.  This term meant in theory that you actually took permanent possession of marbles won; but the natural justice of childhood, unlike the avarice of its elders, rebels at the obscenity of monopoly.  So what it meant de facto was the endless ebb and flow of the supposed booty among the various participants.  Anyway, going in for the kill in a defined “marble circle” might involve the expert sectioning of the circle by knife-throw.

“Gender roles” were not nearly so fixed as our contemporary academic theorists would have you believe.  Most “motion” games—Kick the Can, Simon Says, Red Rover, and so on—were generally played by all.  The total cost for the equipment for these games was zero dollars and zero cents.  Hopscotch was primarily but not exclusively a girls’ pastime; but the kingdom over which girls ruled most awesomely was that of the skip-rope.  As Joni Mitchell says, you don’t know what you’ve got til it's gone.  I’ve lived in my present, pleasant neighborhood for thirty years now.  Never once have I encountered on its broad sidewalks the traces of a chalked hopscotch grid.  Nor anywhere, in the last half century, have I seen the vernacular choreography, as precise as that in any Hollywood review, of agile children leaping, seemingly without effort, in and out of a maelstrom of rapidly whirling rope.  Out comes the doctor.  Out comes the nurse.  Out comes the lady with the alligator purse.