Robert Thomas Allen's eyewitness account: tribal customs space-age children
Even when our youngsters are talking about astronauts, they’re really living in a medieval world of incantations and rituals old as childhood itself
A FEW WEEKS AGO I began wandering around Toronto’s slums, suburbs and schoolyards to find out if the space age had changed children’s games. I thought the kids might be playing games called “Count-down” and “First on the moon is it,” or doing hopscotch on graphs of linear equations. What I found was a timeless sea of cult and conservatism on which remnants of TV programs, fragments of the nuclear age and debris of adult antics bob around like space capsules. Even the hydrogen bomb has hardly caused a ripple.
Today’s kids may rattle on like Geiger counters about Sputniks and lift-offs. Little girls are apt to startle their fathers by mentioning things like astronaut Gordon Cooper's trajectory. If the youngsters think it will impress the adults they’ll do the twist and the limbo, and tell them anything they think they want to hear. But in the peculiar insular world where children really live — the world of games, chants, dances and ritual — they’ve barely left the Middle Ages.
They adopt new ideas slowly and are rigorously selective according to a code of standards that baffles adults. Apparently kids’
trbal customs in North Torontos white-collar area have absorbed the psychologist, because youngsters there play a ball-tossing game called “Nervous breakdown, ’ in which players remain with arms folded as if on tranquilizers. Today’s preoccupation with health plans has also reached the youngsters in a game called “Hospital tag, which Looks like fun and games between visiting hours at Toronto General. The tagged players hobble around with rare diseases and injured parts. But it’s a mistake to conclude that kids have gone modern. They also play "Around the world,” a game chalked out on the pavement with a stone that "writes white.” 1 took for granted that the tots w'ere orbiting the earth. 1 found that they w'ere back :n 1939, or earlier, stealing one another's countries. They not only haven't emerged: they're back in the age of the Empire Builders. In a song, they still sing. The Twenty - Fourth of May, the Queen's Birthday, the reigning monarch is Victoria.
Nuclear arms haven't reached the children's world. Weapons haven't advanced past the first part of World War I. The kids go "ahah-ah-ah” for machine guns and "k-k-k-k-k” when they fire heavy cannon; they may call them Ben Ciseys but they’re the same Big Berthas 1 fired when 1 was a kid.
Today's youngsters deal with modern weapons like the old British War Office. They swear by swords, daggers, forts, castles and flag waving, and think no confounded mechanized army w ill ever replace the Three Musketeers.
Their ideas of war are a mysterious mixture stuck together like jellybeans. I watched three girls in a low-cost housing development crawl through an artificial sewer pipe provided by the city, making up a game called "Mary Ann and Linda's it,” accompanied by a garbled combination of a World War I song and a Salvation Army hymn:
Tin too young to march in the infantry
Ride in the cavalry, shoot the “italery.”
Tm too young to fly over enemy,
I m in the Lord's army,
Yes sir, I'm in the Lord's army.
The enemy are still "Jerries”; and the Russians are still trying to
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make their first five-year plan work as far as the kids arc concerned, because they never appear as villains. Canada isn't even a secondary power. The good guys are never Canadians. The kids have just reached the last years of George M. Cohan because the guys who win the war are Americans. Hitler and Mussolini haven't been born yet as enemies, or if they have they don't appeal to the youngsters. For some reason kids arc fascinated by the Kaiser, a man even today's teenagers are a bit vague about, but whom the kids think is a jolly old fellow and include in one of their most popular games, called “'Yokey,'' in which they chant:
Yoke around the Kaiser
Tanks in the soho
Scuddoo, sud day.
Kids don't know what yokey means. Teachers don't know how to spell it. Nobody knows where it comes from. It's played with a seven-foot hank of quarter-inch panty elastic that kids buy tor a dime, or ten feet of elastic bands linked together. Two girls hold it at progressive heights from "underleg'' to "sky high” with ritualistic little movements. For "knees" they wrap the elastic around their legs by doing a full turn, with an air of sophistication, like someone ordering a rare wine nobody else ever heard of. It's typical of the old-fogyism of children that in an age of synthetics and chemical miracles and General Electric and Du Pont commercials about the glories of science, the kids have made the elastic band the biggest breakthrough in toys since the skipping rope. It's used for another game called "Jumpsies,” in which a youngster runs and clears an elastic by turning in mid-air and hooking the elastic downward with her feet. She does all the heights for "hopsies” (one foot), "blindsies" (eyes closed), "stepsies” (stepping on the elastic), clearing the tape each time in a quick explosion of feet, legs and a combination of the cancan and Cretan bull-jumping that would break the back of anyone not a member of a social group where mere moving is half the fun of being alive.
The children today seem vaguely conscious of the welfare state and have incorporated some games in which there's a lot of teamwork and rescuing of fellow citizens. In "Frozen tag.” the tagged player has to freeze, hut he can be unfrozen by another taxpayer. Instead of filing a tax return he crawls under the frozen players' legs. In "Relieve-O,” captured players are taken care of by a sort of community welfare worker who runs through a chalked-out area, counts "One. two. three." and gets them on their feet again. But the spirit of free enterprise is preserved in many games by the incentive of making the
loser stand against a wall while another player pegs a ball at him. In another game called "Rotten egg,” the tardy player has egg all over him. The kids have evidently never heard of trade unions. Initiative, ability and a certain amount of luck arc qualities that get you through all the old durable games kids play.
You win because you happen to be having a good day (you may be wearing something green when that's the color that's called) or because you remember your manners and say "May I?” You get through a cordon because you just happen to be fleet of foot and wily and can rise to a challenge when someone calls "Red Rover, Red Rover, Harry come over.” Or maybe you're unparalleled at dodging a ball without moving your feet, or unbeatable at standing still, as in "Statues.”
It may be a reaction to this restless age. but kids are more intrigued by being motionless than ever before. I saw one kid on a Nortown bus show his sister how "God stands,” by standing as rigid as a parking meter, hands at sides, staring straight ahead, looking a little stern.
Kids have finally accepted the prim vacuity and power-mowed lawns of the suburbs and the heavy traffic of the modern city by dropping the big, after-supper street games of far-flung chases, like “Hoist the sails,” or those of piling on top of one another halfway across the street, as in "Buck, Buck,” and have apparently given up finding rocks, for "Duck on the rock” is unheard of. Oddly, to me, they've given their okay to golf, a game that when I was a kid was considered about as thrilling as crochet work. I saw a kid practising putting with the curved end of a curtain rod. One of the most popular games, "Red light,” is based on the advent of the railway. The kids aren't referring to traffic lights. I played it in the days when a cop stood at the corner of Queen and Yonge with a revolving wooden traffic sign.
Co - education, emancipation of women and freer mingling of the sexes arc making some inroads into the children's world. Boys and girls play together, and a boy can even skip rope now without being stoned.
I passed six boys at the corner of Ulster and Brunswick who looked like the same gang who used to make me change my route when I w'as on my way to piano lessons forty years ago. but they were playing hopscotch and using unspeakable expressions like "thumbsies." I couldn't have been more surprised if they'd called "fortylove."
And girls play alleys, although it's my guess that it will be another generation or two before the boys get used to their brand of sportsmanship.
1 watched one little girl playing the popular alley game called "Boulders” with a little boy with a bent nose and the signs of a pot belly. When he hit her boulder she said calmly “No ticks.” It wasn't ticks. He'd moved it half an inch. But she just picked it up and wouldn't give it to him. He couldn't hit her. He couldn't get anybody else to hit her. He couldn't get any sympathy. He went around with a flushed face and his belt sagging. She just kept looking at him as if he were drunk. He began to look drunk. 1 felt sorry
for him. I mean a boulder is worth five alleys. I don't know why they ever let women into the game at all.
But equality of the sexes is at about the same stage as it was in the adult world when women were called typewriters. For the most part, in the kids’ world a woman's work is skipping and bouncing balls to chants about love, marriage and proposals and kissing in old-fashioned places like the end of the garden. Courting is still in vogue, although the kids have got it mixed up with a new adult game, as they call it “Corking.”
The wind, The wind, The wind blows high. Blowing Carol Through the sky. She is handsome, She is pretty. She loves a hoy From Highland city. She goes corking, One, two, three. May / ask her. “Who is he?"
They’ve accepted modern medicine, but made a love song out of it to a tune their grandfathers sang, doing a tricky hand-clapping, finger-snapping routine to Jake Me Out to the Bad Game:
Take me out to the hospital.
Take me up to my room.
Needles and needles and I don t care,
For I'm in love with Doctor Kildare . . .
A girl playing “Names" writes the name of the boy she loves on the sidewalk. kisses it and jumps over it: if she doesn’t clear it, the boy doesn't love her. Changing names intrigues girls and. while they're waiting to have their own changed, they have a malicious fondness for changing boys' names, which drives boys wild. If a girl skips up to a boy named, say. Pete Carr, and calls him “Streetcar," the chances arc he'll punch her, and she'll almost always go right to the teacher and say "A boy hit me." When the teacher asks: “And what did you do?” the girl says “nothing," already convinced that she’s telling the truth.
Modern economy has affected the kids’ world to some extent. Kids who used to spend a dime a week in the cornerstore now spend three dollars
on double-bubble gum. sour grapes, red hots, sour apples, footballs, sour cherries, sparklers, snowballs, blackballs. coconut balls, red and black suckers, "dynamite" and hot gum. But the barter system has never been seriously threatened and boys still think gambling is the quickest way to get their hands on the good things of life. They trade picture cards of TV and baseball stars and play alleys until they nearly come apart with greed. They still speculate and hike prices
with such an abandoned pre-depression outlook on life that some schools put a ceiling on the price of boulders.
But the kids hang onto some securities the way old Soames Forsyte clung to his consols. Ball bearings have remained firm since the dawn of the machine age, and a kid who has a few is a warm man on the boulder exchange. A boulder court, made of troughs gouged into the dirt the width of a kid's two feet (and if there's any argument, it’s the feet of the boy with
the boulder) is a trampled, dusty, greedy place. The boys chant “Put the boulder in the hole and win five alleys." all on one note, like the old Philip Morris call, sitting in front of their boulders and not looking at anyone. In fact, it’s the thing to do to look away from the potential customers as if looking toward some big deal over the horizon. Fortunes are won and lost during recess. 1 saw one loser wandering around with the same stricken look that some men wore in
the 1929 stock-market crash. He was in trouble, you could tell. He searched his pockets for the last alleys, and you knew he had come to school with a shoebox-full and still couldn't quite believe this awful thing had happened to him and that he was about ready for Boulders Anonymous.
Democracy hasn't even dawned on the world of kids. Elections arc carried by the member who yells ‘‘It!” the loudest anti fastest. They make their choice by reciting, ‘‘One potato, two potato, three potato, four anti eliminating fists. Or by eliminating feet; the nominees stand in a circle, toes to the middle and somebody touches each shoe and says:
Engine, engine, number nine.
Going down Chicago line.
If the train goes off the track,
Do you want your money hack?
Today's kids have certainly heard more of the concept of world peace than I did in my day, but they take to
it about as naturally as Attila the Hun. They still fight about seventy-five percent of the time. Girls skip for a minute as intently as if they were choosing their trousseaux, chanting songs of love. Then they fight for a minute or so. The girl who owns the skipping rope threatens to go home. They swap insults and start skipping again, chanting: "Girl guide, girl
guide, dressed in blue, these are the motions you must do; stand at attention, stand at ease, bend your elbows, bend your knees...”
I saw a homely girl slowly screw hcr face along an invisible thread until she was crossed-eyed, so close was she to the forehead of a pretty youngster who looked back at her through beautiful big green eyes with serene hate. And two boys, amid a litter of paper and bingo bottles in a lane near River Street, one with a ball, one with a bat, nose to nose and as motionless as if caught by fallen lava, reminding me of U. S. Secretary of State Rusk’s Cuban crisis remark: “We're eyeball
to eveball. but I think somebody just blinked."
Science hasn't made any real progress in the children's world. 1 hey treat some products the way Fiji women once treated European dresses by making them into ribbons for their hair. The kids all use ball-point pens (there are no inkwells to dip girls' hair into or blotters to chew into spitballs) and remove the inside cartridge and put it in backwards, which gives it special powers of making writing more interesting, or attach it in a way baffling to teachers that turns the pen into a sort of magic wand about a foot long.
When I asked one teacher what they do with it. she said “Do with it? They wave it." She waved it in front of my face to give me an idea of its hypnotic effect. The kids have taken a few dubious looks at outer space, which they’ve heard about in comic books, and they've developed a flying saucer made out of five Popsicle sticks, although I had the feeling that it was designed less as a challenge to the unknown than a chance to eat five Popsicles: they have improved slightly on space probes that the kids in my day made with a cedar-shingle dart by putting a ball in the toe of a woman's nylon stocking, twirling it and letting it go into orbit. But even this has been taken over by the girls for something resembling a fertility rite, in which they stand back to wall singing, “The Old Gray Maid. Sat on the Apple Tree. Sat on a Bumble Bee," and flogging the wall with the ball “overhead," “underleg." “It looks awful," a teacher told me in alarm as one nipper got reads to demonstrate for me.
What children really believe in isn't science but magic, incantation and make-believe. Boys add up the sevens on bus transfers. Girls playing one form of “Yokey" count: “Wuh — huh — huh — huh — EIUH — him
— Two — hoo —hoo — hoo — EIOO — hoo — Three — hee — hec
— hee — HEE — hee!" in a peculiar primitive rhythm.
I heard one little girl going through the schoolyard working some kind of powerful magic on herself chanting: “Zing, zing. zoom, zoom, prancing over the boom boom.” It sounded like a good one for adults to recite in the morning on the way to the bus.
If today's youngsters accept the wonders of modern communications when at home, when they slip back into their own world they still think you can communicate with earth, sky and trees without wares or vacuum tubes. I heard one youngster reciting to the sky: “Under, under the silver thing, a little girl waiting for her daddy, only me, only me." They can switch oft dull reality and turn on an inner, psychic IV. I heard one lad who was being dragged through a Simpson s dress sale, say, at least fifty times. “Mummy follow me. I'm a train," while his mother just kept looking at dresses and saying to herself.
They re cheaper at Eaton's,” not realizing what a wonderful ride she was missing. Eittle girls come close to levitation when they skip and some of them look as it they're suspended by elastic bands, and they talk to tired old brick walls when they bounce a ball to ordinary movings. They may
be using the side of a factory that makes aircraft instruments but they still use words like "curtsies."
One hand. The other hand. One foot. The other foot. Clap front. ('lap hack. Front and hack. Back and front. Tweedles.
I w id les. Curtsies. Bowsies. Salutsies. Turn around. And away she poes.
They operate on wave lengths that are right off the adult spectrum. They're proud to describe the things they do. They're precise, intelligent and infinitely patient, and when I talked to them, never allowed a note
of irritability to creep in. no matter how dull-witted I was. But their world is a difficult one to understand all the same. At the last school I visited, the kids gave a yell just before going in after recess. It was sustained on one note. It rose, strengthened, grew thick, soared, became deafening. Every child just stood there yelling on one note and staring into space. It was a cheer, but I don't know what for. They were probably cheering just because they were kids, and I don't blame them. ★