Beneath the scabbed and grass stained knees, mosquito bitten skin and pig tails, I was a girl who grew up in a neighborhood of boys who jumped into pick-up games. We followed the American professional sports schedules, baseball in the summer, football in the fall, hockey in the winter and basketball in the spring. No matter what the weather, a frigid forty degrees below zero or an eighty five degree swelter, I would arrive home after leaving it all on the court, field or make-shift ice rink red faced, sweaty, exhilarated and to my parents delight, doggone tired.
Some of the best moments in my life occurred around these years when I didn’t know I was different showing up to church and school in a pretty dress and patent leather shoes – the girls compulsory uniform – revealing the badges of courage earned by fearlessly tackling the boys, or myself getting pushed off the edge of the rink. Unbeknownst to me then is that girls typically mature at a younger age than boys so it was normal to exhibit dominant prowess in contact sports – if allowed to play.
First pick. Of course, that was an honor. I was never last pick, always landing somewhere on the upside of the pecking order even after puberty. Successful navigation of the sporting landscape earned me the respect of the team. Nothing came for free, even if the rules were straight forward. Any arguments over what was fair stayed on topic and were weighted on the fundamentals of professional sports we watched on television or what the boys learned at Little League, not deteriorating into personal attacks. And should occasional fisticuffs arise once the punches were flung and the tears dried up, we simply continued playing. Occasional scraps were part of life, to be expected, and resolved in the moment on the field without the loss of face.
It was also our childhood expectation to cruise the tree canopied neighborhoods for hours on end free of adult interference. We’d play make believe cowboys and Indians or copy the battles of Viet Nam broadcast on the nightly news. One winter night after pelting a passing car with snowballs the driver skidded to a stop and managed to catch us hiding in the shadows behind a fence. The snowballs hitting his car had set off a flash back to being under fire in Viet Nam. He said was afraid he could have killed us. Between the dilated eyes wildly scanning our chagrinned faces and chest heaving for air beneath an unzipped jacket, we believed him. For a while thereafter we limited our targets to each other and resorted to grabbing car bumpers to hooky bob the icy streets rather than assailing the drivers.
On more languorous summer afternoons and wearied from a few hours swimming at the city pool, we’d zoom hot wheels, roll marbles, and deal cards, rotating between living rooms and bedrooms depending on the residential parent’s mood that day. Occasionally the boys would bring their GI Joe’s to play house and reenact steamy love scenes with my Barbie Dolls.
Dinner calls were the only anticipated interruption, evening family gastronomic gatherings rarely in synch with hunger pangs and the plays of the game. We would mark the field of the last move before running inside our houses to the dinner table with the sole purpose of inhaling our food and race back to the pitch, the court, the field, the pool, the card table, as quickly as possible.
Whether it was safer times in a neighborhood watched over by stay at home moms, or our parents were too preoccupied to notice the messes we would get into – and out of – on our own, we frolicked in endless freedom. Me and the boys.