Sports Column: Before screens: Life in the good old days

Our young athletes learn more about sports, themselves, and life from playing pond hockey, pick-up basketball or soccer than they ever could from being on an organized team with refs, coaches, uniforms and whistles.
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I saw Bernie interviewed on TV recently in his childhood neighborhood in Brooklyn, talking about his earliest years. He described playing ball in the streets with a “spaldeen,” and “leaving the house at 9 and coming home at 5” exhausted from all that physical activity. He added that it was all very “democratic” play.
I recall that kind of freedom myself, growing up in a neighborhood in Lewiston, Maine, a very different setting. When I was a kid, after supper, in the nice weather, we were outside playing games till the streetlights came on.
“Kick the Can” was a favorite — and also a wonderful game of our own design played after dark (with parental permission), called “jailbreak,” which had us hiding in the leaves and long grass at the base of the wall that separated the yard next door from the Russell Street Hill.
The idea was to avoid the flashlight/searchlight and leap over the wall, yell “Jail Break!” and it was “Ollie Ollie Enfree” again and all those captured were set free. Really fun.
Baseball was king when I was a kid and we had varieties of baseball games for any number of players from one to a dozen or more. Many summer days I climbed on my bike with my glove slung over the handlebars, and rode to the big vacant lot up by the college (Bates) and played ball all day long.
In the winter, in Maine, when instructed to “go outside and play,” we pulled on our bulky winter outer-clothes, grabbed our skates and sleds and headed for a nearby icy patch or hill.
Our alternatives to boredom were almost always physical: sports in some form or another was our antidote to ennui. We needed these alternatives in our abundant down time after school, on weekends and school vacations.
We had no “screens” to occupy us then. Well, we had TV, but there wasn’t all that much of interest to us in the limited programming of the three networks.
We had no phones that could take pictures too (imagine that!), and send messages to our friends, and keep us from getting lost, and inform and entertain us in myriad ways. No Facebook, Twitter, Netflix, Spotify, Instagram, Pandora, YouTube, LinkedIn. No email even!
We were so much better off! We’re so much stronger and better than kids these days who sit passively in front of their screens while the world passes them by.
Wait a cotton-pickin’ minute. Slow down, mes amis.
Before we consign to perdition this generation, and their immediate forebears and successors, maybe we should take the rose-colored glasses off first. This saccharine idealization of our lives before today’s gadgets and gizmos I think goes too far.
For those of us my age, or nearly so, that time of our youth was in fact no Valhalla; we did not frolic always on Elysian Fields; we were not always practicing Athenian Democracy, despite what Bernie, the sage, says.
I recall hours of excruciating boredom, even though we had a hoop in the driveway. I nearly froze to death skating and sliding — not even tomato soup and grilled cheese could offset the cold in my bones.
Our childhood games, I recall, often had a “Lord of the Flies” quality to them. There were rigid pecking orders: The big kids made up the rules and enforced them with keen self-interest. They were the oligarchs of the playground. If our play was democratic, as we sometimes nostalgically remember it, it was Social Darwinism at best.
There were fights on occasion, and lots of what we call now bullying. Our play often screamed for the intervention of a well-intentioned adult.
My favorite early baseball memories were of the Cub Scout team, coached by Jimmy Wellahan, a genial young adult, for whom fun was first, and backyard games of “pepper” with my dad, home from work, wielding the bat, and me and a couple of friends exuberantly scooping up ground balls and diving for line drives.
We certainly need to be concerned about the passivity in the contemporary lives of kids, and the absence of physical activity in all of our lives. I don’t mean to debunk or minimize relevant issues like childhood obesity, but let’s not generalize from extremes.
Some of you may be aware of a best-selling book by Robert Paul Smith with the title, “Where did you go? Out. What did you do? Nothing.” In it, Smith laments the “overly scheduled and overly supervised lives of children.” He celebrates “privacy, boredom, and time to oneself away from adults” and describes the “arcane games and pastimes” of his childhood many decades before.
Sounds very contemporary, doesn’t it?
It was published in 1957!
The good old days weren’t always so good, and today probably ain’t as bad as it seems. Has it ever been thus? 

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