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Jack Smith

Short-hopping opportunities thrown his way in the great Game of Life

July 04, 1985|JACK SMITH

What is your favorite memory of childhood play?

At its inaugural exhibit recently in Van de Kamp Hall at Descanso Gardens, the Museum of Childhood asked visitors to fill out forms, in three age groups, answering that question.

Then they asked me to judge the entries.

The Museum of Childhood, by the way, founded by Jon Lappen, seeks to collect and exhibit children's dolls, cars, trains, soldiers, puppets and other toys as a cultural resource. It is looking for a permanent home.

Curiously, children of 13 and under don't seem to have many memories. Mostly they wrote about things they are still doing. It was as if they had no past.

I had to vote for Rebecca Bloom, of Venice, because at least her memory was of the past. She wrote: "I remember my little wading pool. It had a little slide and Mickey Mouse on the bottom. I used to fill it up and jump in while the water splashed over the edge. Once my dog jumped in with me."

In the 13-21 age group I chose Seana McAniff, of Pasadena, who remembered a week of happy morbidity, which shows the ability of children to turn almost any situation into play.

She wrote: "When I was in kindergarten (5 years old) my older brother, John (9) came home with the chicken pox. My mother decided to have all five children get it at once, so she took Maura (8), Nancy (6) and myself out of school, and kept us at home with our little brother Peter (3). We had one week of all playing inside together. We would build tents in my room or haunted houses in my brother's room. The nice thing was that since we were "sick," we never had to clean up after ourselves. Mom did it all. We all did get chicken pox. The most fun was putting on the Calamine lotion. We'd all do each other and play dot-dot-dot or make designs with the pink lotion and the red dots. When I finally went back to school, I got special treatment and notoriety because I was the first in the class to get it."

In the adult group I voted for David Allyn, an actor, of North Hollywood, for his memory of one play in a baseball game.

"The Play: Bottom of the sixth inning, men on second and third, and me in right field. We were ahead 10-9. With two out we had only one more to go and the victory was ours. It was just midway through the season, but the race for first was already tight.

"I knew the batter liked to hit my way, and he was not a deep threat, so I moved in toward the infield in a brilliant defensive managerial strategic move. Sure enough he popped the first pitch in my direction. It was short but I was fast in those days. Five steps in I stumbled a bit and lost my stride, but still kept the ball in sight. I had to hurry. If it drops safely, we lose. It was coming down even shorter than I had thought, and I knew it was then or never. I dove toward the infield, my gloved hand outstretched. The ball hit the ground inches in front of the webbing and short-hopped into the pocket--a play I would have traded my Roberto Clemente card collection for when I tried out for shortstop, but it was useless in this situation.

"I had the ball gloved, rolled over and sprang to my feet, ball and glove held triumphantly aloft. The opposing team's coach protested and suddenly all eyes were upon me. Coach Strong asked the truth, and for a 9-year-old, the pressure was on. I did confess it was short-hopped and the game was theirs.

"That was the play. The memory is waking up the next day, going to practice, and realizing that my friends didn't hate me, my coach respected me, it was only a game, I had tried my best, and there was another game next week to prepare for."

How many of our most poignant childhood memories are of failure, not triumph? The probabilities are that more of us strike out than hit home runs. At least David found out that it was better to lose the game than to win it dishonorably.

I also liked the entry of Jane Tremmel Broeski, of Everett, Wash., whose parents gave her an Erector set when she was 10 years old--"over the objections of my grandmother, because I was a girl."

I also liked the entry of Rabbi Leonard I. Beerman: "Playing alone; that, when everything has been said, is what I remember best of all. Throwing a small rubber ball against the steps that led to our house--and the strange power of it, when the ball came off the back of the step, and back to me, gathering speed as it came. I imagined myself on the mound at Briggs Stadium in Detroit--the great sluggers swinging vainly at my fastball, my curve, oh, how glorious it was on a warm, languid, summer day."

I remember days of glory, too, and I remember playing alone, because we were always moving, and I was the new boy, without friends in the neighborhood.

I pitched many a no-hit game off our garage door, and I died a hundred noble deaths on the battlefield of our lawn.

Like David Allyn, I had my bad days, but I always told the truth, too, because I was Sir Galahad, and my heart was pure.

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