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The Dirt on Best Places to Play

April 08, 1993|JIM WASHBURN | Jim Washburn is a free-lance writer who regularly contributes to The Times Orange County Edition.

In a convenience market a couple of days ago, I took to watching some kids--on their way home from school, judging by their backpacks and vacant stares--crowding up to the video games. Short of the store clerk getting shotgunned, it didn't look like there were too many occurrences in the life-sized world that might have distracted them from the little reality of the jerking, grunting kick-boxers on the screen.

Except for the kids' video pallor, maybe this wasn't so different from when childhood friends and I used to pump nickels into this quaint pinball-like machine and shoot tin cowboys with a pellet gun. But outdoors, in a county that has changed so much in 25 years, the nature of youth entertainment also must have changed.

I'm cautious about going on about the good old days of my childhood, both because I'm not ready to admit it's over and because I certainly got an earful from my parents during my youth, on the theme of: "You kids don't know how to amuse yourselves. When we were kids all we had to play with was dirt and twigs and we were damn grateful to have that."

It's true that at the time I felt life was a bit hollow without things like the Johnny Seven commando rifle (Seven weapons in one! Malfunctions as often as real military-issue M-16s!) and a banana-seat Stingray bike equipped with a Mattel Varooom engine (a '60s-tech version of getting that "motorcycle sound" by putting a card in your spokes).

But the main things I remember, oddly enough, are the dirt and twigs. I liked playing in fields, exploring gullies, getting lost in thickets of bushes where, if you ignored the traffic noise, you could pretend to be Huck Finn for a while.

I recently interviewed another long-time Orange Countian, and he was lamenting the disappearance of the open fields and weed-packed vacant lots of his childhood. I started looking around, and development really has taken its toll on those tiny bastions of wildness. Instead there are offices, strip malls and planned communities where a minimum amount of kinder space is devoted to sterile playgrounds and lawns.

The environment children really want to play in is probably there, only it's buried under 10 feet of clean fill dirt. It's down there that the old ragged fields lie, not to mention in many cases a generous helping of trash.

Kids love a dump. If I wanted to give Disneyland a serious run for its money, I'd open a huge landfill next door and charge children $15 a pop to frolic in it. Dumps are a kind of human wilderness to the young unwary eye, awaiting the adventurous with tetanus-shot treasures and unsanitary surprises.

When I was 8 and saw TV footage of Third World kids living atop garbage dumps, the emotion I felt was envy. It also helped to shrink the world a bit to see that their dumps, like ours, were made hazy by the acrid smoke of suspicious trash fires.

There are two kinds of suspicious trash fires--the ones that happened in trash cans and Dumpsters at school, where the only question was which student started it, and the truly suspicious ones that burned like eternal torches in neighborhood dumps. I never started one, never knew anybody who claimed to have started one, but I could never go to the dump in the field near my house without finding a heap of something smoldering away. I finally came to regard the fires as a natural happenstance, like volcanoes.

Along with giving the dump a smoky battlefield ambience, the fires were great for expanding my playmates' and my knowledge of science. I, on a given afternoon, might postulate that should a partially expended hair spray can be introduced to heat, via the fire, it should show a tendency to explode. As had been the case centuries earlier with Galileo, this theory had its naysayers. So it was with some drama that we threw the can into the burning whatever and awaited the result at a safe distance. One of the unfaithful began to poke at the fire with a stick, at which time the can did indeed explode with sufficient gusto as to require that Bactine be administered to the young martyr of science.

This was in a field near where I spent several of my formative years, in north Buena Park in a condo tract called Highland Greens. It was surrounded by fun. To the west was civilization, represented by the Big Tee golf course with its miniature golf and onion rings that tasted better than Ursula Andress looked in "Dr. No."

To the north were fenced-off cliffs owned by Standard Oil, where the really brave kids on mini-bikes could get chased by security guards.

To the east was Bellhurst, which should have been a ritzy housing tract except the funding disappeared. There were completed and inhabited luxury houses set amid a ghost town of creepy half-built homes.

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