Another thing that really stands out in my mind about Patrick Henry Village is the large number of playgrounds that were available. It seemed like there was a different playground for every few buildings. Scrolling around the satellite view it’s not quite that extreme, but I was able to count 20 different playgrounds at a quick glance. That doesn’t count the numerous soccer fields and schoolyard playgrounds. The building we lived in during most of our time in PHV actually didn’t have a playground nearby; it only had a simple sandbox. However, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, we had easy access to Behind the Fence which was probably the best playground of them all.
The playgrounds defined sort of a home turf for the kids living nearby. Each playground was unique in some respect, so when you felt the need for adventure you could just walk a short distance–perhaps venturing outside the carefully planned boundaries set by your parents–and have a new set of equipment to play on. I remember feeling like a bit of an outsider when playing at some other building’s playground, and it was easy to notice outsiders who wandered into playgrounds on your home turf.
Two playgrounds essentially defined our home turf, so these are the ones I will focus on although I think my descriptions probably apply somewhat to all of the playgrounds of the late 1970s/early 1980s. During our first stint in PHV, after school we would go to Mrs. Taylor’s apartment where she ran a day care for a lot of kids — so the big playground south of her building was essentially our home turf. And during our second stint in PHV, we lived just south of the smaller playground which was next to that bigger one. So the two playgrounds you can see in this satellite view are the ones I recall most vividly.
The first thing I notice in this view is that both playgrounds have been entirely overhauled since my day…not a single shred of the old play equipment still remains. And I think the playgrounds I remember still had a few remains of an even older set of playground equipment. In my day, the playgrounds mostly consisted of brightly colored plastic structures; they seemed very modern at the time. But the larger playground in the view above also had two old metallic swing sets, and also some metallic teeter-totters (or see-saws, or whatever name you know them by). I recall the teeter-totters having several layers of flaking paint and the wooden seats were cracked and sometimes one side was completely broken off so it wasn’t really useable. One cruel game on these teeter-totters was to get the kid on the other end high into the air and then suddenly leap off of your seat, causing them to crash to the ground with a painful landing. I think we called this a cherry bomb?
I found the following picture from 1968–four years before I was born–which I think might just be the larger playground that was part of my home turf. You can see teeter-totters, which may be the same ones I’m remembering, but there seems to be a big open area where I recall the more modern plastic structures being (click the picture to go to the page where I found it, there is some discussion following the picture).
Before I describe the plastic equipment I’ve been referring to, let me just take a quick aside to talk about the bench that the girl is perched on. This bench brings back a surprising number of memories, as I think this same style of bench was still common a decade later when I lived in PHV. You can see the rusted metal support pole, which is how I recall the teeter-totters looking. But it’s the gaps between the boards which really call to me — I’m pretty sure they were a known hazard because as you were playing on these benches, jumping on and off of them and who knows what else, it was possible to get your fingers wedged in between the boards and yelp in pain when they were suddenly bent backwards. Or maybe we would stick our fingers through the boards while waiting for the bus to take us the PX/Commissary area (which I described in my Shopping blog entry). Maybe we used to bunny-hop our bikes up onto the seat of these benches? I also remember meeting a friend at the playground and we both were toting small boom boxes with cassettes of Kenny Rogers’ “The Gambler”, and we sat on a bench at the large playground–perhaps the very bench in the above picture–and took turns letting each other blare the song. And an older kid came by and complemented us on our choice of music, and that made us feel cool.
One other quick aside — in the satellite view, note the grassy area just north of the large playground, where you can see a concrete picnic table and a few small trees. This used to be one of the major marble courts of PHV. It was just a barren packed-earth area with several pots dug into the ground, as I described in detail in my very first entry of this blog about the marbles phenomenon. We also used to play a game called Red Light Green Light here, although Wikipedia says it is more commonly known as Statues. One person would stand near the building facing the others. They would turn their back to the others and yell “Green light!” and everyone would run to try to tag that person. Then they would turn to face the other players and yell “Red light!” and everyone had to stop immediately. If they saw you moving after they declared red light, then you would be sent back to the starting line to try again. When someone finally reached the caller, they would become the new caller in the next game.
At any rate, back to the playgrounds. You’ll notice in the 1968 picture that the ground is all sand, and that’s how it was in my day as well. However, the current playgrounds appear to be covered with the soft rubbery material which is a common safety feature these days. At this point in my blog is where a rant about how kids today have it easy might be inserted. Anyway, it’s amusing that all of these playgrounds seem to have sand leaking from underneath the rubbery surface, as if the old playground is trying to reclaim its territory.
The first piece of modern-feeling playground equipment that I can remember is a tall red plastic structure shaped a bit like a wide, squat teepee but with a circular crow’s nest at the top rather than coming to a point. I think the railing of the crow’s nest was orange plastic. There were three openings in the sides so that you could go underneath, and there was nothing inside except for a metal pole in the middle. Essentially, this structure was a slide where you could slide in any direction. I was about to say that the only way to the top was to scramble up the sloped sides, using the humps of the three openings for aid, but as I’m writing this I remember that one side of the structure had a set of small steps molded into it. It was probably more fun to scramble up the slope, just like most kids will try to walk backward up a traditional slide rather than using the supplied steps.
Two memories of this structure stand out, and neither one is all that pleasant. The first is that the enclosed area underneath the structure always smelled of urine, and it could be hot in there during the summer. The second is that we boys would lay on our stomachs on the crow’s nest at the top and spit on the slide part, and then it would be a race to see whose spit could make it down the length of the slide first. No wonder little girls think that little boys are gross.
The other main plastic structure in the big playground was more complex. Like all of this equipment, the plastic was a hodgepodge of bright red, orange, and yellow pieces. It was a variation of the common piece of playground equipment which includes a way to get up, a few things to do while you’re up there, and a slide to get back down. The current playground has something very much like this, although it looks completely different. The structure I remember didn’t have a traditional staircase to get up — instead, it had a vertical plastic cylinder with a short doorway in one side. This red cylinder had circular holes at various intervals, and you would use them to climb up the middle to the platform above. I recall this not being the easiest feat, perhaps because I tried to use holes on both sides of the cylinder at once and my limbs were barely long enough for the task.
One side of this structure was rounded like a partial dome, and you could also climb up the outside using similar holes. Actually, I think perhaps it had some extruding bumps similar to handholds on a modern rockclimbing wall, because I seem to remember perching on the outside of this domed part with my feet strategically placed on the bumps in order to hold myself up. Yes, it’s becoming more clear now — there was also a slide area on this domed part, so you would climb up the bumps and slide back down. Because it was dome-shaped, the slide eventually became vertical and there was a very short freefall onto the sand below.
But if you took the cylindrical ladder to the platform, I recall two ways to get back down — a curving slide wound around another cylinder, and a large slide of polished metal wide enough for two or three kids to go down abreast. I think this slide may have had a ripple in the middle to make it a bit more interesting.
The smaller playground to the east had one main piece of equipment that I can recall, and it was clearly from the same manufacturer because it also consisted of red, yellow, and orange plastic pieces. It was essentially a set of modular tunnels, exactly like what you’d get for a pet hamster except they were opaque. There were tube sections and intersection pieces so that you could fit them together into any design, although at this playground the tubes were just formed into a square with an extending arm or two. The intersection pieces were your entryway into the tubes, as they had circular openings in every direction, including up — you could stand in one of these and your upper body would be visible.
As this playground also had a surface of sand, it inevitably made its way inside the tubes and you were typically crawling on sand while inside. These may have also had the occasional scent of urine, which is a little disturbing. But more than crawling around inside them, I remember playing “tube tag” on top of them. It was a dangerous game where you would essentially run around on top of the tubes trying to catch or avoid someone else. Each time you came to the end of a tube, you had to make a little leap to the next tube because of the open intersection piece blocking your way. It was easy to slip off of these rounded tubes or miscalculate a leap, and I’m surprised there weren’t more injuries than there were.
One amusing thing I remember about this smaller playground is that some older kids came by and threw a stink bomb against the tubes. I didn’t know exactly what that was at the time, but I think it was a small vial of horribly smelling liquid you might pick up at a novelty store along with chattering teeth or a handshake buzzer. I can remember this playground being completely abandoned for a few days until the stench subsided.
All the other playgrounds around PHV had similar equipment, but always put together in some unique way probably just to fit the dimensions of a particular location. So wandering around PHV, you could come across a lot of familiar-yet-new places to play, as long as the regular kids at that playground didn’t give too many angry glares at the perceived invaders.
But kids are notorious for finding things to play with that were never intended for that purpose, and two such things come to mind. The first happened in the grassy area between these two playgrounds, whenever we could get our hands on large cardboard box (perhaps gleaned from some of the dumpster diving I’ve mentioned elsewhere). We would lay down inside the box and just roll in order to move the box across the grass like a tank’s treads. I think sometimes we had multiple kids inside the box at the same time, and the last kid would have to roll fast enough to keep up or else be tossed around by the rising part of the box.
The other makeshift play item I remember has to do with the large field near the church and library which you can see in this satellite view. There is a huge playground at the southern part of this field now, but in my day the entire thing was just an open grassy field. For some reason there always seemed to be a few giant wooden spools in this field, like the kind you’d wrap large cables around. I don’t know if they were meant to be makeshift picnic tables or just decoration or what, but they were fun to play with. We’d tip them on their end and then try to roll them across the field. I think at least once we found one with some boards missing from the central column, so we’d try to climb in there as a great hiding place.