During the summers of my second through fifth grade years, my twin brother and I participated in a recreation program at our school, Crestline Elementary. It was called, or at least it was known as, Summer Rec, and it was organized by the P.E. teacher, David Key, whose son was our friend and also in our class. We were pretty familiar with Coach Key — he used to take a bunch of us in his Suburban on an annual tour of some of the city’s haunted houses the weekend before Halloween.
My time at Summer Rec would have been 1980 through 1983. I remember being embarrassed that our bicycles still had banana seats, which a lot of bicycles in the 1970s came with — I wanted to be more with-the-times than our heavy red Schwinns would allow. Bicycles were lighter and sleeker by that point, with the kind of seats you still see today. More importantly, all our friends had the more updated kind of bike.
Despite being held at school, Summer Rec was actually fun, and whatever misgivings I may have initially had about returning to the very place I’d just been freed from quickly dissipated. There were games and activities all day long. And, looking back, it did what I’m sure the parents wanted–– it tired everyone out.
Each morning, we were randomly divided into groups depending on the number of kids in attendance. Each group was assigned one or two of the high-school age counselors. I think the only games we played within a group, as opposed to against another group, were Four Square and Pom-pom Pullaway, which is a game like tag and Red Rover combined. This was usually played on the tennis court without a net. We made do in the gym on rainy days, but the activities were severely limited.
Games of wiffle ball were also played on the net-less court. These often lasted for hours and had the intensity of professional matches. Hitting the ball over the fence seems easy—– you only had to hit it the length of a tennis court–– but was actually very hard. It was like hitting a home run over the Green Monster at Fenway Park in Boston, and it was something we all strove for. Softball — played with a limited number of gloves — and kickball were also played on the fields below the courts.
Lunch was either brought from home, or you could go on the short walk with one of the counselors to eat a hotdog at Gus’s in Crestline Village. Not only was Gus’s close to the school, it was a place a lot of us had been going our entire lives. A few of us got jobs there in high school. Going to Gus’s without parental supervision made us, or me at least, feel unattached and independent–– older. You had to get written permission to be able to do this, but adults weren’t physically present.
After lunch, they set up a projector in the air-conditioned auditorium, turned out the lights and played family-friendly films. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Pippi Longstocking are two I remember. You could also stay outside and do whatever on the playground during this time; it was basically unacknowledged naptime for the kindergarten kids.
Every session of Summer Rec ended with an all-ages game of Dodgeball–– which we called Bombardment–– in the gym. What I remember most about these games was that the older kids didn’t just annihilate the little kids, which they easily could have done. No one would have called this a sense of responsibility, but that’s exactly what it was. I remembered when I was one of the older kids and a year’s difference felt like a decade.
The unspoken metric that governed these games was that however much you wanted to win equaled how hard you got thrown at, and most of the little kids mainly just tried to get out of the way. The same principles of healthy competition governed everything at Summer Rec - - the same sense of at the end of the day everyone was in it together.
Afterward, my brother and I either rode our red Schwinns back to our house–– something else that required written permission–– or our mother came to fetch us in her wood-paneled station wagon. We would return the following day and do many of the same things, but through the lens of childhood wonder, they never felt the same.