I always loved the ringers. It was a big metal piece of playground equipment that was standard at all Denver elementary schools. It had 10 metal rings hanging from chains. These rings were attached to a lager circular piece of metal that was supported to hold it up in the air by metal rods coming up in the center and branching out. The starting point had a stack of tires so you could reach the first ringer. The point was to go around from ringer to ringer without touching the ground. Unlike most schools where a turn meant you went around them once, then went to the end of the line to wait for your next turn, at Whittier Elementary there was a game that was always played on them. I don’t remember if we had a name for it, But I loved it.
The first kid was the starter (let’s call him Mike). He started out first and when he grabbed the third ringer a second kid (Sherri) started out. If the Sherri caught up with Mike, and was able to touch him before he got back to “home” (the stack of tires) he was “out” and had to drop off. Sherri was the winner and got to be the starter in the next game. However if Sherri was unable to catch Mike, then he got to be the starter again and would get to stay in the game until someone tagged him. I loved this game and would play it as much as I could and had the calluses to prove it. I was good at this game for the following reasons: I weighed almost nothing so it didn’t require a lot of upper body strength to support me. I was fast, fast, fast. I practiced, a lot.
My ringers passion started at Emerson Elementary when I was in the first grade. One of my friends’ older sister and her friends played on them and we wanted to too, so we could be like the big kids. But those big kids took over those ringers every lunch. You had to “prove” you were worthy enough to play on them by going all the way around them once without dropping or the big kids wouldn’t let you on them. I was determined. I started to practice whenever I could. At my class’ recess, after school, on the weekends. The hardest part was turning the soft virgin skin on my palms below the fingers to tough callused skin. The only way to achieve that was to keep going even when you had blisters. Ouch.
One Sunday I went to practice at my school a half a block from my home. On the south side of the school I passed two of my older brother’s friends who were playing basketball. I didn’t bother greeting them since I knew they would never respond, me being “little” and “a brat”. I continued to the playground on the north side of the building and was happy to see nobody was on the ringers. That meant I could practice all I wanted without sharing. As I got closer I realized no kids were at the playground at all. The only other person there was a guy sitting in the sand by the fence leaning against the side of the building, I didn’t think twice about him. The school was just off East Colfax with just a gas station between the playground and the street. Lots of the hippies that lived around there hung out all over the neighborhood. This was nothing new.
Today would be the day, I was resolved to go all the way around without falling off. It was spring and school was almost over and I was going to play with the big kids before school was done. I was almost there too. It was a consistent ¾ trip around before I fell off. After a few minutes the man leaning against the building called to me telling me to come join him. “I can’t, I’m practicing.” was my reply.
After a few more unsuccessful attempts to go around he called to me again, wanting me to come over. “Not now.” was my answer. I was getting so close but just couldn’t get those last two ringers. It was so frustrating, I was almost there! But by then I was also getting tired, and was beginning to feel that maybe today would not be the day after all.
The man called to me again. “Sheesh!”, I thought. My ringers frustration and the frustration at this annoying man blended together. Ignoring the repeated lecture “Don’t talk to strangers”, I stomped my way over to him. “What?” I demanded. “I just wanted to talk.” he replied.“About what?” I asked, still feeling my frustration.
He was not a hippie after all I realized. He was sitting down with his legs straight out in front, he seemed tall. He was almost eye-to-eye with me standing next to him. I also noticed he was thin. He had on light khaki pants with very narrow legs and a madras plaid button down shirt. His hair was short brown, parted on the side but with longer bangs. Not hippie long, not even Beatles long. It was Beach Boys long. He reminded me of the son Jerry in the TV show The Mothers-in-Law that I liked to watch.
He started asking me question like where did I go to school, who was my teacher, did I like school, what was my favorite class. At some point he told me I should sit down and put me on his lap facing him. He just lifted me onto him before I could say anything. I was startled but he was asking me other questions, repeating ones I didn’t answer quickly enough. I was confused and distracted by his quick questions and wasn’t feeling comfortable sitting with him. He put his hand up the back of my shirt and started to rub my back. “How does he know I like it when my mom does that?” I thought.
I was not feeling safe at all, and by then I had already learned to trust that feeling. “I have to go.” I lied, while standing up. I didn’t really have to go home, no one was expecting me or would even miss me for hours. He took my little wrist. “No you don’t.” he replied. It wasn’t a challenge, just a statement. I didn’t understand how he knew so much about me. He knew about my Mom rubbing my back and he knew that I was lying just then.
But my wonderment was overshadowed by the fact he was stopping me from leaving. I didn’t know why he wouldn’t let me go, but now I was scared. I just wanted to go.“I’ll scream.” I threatened, knowing my brother's friends would come.“I’ll scream too.” He replied calmly.
That confused me so much. He can’t scream, people will think I did something wrong. I had started to pull away and was moving my wrist all around trying to make him let go. I did this when my older brother or sisters had a hold of me; it was how I could sometimes get away. He was so composed during my little struggle, but he had to lean forward to keep a hold of me as I pulled away. His grip was no looser however, his fingers wrapped completely around my tiny wrist. I was right by the gate, so close to an escape. I thought if I could just get through the gate I would be alright. We didn’t exchange any words that I remember, but at some point his wrist bone hit the fence post and his hand opened on reflex, I ran.
I ran out the gate, through the courtyard to the other side of the building, I didn’t look back until I was on the south side of the school, by my brother’s friends. Even though they were my brother’s friends and ignored me, I knew they would defend me and not let anyone take me away.
I looked back and the man from the playground wasn’t there. I ran the half block home as fast as my seven-year-old legs could run. When my sneakered foot touched the porch I knew I was safe. The evening paper was there so I knew it was after 4:00. I picked it up and walked inside. My Mom was sitting on the couch smoking a cigarette, an open book in her lap. She was watching ABC’s Wide World of Sports, so I knew it wasn’t yet 5:00. I set the paper down and went to my room. No one noticed my coming.
I never watched Mothers-In Law again. Twelve years would pass before I would tell anyone about that day. I never went to any playground alone after that and for years it made me nervious to even look at an empty playground.
There came a day years later when I realized what the man on the playground would have done to me if I hadn’t gotten away. I then felt so guilty about any child that he might have hurt because I didn’t tell. Some years after that I realized that I was only a child 7 years old, who had made a child’s choice out of fear of punishment. I also realized that he was an adult responsible for his actions and that his shame would be his alone and no longer mine to share.
And although it was one of the most frightening things that had happened to me up to that point in my young life, I continued to practice on the ringers and played on them with the big kids at Emerson Elementary before school was out. And I became one of he fastest kids at Whittier, the one to catch.