On Dads, Stick Ball, and Ice Cream

I read an article recently on the dangers of obesity in children and how this threat is growing not just in American culture but throughout all first world nations. I know (you do, too), this is not news. It’s been endemic in developed countries for the last thirty years or so. But, the author of the story seemed to suddenly discover it amid the controversy about taxing sugared drinks in some major American cities. Of course, it had nothing to do with a new source of revenue only about the health of our children.

If my father was alive today he would probably have had a conniption fit (people back in the day used to have conniptions, in fact it was quite commonplace especially after your team lost in overtime). Dad would have said that government had no place taxing a beverage, any beverage, just because elitist community and municipal planners, who know better than the helots that populate this planet, deigned to protect the ignorant masses out of the benevolence of their own hearts. Yes, dad would have said that because he saw the coming intrusions of dictatorial social engineering as far back as the sixties. Sometimes, I’m glad he is not on earth today to see the havoc that has ensued in our schools, our military, in our places of work, in our neighborhoods since the advent of Orwellian master planning and the devastating effects it has had on our lives and how it has brainwashed our children to believe, no longer in a higher power, but on governmental largess. He would have been sickened by the consequences of politically correct mind control. Dad would have been crushed to see this even penetrate our church and be championed by a pope named Francis.

He always maintained that, given their own imaginative resources, kids could pretty much take care of themselves, as long as they were instructed and disciplined enough to eat their vegetables at dinner, attend to their religious obligations, obey the law, respect elders, and come home when the streetlights came on.

Unlike today, where our children eat what they want, have no idea who and what God expects them to be, and are slaves to electronic devises that keep them inside four walls, deprive them of social skills, increase inertia (if that’s possible), and cause corpulence unimaginable just a generation ago.

Yet, we (if you were part of the baby boomers) had sugar, I mean real sugar, and plenty of it. And ice cream and Italian water ice and Coke and Pepsi, not to mention pizza and French fries and hot dogs and potato chips and popsicles and candy and carbs galore! What changed?

A lifestyle changed.

Case in point is stickball. Mind you, dad introduced this to us when we were very young. Like most kids growing up in the northeast, especially in an urban setting, stickball (in its many variations) was an ideal sports activity which occupied our time over sultry summer days. Ideal, because it required limited space when a spacious ballfield was not conveniently located just down the street. In fact, you could and did play it in the street. What better place? That’s where all your friends were anyway. And when nobody had any money to spend on expensive sports equipment or uniforms, it was the perfect antidote to what the nuns taught us about idle hands and minds being the Devil’s playground. It also taught us a sense of discipline.

Now, here’s the Philly version:

It’s called stickball because you would play it with the broom or mop handle you stole out of your mom’s cleaning closet. You’d saw off the broom or mop, then wrap some electrical tape (“Stickum” really, before “Stickum” became illegal in the NFL in 1981) around the stick handle. This gave you a firm grip on the stick (bat) and we used it because nobody had any rosin that I knew of. Then you’d take a simple pimple ball and cut it in half. I know they really don’t sell these anymore, but they were abundantly available at any drug store or five-and-dime in the sixties. In a pinch, you could use a tennis ball and cut that in half, it would go farther, too.
My dad taught me how to pitch the half-ball (which some people called the game). You could toss it underhand hoping that it would be a flat saucer when it came to the plate, or you could wing it side-armed and curve it like Kent Tekulve did in the seventies with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Either way it was effective.

Because it was cut in half, the ball, after contact, never went that far, never broke a window or dented a car. You didn’t want to over swing, because one strike meant an out. You simply wanted to make contact. This taught us to be patient and choose judiciously. But there were other ways to occupy your time if the guys on the block weren’t available to play.

If you were by yourself with nothing else to do you could invent your own game playing curb ball. Throwing the ball against the curb and having it ricochet, hopefully, into your glove and causing an out. You could do this for nine miraculous innings all the while playing the major league game in your head. It was all about using your wits, your fantasies, your imagination, and thoroughly enjoying and entertaining yourself on an otherwise hot and boring summer afternoon. It was also about using your muscles. Every day, and I mean every day, this was a child’s routine, along with hopscotch and jump roping for the girls.

I know this might be pure nostalgia, perhaps even wishful thinking: that children today could revert and revel in the joys of my own past that has always brought me fond memories of stickball and curb ball and riding a banana bike seat searching for adventure without a penny in my pocket but with full expectations of a glorious day ahead of me.

Perhaps the days have gone when dads used to play “pepper” with their kids using only a bat and a ball and glove, where your father would challenge you with a ground ball, a line drive, or a pop up, and always directing his bat to surprise you with which way the ball was going; perhaps kids can’t exercise their imaginations anymore without the use of artificial stimuli to spark preconceived notions not embellished in their own minds, but placed there by manufactures of a false and cruel unreality that robs them of their innocence and their very childhood. By violence. By seductive and sexual innuendo if not overt corruption.

For all the Little League dads (and moms for that matter) who cherish every game and encourage their young ones on to persevere despite adversity, I congratulate you on a job well done. But, remember, victory for your children is not in winning anything. It is in the freedom you give them to exercise their innate potentials they have been blessed with, possibly from the beginning of time, by Our Lord and Master; in the potential to express themselves with imagination and exuberance. Maybe even with just a stick and a half ball.

And, oh, treat them to an ice cream cone with jimmies and a cherry on top.

Happy Fathers’ Day.


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