October 13, 2023

FTV: Playgrounds in My Mind


     When I was a wee lad of maybe four, we visited my cousin Wally and his wife somewhere in Wisconsin or Minnesota.  Being on the young side and a few years ahead of developing my fixation on maps and geography, the details are a bit fuzzy.  The one thing that comes to mind with startling clarity, however, is me sitting frozen at the top of a slide that seemed to be as high as the ski flying hill at Copper Peak.  It probably seemed like a good idea (“Go ahead, follow your brother and sister up the ladder”) but once at the top, time as we know it stopped.  I gripped the ladder rails that curved over the top of the slide and refused all suggestions of sliding down  or coming back down via the ladder.  After what seemed like an eternity, good old cousin Wally came up the ladder, grabbed me around the waist and carried me back down to the ground.  

     This event popped into my head one day watching a YouTube video of people sliding down a glass enclosed slide that jutted outside the comfy confines of a very tall skyscraper.  “No, not my idea of fun,” I thought as my lifelong reluctance to dilly dally near the edge of tall structures came to mind.  I do not mind flying, being in tall buildings, or even being at the top of a fire tower.  I have even taken in the view from the top of Copper Peak.  Just don’t make me spend time where there is a lot of empty space directly beneath my feet.  Sky dive?  Forget it!  Memories of other playgrounds encountered during the last sixty plus years began to spill from the dusty corners of my brain.  Some seem so innocuous now, but the younger me found some of them to be truly terrifying.  Those of you with more daredevil tendencies wouldn’t blink an eye at most of them I’m sure.

     Naturally, many of these playground memories revolve around the one closest to our house during my formative elementary school years.  Our first and second homes on Kaye Street and Norway Avenue in Marquette were on opposite sides of Whitman Elementary school (a block away to the south and north, respectively).  We relocated from the Kaye house to Norway Avenue when I was four so my playground memories are centered there (except the ‘Wally slide’ episode).  Living that close, we were regular visitors there even when school was not in session.  It was a typical 1950s – 1960s playground with a standard set of swings, a merry-go-round, a slide, teeter totters, and monkey bars.  As I got older, the slide no longer bothered me.  The monkey bars were okay but as soon as I got near the top, the height thing in the back of my mind would kick in.  My fingerprints were no doubt still imprinted on the top row of bars when they were finally decommissioned and removed many years later.

     At some point they added one of those thingies that looked like a ladder nine feet off the ground held up by two ladder-like ends.  My hands never liked the feel of crossing these rungs one at a time and getting on top was a nonstarter for me.  As if to confirm my suspicions of how dangerous this contraption was, one of my classmate’s older brothers was standing (yes, standing) on the rungs of the top ladder and somehow fell down through them.  He cracked the back of his head pretty hard on one of the rungs and two things still come to mind:  Blood  (as in a lot of blood that soaked the back of his head and shirt) and stitches.  He was no worse for wear when he came back to school the next day with a big shaved patch and a few stitches closing the wound midway between his ears.  Not only did I not want to stand on the top of this new pile of steel, I didn’t even want to sit on the top rungs until I was much older.

     The swings were the old fashioned kind with wooden seats and a ridged rubber covering to keep you from sliding off.  Of course, we disliked them because the whole point of swings was to get as high as one could go and then bail-out to see how much hang time you could get.  When I was still pretty young, my brother would offer to give me a push to get me rolling.  More often than not he would threaten to push me until the swing went over the top of the swing set.  I am sure I knew he couldn’t do it, but it still made me think he might try.  When swinging for hang time got old, we would mount the seat sideways like we were riding a horse or motorcycle.  The object was to try and swing toward the person sitting next to you – kind of like playing bumper-cars on a tether.  It was hard to keep up any kind of momentum this way, but it didn’t stop us from trying.  Twisting the chains into a tangle and then hanging on for dear life as they unwound was also fun.

     During my last two years of college, we had moved just out of the city limit to Summit Street.  I would drive my car and park on Norway Avenue along the same block I used to walk to Whitman.  Several times I found the whole end of the block bumper to bumper with cars so parking in front of the school was necessary.  On one of those days, I cut across the playground to the West Science Building.  It was mildly disappointing to see the monkey bars, merry-go-round, and that ladder like thing had been removed.  All of the wooden swing seats had now been replaced with those U-shaped rubber seats.  No doubt the ‘dangerous’ equipment we played on as kids was removed and the hard swing seats were replaced to prevent head injuries.  After I was out of elementary school, they had added an outdoor basketball court and at least that remained.

     When I arrived in Ontonagon in 1975, the playground at the old elementary / junior high school was located between the gym and the football field.  It was nearly a carbon copy of the old Whitman playground and I am sure anyone who went to school in that building is familiar with it.  When our kids were making their way through elementary school in the late 1980s, one of the PTA projects my wife and I got involved with was ‘improving’ the playground.  Lack of funds (the bane of most school PTA projects) led me to start investigating low cost ways to add new features.  One involved planting very large tires half underground to form a zig-zag path for kids to run across and jump around on.  My neighbor Dave was working at the White Pine Mine and he offered to help me procure some of these massive tires from the mine.  An excellent heavy equipment operator himself, he also volunteered his time to transport them, excavate the holes, and plant the tires.  We accomplished all of this in one Saturday afternoon and by first recess Monday morning, there was a line of kids waiting their turn to go dashing across this new rubber pathway.

     Inspired by how excited the kids got about one new apparatus, another PTA member found plans to build a climbing structure with multiple levels and a fire pole for kids to slide down from the top level to the ground.  As expected, this new piece resembled a recently disturbed anthill at every recess.  The custodians were unhappy because the new area of the playground was covered by deep sand and they were sweeping up buckets of it everyday.  Principal Jim Ollila and I talked it over and came up with a low tech solution:  build a ramp from the playground to the backdoor of the school and leave enough gaps for the sand to fall through.  The janitors still had to sweep off this ramp and the back entry way, but it did cut down on the amount of sand in the halls and classrooms.

     With the first three improvements out of the way, we were looking at the next phase when we were thrown a curveball.  A round of school renovations was about to take place and a new group of PTA members wanted to move the entire playground to the SW corner of the school property.  They felt it would be more visible from Greenland Road and give the kids more space.  The structures they wanted to build would be made from treated timbers and old tires and would take up much more room than was available between the building and the football field.  At that point, we were no longer involved with the PTA so the planning and construction that went into the new playground was done by someone else.  

     My contribution to this round of improvements involved the bus lane off of Greenland Road.   I heard the board was considering doing something different with the bus drop off and loading zone.  They wanted to separate the area used for parents to drop off their kids and the bus unloading zone.  When Jim O and I talked about it, I suggested they move the bus lane from the north side of the building to the west side of the school.  The curved driveway that now exists between the two and three story school buildings and Greenland Road was put in at the same time they moved the whole playground from the east to the west side.  I am not sure how I became an expert in parking lot improvements, but those urban planning classes I took must have planted the seeds of a few ideas.  With the old school now in the hands of the village, it is hard to say how things will be changed, but the last plan I read involves demolition of the playground with the possibility of relocating part of it or rebuilding it completely near the Greenland Road / Parker Avenue intersection.  Another rumor said the village might be up for donating the old structures to a worthy group, but I can not verify this version.   

     Perhaps my favorite local playground was located between the pavilion area and the campground at the Ontonagon Township Park.  The equipment was old but it included nice swinging seats hung with chains on metal frames.  It was spread out along the old beach ridge between the lake and Lakeshore Drive.  The tall trees in the area and the lake breeze kept the temperatures there very comfortable, even on the hottest days.  Two things conspired to change the unique flavor of this area and, in my opinion, some of its charm was lost in translation..

     The first improvement came as a way to provide more lakeside campsites.  These are always in high demand and bring in more revenue than the sites set back from the shore.  Unfortunately for the old playground, the only way to expand the lakeside campsites was to remove most of the old playground.  A group raised funds to construct a newer playground closer to the pavilion and it is a modern, safe place for kids to play.  My only complaint is how hot this area can get in the summer.  To accommodate the new set up, a good many of the tall trees were removed.  We have visited this playground with friends who have kids of the right age to enjoy the amenities, but I usually end up retreating to the shade.  When the trees were still there, I never felt like I was courting heat stroke while the kids enjoyed themselves.

     The City of Houghton really hit a home run when they constructed the Chutes and Ladders themed park along the Portage Canal west of the lift bridge.  When I was a younger adult, it was still a challenge to climb to the upper levels.  The trip down the long tubes was an adventure to say the least.  I wonder how the four-year old me would have liked this mountain of climbing platforms and slides?  Maybe having solid ground beneath my feet and an enclosed slide would have allowed me to enjoy myself without worrying about having the empty space one confronts at the top of a traditional slide.  The last time they had stored dredged material on part of the Marina Park, it had been semi-seriously suggested Ontonagon could construct their own Chutes and Ladders park by piling it into one big mound.  I can’t say if this was seriously considered, but no one came forward with a way to pay for it so it stayed as just another rumor.

     Having not been to one of those big water parks, I can only speculate on whether or not I would take the plunge on some of those devilish looking slides.  There are enough YouTube videos out there taken by people flying down tunnels and slides of all lengths that no one is in danger of being surprised by what they may find when they visit one.  Some are so steep, they resemble a free fall without a parachute.  The ones that funnel people into what appear to be a gigantic toilet bowl are, if nothing else, a little odd.  A newer trend involves a twisted mass of curve tubing that rotates while the riders are inside doing a ‘stop – start – repeat’ kind of motion before they are spit out the other side (it reminds me of what clothes go through in a washing machine).  I actually got a little queasy watching a selfie filmed by a rider on a cruise ship traveling in a clear tube that extended over the side of the ship.  They were many stories above the ocean before being deposited into a pool back on board.  I would call that a ‘hard pass’.

     Modern ski areas have now entered the summer amusement season and one needs to look no further than Spirit Mountain just outside of Duluth, Minnesota.  Spirit Mountain offers two rides;   an alpine roller-coaster and a zip Line.  The alpine coaster is a 3200 foot long two rail path where one can reach speeds of 26 mph.  The riders control the speed and they make a point to specify that this is an ‘alpine coaster’ not an ‘alpine slide’.  The zipline is a little different at Spirit Mountain in that it features bench-style seats with safety belts that allows two side-by-side riders to soar through the treetops for 700 feet.  At the end, the zip line pulls the riders back to the top with the total trip taking about 90 seconds.  The videos, again, show people having a great time and perhaps if I screwed up my courage, I would enjoy it, too (maybe).  Then again, ski runs never look bad from the bottom . . . but it is another story when viewed from the top.

     If slides and open spaces give me the willies, one can already guess how I feel about the art of mountain biking.  I used to enjoy riding my Schwinn 10 speed on the trails that criss-cross the interior of Presque Isle Park in Marquette (before they were closed to bike traffic).  Hardly a mountain bike, the old Schwinn was hardy enough to take the punishment dished out by the trails.  The newer trend of riding bikes on elevated platforms and twisting boardwalks triggers my innate fear of high places.  Give me a stretch of pavement and a few moderate hills to climb and I am good to go.  You daredevils can have more room for your death defying maneuvers.

Top Piece Video:  If the title of this FTV sounded a little like a Clint Holmes song title – it was purely intentional – the video had to be the one once I saw the Big Boy statue included . . .