California here I come…

I don’t know where I ever heard this song. A Looney Tunes cartoon most likely. It seems to be embedded deep in my consciousness. I can remember singing it as a kid. I was playing on the swing set in the back yard, we were all piled into the glider. One of those swing set contraptions with two bench seats facing each other. We were playing train, or something, and pretending we were going to California. Just one of those silly kid games you invent on the spot when you are 7 years old. For some reason this particular memory brings me great joy, so every time I think of this song, usually when I am heading off to California, I can’t help but be reminded of that moment. So sad that the reality of California falls so far short of the childhood expectation.

I hadn’t thought about that old swing set in years. It was an old metal A-frame type of swing set that my siblings had received from my grandparents I think. At least, it appears in the old black and white family photographs from the early 60’s. In those old B&W pictures they are playing on the swing set, and in an inflatable kids pool on a bright summer day in the weedy backyard of the house in Riverside/Tonawanda. In the background, you can see the Chevy plant through the chain link fence. As I’ve said before, memory is a funny thing. The mere memory of these old photographs sometimes makes it seem like I was there, even those the pictures were taken years before I was born.

When we moved to Batavia the swing set followed. At some point my Dad repainted it blue and white. He loved to repaint things. The swing set, the wagon, the porch glider, anything that was metal and prone to rust. The first few summers we lived on Prospect, they had an above ground pool in the back yard. One of those round metal ones. I vaguely remember swimming in it, being just a runt when they took it down. Again my memories are taken from the old photos of me swimming in it.

After the pool was gone, there was a giant, round, sandy bare spot in the lawn that took years to grow in. That was mostly due to the fact that we used the sand pit for home base in our wiffle ball game. It also served as the goal line for football. Now that I think of it, the yard was mostly bare spots from the early 70’s until the early 80’s when I grew too big for backyard baseball and football. It was our Polo Grounds, an odd shaped rectangular patch of clover and creeping Charley, that played host to epic sporting contests. Heck, I can remember finding an old, out of round soccer ball in the cellar that we even used to play a soccer game. Most likely inspired by seeing Pele’s famous “retirement” match between Brazil and the NY Cosmos on Wide World of Sports. God know none of us knew anything about the sport of soccer. Until the Genesee Amateur Soccer Association arrived on the scene in about 1980, soccer was as foreign sport as cricket, or rugby.
What was different about back yards in those days is that they were almost a public space. We seemed to roam up and down the neighborhood, playing in everyone’s yard, whether they had kids or not. Only a few grouchy, old folks bothered to come out on the porch to yell in stereotypical fashion “you kids get out of my yard!”. Mr. Jankowski springs to mind. Although his yard was walled like a fortress to keep kids out, he took it upon himself to patrol the vacant lot next door, and prevent any kids from using it for a ball field. He would eventually buy the lot from the Rheinharts, and wall it off, removing access from Prospect to our local corner store. Although by that point in the late 80’s, the store was in it’s final days before succumbing to competition from the Sugar Creek convenience store on Main Street.

I have fond memories of many secret hiding spots in the backyards of Prospect, and Ellicott Avenues. Whether we were out “hunting rabbits”, or playing Army, or involved in a neighborhood wide game of kick the can after dark, we had an understanding that anything on the block was inbounds. My how times have changed.

Eventually, I outgrew that swing set, and the large metal slide that went along with it. My folks either sold it, or gave it away to an acquaintance out in Avon. Every few years when we were out for a Sunday drive in the finger lakes, we’d pass down Main Street in Avon, and Dad would point it out to me, sitting in the back yard of another kids home. It always gave me a funny feeling to see it in someone else’s yard. It was my swing set, and yet, it wasn’t anymore. I missed it, even though I was too big and too “grown up” to play on it. I guess that youth is full of such losses. Small, incremental steps on a road toward adulthood.

The swing set I built for the kids 8 years ago, is beginning to fall apart. No coat of paint will be enough to save the rotting wooden contraption. They don’t play on it much anymore, but I can’t quite bring myself to take it down. I doubt they’d even miss it if I did. I guess in some way it’s just me, refusing to let them grow past that point when imaginary train rides to California bring joy and memories far in excess of what you’d expect.


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