by Maria Lagalante Schulz
There’s a reason there are so many things to love about Summer when you’re a kid: long, endless days, the Ice Cream man, the freedom of your own set of wheels (roller skate or bike), swimming in the pool and walking on the beach.
But for me, the best part of all was going outside to play games with all the neighborhood kids. With my friends by my side, we learned all about negotiating, standing up for yourself, setting rules, what you can get away with, and what won’t be tolerated. It was hands-on experience for having co-workers long before I even knew what those were.
When I was very young, my family and I lived in an attached house in Bayside. My twin brother and I used to put a juice glass against the wall to listen in on the arguments coming from our next-door-neighbors’ home, pretty much every day. But when we were done giggling over who forgot to buy milk or why there was never any toilet paper in the house next door, we would run outside to play with the tons of kids who lived on our block.
There were about 10 houses in a row on our tiny block, and each attached house had at least two kids living there. Each house also had its own particular, peculiar cast of characters inside.
At any time of the day, you could walk outside the door and hear the squeals of laughter or the shouts of “you’re it!” There were the Primianos, the Rosenbergs, the Wongs, the Romans, the Reichs, and of course, the Lagalantes. Then, around the block, there was a Polish family with kids that all had “W” names—Wendy, Wanda, Winnie, Walter, and Wade. On the other block, there was a Columbian family with two girls and a boy. The girls were okay, but the boy was a little bit nuts and he would occasionally come outside with his father’s unloaded gun, prompting the rest of us to run for our lives since we were never quite sure if it really was unloaded.
On a rainy day, I went into the Wong’s house and helped them boil crab for dinner. We shrieked with laughter as we ran around the kitchen, trying to get all the crabs that had run away when Linda knocked over the bag her father brought home from the Chinese market.
I had matzoh ball soup over at Jaynie Reich’s house, and lox with the Rosenbergs. I tried lentil soup at the Primano’s, and met the Primiano’s cousin, Nadine, over milk and cookies. The Romans introduced me to potato pancakes, served warm, with hot apples and cinnamon or sour cream on top.
This United Nations of children would flock outside, riding our bikes and tricycles down the long alley that separated our houses from the other houses on the block behind us.
My brothers, Jude, Tony and Louie, with help from Joey and Paul, taught me how to ride a two-wheeler on that alley path. We would head up to the top of the hill, Joey would steady me, and then with a push, I was free.
I loved the feeling of the wind in my hair and the how powerful I felt gathering speed as I pumped my feet. There was just one problem: at the end of the alley, I didn’t know how to stop. So of course, there were times in those first few tries that I ended up on the ground, scraped and bleeding.
“Get up,” Tony said, as he brushed the gravel and dirt off of my bleeding knee. “You’re fine.”
And yes, I was fine. I wiped the blood off my elbow as well and jumped back on the bike.
“Now ride around the block until you get back to me,” Tony said.
So that’s what I did. Tony let me use the bike for a while before taking it back. I didn’t have a bike of my own, which was kind of embarrassing. Even Dawn, the little kid a few doors down, had a brand new two-wheeler. Her parents gave me her old red tricycle, which was way too small for me. I longed for my own bike, but my older brothers had to share, and there was always a long line.
So, when there wasn’t a bike around to ride, I would run and play. There were often games of tag and hide and go seek, which led us to run and hide in our neighbors’ backyards. We knew enough to stay out of Mrs. Cane’s yard, because she hated children and she liked to scream and shake her fist at us. It inspired us to sing “Mrs. Cane/is a pain/in the neck.”
We had to climb fences, hide next to sheds, shimmy up trees and constantly run just so that we could get away from whoever was “It.”
The kids on the block would let me rest sometimes, because I’d get a stitch in my side and be unable to keep running. So, I’d sit there and watch them until I felt well enough to jump back in.
On sultry Summer nights when my parents went out and left Jude in charge of us, he would call every kid in the neighborhood over for a block party of sorts in the yard. He’d have a giant refrigerator box that he found in the neighborhood, and he’d point to Chris, Marty and me.
“Get in,” he said.
About 20 older kids were there too, patting us on the back and telling us how much fun we were about to have. “You’re so lucky you guys are the smallest,” Paul said.
So, Chris, Marty and I climbed in. The kids closed the refrigerator box flaps and started heaving and pushing it while they all screamed and laughed.
It was really hot in there, and let me tell you, the ground can be pretty hard when you’re being thrown against it in a refrigerator box. They’d turn the box upside down, and then our heads were getting knocked into each other and into the ground.
When we finally came out, Jude patted us on the back. “How was that?”
“Great?” I said, because I figured that was supposed to be the answer.
“Want to go again?” Jude said, as everyone smiled and laughed.
“Okay,” Chris and I said, as everyone cheered.
Marty ran away crying, but Paul gladly took his place. I remember laughing and having a good time, despite the fact that Paul and Chris were not soft and smashing into them still really hurt.
When I was six, we moved away from that tiny action-packed block. I hoped we would find more kids to play with. Instead, we moved to a detached house in Bayside Hills, where the average neighbor’s age was about 100 years old.
The seniors on the block were about as delighted to see us as they would have been if our house was now the site of a heroin de-tox center. They hoped we wouldn’t be too loud, or too destructive, or too, well, child-like. They were very disappointed.
The day that we arrived, we burst from our station wagon like the insane simians in Rise of the Planet of the Apes. We hooted, hollered, screamed, broke everything in our paths, and generally ran amok.
We played softball and baseball, until my brothers put a ball straight through the McGivney’s window. Seeing as how my brothers were kids, they did what kids do best: they ran for their lives. Mr. McGivney came knocking on our front door.
Unfortunately for them, my father answered the door.
“Your kids broke my window! Then they ran away!”
My father brought Louie and Joey out to face Mr. McGivney. “We didn’t run away,” Louie said. “I came in to get you money.”
“What, you don’t think I ever put a ball through a window?” Mr. McGivney yelled. “I don’t want your money. But you shouldn’t have run away.”
Mr. McGivney didn’t make my brothers pay, but my father sure did. Both of my brothers got hit, since he knew they ran away instead of facing up to what they’d done.
So now, we turned our attentions towards wiffle ball. Jude, Joey, Chris and I would form teams and play in our driveway, with Mr. and Mrs. McGivney’s driveway across the street as “out of the park.”
It was always my goal to drive the ball over my brothers’ heads and get a home run. We didn’t care that foul balls meant we were traipsing over the Berardi’s, O’Dea’s, and Prack’s lawns. When you really drove the ball foul, you ran over to the Greek’s lawn. They were a lovely, friendly bunch. We lived near them for decades and never learned their real last name.
I managed to make friends with all of the neighbors, even though they really wished we’d pack up and move back to the zoo we were set free from.
I drank lemonade and ate ladyfingers while I sat and chatted with Mr. and Mrs. Murray on their backyard patio. I watched my brothers play wiffle ball from the perch of Mrs. Prack’s porch while she and I munched on popcorn and cracker jacks and she told me about life back when she was a child, hundreds of years before. Even the Schmucker’s grew to like us, although the first time I met Mr. Schmucker at Mrs. Prack’s house, he was there to tell her how much he hated us.
“They play rock-n-roll every night,” Mr. Schmucker said.
Mrs. Prack nodded. “I don’t mind. It’s nice to have kids around.”
“I’ve gone over there to complain, but it’s still too loud.”
“Maybe Maria could mention it to her parents,” Mrs. Prack said.
“Well, little lady, what do you say?” Mr. Schmuck said, as they both turned towards me.
“It’s my brother Jude’s band. He says you should turn your hearing aide off and then you won’t mind so much.”
Mr. Schmucker and Mrs. Prack barreled over with laughter. Since I was only six, I didn’t know why they thought that was so funny. I was just glad he stopped complaining for a minute.
The best part about the new house was that we lived right across the street from St. Robert’s, so our 20-minute walk to school was now cut down to 2 minutes. This should’ve helped me get to school on time; instead, I was always leaving 20 minutes later than I should have.
There weren’t as many kids on the new block as there were on the old block, but we still managed to have fun. Our next-door neighbor, Anthony Berardi, would occasionally play running bases or wiffle ball with us. Like my brothers, Anthony enjoyed teasing everyone but didn’t like to be teased quite as much. I was on my little red tricycle one day, riding up and down the block, when he called me a baby. I called him an idiot, and then tore off down the hill to get away from him.
Luckily, Anthony gave up about half way down the hill. As I looked back over my shoulder and laughed at him, I crashed into the lamppost at the bottom of the block and went sailing over the handlebars of my trike.
Anthony was the one laughing as I dragged my banged up tricycle back up the hill. I sat on the porch with my mother, who washed out the gravel from my head, knee and elbow, and dressed my many wounds with Mercurochrome, a band-aid, and a big kiss.
The only good thing that came out of that little adventure was that my little red tricycle went to that big Tricycle garage in the sky. As a result, I had to go back to borrowing bikes so that I could ride.
The other kids in the neighborhood eyed me the way Popeye eyed Wimpy, who was always begging for a hamburger, or like a Jehovah’s Witness. You know why they’re banging on your door, so when you see them coming, you run for it.
I finally talked the kid down the block, Regina, into letting me borrow her bike. The only condition was that I had to let her hang onto the back of it on roller skates while I rode. Now, if Regina was tiny and petite, that would have been okay by me.
However, even in the second grade, Regina towered over me and could’ve dead lifted me over her head. The fact that she liked me to tow her up giant hills should have been our first clue that we were headed for disaster.
I’d been spending about an hour pulling Regina up and down 214th and 215th streets and I was getting tired.
“Can you get off now so I can ride a little bit by myself?” I said.
“No. If I get off, you have to get off my bike.”
“I’m tired, though.”
So, we set out from the bottom of 214th street and I used every ounce of strength I had to propel my giant friend, the bike and myself up the hill. She was laughing and teasing me.
“You can’t do it, you can’t do it,” Regina said.
“Yes I can!” I said. I breathed in and willed myself up the hill while Regina kept up her singsong teasing.
As I bobbed and weaved up the hill, the bike suddenly became lighter. I was now speeding up the hill, and I turned to Regina.
“See! I told you I could do it!”
But Regina wasn’t on the back of the bike anymore. Instead, she was lying in a heap, wrapped around the same lamppost I’d crashed into earlier that summer. Apparently, as I bobbed and weaved, I’d hurtled her full force into the lamppost and just kept going.
I went to the top of the hill and threw open the door.
“Ma,” I said. “Bring out the Mercurochrome!”
Luckily, my friend Nadine’s mom took pity on me and gave me a bike that year. It was way too big for me, but that didn’t stop me. Unless of course my brother Joey was riding it because he had three paper routes and needed my bike in order to deliver all those newspapers.
When I wasn’t bike riding, my friend Marianne from around the block would come by. We would roller skate, play with the dogs, bake cookies in my 100 degree kitchen, and play Blind Man’s Bluff . Along with my brothers, their friends, and the other kids, we’d sometimes get a great game of Running Bases going.
Usually, the game would proceed uneventfully and we’d all laugh and run back and forth between our driveway and the McGivney’s driveway, or between our corner and diagonally to the corner in front of St. Robert’s. Every once in a while, though, fights would break out when the teasing would start, and one of us would finally have enough.
Sometimes Joey would make fun of me, or Anthony would make fun of Paul. Once, Regina was making fun of Chris when he turned on her, jumped about a foot, and punched her in the head.
We were all stunned as we watched Regina try to act like it didn’t hurt. But then, the tears started to run down her face as she said, “That didn’t hurt at all,” and she ran down the block to her house.
She was hardly through the front door when we heard the telephone ringing in our house.
There would be hell to pay later for Chris if my father found out.
Most of the time, Running Bases was a peaceful get-together that we played all afternoon long. We would have played into the night, but somebody’s mother would eventually yell out the window, “Dinner time!” and that was it.
After dinner, I’d head over to Marianne’s block to play Ghosts in the Graveyard. We’d round up as many kids as we could find, then stand around home base while our “ghost” ran away to hide.
I remember running from backyard to backyard with Marianne by my side, searching for our ghost. There we were, on those sticky Summer nights, standing with our backs pressed against a neighbor’s shed and trying not to let our ghost see us before we saw him or her.
Eventually, someone would yell “Ghost in the Graveyard” and we would all go running for home base. Sometimes I’d get tagged, sometimes I’d make it back safely. You never knew how it was going to go. This group didn’t care if I got a stitch in my side; you had to run like a real ghost was hot on your heels and make it to the safe spot or you became the next ghost. They could be real sticklers for the rules.
The game continued until we heard our siren song and knew that the Ice Cream man cometh. We’d hear that bell clanging in the distance, and everything would stop. We cocked our heads towards it, calculated the distance, and scattered to the four corners of the universe in search of change.
Once we had our money, we would run towards that truck like it was an oasis in the middle of the desert. I clutched my coins and joined the others as we waved madly at the Ice Cream man, fearful he wouldn’t see us and would drive away.
When it was my turn, I’d have to decide between a bomb pop, toasted almond bar, ice cream sandwich or chocolate éclair. I didn’t know it then, but I was getting a lesson in weighing life’s possibilities, making tough choices and sometimes, living with regrets.
These days, I can still hear the ice cream man’s siren song long before anyone else does. But I’m happy to say that when I get a stitch in my side, my kids let me sit down and rest while they get me anything I want from the truck.
I let them choose for me too, and I have no regrets.
While I was looking for some fun ice cream dessert recipes, I found this article with 12 ice cream sandwich recipes. Granted, you’re really making cake and putting some softened ice cream inside, but so what. They’re great!
Here’s a sweet treat that really does let you make ice cream, even if you don’t have an ice cream maker at home. Plus the star of the recipe is chocolate hazelnut spread.
So, hungry lifers…what were your favorite Summer games? What’s your favorite memory from childhood summers? Do you have a summer time recipe to share? Please leave a comment and let us all in on the fun.