Somewhere in the middle of the last century when children played outside with little or no adult supervision, my brothers and sisters and I played a variety of games whose origins I have forgotten. Here for posterity I will recall and explain them as best I can.
The earliest game I played with my older sister, Marsha, is one I don’t even remember. It became family legend, though, because of how Marsha described what we were doing. I was maybe 2 or 3 years old, and Marsha was a year and a half older. We had an imaginary playmate we called James John Willum. We had recently been to a cookout that my mom and dad called a weeny roast. A few days later while Mom was doing dishes she noticed Marsha and me carrying armloads of sticks and dead leaves past the kitchen window. Wondering what we were up to and perhaps fearing we were making a mess, she came outside and saw us holding sticks over a pile of brush. She asked what we were doing, and Marsha replied, “We’re weesting roanies with James John Willium.”
Like many children in the early sixties, we had tricycles. Perhaps unlike most children, however, we did not merely ride them. Sometimes we flipped them over and used the pedals to spin the wheel as fast as we could. Somehow, this activity led to imagining that we were making ice cream. We would hold an imaginary cone close to the spinning wheel to collect the ice cream and then hand it to a playmate who would carefully lick it, checking for drips as they did so. I never heard of anyone else turning a tricycle into an ice cream maker, but we did.
As our family grew, we added games that required forming teams. Two of our favorite games were Red Rover and Lemonade. I don’t recall ever learning these games. They were not games we played at school as far as I can remember. Our parents may have started them with us. I don’t know.
For Red Rover, there were two teams. One team would hold hands and form a line facing the other team. Then they would call out, “Red Rover, Red Rover, send [name] right over.” The named person would then run headlong into the line and try to break through it. If they managed to break through, they could select one of the opposing team members to join their team. If not, they had to join the opposing team themselves. Play would continue until everyone was too tired to keep it up, it got too dark, or we were called in to supper. There was never a clear winner, and, despite the inherent violence of the game, few injuries. Each team had a captain who would advise other players where the weakest point in the opposing line was or whose name they should call. If two smaller kids were holding hands and saw a bigger kid barreling down on them, they would offer very little resistance. Nobody wanted to get hurt, and nobody wanted to let anyone get hurt.
The other team game was Lemonade. It was a kind of combination of charades and tag. Two teams faced each other. The first team would decide on a profession to mime, then they would approach the other team. On seeing them approach, the other team would yell, “What’s your trade?” To which the first team would respond, “Lemonade.” Then the second team would say, “Go to work and show your profession.”
The first team would begin miming the profession they had chosen while the other team would yell out guesses. As soon as someone yelled out the correct guess, the whole first team would run away with the other team in hot pursuit. Anyone tagged before they reached the predetermined safe boundary would have to join the other team. Then play would begin again with the other team becoming the first team.
As with Red Rover, there was usually no clear winner, although sometimes the game would end with only one team. I can imagine adults would have found it highly entertaining to see children miming occupations such as bus driver or postal carrier, to say nothing of accountant or project manager.
One game I played with my brother Mark, I will call Ketchup Wars. I’m not sure how it started. Mark was always good at miming or playing a part. I’ve written before about how good he was at dying. He was also good at throwing gobs of ketchup. We always started small, with just a dollop of ketchup, maybe less than a teaspoon. He would toss it to me, and I would catch it and throw it back. With each pass the amount of ketchup would grow until we were lobbing huge masses of the stuff and getting splattered from head to toe with imaginary ketchup. I would throw a baseball-sized gob, and he would catch it like a baseball catcher with his hand in front of his chest. He would stagger backwards a step from the impact, and return the throw with imaginary ketchup that was now the size of a bowling ball. We played until the ketchup grew to such a quantity neither of us could lift it any more.
When I think back, I realize that most of the games we played required no equipment of any kind. Sure, it was a bonus playing Good Guys and Bad Guys with soft pellet guns. There was never any argument about whether or where you had been shot. But when we didn’t have guns, we just used our fingers and had just as much fun. Most of the games were more about cooperating in imagining a world rather than competing for some prize or achieving a goal. Fun was the goal, and we had plenty of it.