by Angela Ann Flanigan
I am just old enough to recall growing up in a childhood free from television, computer games and other sophisticated electronic equipment. Back in the 1940s we did not need all that because we knew how to play the old-fashioned way: we actually made up our own games!
Kids from all over our neighborhood in Germantown would gather at the swing set in my backyard, where I would hold court by telling make-believe stories. I never knew where those stories would lead. I just started talking and trusted my imagination to wind up with something that held the attention of — or even amused — the other kids.
Once my friends and I draped brightly colored blankets over the swing set to form a “big top.” That was about all it took to create our own backyard circus. Most of us pretended to be circus animals, with costumes consisting of whiskers taped to our noses and tails attached to the seats of our pants.
We did find some authentic-looking riding britches and a crop so one of the kids could play the ringmaster. The rest of us “animals” had to perform our stunts well, or he would crack his “whip” at us.
When playing indoors, my sister and I had our own private make-believe treasure trove in an old steamer trunk stored in the basement. Inside were wonderful castoffs like fancy hats, high-heeled shoes, colorful dresses and gaudy jewelry. We’d get all dressed up and talk a walk, and before long a parade would form behind us.
We little ladies strutted down the sidewalk with feathered hats and high-heeled shoes, showing off for the boys at the corner baseball field. Most of the time the boys would tease us, but sometimes they would actually join in the “fashion parade,” dressing up as clowns or hoboes.
Whenever we ventured outside the neighborhood, whole new worlds of make-believe were open to us. The best place was grandma and grandpa’s wonderful garage and storage area, which were perfect for creating haunts. Pale light steamed in through tiny windows, barely illuminating the old coal bin in that spooky garage. In darkened corners we’d begin our games of hide-and-go-seek or “monsters creep and sneak.”
Out back of the garage, grandpa had a wonderful stack of old tires, wooden soda crates, warped plywood, rusty wagon wheels and an unused doghouse. That area became a favorite play spot for us because it was adaptable to so many moods. One day it might provide a stage for singing and tap-dancing. Another day it might serve as a fort for a game of Cowboys and Indians or the castle for a king and queen.
Our fun was not limited to grandma’s and grandpa’s backyard, either. They lived conveniently near a patch of woods in Fort Washington, where we would haul scraps of lumber and nail them to a big tree.
The first pieces formed a makeshift ladder. We would slowly work our way up that ladder, then build a tree house. It became a magnificent lookout for approaching “enemies,” as well as a wonderful place to stretch out and gaze at the lazy clouds forming shapes in the sky above.
Recently, after hearing about all these things I did as a child, my granddaughter remarked, “I can’t believe anyone actually did things like that,” as she proceeded to send text messages to her friends.
That’s really too bad, but it makes me feel privileged to have grown up in a time before children’s imaginations were imprisoned by a little screen that is glued to their hands. It was a time when child’s play really was kid stuff.
Angela Ann Flanigan, 78, grew up in Germantown and lived most of her adult life in Mt. Airy. She now lives in a retirement community in North Carolina.