Ollie Ollie Oxen Free
Hoover Elementary School’s pre-fab buildings
It was a glorious summer of Kick the Can, Ollie Ollie Oxen Free, Wiffle ball, water gun battle royals and Championship Wrestling, frightening the lady across the street. That summer before the sixth grade, when you could still be a kid and read comic books and watch Saturday morning cartoons.
The only care in the world was the threat of polio. But moms countered that threat by keeping you inside during the heat of the day, because the concern of the time was that you could “catch” polio.
As soon as the relative cool of the evening came, it was out to the front yard. The next-door neighbors had, thankfully, not littered their yard with saplings as nearly everyone along South Toledo Avenue between East 52nd and 53rd streets had. (Today, it’s a forest.) Oh, your dad did, but it was on the south part of the front yard next to the driveway. As a result, you had about three-fourths of your yard north to the entirety of Allan and Tommy Stark’s yard for a ball field.
Home plate was a few feet from the Starks’ driveway. First base was the corner of the flowerbed at the far corner of their house. Second base was across the yard at a rock next to the curb along Toledo. (We only had two bases — this was Wiffle ball, with its plastic bat and plastic ball with holes in it.) Even the neighborhood strongman, Bobby Conine, couldn’t smash the ball much farther than my driveway — and then the breeze had to be coming from behind him.
When it wasn’t Wiffle ball, it might be Kick the Can up the street to Larry Nelson’s back yard. It backed up to a creek that ran through the neighborhood (that creek today has disappeared as a storm sewer).
The can would be in the middle of Nelson’s back yard and the trick was to sneak up the creek bed and make a dash to kick the can to free all of “Its” prisoners. “It” claimed prisoners by spying on players, running to put his foot on the can and yelling, “One, two, three on Clyde hiding behind the oak tree!” When we finally tired of the game, “It” would call, “Ollie Ollie Oxen Free!” Don’t get me started on whether it was “Alley Alley All are Free” or something similar. In our neighborhood it was “Ollie Ollie Oxen Free,” and that’s that.
Some evenings we’d arm ourselves with various water pistols and guns. There were no “Super Soakers” in those days, with the exception of my weapon. I borrowed a red plastic tomato about the size of a softball that my mother used to put catsup in. Filled that with water and could soak a kid in a minute, thank you.
We were fans of Championship Wrestling on Channel 6. We knew it was fake because we learned how to imitate Red McKim, who appeared on the show. Clyde and his little brother, Tommy; Allan and his little brother, Tommy; and I would “play” Championship Wrestling in our front yards. We were pretty darn good at it as Mrs. Dale VanZant from across the street once dashed out of her house to break up the “fight” she thought she was witnessing.
Soon, summer ended. Carnegie Elementary School was to open for the first time. Bobby Conine and I were going to be sixth graders as sweating on the field of play turned into sweating in a stifling classroom. But opening a new school, even if in “prefabs” (as the portable buildings were known), helped take a bit of the sting off the end of an idyllic summer — the last one for those of us who had no idea that we were saying goodbye to our childhood.