My older brother Nolen Robert and I did our growing up mainly in the 1940s and 1950s, although he had a six-year head start on me. The nearest house that had other children in it was over a mile away, but I have no memory of any of them becoming our playmates.
So for recreation on our Tennessee hills farm, Nolen Robert and I made up our own games. Farm work took far more of our time than recreation did, but at times Daddy commented on how much energy we had for playing and how suddenly our energy levels fell when it was time to go back to the fields or do chores. Somehow the issue had something to do with having fun vs. having to work.
I will cite three examples of the recreation that Nolen Robert and I enjoyed. These weren’t necessarily original, nor were all of them the exclusive domain of farm kids. But they were easy to play by two people and one person could play two of the three alone. The examples are rock hitting, corncob fights, and paper wad basketball.
- Rock Hitting – This may seem a little strange to some, but we had a gravel road in front of our house. The county road crew periodically scooped up gravel from nearby shallow creeks and spread it over the road to prevent formation of muddy ruts and to maintain a stable roadbed. The game that Nolen Robert and I created was to pick up rocks, one at a time, toss them into the air, and hit them into the woods beyond a small potato field along the road across from our front yard. We made bats from nearby oak or hickory saplings by cutting them into baseball bat lengths, with a diameter of about two inches on the larger end. We removed enough of the bark on the small end to create a grip about the size of the handle of a baseball bat. The bark on the rest of our bats soon wore off from striking the stones. The game, which we could play together or alone, was to pick up a small rock along the side of the road, toss it in the air, and swing our crude bat as the rock came down and hit it as far as we could into the woods. Soon I learned I could not compete with Nolen Robert because he was bigger and stronger than I was and could obviously hit the rocks further than I could. So we equalized the game by selecting a particular trunk of a large tree along the edge of the woods, and then seeing which of us could hit a rock with the accuracy to strike the trunk. Over time our accuracy improved and it was a fun game. After Nolen Robert entered high school, he became less available for this game so I played it alone often. My competence at hitting a rock at a particular tree trunk improved so that when I played baseball at school I could position my feet and time my swing to try to hit the ball to vulnerable areas on the field. I got even better at this as an adult when playing slow-pitch softball. With the ball coming to the plate slowly, I became pretty adept at placing where I wanted my hits to go. So the childhood rock-hitting game benefited my baseball and softball playing later in life.
- Corncob Fights – This was pretty much a farm game because we grew corn to feed our livestock. I had forgotten this game until recently when my friend Leverne, who had grown up on a Pennsylvania farm, read my memoir and called me to ask if I remembered corncob fights. On rainy days when we could not work in the fields, Daddy lead Nolen Robert and me to the corn crib to shuck and later shell corn in our mechanical corn sheller. This created an abundance of corncobs, which had many uses such as making corncob pipes for smoking tobacco, using them to stoke fires in our wood-burning stoves, and spreading them as organic matter on our fields. We did not use them as a substitute for toilet paper in our outhouse, as some country folks claimed to do. When soaked in water, corncobs made a ready source of ammunition for corncob fights. Nolen Robert and I got into corncob fights, sometimes after soaking corncobs in water to make them heavy or just finding one in the mud after some extended rains. Again, because of his superior size and strength, I normally blindsided him with a wet corncob to his back or legs, then ran while he picked up the cob to throw it at me. On rare occasions we got into corncob fights with neighbor boys or with relatives at family gatherings.
- Paper Wad Basketball – This was an indoor game that could just as well be played by city kids. We usually wadded up a sheet of 8 ½” x 11” notebook paper into as tight a ball as we could make. We then placed a wastepaper basket along a wall and shot baskets from various places in the room. We kept informal scores and I could compete easily with Nolen Robert in this game because his strength superiority did not matter. Mother and Daddy sometimes got tired of us playing this game, but with a wadded up piece of paper we were highly unlikely to break anything. That was our defense until directed to stop, which I found hard to do anyway and often just moved the wastebasket to another room to give them a bit more peace and quiet.
All three of these games were great fun. Nolen Robert and I also played a lot of catch by throwing a baseball to each other, and we played basketball on our homemade backboard and professional quality goal and net mounted to tall poles we had cut from our woods. But city kids could play these same games.
I no longer play the three games described above. City living and just growing into adulthood caused those games to fade from my memory. Thanks to Leverne recently asking me about corncob fights, my memory was stirred in a new area.
That is often how memory works. Parts of it may remain dormant for years, and sometimes a simple question or comment or image stirs vivid memories again.
I wonder what other treasured memories are hiding in my brain that have not been stirred in a very long time. Noted author Barbara Kingsolver observed, “It’s surprising how much memory is built around things unnoticed at the time.” Often I’m as surprised as anyone when I remember things that happened over a half century ago.
People often ask how I remembered so much detail from childhood after they read my memoir. Writing opened up my memory in unexpected ways. Tobias Wolff, author of the memoir, This Boy’s Life, said, “Memory is funny. Once you hit a vein the problem is not how to remember but how to control the flow.”
That said, I’d like to go out and hit a few rocks.