Childhood long gone, I’d dream about the “monkey swing” at Smith’s Playground whenever I wanted to achieve something worthwhile in my life. I’d see myself climb from one achievement to another, always going forward as I stretched out an arm to grab one metal ring and then the next one on down the line.
It’s a daydream I’d call up before falling asleep, seeing myself ascend to a higher realm, one beyond my grasp, but would somehow become visible in my make-believe world. No matter what the goal: attending Community College, going to the University, and before too long, a career as a newspaper reporter.
The “dream of the rings” surfaced when trying out for the high school gym team. I learned that I had good upper body strength while at Dobbins Technical School at 22nd Street and Lehigh Avenue. It helped me later at basic training as well as Officers’ Candidate School where push-ups made you fit right into life in the infantry.
But the rings at the North Philadelphia playground were my actual building blocks. I went there when I was five years old. I’d spend most of my time at the world’s largest indoor slide. A slide someone waxed daily to insure a smooth ride over a shiny, heavily lacquered wood.
I remember climbing 30 to 40 steps to get to the top, where three or four kids could safely sit across the crest of the slide, look down below and get ready to push off from the rear.
Glorious feelings took over: exhilaration, excitement, some fear, but mostly a joyousness that still rings clear across the decades. Couldn’t hear yourself think for the screams all around you. Reminded me of the screams I’d hear years later from a roller coast ride.
But here, there were no security bars to keep you in place. No person sitting close to hold your hand. You were on your own, a free spirit gliding downward, occasionally noticing the rich smell of polished wood right after a good rain, or the honeysuckle giving off its scent from bushes growing outside.
Too soon, you’d reach the bottom, looking up for your mom or an older sibling watching over you. Took 20 minutes of waiting in line to get the thrill of a lifetime. And one day, after two or three rides, someone introduced me to what I call the “monkey swing” rings.
You could only reach the first ring by walking up a slanted wooden platform until you were three feet above the ground. You had to be tall enough to reach the ring that hung from a chain attached to a thick metal pole some 25 feet above. There were six or seven rings all in a row, equally distanced apart.
The object was to swing like a monkey from one ring to another, until you made it to the end, and then return without touching the ground. I don’t remember how many years it took to finally make such a “round trip.” I’d try the rings every chance I’d get. That is, until I noticed callouses developing for the first time. I learned early there were some things in life you had to toughen up and prepare in order to achieve. Building callouses was one of them. It helped me grab the rings better, insurer a stronger grip and give me confidence I lacked before.
I remember what it was like to finally complete the exercise and travel back and forth over the rings. I see it when I close my eyes and want to “relive” those moments filled with a stubborn determination to prove I could accomplish it.
It’s something that gives me as much pleasure now as it did back then. Without callouses. Without years of trial and error until achieving a little enlightenment.