Wistful for War: The Flawed Nostalgia of the Steel Playground Slide
“This slide has water in it!” my six-year-old son exclaimed. It had rained a few inches the day before, and the world was now soaked.
My mind immediately cast back to 1979, when my six-year-old self perched atop a towering steel slide, trying to disentangle my knobby knees from the Stepladder of Doom and wrangle them to point forward and downward, without falling off through the gap in the railing to the side, as I sat and swallowed hard. The steel shone, swaying in the wind, gleaming with all the heat of the nuclear furnace which causes the sun, polished by a generation of asses of fire, now whispering in the shimmer of reaction for my little ass. It was pitched just short of orthogonal, emptying into a chute which stood about four feet above the ground, not counting the dirt hole which had been worn into the earth where thousands upon myriads had crash landed. I swallowed sheer terror and let go. The cross of the church steeple loomed over my left shoulder as gravitational forces added themselves up toward terminal velocity, and the circle of the earth flattened into the horizon as my internal altimeter went berserk with the loss of altitude and blood. No rain would ever gather in such a playground slide.
When at last my feet touched terra firma, I used the momentum to skim the earth toward the swings, another monument to childhood terror, gigantic A-frames hot-riveted in a line just below the high-tension power pylon of steel latticework which brushed the North Carolina sky. With that same momentum I hit the galvanized rubber swing seat with my stomach and flew away, turning over at the apogee of my orbit, letting those previously accumulated g-forces press my ass of fire into still more stored heat, and I pumped. Far below me, oscillating with my orbit, I could see Jane Stephensmore vomiting on the merry-go-round.
Red Toby, who was older than we were by a million years, at least a third-grader, and very much overweight, was catching the merry-go-round as it spun, accelerating it with all his tubbiness and cruel laughter. She had screamed, grown silent, then gave up the fight against motion sickness.
“My six-year-old,” I said to myself, wistfully, “will never experience the childhood joy of those terrors of such a playground.” I thought about my wistfulness for a minute. “It’s probably better that way.”
There is a flaw in nostalgia, that we experienced something horrible, horror-inducing, and literally dangerous, and because we survived it, we say, “Well, I turned out just fine.” It’s important to remember that we were at war.
Those playgrounds were built in the near memory of one of the worst things that has ever happened to the world: the Japanese Imperial Army and the Third Reich arising simultaneously. They continued to be built during the worst thing that has ever happened to the world: Soviet Expansionism. It was probably good for children to experience terror and disorientation, discomfort, and even pain, suffering motion sickness of a playground implement, in order to learn to cope with it, in the same way a soldier must cope with g-forces and battlefield discomfort and wounds and artillery shocks. I suppose one could argue that’s what boot camp and basic training and field exercises are for, but there you go: a different world has passed away, is passing away, when even our playgrounds were militarized. Berkeley Breathed once observed that even our bubble gum was militarized, that we thought nothing of exploding bubbles with the covetable Bazooka Bubblegum.
The elders and trustees of my church, along with all their brothers and many of their sisters, had served in those wars, been POWs, had been stationed in reconstruction areas, and so forth, so it was natural for them to want their kids to be prepared for those discomforts and psychological nightmares.
For example, Eugene Sledge writes in With the Old Breed, “The increasing dread of going back into action obsessed me. It became the subject of the most tortuous and persistent of all the ghastly war nightmares that have haunted me for many, many years. The dream is always the same, going back up to the lines during the bloody, muddy month of May on Okinawa. It remains blurred and vague, but occasionally still comes, even after the nightmares about the shock and violence of Peleliu have faded and been lifted from me like a curse.” 1
From within the abyss, as he repeatedly names it, he describes what he saw with all the passion of a camera’s shutter and aperture, then he remarks: “The stench of death was overpowering. The only way I could bear the monstrous horror of it all was to look upward away from the earthly reality surrounding us, watch the leaden gray clouds go skudding over, and repeat over and over to myself that the situation was unreal—just a nightmare—that I would soon awake and find myself somewhere else. But the ever-present smell of death saturated my nostrils. It was there with every breath I took. I existed from moment to moment, sometimes thinking death would have been preferable. We were in the depths of the abyss, the ultimate horror of war.” 2
I imagine this is why in 1945 the United States attacked the Japanese mainland with nuclear weapons. I suppose nowadays we nuked them because we are an irredeemably racist nation. General MacArthur, for example, was notoriously horrified by the use of nuclear weapons, calling them “Frankenstein’s monster,” and “pointless.” Robert Leckie, in his own war memoir, wrote of the bomb, “Monster cloud rising over Hiroshima, over the world—monstrous, mushrooming thing, sign of our age, symbol of our sin: growth; bigness, speed: grow, grow, grow—grow in a cancer, enlarge a factory, swell a city, enlarge our bellies, speed life, fly to the moon, burst a bomb, shatter a people—explode the world…Someone had sinned against life, and I felt it in my very person. But then I, too, sinned…I rejoiced.” Leckie then prays, “…dear Father, forgive us for that awful cloud.” 3
But then the Soviets gained the bomb. The Soviets! Surely Soviet Russia was an experiment in the collective, stumbling, perhaps, toward the next phase in human evolution, to emerge as a realized government of the people by the people for the people, which America only promised. Alas, no, Soviet Russia was a gulag. Solzhenitsyn nuked the daydreams of so many along the Atlantic Rim who earnestly believed the experiment would outlast its infant clumsiness and thrust us into the manors of the unjust upper classes to establish a more just arrangement for all people. In his Gulag Archipelago, he describes a moment within the worker’s paradise, where “the ships of the Archipelago” are railcars: “And it isn’t that one is stingy about taking them to the toilet because one wants to be stingy about the use of the toilet itself, but because taking prisoners to the toilet is a responsible — even, one might say, a combat — operation: it takes a long, long time for one private first class and two privates. Two guards have to be stationed, one next to the toilet door, the other in the corridor on the opposite side (so that no one tries to escape in that direction), while the private first class has to push open and then shut the door to the compartment, first to admit the returning prisoner, and then to allow the next one out. The statutes permit letting out only one at a time so that they don’t try to escape and so that they can’t start a rebellion. Therefore the way it works out is that the one prisoner who has been let out to go to the toilet is holding up 30 others in his own compartment and 120 in the whole car, not to mention the convoy detail!” 4
Sledge wrote in the 1980s, Leckie in the 1950s, and Solzhenitsyn in the 1970s. We were at war. “That slide is at too steep a pitch, and it burns the children’s skin when they slide upon it.” Well, it’s probably good for them. “Those merry-go-rounds are the cause of motion sickness and countless injuries” Well, all the faster they learn how to control a submarine in yaw. “The boys keep cracking their skulls jumping off those high swings.” Well, they’ll know how to survive the nuclear winter.
Okay, fine: I’m just indulging in a little silliness here. I do think, however, that the one-armed man who drove me home one day when I got lost in the woods — he knew my dad even though we didn’t know him — I think his WWII purple heart made his beating heart a little unsympathetic to the common injuries experienced on school slides and church playgrounds.
In 1979, while my ass was lit on fire by a terrifying playground slide, Leonid Brezhnev was celebrating thirty-one nuclear tests, most of which were weapons development. I have these distinct memories of civil defense drills in school, in which we practiced nuclear war survival techniques. I think now they were propagandistic in nature, and quaint, but they were effective then, and it was also true that Brezhnev brought the Soviet Union to nuclear parity with the United States. Thankfully, Elton John’s tour of the Soviet Union that year commenced a countdown which resulted in the sea change that brought down the Soviet Union twelve short years later. While Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, and Pope John Paul II (whom Brezhnev attempted to assassinate) watched from history’s peanut gallery, Mikhail Gorbachev guided the Soviet Union to a safe disembarking, yielding the Russian Federation.
After Brezhnev tried to kill him, and after Brezhnev had a heart attack and expired, the Pope fled home to Poland, where he met General Wojciech Jaruzelski, the communist overlord of Poland. Janusz Poniewierski reports that when the Pope entered the room, Jaruzelski and his henchmen were shaking, literally shaking in their boots, while Karol Wojtyla was at ease, discussing this and that with a smile and good humor, the dignity of the individual person, and the role of the state in fostering that being. General Jaruzelski had not attended the funeral mass for his mother, not daring to legitimize with his glorious presence the faith into which she was baptized. On his deathbed, after a lifetime of oppressing his fellowman, he affirmed the same baptism with which his mother had him baptized. “How many divisions has the Pope?” Stalin had boasted. Well, the Pope has no divisions, but his God has all the divisions.
The little accident at Reactor Number 4 on the Pripyat River had heated the steel of the slide, and the world was flung down the chute with an ass on fire to the ground, the feet of the nations skimming the earth to the next implement of history, to swing itself high and hard in the exhilaration of the breaking of the war. It was laughter, shrill, high, piercing laughter, all night long as they flooded in all directions to see the bright lights and the spinning wheels of the West. So much seed was sown in so short a time that no one yet knows what was even planted, much less what fruit is to be harvested.
“The slide has water in it!” my six-year-old son exclaimed, bemused, a little song on his lips as he wandered around the playground, avoiding its puddles. Plastic doesn’t really develop a patina like steel does, and if it did, it wouldn’t, because at that pitch, no child’s rear would ever glow like ours did. Besides, heat like that melts a plastic slide.
This is much better, these wide spaces between safe toys. They’re not even installed on blacktop pavement! How can a little boy even skin his knees nowadays? They’ll jostle and strive against each other for the meaningless, like children contend over the last slice of chocolate cake, but who would come to blows when another dessert is on the way? A few riots here and there as we figure out how to divvy up the cash: much preferable to the civil defense drills. The momentum from that long, fast, slide is long spent.
- E.B. Sledge. With the Old Breed: In Peleliu and Okinawa. 2010 Presidio Press Trade Paperback Edition, page 235.
- Sledge, page 253.
- Robert Leckie. Helmet for My Pillow: From Parris Island to the Pacific. 2010. Bantam Books Trade Paperback Edition, pages 303-305.
- Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. The Gulag Archipelago: An Experiment in Literary Investigation. Volume 1, 2007. Harper Perennial Modern Classics, pages 496-497.