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In the concrete confines of a New York boyhood, sports are nothing to take for granted. You spend an hour on the subway reaching a place to run 100 yards unobstructed without striking a pushcart or bowling over a pedestrian and, as a result, your athletic efforts tend to be catch-as-catch-can, pretty specialized and often indoors. When I was a boy in New York my usual sports were shinny (sidewalk hockey played on roller skates, using passing buses as defensemen), kickball, played on a hardwood gym floor which abraded you badly if you kicked and missed, and museum-going. In most communities museum-going would not count as a sport at all but we counted it for lack of anything better.
Museum-going was a very big sport for me and my friends, especially on weekends, and the hell of it is that the best museum for it is gone. I can't imagine what small New York boys do instead. The museum was the late New York Museum of Science and Industry in Rockefeller Center, and our sport there consisted of doing as many things as we could as fast as we could, and then coming back the next Saturday to do them all over again. It was, uniquely, a museum where indeed we could do things. We entered it by paying 10� at a little booth like a movie ticketseller's and there, straightaway, was the first thing to do, the first wonder of science and industry. It was a machine that spit ball bearings from a hole. These struck a slanting metal plate, bounced nimbly through a spinning ring, fell and bounced again off a second plate and then jumped like frightened mice into a second hole—unless we caught them. The first event for us young scientists was the one-gram ball catch, a fast stab at one of the single-minded steel spheres and a chance to take it home. It was an irregular event and not without danger—one weekend, after a particularly heavy series of such assaults, the machine developed a case of the dry heaves, and the museum thereafter stationed a guard near by to protect it from further depredations.
Past this challenging machine there came an agony of decision, for a little vestibule behind it led to equal opportunities. If you went to the left, there were the smells. They came from little pipes upended above a row of pushbuttons. You put your nose to a pipe and pushed a button marked "Acrid" or "Pungent" or "Fruity"—or all the buttons at once, if you wanted—and the pipe mouths, magically, exhaled a gray autumn's gasp of leaves burning or the urgent draught of a drawer filled with spice or the damp breath of a garden in summer. The sport here was to keep your nose in the pipe and mix up the smells until the exact moment when the odor overpowered your digestion. Miss by an instant and it was back home for you, with an irate mother at the other end asking where you ate lunch.
But if you went to the right, there were the lightnings. They hid, dormant and pent, in polished copper coils set in glass booths. When you pushed their buttons the booths shadowed dark and ominous, and then the lightning crackled in brittle blue cords or liquid arcs, eager and ferocious. Here you held the button down until it grew hot under your thumb and the coils gave off ominous smoke, which normally brought the guard. When you saw him coining you left quickly up a flight of stairs, disdaining a big room that held flamboyant static displays like a transparent man with his red-ink blood, or a bizarre locomotive with a tall, skinny chimney and a vast barrel aboard its tender. You hurried past these because they were to look at and not for sport, and you climbed instead to the cherished rooms where there were more things to do and use and interfere with. The fun rooms, we called them, our rooms.
Here were wonderful telephones that listened patiently as you talked and giggled into them and then reproduced exactly what you said, even the giggle. Here were rows of tiny trains, spinning their wheels eagerly at your command, atop their private stretches of tiny track. Here were wire loops you turned to hear the fade and surge of a radio beacon as you sought it through the night, the wobble of a walking-beam engine working its ponderous wheel, the giant's key that thrust vast tumblers into a giant's lock—a lock you could jam if you wiggled the key just so.
Here were the wheels and pulleys and ratchets and gears and levers and cams. These hung, row on row on great wall panels, gleaming and docile and waiting. You pushed their buttons and, wondrously, an orchestra came to life, the wheels turned, the pulleys ran up and down and the gears gnashed their teeth. They were exotic gears—square gears and oval gears and gears within gears—and the obedient machines all worked, seemingly tireless, in a cacophony of clank. But they did get tired and you kept them working until something went wrong—a stuttering cam, a slipped disk—and then let go their buttons in triumph and went on to the next panel.
Here were half-ton weights you lifted with a gentle tug on a chain—and which thundered ominously down when you let go. Here were floating steamboats to sink and chugging cars to wreck, frog legs that twitched at the touch of a mechanical hand, a heavy ring that leaped high at the rebuff of a magnet and that would stick fast at the top of its flight if you did it right. It all worked, a commotion of magic to set off or confound at the touch of a finger, and we stayed pushing our buttons until the guard left his ball bearings and came to say, "That's all now, boys. There's more Saturdays."
But one Saturday in 1940 the sport shrank; the smells and lightnings were gone. In their place were an Enfield rifle and a model destroyer and the fuselage of a Messerschmitt 109. We tried to snap the bolt on the rifle, and we wiggled the crumpled control stick on the Messerschmitt. But it wasn't as good as button-pushing.
Soon there were more weapons, the war seemed to eat away more of our treasured buttons, and one Saturday I found the wheels and gears stilled and shoved aside to make room for a floorful of military equipment. There were guns that pretended to shoot, a wall hung with guided missiles that hummed as they hunted like nervous gargoyles and another wall covered with the sad circling eyes of radar screens. There were big, buzzing antiaircraft cannon, bristling from the floor where the train with the funny smokestack used to be. There were bombs to ride and sailors to explain how everything worked.
It was a military show of some sort, and for awhile we forgot our buttons in the greater sport of its shooting galleries, where you fired bullets of light at movies of Japanese fighter planes.