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When Games Were for Fun
Bil Gilbert
February 02, 1970
When I was an undergraduate at Georgetown University a young historian named Carroll Quigley offered a course called Development of Civilization, a one-year survey of human activity from roughly 10,000 B.C. to date (the date then being the Truman Administration). Though the course officially traced the development of civilization Dr. Quigley was actually more interested in its deterioration, a process he felt was particularly visible today. He had a great talent for using homely examples to illustrate this thesis. One morning, for instance, he limped into class and gave what had to be one of the more provocative explanations for a pulled muscle. (My old Dev Civ notes have only the cryptic entry, "Quig-kick-can," but I think I remember the incident clearly enough to give a fairly accurate paraphrase.)
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February 02, 1970

When Games Were For Fun

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When I was an undergraduate at Georgetown University a young historian named Carroll Quigley offered a course called Development of Civilization, a one-year survey of human activity from roughly 10,000 B.C. to date (the date then being the Truman Administration). Though the course officially traced the development of civilization Dr. Quigley was actually more interested in its deterioration, a process he felt was particularly visible today. He had a great talent for using homely examples to illustrate this thesis. One morning, for instance, he limped into class and gave what had to be one of the more provocative explanations for a pulled muscle. (My old Dev Civ notes have only the cryptic entry, "Quig-kick-can," but I think I remember the incident clearly enough to give a fairly accurate paraphrase.)

"One night a week my wife and I have a class for neighborhood children in street games," he said. "I slipped trying to kick the can"

We responded with a tentative laugh, having learned not to commit ourselves hastily to emotional outbursts with this sardonic man.

"My falling on my rear is amusing," said Quigley with a grin, "but the reason we are playing these games is not. It is alarming." And he went on to explain how children are forgetting how to play. When he started his neighborhood course, he said, not a child on the block-knew kick-the-can, mother-may-I or crack-the-whip, and most were shaky on the rules of hide-and-seek. "They are accustomed to buying recreation in kits," he went on. "They imitate professional performers, being entertained rather than entertaining themselves. This is, of course, analogous to the situation in postrepublican Rome." (Quigley could find a precedent for any sort of moral degredation in imperial Rome.)

"In periods of decline recreation becomes an exhibition to promote docility and take people's minds off public calamity," he said in 1948. "As our amount of leisure time increases so will the temptation to replace private games with public spectacles. That is why we're teaching kick-the-can and that is why I am limping."

I have thought about this lecture a lot lately, most recently in connection with the one-mile-brick-pull, a private game I had never heard of until a couple of weeks ago. Percy Polley, a shrewd, prosperous octogenarian who lives near me in this small central Appalachian village, was talking about it one day in the barbershop. Just previously there had been a teen-ager in the shop who was telling us about a newly acquired set of weight-lifting devices, including what they had cost him. Later Percy commented mildly, "When I was young we had a good game, a test of strength."

"What was that?"

"We would put a brick down on the track out at the station, a mile from town; just a common building brick. We would tie the end of a big roll of binder twine around it and, paying out the twine as we went, walk back into town. Then we'd see if anyone could pull that brick off the railroad track. That was work. You would pull and pull and pull. It felt like you were tied to an oak post. But it could be done," said Mr. Polley with pride.

The one-mile-brick-pull is an entertainment which, if he is still thinking about such things, Dr. Quigley would identify and recommend as a private, old-style game. Old-style games are essentially free-form, do-it-yourself exercises, their objective being to excite, please and occupy the time of the participants. They are competitive, have rules, strategic ploys and traditions, but these are passed along from individual to individual, generation to generation, rather than being codified in handbooks or enshrined in halls of fame. Old-style games do not require elaborate facilities nor expensive equipment. (Brick-pulling used a lot of string, but what's a few balls of binder twine?) In contrast, if you are going to be a Pee Wee Golfer you need, among other things, clubs that you cannot improvise or safely steal, a course that you cannot build yourself, fees you cannot afford and a national tournament (with press tent) that you cannot organize.

Some other fundamental differences between old-and new-style games can be illustrated by comparing knockout-and-laydown, a game I wasted hours of my precious youth on, with Little League baseball. Knockout and laydown is played with a bat and ball—any old club and any old ball will do, and any number can play. The first batter, chosen by lot, argument or fistfight, throws the ball up and knocks it out, fungo fashion. He tries to hit it as far as he can and where the fielder ain't. He then lays the bat on the ground, and the fielder tries to hit the bat with the ball from the place he catches or runs down the ball. If he misses, the batter gets another turn. Knockout-and-laydown can be played anywhere, and in fact we preferred rough terrain to take advantage of hidden bumps and ridges that would divert the ball on its way to the bat.

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