Every young boy dreams of being famous-- usually a professional ball player of some kind or maybe an astronaut, or performer. They are going to conquer the world, discover new things, have millions of fans, break world records or be declared a hero. When I was a young boy, I did most of my dreaming where a lot of children do, on "the lot".
"The lot" can mean different things to different people. It can be an empty field, common ground, or even a parking lot. In our case, "the lot" incorporated all of these as it was the Our Lady of Mercy Catholic Church Campus, occupying most of the inside of the suburban block that many of us lived on or near.
It was a fairly small parish of, probably, 400 families. The campus was comprised the church building and a school with five classrooms and a multipurpose room. If you don't count the metal, shed-like concession stand, that was all of the structures so there was a ton of open space. There was a quad area between the two buildings that was kept up nicely but rarely used and a very large area that we just called "the hill" but it was really just a slightly sloped piece of land, running from the school down to the street that was supposed to be used for a gymnasium that was never built. The athletic field and the large parking lot took up most of the rest of the space. I always thought the parking lot was extremely large for a parish our size as I don't think I ever saw it more than 3/4 full-- even for Easter Vigil. All that space made for a huge amount of room to play.
Kids today don't play like we used to. They need a coach and a referee and a permission slip to play. They need warm up exercises and family members in the stands and they need a cool, healthy but tasty treat after they formally line up and parade past each other slapping hands and chanting a monotone, "good game, good game, good game...".
I can think of maybe nine days that I wasn't up on the lot, after school when it was in session and, basically, all day in the summer, from the time I was able to leave the front yard and cross the street on my own until I was able to drive. We would all congregate, choose up teams and play until the fight broke out or it got dark, at which point we would drag all of our stuff home until the next day when we would do it all over again.
There was no schedule-- no set time to start. Everyone would just show up and as soon as we had enough to play it was go time. If you showed up late, you sat out until another came to make the teams even or were designated, "all-time-hiker" (or catcher, or goalie).
Captains were usually the two oldest, biggest or the best athletes and the last person picked was probably the youngest, smallest and most uncoordinated. This practice may seem cruel, by today's standards, but I prefer it to giving every kid a trophy just for showing up. It was honest and let you know where your strengths and weaknesses were and made you determined to improve.
Everyone was playing for themselves. There were no parents to make proud or girls to impress except the ones that were playing with us and we were an equal opportunity organization-- the girls were treated like boys. This, generally, made it all fair and fun.
Disagreements on the field were kept on the field. We called our own fouls and made our own penalties and if we had a problem working something out, as a last resort we had a "do-over". More often than not a escalating disagreement, bordering on a fight, would end the game for the day but because there was no clock we needed something to mark the end of the day. After all, we still had to make the trek home before the streetlights came on and, back then, we didn't have cel phones that we could use to call Mom and have someone pick us up.
There were no set seasons for particular sports on the lot either, although we were more likely to be playing Indian Ball than Roller Hockey in the dead of summer and we would usually stick to one pastime for a week or two before we got bored. We tended to mix it up pretty much but, living in Soccertown, USA, we naturally mix in a little more of that the the others.
"The field" was in pretty poor condition through most of the year. The infields had no grass and it was sparse and clumpy in the outfields. It was set up differently for baseball and soccer through parts of the year but we could do either at any time. We would usually play soccer on the quad though because it made it tough to run the whole field with less than eight or so guys per team.
Hockey was played at the far end of the parking lot where it was not unusual to see just as many skated players as those in street shoes playing together. This is also where the basketball hoops were located. Although it was set up so you could play full court, we rarely played anything more than HORSE or "around the world".
"The hill" was where would normally play football. A quick poll of the available players would determine whether the game would be tackle or touch and with a real ball or the Nerf. We would also fly our kites and, when it snowed, sled on that hill, not that I would consider them sports, but it was cool because every kid in the neighborhood knew that was the place to be.
I wouldn't really consider Fenceball a sport either, but we played it more than any of the other stuff. I have no idea where Fenceball came from. For all I know, it was played only at OLM by only the kids on that lot. I'm not completely sure that my friends and I didn't invent the game. All I know for sure is that I kicked that ball up against that fence more times than I can begin to count. I kicked it with friends, strangers and by myself. I kicked off the bomb (a bad thing) and I kicked it off the post (a good thing).
It is a very simple game with almost no rules-- you get one-touch to make the ball hit the front of the backstop fence (without using your hands). If you miss you are out and last one in... wins! There were variations over the years that, for the sake of time, I won't get into here and now... maybe on a future post.
Still, to this day, some 25-30 years later, however, I can still visualize every inch of that dusty field-- especially the screen and the infield where we played Fenceball. I still dream, literally, of playing on "the lot" and conquering the world, discovering new things, having millions of fans, breaking world records and being declared a hero.
I wonder if the others that played like that have as fond of memories as I do? In the case of our lot, they can be bittersweet memories because the lot doesn't belong to OLM anymore. Reorganization of the Catholic parishes in the area left it vacant and it was eventually sold to the public school district. I still drive by every once in a while and even stopped a time or two. They have left it, pretty much, unchanged-- yet it is very, very different.
Several years ago, I started writing my life list-- things I wanted to make a point of doing in my lifetime, but I put it aside, unfinished, a short time later. When I had the stroke, I guess because it was a reminder short a lifetime is, I dug it back out. The first entry on the page is "Go up to the lot and play Fenceball with my son."
I think he is old enough now to kick and still young enough to be impressed when I tell him that I hold the world record for kicking a soccer ball up against this fence...
...he may even declare me a hero.
Check out the latest addition to the Old Time Sport Series: When it was more than a game--Soccer: If it moves, kick it. If it doesn't move, kick it until it does.