The playground at Vincent Elementary School, like many things in the town of Vincent, was outdated and probably homemade. There was a one hundred percent chance of getting a splinter if you dared to climb onto the fort that I think was made partly from discarded shipping pallets from the papermill, and partly from untreated scrap lumber. The wood peeled and splintered into long grey and black, sword-like splinters that laid in wait for a child who was running for their life while playing a dangerous game of tag. If you made it to the top of the wooden structure without a splinter, or without stepping on a rotten or missing board, you had the option to slide down a rusty pole, which took a moderate amount of skill, or a shiny metal slide that had been preheating in the sun for the better half of the day. It was hot enough through my blue jeans, I feel sorry for the kids who wore shorts. Aside from the swings, this rickety homespun wooden structure attracted the most children during our recesses. That it was the furthest from the shade tree where the teachers sat may have contributed to it’s popularity.
But you had to walk through an otherworldly section of playground to get to the fort. A place where they didn’t even bother spreading pea gravel underneath the equipment and left the hardened red clay. The pea gravel, we had been told, was there to cushion any falls. It was here you could find odd contraptions probably designed by someone’s Dad who was free from the safety constraints and regulations placed on modern playground designers. There was a telephone pole with a spiral staircase of used tires screwed to the side, winding upward a good ten feet. There were heavy equipment tires laying on their sides, big enough to fit half a dozen kids inside. There were half buried tractor tires sticking up out of the ground like small gateways, big enough for three to climb inside if one of you was nimble enough to shimmy up the inside. The tires were my favorite part of the playground, even if they did leave me covered in black smut. Red spray paint let every child know that what resembled abandoned lumber and building materials had once been a piece of the playground but was now off limits.
Relics of playground equipment still holding up since the late sixties, such as metal monkey bars nearly a dozen feet high, were not off limits. In the very center of the playground rose a green cylindrical monkey bar tower that in my childhood mind was the pinnacle of the playground. Perched atop this stately steel keep one could watch the traffic amble by on Highway 231. You probably could have watched the traffic go by from the ground, but it would not have been as romantic.
I remember watching a kid fall down from the top of the green tower and land on his head. I was so thankful that the pea gravel was there to catch him. He held his head for a few moments as the teachers ran over to him. We all watched the teachers take care of him until somebody rounded the rest of us up and marched us back inside. The next time we went to recess there was red paint on the green tower. When the kid finally came back to school a week or so later, he was wearing a red bicycle helmet.
Within the next two years, the old playground was torn down and scrapped. A new colorful plastic, and much shorter, playground was installed and thick brown mulch was spread underneath. The new playground was a bit starchy and uncomfortable, like ill fitting church clothes. It was nice because it was new, but I sure did miss those tires.