Saturday, April 11, 2009

Fire in the Church!

I had an interesting experience circa age 8 which is associated in my memory with William Golding's insightful novel, "Lord of the Flies." The common theme is the behavior of children away from adult supervision. My experience was limited to the behavior of boys.

The locale is the lower east side of Manhattan during the early 1930's. It was mainly built up with apartment buildings and inhabited by immigrants and their children, of which I was one. After school and on weekends, the kids were usually in the streets playing a variety of kid's games. These included slapping a rubber Spalding ball (which we called a "Spaldeen") up against the side of a building on one bounce, a variety of tag-like games, and hopscotch. Sometimes the girls played at jacks.

Many of the things taken for granted today were not yet available but we did have radios and the hour between 5:00 and 6:00 on some stations was devoted to 15 minute serial adventures for kids, mostly sponsored by popular foods such as HO oats and Ralston wheat cereal. I remember lying under our console radio, where the speaker was located, to hear the stories: Bobby Benson and his H-O ranch, Jack Armstrong the All American Boy, Little Orphan Annie, Chandu the Magician. Among the many simple things we did not have were zippers. The boys' pants were buttoned.

One afternoon, when I was still a newcomer, a couple of the boys came over to me and one of them said,"hey, kid, wanna play fire in the church?"

"What's that?"

"It's real easy. You just walk down those steps and shout: fire in the church! fire in the church! fire in the church!"

The steps he pointed to descended several feet from the sidewalk to a basement door that was usually kept locked. It did look real easy but, just this once, I was wary and I declined. Not discouraged, the boys found another newcomer who agreed to play so I had an opportunity to witness the game.

It began as advertised. The new kid walked down the steps while about six other boys stood quietly on the surrounding sidewalk. When he shouted "fire in the church! fire in the church! fire in the church!" they gleefully unbuttoned their flies and put out the fire.

This was done more out of high spirits than out of meanness and it was a game invented by the boys themselves, which impresses me.

Several years earlier, in my first day at school, I had another memorable experience. At recess a group of us went to the boys' room to urinate. The geometry of this room was interesting. In the center, there was a little vertical wall, several feet long and taller than I. At the base of this wall and on both sides, there were troughs to carry off the liquid. When we entered, I saw the boys line up on both sides of the wall but, instead of standing up close, they stood back and peed in graceful arcs over the top in both directions. It was a lovely spectacle, like a beautifully designed public fountain. I wish the designer of Belgium's Manneken Pis had enjoyed such an inspiration.


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