Baring Parkway makes up two big rectangular plots of grass and trees in the Woodmar neighborhood of Hammond, Indiana, the small northwest Indiana city where I grew up. For me and many others during the late 60s and early 70s, it was our baseball diamond, football field, and — on one occasion — archeological dig.
Fields of dreams
Some of my best memories of those days are of playing pick up baseball games with improvised rules and teams made up of guys who showed up on any particular afternoon or early evening. It was slow pitch hardball; a batter could strike out but couldn’t wait out a walk. If we didn’t have enough players for full teams, a ball hit to an uncovered part of the outfield was considered an automatic out. There were no fences, so a home run had to be earned by hitting the ball far and running fast. (Umm, my home runs were few and far between.)
I spent chunks of five or six summers playing in those pick up games on Baring Parkway. When I started, I was pretty terrible. I could barely hit the ball, and my fielding skills were pretty bad too. Early on, if there was an odd number of players, I’d be designated the “official catcher,” which meant that I caught the slow lob pitches for both teams and didn’t get to bat. 😦 But I was becoming quite a baseball fan, so I stuck with it, enough so that I could hold my own at bat and in the field. Such improvements are the little things that can build a kid’s self-confidence.
Baseball was still America’s national pastime. Although I don’t want to over-romanticize those days, a love of the game was very much a part of the culture of this gritty little industrial city. Youth baseball leagues were very popular, and a fair number of future high school and even college standouts cut their teeth that way.
Our Baring Parkway games harbored no such sporting ambitions. We played for the fun of it, and by and large, the experience delivered. Furthermore, we mostly got along with each other, with only an occasional disagreement blowing up into fisticuffs.
The photo above shows a lush green park. Our makeshift baseball diamonds made Baring Parkway less picturesque, with carved out bases and basepaths pockmarking the landscape. But on a nice summer day, you could see kids enjoying themselves with a game of baseball, which I think was a good tradeoff.
Football was less popular those days, but occasionally we’d turn a stretch of the Parkway into a makeshift gridiron. We played both touch and tackle varieties, adding necessary rules such as minimum counts before a defender could rush the passer (“one Mississippi, two Mississippi…”). We usually played without safety equipment, but I cannot recall any injuries of note other than some bumps and bruises.
In search of dinosaurs
One early fall — I’m pretty sure as we were starting the 6th grade — a big utility company dug up much of the Parkway to do some work on the underground pipes. This meant a temporary suspension of its use as a playing field, but what we discovered there caused us to shelve our growing obsession with sports.
Unlike today, when fences, orange tape, and big signs will warn people (er, kids) to stay away, we could simply walk right into the work site. I cannot recall who first ventured into the excavation area, but I remember how quickly the news traveled among our small group of friends: There are lots of bones down there, as in bones from big animals.
And so we went, with small shovels and garden tools in hand, during early evenings and the weekends when the workers weren’t on site. And we dug up these big bones and all thought, whoa, I wonder if these are dinosaur bones???!!! We took bags of them to show & tell at our grade school, breathlessly speculating about whether they were the remains of giants that once roamed the planet.
Well folks, it turns out that none of our archeological discoveries will be found at your local natural history museum. Indeed, the fact that we also dug up rusty horseshoes at the site should’ve told us that we weren’t on the trail of a mighty T-Rex. But our excitement over this discovery allowed us to suspend disbelief, and also would make for a good childhood memory along the way.
Kids and unstructured time
Back in the day, a childhood for a someone born into America’s emerging middle class or robust working class came with free time, especially during summers after the school year ended. Sure, for some there were activities such as scouting, church groups, organized sports, and the like, but overall our days didn’t seem quite as packed as those of today’s young folks.
Although I’m not a parent, I understand how modern child raising often involves a lot more structured, adult-supervised activities than we saw with earlier generations. Still, it saddens me a bit that the kind of self-organized play that we engaged in on Baring Parkway is less and less of a typical kid’s experience. This was an era when parents (usually moms) could tell their kids to go outside and play, and about the only mild concern was whether you’d be home in time for dinner. Yup, times have changed.