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Nobodys saying how many kids the old playground killed

The real beginning of the end of my childhood, I'm convinced, was when they paved the playground of Waldport Grade School.

Not that I was anywhere near maturity, of course, because I couldn't have been much past third grade, which would put it somewhere in the vicinity of 1953, give or take a year.

All I know for sure is, one day we were running around on Oregon Coast sandstone, kicking up a fine cloud of dust when we cantered our pretend U.S. Cavalry horses, scanning the horizon past the swings and around the box canyon formed by the Big Gym for Geronimo (played by an eighth-grader) and his marauding band of savages - and the next thing we knew there was no more dirt on the ground to kick up, or to transport into the classroom on the knees of our stiff new school jeans.

And not only was there no soft, forgiving sandstone underfoot to allow us to draw (with fingers or the heel of one's Keds) giant circles in the dirt for marble games - up to then the best way we had to measure a young man's mettle - but what took its place was a ghastly hard, black surface with the consistency of gravel and the imperviousness of a highway.

I agree completely with comedian Bill Cosby, who observed years ago that the phenomenon of playground equipment erected on asphalt or concrete was clearly an attempt by adults to keep the population of children down to a manageable level. He vowed early on, he said on one of his records, never to play on anything he didn't see grownups using. I concur: The new playground was a kid-killer.

I don't recall any specific playground-related fatalities in the early 1950s, but I do remember plenty of 'incidents' that never would have happened on the old dirt that was just beneath the asphalt.

Even my younger brother Bob, something of a daredevil and exhibitionist in his younger days, fell from the jungle gym (probably performing for a female classmate, knowing him) and landed on the back of his head on the rock-hard ground.

If subpoenaed tomorrow, I would testify under oath, in any court in the land, that I still remember the ambulance weaving past the swings, the monkey bars and the teeter-totters to the jungle gym, where my brother was scooped up and hauled away to God knows where, because Waldport didn't have anything even remotely resembling a hospital.

My personal theory is they were probably headed for the dump, or maybe the cemetery, to dispose of the body when he fooled them and regained consciousness. Ha! Take that, you murdering scoundrels! This one's not dead after all!

On Queer Street, maybe, but not dead.

So they had no choice but to return him to his family, where he probably managed to extort a day or two's worth of sympathy, perhaps some ice cream and some lollygagging around, before the gouge on his head healed and he was sentenced to another 11 or 12 years of public school.

Oh, sure, there were some good things that came from the new playground.

It was much better for basketball than the dusty dirt, and I would come to love basketball more than most things in those early years, including the hamburgers and chocolate sundaes at the Shake Shop just across Red River from the school - certainly more than lessons and books, unless you take into account the sports books by John R. Tunis and the Stephen W. Meader masterpiece, 'Sparkplug of the Hornets.'

The new playground surface also marked the official beginning of our school's full-blown love affair with tetherball and four-court, a pair of activities that would occupy what space was left in my brain not already filled with total basketball infatuation.

Not long after the blacktop appeared, of course, wide white lines appeared, indicating the four-court spaces and the big circles around the tether ball poles, as well as the free-throw lines 15 feet from the big white wall that held up the basketball hoops. I suppose there were also hopscotch games and other things painted on the kid-killing surface, but those were clearly meant for somebody other than me, so I didn't pay attention.

I was in Waldport last weekend, and I noticed the playground is still in the same place and still covered in pavement. In fact, there's been a substantial chain-link fence around the area for some time now - probably to keep the kids from escaping.

Attempts to discern now, 50-some years later, how many kids have died on that playground have proved fruitless.

I smell a cover-up.

Former managing editor of the Beaverton Valley Times and The Times, serving Tigard, Tualatin and Sherwood, Mikel Kelly handles special sections and contributes a regular column.