A Bronx tale

Young boys playing stickball in vacant lot next to apt. bldg.
Boys playing stick ball. Photo courtesy of formerdays.com

My maternal grandparents were born in 1932: they were just nine years old at the beginning of World War II. They grew up blocks from each other in the Bronx: Nana in The Alley, and Papa on the other side of the tracks (literally; train tracks separated their neighborhoods) on Elton Avenue. When I come to visit, they often talk about their childhood – and I always listen. And while I am a wonderful and attentive listener, I am terrible at recording our conversations. My most recent visit, however, I was determined to conduct a proper interview.

I wanted to know more about their lives during World War II, because while they and their parents did not fight in the War, they have an interesting perspective about life in New York City from 1941 to 1945. I asked a few initial questions: “What did you eat (and what couldn’t you eat because of rations)?” “What did you learn in school?” “Do you remember Pearl Harbor/VJ Day, etc.?”

I started by earnestly recording their answers but, as conversations usually go with Nana and Papa, the discussion took rapid twists and turns without much coaxing from me. You see, when the two of them are together, they go a thousand miles an hour, talk about different childhood friends with such familiarity (Tiny, Chickie, and Nibbs), places (East 150th Street and St. Ann’s Avenue), and things (Farina and Spalding). I know little about these familiar things. I understand more now, but I have to ask so, so many questions. It’s oddly overwhelming to listen to two people who have known each other their entire lives talk about their childhood – they have so many stories. It’s hard to keep up (even as their granddaughter).

[The street] was their neighborhood, their playground, their childhood, their memory of the War

So despite my best efforts, the topic of conversation turned to the street, because that’s what life was like for my grandparents during World War II: they spent a lot of time in the street. That was their neighborhood, their playground, their childhood, their memory of the War. So, let’s have some fun, forget the War, and let me summarize (some) Bronx street games (according to Nana and Papa):

I Declare War Upon: This was the first game Nana named. The children would choose a country to represent – Germany, Japan, Italy, the United States, Britain, and France – and then draw a circle in chalk on the road. (According to Nana, “These were the choices; we didn’t branch out much to places like Spain or China.”) They then divided the circle up into pie slices with the name of the county written in the slice, and used a Spalding (a little pink tennis ball – it was also great for stick ball) as their weapon. Nana claimed that “If a kid owned a Spalding he was king of the street – even if you didn’t like the kid.” The child with the ball would yell out the name of one of the countries and proceed to hit the country representative with the Spalding. The game was (usually) over when someone got hurt…

Stick ball: This game would begin with someone saying “Does your mother own a broom? Go steal it…” Once properly secured, the children would take the wire rings off the end and burn what remained of the straw. The game was played with the resulting stick, and their ball, again, would be a Spalding. The field was the street and the bases were arbitrarily chosen landmarks – a fire hydrant, Mrs. Squiteri’s stoop, and the post office box. Sometimes the ball would get stuck in the fire escape, and they would have to wait for the ball to drop. Other times, one of the older kids would play and knock the ball onto the next block: “That was a two sewer!!!” And just like baseball, the game was over after nine innings or when the cops came and the stick was “lost” down the sewer.

Four Corners: The field for Four Corners was the intersection of two streets: there was no need to worry about cars, because they would commonly play this in The Alley, where only a few cars were seen. They would aim (you guessed it) a Spalding at the corner and try to hit the curb.

Guard the white horse: Nana and Papa don’t remember the details, but they both remember that they hated the game, because it was inevitable that someone was going to get hurt. If you grew up in the five boroughs of New York City in the 1930s and 1940s, maybe you could remind us…

[The policeman] would get soaked in the process…

Johnnie Pump: When Nana and Papa first mentioned street games, I immediately thought of this iconic New York City summer activity. However, I was unaware of one of the key components: an empty keg from the local bar. According to my grandparents, a keg was essential, as it would fit nicely under the spout of a fire hydrant and increase the height and distance of the spray. Children would cool off under the water fountain, and if a girl walked up who was all dressed up, the children would drag her into the water. When the police arrived and told the children to turn off the hydrant, everyone would pretend that they didn’t know how it worked, and the officer would get soaked in the process of shutting it off. (Sometimes this was the most entertaining part of the activity.)

Chickie the Cop: While this was sold as a “game” for five children to “play,” the purpose was to help the old guys play dice. Four children would stand on four corners of the intersection, and one child would watch each of the corners near the dice game. When the police came, the child would signal with his arms and the lookout would yell, “Chickie the Cop!!” The old guys would grab all of the bills and leave the change for the children to split evenly. Nana concluded, “I have no idea how to play dice, but I know how to play Chickie the Cop.”

Anyone else from New York City have a street game?

About Lindsay Fulton

Lindsay Fulton joined the Society in 2012, first a member of the Research Services team, and then a Genealogist in the Library. She has been the Director of Research Services since 2016. In addition to helping constituents with their research, Lindsay has also authored a Portable Genealogists on the topics of Applying to Lineage Societies, the United States Federal Census, 1790-1840 and the United States Federal Census, 1850-1940. She is a frequent contributor to the NEHGS blog, Vita-Brevis, and has appeared as a guest on the Extreme Genes radio program. Before, NEHGS, Lindsay worked at the National Archives and Records Administration in Waltham, Massachusetts, where she designed and implemented an original curriculum program exploring the Chinese Exclusion Era for elementary school students. She holds a B.A. from Merrimack College and M.A. from the University of Massachusetts-Boston.

13 thoughts on “A Bronx tale

  1. I grew up in a Kansas town, and we had a street game called “Kick the Can.”
    An empty can is placed in the middle of the street. One kid is designated “It.” With eyes closed, “It” counts to an agreed upon number, and the other kids run and hide, but keeping a watch on the can. “It” tries to find and tag any of the players. Anyone who is tagged is sent to the “jail,” near the can. The rest attempt to kick the can before being tagged out. If they can kick the can without being caught, they set all the captured kids free. And the game begins again with a new “it.”

    1. I lived in the Bronx in the early sixties in the Norwood section which was Jerome Ave and Gun Hill Rd. I only learned that it was called Norwood as an adult reading an article by Robert Klein who evidently grew up in the same neighborhood. I remember a game called King-Queen which was a type of handball game played with a Spalding, naturally. The idea was to bounce the ball off the wall of a building from a single bounce first in the sidewalk section adjacent to the building into your opponent’s sidewalk box next to you and adjacent to the building. Your opponent would then do the same thing, hitting the ball back to you. The name King-Queen came from the servers position , which was the “King” position. I am pretty sure you had to be in the “King” position to score. You scored if your opponent missed or failed to bounce the ball first before hitting the wall. If you were in the ” Queen” position you moved up to ” King” if the ” King” missed. The “King” position, as I remember it, was on the left; obviously an advantage for a right hander.

      Interestingly, Spaldings were not that hard to get by the sixties. It must have been an indication of the march of American Affluence. You needed a pretty fresh ball to play King-Queen properly.

  2. As I read the story, I was thinking “Kick the Can” – and Carole explained it well. We were in a rural area so kicked it down the driveway. We often played at dusk as the shadows helped us hide, and the evening was cooling down after a hot afternoon. Throw in a few fire flies, and it was practically a Norman Rockwell scene!

  3. My sister, two brothers and myself lived out in the country, so we played outside in the bushes, barn & other farm buildings, read a lot. Loved to have neighbors come for Sunday dinner. Oh, and I live the stories, thank u.

  4. Hey, I really enjoyed this article. I got a few chuckles out of it. I grew up in pretty much the same era, and in the summer, we played outdoors from sunup to sundown.

  5. In Oklahoma City, our “Hide and Seek” was much like “Kick the Can,” but we used a tree or some such as safe/base. We also played Red Rover and other outdoor games, but what I most remember was the summer we all played Canasta – boys v.girls. Great fun till the boys rigged up foot signals! We had lots of kids as the parochial school was just down the block and the public grade school three blocks north.

  6. Thank you!! I am a bit older than Nana and Papa, and well remember the War Years! You have told it beautifully! As you hear (and try to record the highlights) more of their stories, please share. I remember one summer when it rained a lot and we had an ongoing Monopoly game — a person played until they had to leave, left their hand on the table, another person might come in and pick it up and play along. My friend’s Mother tolerated us with smiles and cookies.

  7. Love the stories. They brought back memories of the South Bronx. “Johnny Rides” or “Buck Buck” might have been what your grandparents called “Guard the White Horse”. Box tag on roller skates was also a big hit…literally, as well as “Stoop Ball”. I laughed at the Spauldeen comment — so true. At the height of the cold war in the late 50’s/early 60’s, I remember air raid sirens going off and the drill was to go into the nearest “shelter”, often the basements of the tenement buildings. In school, we prepared for a nuclear blast by leaning over in our desks with our heads between our knees. Savvy kids would refer to it as “kissing your butt goodbye”. Fun but scary times.

  8. My parents grew up in Brooklyn and I grew up on The Island (Long Island); we played the same games: Simon Says, Statues, I Spy, Ringolevio, Keep Away and Kickball. No video games for us!

  9. There were not many cars on the street and we couldn’t afford a “Spaulding”. We took a bicycle tire and cut about 8″ of it. You could stand that up in the street and kick it. The game followed the baseball rules and we ran between two telephone poles.

    What? No body mentioned Red Rover, Red Rover, send Johnie right over. A group held hands and called to send some one over with the hope of breaking through the line.I learned that as a child my wife slipped on the grass in this game and broke her leg.Then the less dangerous one was One, two, three, red light. With this you moved til the counter said red light Then you had to freeze. You were trying to reach the caller at the line. If you were caught oving you were sent back to the start.

    Any body for marbles in the Spring when the dirt side walk was soft?

    1. I don’t know where you got yhrt Northeastern Univ. info. That is not needed for this i reminising.

  10. During the early 1900’s my grandfather had a trucking business which required him to make deliveries in the Bronx. My mother and her siblings would go along, According to my mother they often saw dead horses by the sides of Gun Hill Road, so they called it dead horse road.

  11. My husband and I are the ages of your Nana and Papa. I’m trying to get our 11 year old granddaughter to record her grandfather’s stories. He has a distinctive New England accent and I know our kids will miss that when he’s gone. She seems interested, but never “gets around to it,” as so many kids these days…sigh. I guess I shall just have to do record these myself, even though the technology is challenging!

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