By Matt Gordon
The other day I took my kid to a room full of inflatables. You know, the kind of place where kids go to bounce and flail and contract terrible diseases, and parents go to hope their child gets worn out enough to sleep later that night. We walked in and before paying I was made to fill out an online liability waiver. I skimmed some of the multi-page document and wondered where this world is headed. Isn’t the very fact that this room is almost entirely covered with inflatable—soft, billowy, air-filled—landing surfaces liability coverage enough? My kid is far more likely to get hurt in basically any other place on earth than here, yet here I am signing away my life and rights so that he can bounce and find hair barrettes and used Band-Aids in peace.
My parents could send me to a summer-long camp, with things like archery and mystery foods, without so much as leaving a phone number behind. I’m not even sure they were actually camps or if every patch of Missouri woods were just full of abandoned children. It wasn’t rare to return home from these adventurous weeks with a bandage or brace on a body part. The extent of parental worry in such occasions was dependent upon my answer to my father’s desperate question, “Can you still mow the lawn?” I usually could, so at age six I’d hop up on our family’s John Deere riding mower, get the blades a-whirring, and begin mowing the expansive yard, sans sunscreen or social services agents swooping in. It was a different time, both freer and bloodier.
The best example of this roaring age was the Lickity Split Water Slide. On the outskirts of town was a large hill, and some bold entrepreneur decided to “develop” the land into a family attraction. My guess is that this entrepreneur was subsequently murdered, and his assailant went ahead with plans of his own. Those plans included putting in two concrete tubes that would zig-zag down into a smallish pool at hill’s bottom.
I would like to describe the development more, but there is little else to say. The concrete slides were painted blue, though red would have been a wiser color—for hiding the bloodshed and all. Aside from the paint not much was done, especially in regards to safety.
A parent would give her offspring a couple of bucks on a scorching day, pull up to the Lickity Split, and the child would catapult out of the moving van—by far the safest part of the day. You’d then be on your own: you’d dust yourself off and approach a shoddy shed to pay for an all-day “pass,” which was really just a smiley-face stamp on the hand that would wash off the first time down the slide. It didn’t matter. Nothing really did. The slide was apparently owned and operated by a man named “Bud” but no one ever saw him and the word “operated” must have just meant turning on the water supply and ordering the bees. That’s right, there were bees everywhere. Kids dumb enough to buy a snow cone got the worst of it, darting about and trying not to spill their syrupy confection while enduring the wrath of the swarm. But really no one was safe—a sting at the waterslide was sort of part of the deal.
Once you were settled up and your stamp was in order, you’d grab a wet foam mat from The Pile of Mats. We called it The Pile of Mats because it was a big, disordered pile of mats. They were all different shapes and sizes alerting us that somewhere there must be some foam junkyard, and Bud or his minions must visit about once a decade and load up a truck. I say once a decade because every mat was damaged. Corners were chewed away, holes were here and there. Some mats were worn thin while others were peeling apart and becoming two by some sort of foam mitosis. The mats were always wet too. This made things interesting because kids would dig through The Pile looking for the perfect mat, which meant mats were strewn about. To reach the center of The Pile, mats had to be stepped on. So for those whom the bees didn’t get, it was easy to be taken down by a slip on the mats. With a concrete pathway and a cinderblock shed by The Pile, there were a couple ways this could end badly, and it always did for some. But mat selection was of vital importance and worth the risk for reasons we’ll arrive at if the fall doesn’t kill us.
This all may sound drastic, but it was just the beginning of the perils. Mat in hand, we’d begin the march up the concrete slope—wet in many places—toward the entry point to the slides. Even a single trip up this mountain would cause one to feel the burn. On a given day, a kid could scoot up this Everest dozens of time—if not carried off by bees or killed by some other travail. Each rugged trip made you wonder if it was worth it, but once at summit, you breathed that dense, muggy altitude and knew it was. Some kids would stay off the concrete, which was hot in some places, slick in others, and had jagged cracks tossed in for good measure. This was fine and well, as the path had grass on each side. About ten minutes from the day’s opening, though, the path would be worn from the delirious trod of happy feet, creating mudslides on each side of the path. Wondrous falls ensued. The type of falls that sort of keep going on for ten feet or so, much like I imagine a giraffe might fall if ever he happened upon an icy hill—sort of a rolling tumble that seems to accelerate as one fights it, like wrestling quicksand. As if this weren’t arduous enough, we’d, of course, whack each other with giddy regularity. The mats could be folded over onto themselves and would make a satisfying SPLACK upon the back (or front) of any kid smaller than you. To insure you’d never be the smallest kid, it was good to bring along a diminutive friend so you always had someone to abuse. In terms of size, wealth, beauty, and intelligence, this is pretty much a lasting key to life. Often, you’d wind up to give the person in front of you a joyous SPLACK and your backswing would catch the person behind you. This would bring on a fair bit of retribution, and if one wasn’t careful, like Germany, he might find himself with an enemy on two fronts. This was always a losing battle and occasionally led to ravenous gang brutality. It was possible for pretty substantial fights to break out. One time two girls got into a donnybrook which led to one having her swimsuit top unceremoniously ripped off. I defer to the cliché above because I’m not sure how one ceremoniously loses her top, but for many of us it was a rite of passage all the same. The beauty of all of this was, aside from the regrettably obvious to a pubescent lad, that no one came to help. Normally when fights are happening, complete with forced nudity, an adult swoops in to restore order like a SPLACK to the freedom. Not here. Not ever. In all my days at Lickity Split I never saw discipline of any kind. There were never adults anywhere. Usually two teenagers were running the show, and they could never be seen at the same time, as one manned the cash register and the other sat atop the slide “instructing” sliders on the “rules.” We were alone out there. Anything could happen.
Menacing trees loomed over the entrance to the slides atop the mountain, the lone bit of shade in the whole of the place, and that other staffperson greeted sliders by way of complete neglect. Sometimes this drifter—because, come on, that was what this person was or eventually had to have become—wasn’t even there. My guess is that he was off in the big, dark woods, smoking or sleeping or fashioning animal masks for future use by the cult that would eventually meet in his trailer.
If he was at his post, he’d mumble “No trains” without conviction—the one rule governing all of the kingdom—and then off you would go. What he meant is the strictly ignored edict that sliders weren’t to link up with other riders on the way down. First, it didn’t matter. It didn’t matter because this was a rule to prevent injury, yet that song had already been sung. Most of us arrived at the top bleeding or scarred or whelped through SPLACKS or topless (a moral kind of injury). Now? Now is the time you want to try to impose rules? That is like a society of hedonists requesting you remove shoes when entering bedrooms. Nope, the one rule of Lickity Split is ANARCHY. You, sir, are the one in breach.
The second reason it didn’t matter is because it was meant to prevent injuries and it absolutely couldn’t. No chance. The concrete of the water slide was jagged. I wanted to make sure my memories weren’t just some sort of Freudian machination so I asked my younger sister how she would describe the actual slides and she said it was, “like a poorly finished popcorn ceiling: go over it slowly and it would exfoliate; fast, and it sands the skin right to the bone.” A more sensible rule to our present climate might have been, “No hand guns.” These sliding conditions were why the selection of a mat was so important. A thin mat tended to mean fewer trips down the slide due to premature blood loss. A smart slider would ration his injuries throughout the day to get more bang for his parents’ bucks. Some poor saps would lose their mat during the journey downslide. I’d rather not dwell on those dear departed ones and their mangled bodies.
The third reason why it didn’t matter is because trains were everything. If you had wings would you not put them to use? Would you forsake soaring on high at the command of the lowly? Of course not. And for the same reason, we would not derail goodness. Here’s how it would work: one would go around the first bend to a dead spot, beyond the sight of the drifter/staffperson (like it even mattered), and then hunker down and await his comrades. There were these dead spots on the way down where the concrete wasn’t smoothed off properly so no water would flow over it. These made perfect places to form a train or to tackle an unsuspecting friend or to meet-cute with a girl who had lost her top in a fight.
Two or three or six—I once heard of a nine-person train but that seems too fantastical to live outside the realm of lore—would then line-up and grab one another’s mats. Smart sliders learned to hold the ankles of the person behind them rather than the trailing person’s mat for it was less likely (though not unheard of) for an ankle to tear away than it was for a mat to rip. In fact, mat ripping was common, which was why The Pile was in such rampant disarray. Seldom could you make more than three trips with the same mat. A large train was a hilarious tumble of giggles and cuts as it rolled its way to the bottom. Smaller trains were faster and also more adaptable. What I mean by adaptable is that “Train” sometimes turned into a different game called “Rocketship.” In “Rocketship” the person who was second in line would wait till optimal speed met a good banked curve. Then he would press his feet into the back of the person in front of him, wait for the pinnacle of the curve, and then extend legs with all of his strength, sending the front person caterwauling over the wall, into the air, and, hopefully, into the adjacent slide. Sometimes, by sheer luck (though some argue that the skill exists), the launched “rocket” would land on top of another slider, likely killing both. It was glorious.
At the bottom of the slides was always a pile, similar to that of the mats, of bodies. For some engineering anomaly the designer of the slide (likely a toddler with some crayons) decided to have the slope completely level off at the end. So a person would be just racing along, happy to have avoided any launched sliders, to have retained their mat and most of their skin, and eager to jog the uphill marathon to do it all again, when all momentum would stop and he’d just sit there dumbfounded and about to be hit by an incoming train. The alert slider would reach this point and begin to scoot wildly to the pool, as if it made a difference. It didn’t. Because the pool to catch sliders was approximately the width of a bathtub but the length of a normative pool. It was also deep. Too deep for most to touch the bottom. So sliders hurried into a cramped swimming lane with other sliders, most disoriented and bleeding, and no one could get out. It was like watching a water bug try to escape a flushing toilet. Speaking of toilet, the water was always very foamy and a bit too warm. Added to this conundrum is that the only way out was to swim out, so the proximity to other bodies meant you were guaranteed to get kicked in the head a number of times before a final groggy exit. But, take heart: you’d get to do your own fair share of kicking.
Usually a person would then sprint to The Pile of Mats—failing to realize his now-protruding bones due to the adrenaline of survival—and pick out a new tattered mat with which to repeat the journey. Sometimes fatigue would set in and make the bridge a better option. The bridge was a bridge—truly a quaint, wooden thing that went against the monstrous aesthetic of everything else. But don’t worry, that is where humanity comes in—we can sully anything! The bridge stood over the tail-end of the slides and was a great place to take snow cones or M&M’s and throw them at riders below. Some poor kids had to settle for spit—another life lesson: use what you got.
And that is how we’d spend waiver-free summer days as often as we were physically able—usually this was two to three times a week because the Lickity Hangover was a debilitating thing. Imagine lying upon a roof. Now imagine rolling off that roof and landing upon the earth, maybe a few dozen times. The next morning always felt like a sunburned version of that; it would take a few days of recovery before a return visit.
At some point there was no return visit—it was like Neverland, only instead of growing up and aging out, Lickity Split was shut down, likely due to countless violations or other more sinister illegalities. It was sudden too. One day the place was just abandoned, which meant it looked disheveled as always, but without any water. The fun had dried up. Now it has been leveled and paved over and made into a used car lot. I wonder if they unearthed any bodies out there when they were developing the land?
I finished the official legal document that would allow my son permission to jump up and down on pillows and we got our hands stamped. This wasn’t a cool, useless smiley-face stamp that showed we paid. It was a number that linked him and me together and could be seen only when a black light was shone on it, a system designed to thwart a very particular ilk of kidnappers who were willing to steal a child but reluctant to attempt to exit the building without stopping and allowing a high school girl to shine a black light on his hand. My son was now safe from gravity and ne’er-do-well alike, and we proceeded toward the toddler area—a protective space reserved to quarantine little patrons from hazardous bigger children.
This world has changed, I thought as I looked at helicopter parents hovering over their kids. Surely all this safety was the real danger. We weren’t developing humans equipped to suffer and to overcome and to persevere, but rather coddled blobs of emotional and physical feebleness. None of these kids would ever be jostled bleeding down a concrete water slide. And that made me sad.
But there was no time to dwell on it—my son was crawling, lickity split, up into the bounce house. I hurried to support him and squeezed in the toddler-sized entrance after him, sanitizer in one hand and his fragile youth in the other.