quote5I remember a baseball called a nickel rocket. I have a feeling even then inflation was on us and a nickel rocket costs ten cents. The first thing you did with a nickel rocket was to nip into somebody’s garage and hook a roll of friction tape. If the garage was dark enough, for a minute or an hour you would grab the end of the tape and pull it back quickly to see the blue sparks…Some kid found out that if you pulled the end of the tape back quickly, you saw blue sparks. Some kid told some other kid, and some other kid told some other kid. We knew it. All kids knew it.

When we got tired of watching the blue sparks we wrapped the nickel rocket with friction tape, and if any was left over, we wrapped the handle of the bat with it. I guess I know now that the reason we did this with the nickel rocket was that if by any wild chance one of us had gotten a solid hit, the ball  would come apart. But that’s not the point. There was no reasoning going on then. You wrapped a nickel rocket with friction tape because that’s what you did with a nickel rocket. And you put it on the handle of the bat because there was some tape left over. And if there still some left over, you put it around your wrists, like a strong man.

And I have never thought about it until this minute, but why did people keep rolls of friction tape in the garage? We didn’t know. It’s just that that’s where friction tape was. I feel it’s got some connection with automobiles, that it was a way of helping to patch inner tubes, but I wouldn’t bet a nickel either way.

– excerpted from “Where Did You Go?” “Out.” “What Did You Do?” “Nothing.”, by Robert Paul Smith, © 1957

flower dingbat
By the time I was six I was in the street learning the rules. A rubber ball could get you any number of games – stoop ball, box baseball, hit-the-penny, slap ball, punch ball, Chinese handball (also called Ace- King-Queen-Jack – don’t know why, rules were the same). There was also stickball and fungo but that was usually with a softball that would only show up when you found it in the back of someone’s closet. Although if it was early and only two of us were out we would throw the ball at each other as hard as we could until our hands were hot and pink and smelled of the same rubber the balls were made of.

We didn’t call them nickel rockets but you did have your choice of a plain rubber ball for ten cents, a spaldeen for twenty-five, or if you really went premium, a pennsy pinkie for thirty which was rare since nobody had the extra nickel. The magic was in how high they bounced and how far they’d go when you hit them with a stick or a rolled up fist. There was no greater sense of victory than the sweetness of the “plonk” sound they made when you hit them just right and you knew they were heading over the fence for a homer.

Grab a few bottle caps and a stick of chalk and you could set up a game of skelly on the sidewalk (sometimes called killer in other neighborhoods – rules were the same). Sticks and rocks and the same piece of chalk and you’d get potsy although that was really a girl’s game who we didn’t pay attention until years later. Although I think I caught on a bit earlier.

But time does disappear things. A few years ago, I was at a premium convention in NYC where they touted mugs, pens, and tote bags with company logos that could be used to help promote your particular product. I wandered into a booth that had a collection of vintage toys including building blocks and wooden tops. I picked one up and was fascinated that it looked exactly like the one I spun in my street in Brooklyn – a squat black wooden cone with a steel ball bearing at the tip that you bounced off the asphalt. I asked the young man if he would sell it to me but he said they couldn’t do that at the convention. If I wanted, he knew a couple of places in the Village where they had them. I asked him how much they retailed for. “About eight dollars,” he offered, guessing at the price. “Heck,” I said, “we used to buy them for around twenty-five cents!” He looked at me with some degree of sympathy and replied, “Yeah, there was another old guy in here a couple of days ago that said the same thing.”

And so it goes. And so it went…

WhereDidYouGoBookCover 001photo via Suburban Soliloquy

[Note – found this book at a tag sale in a stack in the corner of a basement…paid a quarter for it…about the price of a good spaldeen…or wooden top…back then…