Games of Death in the Back Yard

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A Hasbro javelin darts set from 1968. By BluebellylintOwn work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link

Every once in a while, as I scroll through my Facebook feed, among the badly punctuated inspirational quotes and article upon article of political garbage, I will see a meme or two about how the childhoods of the 1970s and 1980s were so much better than the childhoods of today. The idea, more or less, is that today’s children are coddled and overprotected or they never go outside and play and are instead glued to screens all day. There certainly is more access to things such as video games now than there was when I was a kid, but it’s not like knees stopped getting skinned or we’ve given up on telling our kids to simply be home by dusk. At the same time, the toys he and his friends are playing with certainly are made to be safer and are not the instruments of death that my generation and prior generations had hanging around in our suburban garages.

Now, the toys of the 1980s weren’t made to deliberately hurt anyone and for the most part, what I kept in my parents’ garage was pretty harmless–a croquet set, hockey sticks, aluminum baseball bats, wiffle ball bats, a skateboard–and while any of those items could be used as a weapon, that was not their intent and I don’t think any of them ran the risk of being outright banned by the government. But then there were lawn darts.

Based loosely on an ancient Roman game called plumbata, lawn darts–often called “Javelin Darts” or “jarts”–were huge darts that had plastic fins and a weighted metal tip. You used them as a game similar to horseshoes, where you held them by the plastic fins and threw them underhand at a target that you placed far away from you, possibly on the other end of the yard. Since the darts were metal-tipped, throwing the darts with any solid amount of arc would result in them landing spikes-down in the grass, the metal embedding itself in the lawn, much to the dismay of my father (although I’m sure the squirrels did as much damage to the lawn as we did).

Lawn darts probably predate the 1950s, but I’m pretty sure that’s the era that I and most other people would associate with the toy, when they were manufactured by companies such as Hasbro, and was really that first era of what we know as modern-day suburbia, as houses had been built en masse to accommodate the demand from G.I.s who were returning from the Second World War and wanted to put down roots. In fact, an old box for lawn darts depicts a 1950s-era “Dick and Jane”-type family pitching the darts and having a great time on the lawn.

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Lawn Darts with metal tips. The packaging suggests that this was sold in the 1980s. By MushyDay 361 – lawn darts at an elementary school rummage sale!! (I didn’t buy ’em), CC BY 2.0, Link

We had a set in our own garage. I honestly don’t know where exactly they came from, since I don’t remember my parents actually buying them, so it’s possible that they were handed down from my grandmother or that my parents themselves had owned them as kids–after all, my parents are Baby Boomers and their parents were the first generation to go suburban. The darts themselves were the classic model and I remember thinking that they were probably pretty old because the color was a faded teal instead of a bright red or blue that you might find in a box at a sporting goods store. We played with them for part of a summer–as you do–tossing them in the yard and really not putting a target out but simply seeing who could throw the farthest. This lasted for probably one summer (maybe even less than that) before the darts were put back in the garage and then disappeared in a round of spring cleaning.

I imagine they went to Goodwill or another charity, but it’s very possible they were thrown out because around the time that we were playing with them, they were actually banned from sale (and more or less from use) because Michelle Snow, a seven-year-old girl in California, was killed by a falling lawn dart, a death that was entirely accidental as her brother and his friends had been tossing the darts in their backyard, one of the darts went over a fence into the front yard and struck her in the head. Her father, David Snow, led the successful effort to ban lawn darts, a story that’s detailed in a very thorough and worthwhile Mental Floss piece from 2012, which I highly recommend reading.

Anyway, what I find fascinating about that story was not just that Snow’s effort was successful, but that the story was actually true. There are what seems to be a plethora of cautionary tales about things kids like that really amount to nothing but urban legends–not a year goes by when you don’t hear about someone getting a razor blade in a candy bar or some toy breaking into pieces and maiming a child or someone choking on something small. In many cases, the story is half or partially true–there was an injury but nobody died, or the reason that the injury happened was due to improper use or malicious intent on someone’s part. Here, it was a genuine accident, although some people commenting on that Mental Floss article chalk it up to bad parenting/parental neglect with one commenter going as far as to suggesting that Darwinism was involved (which is, of course, lovely, and sets off an entire discussion of what Darwin actually said).

Which brings me back to what I was talking about at the beginning of the post. There’s this sense that “fun has been taken away,” a complaint by members of older generations that speak of some sort of “wussification” of America and insist that their childhoods were so much more hardcore in some way or another because instead of whatever Nerf the “kids these days” are being armed with, they used actual armament and were fully prepared to fire artillery shells by the time they entered junior high school. Or something like that. I mean, there are toys that I get nostalgic about and wish that my son had the chance to play with, but I’m not going to berate my son and call him a pussy because he has to wear a helmet when he rides his bike.

Furthermore, there’s an irony in the whining about “not being able to play with x,y,z anymore” or how a generation or two before me claims to have had a more rigorous childhood in some way than I did or my son does, considering that the generation or two before them actually did have it tough. If you were born after World War II, you reaped the benefits of the modern concept of adolesence as well as such advancements in society as child labor laws as well as a booming economy. Yes, things have ebbed and flowed over the years and there are certainly generations that have dealt with wars and other hardships as young adults, but I’m not sure that being able to chuck lawn darts is in the same league as being sent into a coal mine at ten years old.

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One comment

  1. Thanks for the post about lawn darts. I wrote about them a long time ago, probably postulating about how much more dangerous my childhood was. However, after reading your post, I know I can’t claim to have had a really dangerous childhood. Yes, we had lawn darts but we didn’t have duck and cover drills.
    As for today’s kids, you’re right. They still fall off bicycles and skin their knees. Probably more parents are overprotective. The biggest problem is the mental abuse they can get from the internet.
    Sad but true.

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