“Let’s play Kick-the-Can! Not it!” It was a familiar suggestion on a summer’s evening, just as the blazing-hot sun lowered toward the western horizon. We played the game even when it was just me and my brothers and sister, but it was best when the neighbor kids joined in. Maybe the Wileys would be visiting from their mission down in Mexico and we’d get some of them to play with us too. After the initial yell by the kid with the bright idea, the calls of “Not it!” from the rest would ensue. The point was to not be the last one to call it out. Of course, the problem with that was that either you could claim you had already said it and no one heard you, or the others, being bigger and more authoritative could claim that you hadn’t said it when you had. Usually the youngest or most timid was “it” for the first go-round. Yep, I was the youngest.
Kick-the-Can? Surely you remember, don’t you? It was either the best or the worst version of “hide-and-seek” ever. The rules were basically the same, but with the additional thrill of having the base being a large tin can. I’m sure there are many variations on the rules, but what made it so much fun is that, if a player had been found and was about to have “1, 2, 3 on _____” called on him/her (thus making them “it”), they could run to the base faster than whoever was “it” and kick that can as hard as they could. The unfortunate kid who was “it” then had to find the can and return it to its proper position, hoping to still be able to see where the kicker was and get them out. The reason I mentioned that it could be the worst version of hide-and-seek is that frequently I spent many hours chasing the can and looking for the big kids without ever beating one to the base. Sometimes, they would tire of the game before I ever caught my first hider. But when I wasn’t “it”? Best game ever! We spent many hours playing every summer.
My Mom tells a different story. Her version is that we played a game called “Not it!” You see, in the confusion of yelling to keep from filling that unwanted position, we would sometimes spend a good part of the dusky minutes as the sun set arguing about who had said it last. Finally, in frustration, one of the bigger kids would start calling out “Eenie, meenie, minie, moe…” No, the next phrase wasn’t that politically incorrect one you’re remembering, because our parents absolutely wouldn’t allow us to use it. My dad wasn’t a civil rights activist, wasn’t liberal in any sense, but he just knew it was wrong to call any race by a denigrating name. So it was, that in those days of the Cold War, the next phrase in our version of the child’s verse came, “…Catch old Khrushchev by the toe.” It was popular back then to disparage the Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev (he of the shoe-banging incident), since the Soviet Union was undoubtedly the worst regime in existence at that time, in our eyes. Anyway, by the time we got to “…my mother told me to pick the very best one and you are not it” part, all the older kids (understanding the pattern of the little ditty) had reshuffled and left me or one of the other clueless younger kids in the right place to be selected, so the result was the same as the “Not it!” game.
The Lovely Lady recalls that one of the older residents in her neighborhood would frequently come out and pick up the can himself, carrying it into his house, to quiet the racket when their kick-the-can games went too late into the night. Theirs were played under the street light on their cul-de-sac street while, over eight hundred miles to the south, we played ours in the light of the front porch in our circle drive after the natural light faded. When the can was kicked far enough that it exceeded the limits of the illumination, you were in trouble. Sometimes, even the hiders had to come and help look for the base, temporarily safe until it was located and returned to its proper place.
Ah, but then came my favorite call, especially if I was still hiding. The call would go up, “olly olly oxen free!” We could move from our cramped hiding positions under the wheelbarrow or up in the trees, where we had hidden, fearing discovery at any second. No more sitting with the Lantana blossoms brushing against your nose, about to make you sneeze any moment! We all came in safe! A truce between battling parties was called and there was no penalty, no one left to call, “1, 2, 3 on Paul!”. No more being “it” interminably. We usually came in happy and calling out to each other as the game ended and our heartbeats slowed to a regular pace after the excitement and anxiety of the game were behind us. Joy and relief! We came in safe!
I always thought the phrase of “olly olly oxen free,” came from the English equivalent, “all-y, all-y, all’s in free,” which would be just fine, but it seems that it may actually come from the German phrase, “”alle, alle auch sind frei,” which means literally, “everyone, everyone is also free.” Either way, still a great descriptive phrase of the relief and satisfaction in the reprieve that ended the exciting game.
I find myself periodically wishing to hear that phrase these days. Oh sure, I still like hearing it when the kids yell it out as they’re playing, but that’s not what I’m referring to now. Life has gotten extremely complicated. There’s more than enough sadness and distress to go around; economic problems weigh us down; the stress and aggravation in the workplace are overwhelming sometimes; even the joyous events of life are frequently accompanied by confusion and complexity. Where’s the light at the end of the tunnel? When do I get to hear the call, “olly, olly oxen free!” and relax?
I refuse to end an essay on children’s games with a sermon, so I’ll leave you to work through it. Suffice it to say that the answer is in plain sight and the call has already gone out. Just because we haven’t yet responded doesn’t negate the facts. I remember a night when I found the best hiding place. The large bougainvillea plants along the edge of the yard had thorns, but if you were careful, you could slip under them and be completely concealed by the viney plant and its large leaves and copious blossoms. I guess I must have been too close to the road noise, or maybe I dozed off, but when I looked out after a long while, there was no one near the base, so I headed in to kick that can as far as I could. Imagine my chagrin when the can was gone and no one came running to count me out either. I looked around, finally poking my head inside the house. There they all were, Kool-Aid glasses in hand, enjoying a cool drink, while I was still playing the game with vigor. The call had gone out and I hadn’t heard. I was annoyed, but a glass of grape Kool-Aid soon set that right.
I love summer! I think I may save one of those old tin coffee cans and spend a little time with the grandchildren. It may be awhile before they understand all the rules, but they’ll sure have a great time kicking the can. I just might give it a tap or two, as well…
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”
“Hide-and-seek grown-up style. Wanting to hide. Needing to be sought. Confused about being found.”
(Robert Fulghum~”All I Need To Know I Learned In Kindergarten”)