The Circular Swing

Marie Schaefer (no caption)We think time moves along gradually, its changes so subtle they’re barely noticeable, until at some point one realizes the world one inhabits is no longer the world of one’s childhood, but only distantly related to that earlier world. Sometimes, for some people, this realization is itself gradual and subtle, but at other times, for other people, it comes with a start. Some people come to consciousness on the cusp of a new age and grow and take shape even as it does. Other people, are born at what it is clear only later was the waning of an earlier age. They thus straddle two worlds, these people, the world into which they were born and the one into which they grow up. They mature almost as artifacts of an earlier period. They learn the fashions and the vernacular of those who are only a few years younger than themselves, or perhaps even the same age but from a more progressive place. They’re always strangers in their own time, though, walking almost like ghosts through lives they feel on some level do not belong to them.

It’s probably partly temperament. Some people are simply uncomfortable with change. They’re the Parmenideans. Parmenides was the Presocratic philosopher who said that everything that changed was unreal, that only the eternal and unchanging was real. Then on the other side was Heraclitus, also a Presocratic. He’s the guy who said that you can’t step into the same river twice, that everything is constantly in a state of flux. All of humanity divides up that way, I think, into the Parmenideans and the Heracliteans. The latter can embrace a new age when the former can’t. The former live in a perpetual state of nostalgia.

I’m like that. I’m a Parmenidean. That’s why, I think, I’m so fascinated by the German television series Heimat. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen it. I watch it over and over again. I’m like Maria, the matriarch of the family that is the focus of the series. She was born around the turn of the last century. She was still young at the end of World War I, but she belonged to the world before the war. She kept everything together. She accepted change, as we all must, be she didn’t embrace it. Poul, her husband who left her and her two young children to go to America, was different. He was born around the same time, but was of a different temperament. He was one of the Heracliteans.

A person’s relationship to change is, again, not entirely a matter of temperament, it’s also timing. It’s possible to be born just as an age is coming to a close and in that way, to be old even when one is young. I’m like that, partly by temperament and partly by timing.  The temperament part I’ve always known about. It’s the timing part that has come to preoccupy me recently. I’ve become obsessed with the school I attended as a child, my fist school, Marie Schaefer Elementary School in O’Fallon, IL. There were several buildings that made up the school, the large central building, by far the oldest part of the school and then several smaller, newer satellite buildings of only one story. My kindergarten was in one of those buildings, and I believe my first grade class may have been as well. I don’t remember when I moved to the main building, but it’s that building which preoccupies me now. It was so great, so looming, so old. Everything in it was wood: the frames around the blackboards, the window frames, the desks. Everything was solid and utilitarian. The colors were somber greens or beiges, dark, worn. Each classroom had a cloakroom with thick wood moldings and countless hooks for our winter coats and hats and when it rained or snowed, that tiny, narrow room packed as it was with children’s wet overthings, would become as humid as a sauna.

The building itself was very warm. It was heated with old steam radiators. There were no protective covers on them. I remember this, because I burned myself on one once. That was one of the first injuries I remember. It was a strange experience. I’d never touched anything so hot. I didn’t do it deliberately, I only brushed against it, but felt immediately a sharp searing pain of an intensity hitherto unknown to me. I looked down at my arm and watched, with the sort of scientific curiosity children always have when they discover something new, the small patch of skin that had contacted the radiator contract and turn a dark reddish gray.

That great school building fascinated me even as a child because it seemed so old. It seemed to me from an earlier age, and yet it was my school building. The building down which halls I fled one day during a fire drill because I was too afraid to go down the fire-escape chute that was said to take the skin off the arms of children who did not remember to keep their arms held tightly to their sides. I hadn’t had to go down the chute. We’d been offered the choice of lining up and marching outside with the other children who didn’t want to brave the chute, but I’d been curious about it. At the last minute though, I chickened out and fled with a few similarly cowardly comrades down the halls that we feared were by that time engulfed in flames. They weren’t, of course, it was only a fire drill, not a fire. I didn’t understand that though, or at least I wasn’t entirely confident of it. I remember, in any case, being very frightened as our little group raced frantically through the hall to the great staircase in the center of the building that ran down toward the door.

Those are among my earliest memories, being burned on the radiator, and fleeing from what I feared was the burning building. I still remember the slant of the light through the many large windows as we ran down the hall. I can still hear the echo of our footsteps and the frightened cries of the other children.

I have a third memory of that school that is equally strong. It’s of the strange, bell-like swing on the playground. It was sort of like the hoop portion of an ante-bellum hoop skirt. There was a large central pole embedded in the asphalt and then a number of smaller, more slender poles that extended outward and downward from it. Three quarters of the way down was a great metal ring affixed to these slender poles. This was the first hoop. It served as a handrail. Below that was a second great circular wooden hoop that formed a bench on which we children sat. Beneath this bench was a third hoop of smaller circumference. Some children, I think they must have been older children, ones who understood how the swing worked and were not afraid of it, some children put their feet on this smaller hoop. Most of us though sat with our feet toward the outside of the contraption where there was no danger of their being crushed when the metal ring on the inside crashed against the central pole.

That’s how it worked, that swing. It swung back and forth from its axis on the central pole as a bell does when it is rung, so that the children sitting on the wooden benches around the circumference dipped first low and close to the pole and then soared high and away with such force that one had to cling to the little metal hand rail with all one’s might to keep from being tossed off.

It has to have been dangerous that swing. Even then it was clear that it would be easy for a child to be injured on it. One had to be in the second grade to be allowed on it. There were even monitors there at recess to make sure none of the very small children got on. I was so thrilled the day I entered the second grade, the day I was allowed on it. I don’t remember talking about it before hand. I must have though because it was an event, you see, to be allowed on that swing.

I’ve never seen another swing like it. I’ve always been nostalgic, but have become more so recently. Nostalgia comes naturally, I believe, to people when they hit middle age. So I began to think a lot about that school, about the old building that so fascinated me and about that swing. I tried to see if I could find any pictures of it online, but when I typed in the name of the school, what came up was unrecognizable to me. I emailed the principle, to see if the building had been torn down and if so whether there were any pictures of it and, in particular, pictures of the swing. She wrote back that the building had been torn down, many years ago, but that she had some photos she could send me. She had no photos of the swing though. She had never heard of the swing.

Never heard of the swing. That gave me a chill, a chill like the kind they say you get when someone walks on your grave. How could it be, I thought, that she had never heard of the swing. That swing was famous. It was impossible to think of the school without thinking of the swing. The swing had been right next to the old building, like a great bell ringing the children in to their classes. It did ring too, when the foot railing crashed against the central pole it made a ringing sound almost like that of a blacksmith pounding hot metal on an anvil.

Clang, clang, the swing would ring out loudly throughout recess. That’s how you could tell it was recess, because you could hear the anvil-like ringing of the swing.

Never heard of the swing? That was too strange to me. How was that possible? It was such a huge and heavy thing, so solidly implanted in the asphalt that it was hard to imagine anyone trying to remove it. Even if you could dismantle the swing itself, that central pole would have been almost impossible to extract from the ground. I’d envisioned it remaining there pretty much forever, that pole, just sticking straight up out of the ground, refusing to leave. And yet it must have been gone, because if it had still been there, someone would have remembered something about why it was there. There would have been a legend, like an urban legend–i.e., a schoolyard legend–about the dangerous swing that had had to be dismantled.

But she had never even heard of the swing. So it was gone, all gone. The imposing old school building and the amazing swing the riding of which was a rite of passage for the little children I grew up with.

I tried to find a photo of such a swing online. First I typed in “bell-like” swing, but all kinds of strange things came up that had nothing to do with playground equipment. Then I tried typing in “circular swing.” And there it was. There were two photos of the swing, not the very swing, but of ones like it. The first was from around the turn of the last century and the second looked to be from sometime in the 1930s or perhaps ‘40s. The swing in the first photo didn’t have a handrail. The one in the latter photo though was identical to the swing I remembered except that it seemed smaller. But perhaps I remember it as larger than it was since I was so small then myself.

That’s all, those two photos. I couldn’t find any information on the swing. I did hear, finally, though from a librarian at the O’Fallon historical society. She sent me some pictures of the buildings from my school that had been torn down. One was from 1901 and the other was from 1912. I can’t tell which was the building in which I had my classes because they looked very similar. They were next to each other, so perhaps I even thought they were one building.

I’ll bet the swing was as old as those buildings. Strange that something that was so important in my life has virtually vanished, is so obscure that even other people my age have never heard of anything like it. Ours must have been one of the last ones judging from the ages of the two photos I found. Perhaps it was the very last. Strange to grow up with something that had already all but disappeared into the annals of history. Strange to grow up thinking that such an antique was an ordinary amusement for a child of the period, when if it had ever been an ordinary amusement for children, it was for children of a much, much earlier period.

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