Sunday, April 24, 2011

No Bears Out Tonight and Papas

The game begins quite humbly. I look up from the Sunday paper and suddenly realize that Matthew, my husband, is nowhere to be seen. I call his name a few times, get no answer, and after wandering the house I notice a very odd, long lump under someone's bedroom comforter. I then alert the children that their Papa is missing and they should find him. Once they notice the strange lump, Berto, our oldest, takes a running leap onto the bed, and Matthew springs up with equal amounts of groans and chuckles. Then its somebody else's turn to hide.

Whether my husband is actually trying to play hide-and-seek with the kids or is just plain hiding, the game is a classic. The thrill of cramping oneself into a ridiculously uncomfortable position and being as still as possible while holding one's breath is in my opinion better than being the seeker, but the game in general is a good last bet against weekend or summer boredom.

I was lucky in my childhood to have the opportunity to play it in an enormous cornfield behind our home in Tennessee. It is impossible to be quiet in a cornfield, so mostly you just keep running. You run away like mad from the sibling who's counting until you find a place to kneel with bated breath, looking down the row and listening for the familiar crackle of cornstalks being brushed aside. If the sound approaches your location, you run again - blindly through corn that's two feet above you head. Unfortunately for me, I giggle ferociously when I am terrified, and so the more the cornstalks crackled behind me the more I gave myself away until I collapsed in the dirt, giggling madly and throwing my hands in the air to surrender.

There were other games that filled my childhood summers. My dad used to let the grass grow outrageously tall beneath the walnut trees in our yard, and then he would mow a huge pacman maze through the grass. One of us kids would be pacman while dad and the others were the ghosts trying to intercept.

Dad also spray painted a baseball diamond on the same large patch of yard. Our dog Reuben played outfield during family games; he loved to chase the baseball and always brought it faithfully back to Dad.

The game I associate most with summer, though, is one called No Bears Out Tonight, a game Dad himself once played as a boy in Idaho and one which he taught to his children.

Dad was the bear. He went outside when it was dark, when the glow of the blinking fireflies stretched from the porch across the breadth of the lawn. We kids counted inside the house, Mama helping to pace our counting as our excitement built, until we reached thirty. She opened the door for us, and holding hands, we four kids went outside singing, "No bears out tonight! Daddy shot them all last night!" Slowly, with wide eyes struggling to adjust to the darkness outdoors, we stepped off the porch and ventured out across the lawn. We broke hands until we wandered separately, still singing tenaciously. Then suddenly, "Rooaaarrrrr!" The bear sprang from behind a big tree, and we scattered screaming, trying to make it back to the porch before the bear caught us.

Yes, it was essentially hide-and-seek, only turned on its head, but there is something about wandering a large dark lawn as a child, the fireflies eerily flashing around your head as you try to sing as softly as you can so you can listen for the bear.

I've played the game with my own kids, but I've found the thrill is hard to recreate in our considerably smaller city yard with its one tree, scraggly desert plants and its lack of lightning bugs. Also, Matthew seems to think that having kids running pell-mell across a dark yard is dangerous. And I say, "Pish! So what did you do as a kid? Play chess all day?"

For another story about the games of childhood: Catch is a Contact Sport 

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