The human polish: Playground Equipment and The Nose of the Admiral

This section got pretty carved up in the newest draft. So you can treat this like the director's cut of the tesis.

The human polish: Playground Equipment and The Nose of the Admiral

In the summer of 2003, I was traveling home down a back road, avoiding the freeways, seeking a slower windows down type of pace on a sunny summer afternoon. I drove up Hazel Dell Avenue headed north toward my home town some ten miles further on. I crested a hill and came up even to a stop sign next to the Hazel Dell Elementary School, which was in the process of being demolished. On that day the playground was being scraped away. The practice of the day was to build the new elementary school on the playgrounds of the old school while the older building continued to function. This practice allows students to stay in a functioning facility on the same grounds for as long as possible. The play area is sacrificed but avoids students being bused to a temporary facility. I pulled over and parked, as is my practice when faced with an unusual sight. What had drawn my attention was a massive pile of steel playground equipment heaped in one corner, leaning on the fence at the edge of the playground. I have a long and storied history of spending time at public schools after hours.

Growing up one of three children of a single schoolteacher/mom at the start of the latchkey kid movement of the Eighties meant spending thousands of hours lingering around my mothers various elementary schools, mostly at night. These cavernous closed public institutions provided endless adventures in their darkened halls and empty classrooms. I easily attended three extra years of public school in this way. Nightly I found myself being dropped off at my mother’s classrooms left to read and play while she attended meeting after meeting or worked through the night to complete lessons for her students the next day. I developed a keen eye for quality public schools.

A playground is not as much fun alone as one may imagine while surrounded by hundreds of screaming kids during a standard recess. The average playground user spends eternities waiting his/her turn on the swing set, and one believes if one were the only one at recess, one could do whatever one wanted all the time with impunity. But when the crowd of peers is gone, the place is impotent and lame. There is no point in swinging as high as the edge of the building kicking one’s feet high into the sky and then flinging one’s body wholly and wildly flying out of the seat like some stuntman from the action adventure serials, if there is no one there to see the brave soul do it. I know, for I have jumped off every swing set in the greater Vancouver School District #137. For the record Truman had really great swings, mistakenly the contractor installed extra tall supports making the chains at least twelve feet long, this allows a trebuchet effect which can propel a child up to twenty feet into the bark chips, far past the jungle jims. No worries though, as the terminal bone break distance is thirty-seven feet, tested and certified.

When I saw the crumpled debris at Hazel Dell Elementary you have to understand it was like seeing the body of close friend discarded in a ditch. The debris consisted of large two-inch pipes. When installed in 1948 at the brick school, these had been the most contemporary of play structures. The structure built with two-inch steel pipe bent and shaped into jungle gyms, crisscross bars and hanging uneven bars vaguely resembling their Olympic counter parts. Pipes of tremendous strength anchored by cement into the soft dirt. Surrounded for years by an annually refilling pit of bark chips. The post World War Two Vancouver had seen a very modern trend in the construction of playgrounds. Likely started in California, the trend spread north to my neck of the woods. The pipes were paired with large chunky timbers. Almost railroad tie quality, pressure treated to resist the rain and the hours of children stomping and jumping. These structures were built to be indestructible to the activities of a recess. It was rounded on most corners, welded and bolted like super industrial battle structures. Vancouver was a shipbuilding hub during the war and it seemed the mothers who had taken the jobs in those yards during the war assembled this structure. I imagine these talented moms designing and building the pipe playground with the knowledge from building Liberty ships by the dozen in the Columbia River, while simultaneously producing the largest generation in history: the Boomers.

The pile I found was a shadow of its play structure self, ladders visible crumpled together with bridges like an angry giant had discarded his erecter set in frustration. It’s more likely backhoe or bulldozer had organized the wad of twisted metal. The heavy tread marks were still fresh in the soil around the heap. The surface of the metal was the most interesting part. The metal was polished brown, but only on one side of each pipe. The polished side of the pipe was the one that when in use had faced up to receive the tiny hands of the school child. For ten minutes at a time for fifty-five years children had dragged and slid their hands over the metal, polishing, smoothing and adding patina. The oil of their hands and lunches combined with the rain and dew of the weather to cause constantly smoothing rust. This patina is a polish, which remains impossible to reproduce in any other way. This is the appearance a metal handrail or exterior doorknob attains after years of human polishing. Slow, haphazard and yet specific touching with hands. The human hand causes the metal to smooth while simultaneously adding and subtracting material.

Metal has a unique connection to people. It is a material that lasts a vast time, perhaps longer than a single generation, but only through maintenance. If left to the open weather, most metal will oxidize and dissolve into the ground from whence it was smelted. The metal fixtures we surround our public places with are so often susceptible to destruction.

These playground pipes were amazing to me as an artist, years and years of hands touching them at ten-minute recess intervals. It seems important to me to identify why that seemed so remarkable. It made an impression on me because so few objects in this world gain that much non-narrative history. The pipes tracked time, but not with any measurable markers. They were used, a lot and yet they were not transmitting a linear telling of their time serving a purpose. Unlike objects such as an odometer on a car, or the hash marks on the door jam showing a child’s growth. The investment was made without intention toward that investment. The children were marking the play structure as a by-product of their play. This marking did however mark the generational change. The generations of attention were visible in a distinctly honest manor.

Imagine the generations of school children handing down the playground from year to year. The students leaving and then the students arriving causing traditions to be born and/or forgotten. All present on the playground, the society of the playground ever changing, but the terrain static and unchanging. The new games incorporated the platforms, the king of the hill or the multi-level tag games. The children became masters at “The follow the leader through and over and under and around game. The reconstruction of the playground causes these games to draw to a sudden stop. The traditions of the playground I was looking at were going to radically reset themselves the following fall when the new structure would be installed, erasing the fifty years prior. The new structure with its own fifty-year time line would start with fresh new traditions to be implanted by its users. All of this is culture, in a micro atmosphere, at one specific small elementary school in rural America, however the atmosphere is replicated endlessly throughout the world. The brown rust patina on the playground equipment is the tangible residue to an intangible subject. Great culture is remembered through its residue, the masks, temples, and murals. This playground was leaving behind thousands of recesses on the topside of these pipes, and it was about to be recycled.

It would be expected that some of the games would carry on, but with new markers of success and achievement. The new structure would be of its time, the early 2000’s. Each structure is dated and specific to the materials of playgrounds of its era. The modern structures of the post war landscape, made of minimal framework have given way to plastic and poly fibers, materials familiar to the generation of users now in place. The reconstruction of the playground all at once activated a radical and complete interface shift. In the blink of a summer, the playground became recalibrated to the safety guidelines and moral trends of the mid 2000’s. The structure which had seemed safe or innocuous in the 1940’s now was treated as unsafe uneven or dangerous, and on a whole, completely unneeded. There was no plan to reuse this old weathered play structure despite its fifty plus years of service. Like a battleship no longer suited for modern warfare, the old play structure must be sent away and dismantled as a relic of our past.


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