A Sport and a Pastime


On Sports


Art credit Kiersten Essenpreis

Wikipedia has, of late, been in the crosshairs for its regrettable classification of certain American writers as “women authors” (and businesswomen) and its utility as a platform for petty “revenge editing.” You can watch battles play out in real time now, as people edit and re-edit each others’ work, manipulating facts and public perception at will. With very little power comes, apparently, no particular sense of responsibility.

And yet at its best, Wikipedia is, if not the objective repository of all human knowledge its founders envisioned, a rather delightful showcase of human weirdness. The enforced aridness of the site’s format only serves to heighten the brilliance of those moments when the peculiarity shines through. I was reminded of this the other day when I decided to look into the origins of the game red rover. (Why? Don’t worry about it.)

I had hoped to learn that the game had some sort of specific historical significance—maybe involving the Gunpowder Plot, or the Reformation, although I would have settled for the Black Death—which it doesn’t. (The name might, or might not, allude to pirates.) But the Wikipedia entry had greater treasures to offer the armchair investigator. I refer, specifically, to the following:

As with any game involving physical contact between players, there are those who maintain that its inherent risks, however unlikely, must be weighed against the pastime’s potential to generate personal enjoyment. For example, when the runner breaks through a link (or attempts to break through), it is worried that the action can hurt the linkers’ arms or body or knock these individuals to the ground. Practices particularly discouraged are linking players hand-to-wrist or hand-to-arm (rather, players should hold hands only), “clotheslining” an opposing player at throat height, or extending the hands so an onrushing player runs into a fist.

It’s at moments like this when misanthropy is most alien to me.

True, my interest might be keener than most. As a child I had an almost unlimited enthusiasm for red rover. From the moment I first played it—at the home of an intermittent best friend with whom I had very little in common (now a wedding planner)—I recognized it as my sport. (I suspect it may still be my sport.) The version we played was, I think, the basic one, but there might be regional variations. Presumably you know the drill: Two teams of children hold hands and face each other at some distance; I prescribed a lot when I was in charge, which I usually was. (Wikipedia specifies thirty feet, but this seems, to me, specious.) Everyone chants, “Red rover, red rover, let [name] come over,” and generally inserts the name of the weakest opponent, and that person runs at you, and you raise your clasped hands, and the runner batters ineffectually against the barrier, and then is forced to join the opposing team.

The most pathetic players would lose their momentum before they reached the line of hands; sometimes they’d walk. I hated that. I liked to feel the burn on my arm after someone had battered it, to have scored nail marks on the hands of the children next to me. Sometimes people who didn’t know better would call me first, because I was so undersized, and these were the moments I lived for: adrenaline pumping, heart pounding, taking as deep a running start as a space would allow, and then hurtling myself at full speed at a weak point in the line. Not the weakest—the weakest, terrified by my speed and my fierce expression, would oftem drop their hands in fear and then I would hurtle through and be unable to stop. What one wanted was just enough resistance to make things interesting.

I liked best a mixture of boys and girls, as it ratcheted up the intensity of the play. Which is not to say I would ever have run for two boys, which was, in my opinion, a tactical error. I also avoided one girl, whom I will call Carla. Carla (now, incidentally, a man) was the strongest and biggest of all of us, but she was also supremely unsporting. She’d grab whomever was next to her above the wrist, or even link arms, no matter how many times I yelled at her about it, and there was no breaking through. When it was her turn to run she employed similar tactics. She was slow and lumbering, but that didn’t matter because her approach was simply to drape herself over the joined hands of whoever was in front of her, hanging there inertly until the pressure of her considerable weight inevitably broke through the clasp.

Obviously I forced everyone to play it at all my birthday parties. Even when the theme was “hats” and we had a hat-shaped cake and decorated straw numbers from Caldor, or the year we hired a hurdy-gurdy man and danced around a maypole, people didn’t get out of it. It was the highlight of my day. I gave no quarter: not to my four-year-old brother (now a bartender), not to my timid neighbor (now a graphic designer), not even to the disturbed girl from my day camp whom I was forced to invite every year. (I’m not sure what became of her.)

For a while, I got everyone at school playing it too. I’m not sure how; I was very determined. We weren’t even that young—third grade at the height of the craze. We played every day, everyone in my class, in marathon sessions. It ended the day Jennifer Levine (now a lawyer) dropped her hand in fear at my approach and I went flying into a brick wall and ended up covered in blood. After that, the teacher banned it. I was furious. (Lacking red rover, I prescribed a game in which we developed a sort of agrarian economy, harvesting this long grass at the side of the playground; weaving it into baskets; selling it at market; and then starting again. Carla was the farmer.)

In my reading about red rover, I was saddened (if not shocked) to learn that the game is in decline due to its violence. Fair enough, I guess; I still have a scar on my knee from that one crash. Inherent risk, as someone taking the time to post anonymously about red rover on Wikipedia might say.