Of lawn darts and American summers

Everyone who survived lawn darts, raise your hand. If you have a scar from one pinning your hand to the ground, feel free to show it off.

We played lawn darts for hours and hours back in the early 1970s. I was smack in the middle of seven kids — two sisters older, two younger, one brother older, one younger — and we were outside playing most of our waking hours. We competed with each other, our cousins and friends at virtually every game imaginable.

We played Wiffle ball like it was Game 7 of the World Series. On the Fourth of July, we started a marathon of games by lighting firecrackers on the flat wooden block we used for home plate.

My older brother Vern and I also squared off in one-one-one contests of baseball, throwing as hard as we could and deciding what fly balls and ground balls were caught and what counted as hits.

During the fall, we tossed and kicked footballs, using the clothesline as our goal post. We never had enough kids for a full game, so Vern and I usually just passed and kicked for an hour or so. We shot baskets inside and out, cutting the bottom out of a plastic ice cream bucket and using it as our hoop in the garage.

Of course, we also played hide-and-seek, jumped rope, played volleyball over a fence, swung, ran, biked, invented games and generally exhausted ourselves for hours. Growing up in the 1960s and ‘70s, when there was little on TV to lure us inside during the day, we went outside immediately after bolting our breakfast and except for brief sojourns inside for lunch, dinner and a snack or drink of water, stayed outside virtually all day.

We were skinny, brown and scuffed up, with bruises on our elbows and scabs on our knees. Look at photos from that era and compare them with images of kids today. The difference is shocking, and I don’t just mean the bad haircuts or the worn clothing on kids in mid-20th century America.

It’s obvious to anyone who looks at parks, trees and lawns that few kids are outside playing, and adults also are huddled inside on the couch, their heads glued to screens. A study conducted in 2015-16 said kids spend three times as much time with TVs and computers than they do outside.

Their parents and other adults aren’t much better, with more than half of all adults say they spend five hours or less outside every week. The trend is headed in the wrong direction, and although people said in the survey they value their time outside and want their children to be active and enjoy the outdoors, it’s just not happening.

I don’t think we can blame today’s kids for being lazy or unaware of the joys of racing to the sky aboard a creaky swing, hitting or kicking a ball perfectly or hanging upside down from a tree. Perhaps we have made their lives too attractive, too safe, too comfortable to persuade them to go outside and play.

You can’t deny there were down sides to the way my generation grew up.

It turns out that lawn darts were dangerous. According to MentalFloss.com, thousands of people were injured by the metal projectiles, with 6,100 people sent to emergency rooms, most of them kids. The report said 81 percent of those injured were 15 and younger, with most of those victims suffering injuries to their head, face, eyes or ears. Many ended up with permanent injuries or lifetime disabilities.

A California man, David Snow, led the effort to outlaw lawn darts, also called javelin darts or jarts, after his son and some of his friends found a set in Snow’s garage and recklessly tossed them. One flew over a fence and struck Michelle Snow, 7, in the head. She died three days later.

Snow crusaded against lawn darts and they are banned in both the United States and Canada. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission makes sure they are not sold in stores and online sales are prohibited as well.

It’s like smoking, drinking and driving, jumping off tall buildings into a small pile of leaves and all the other dangerous, life-threatening things we did back then. We remember the joys and sense of freedom, but forget the people gasping for air as they die at 60, the kids killed when their car slides off a road at 3 a.m., the little girls killed when a metal dart slams into their skull.

We lived more recklessly then, and there were everyday risks, such as small kids leaving the house unattended to roam around town, that just wouldn’t be accepted today. We have gained a sense of security and likely saved thousands of lives.

What have we lost? What freedoms and pleasures have we surrendered in the name of safety?

You can never go back, and that means lawn darts have thudded into the past, instead of into a kid’s body. Sometimes, the past is best remembered, not revisited.

South Dakota native Tom Lawrence, a former Pioneer executive editor, has written about the state, its politics and people since 1978. Read his blog Prairie Perspective at http://sdprairie.blogspot.com/ and follow him on Twitter at @TLCF26.

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