In a small town, there was a playground shared by all of the children who went to the park. There was the domed jungle gym that bubbled up from the ground, the bright orange monkey bars, the spinning merry-go-round. One structure considered unique among the townspeople was the Rocket Slide.
The Rocket Slide was the favorite of all the children of the town for many years. Its tall, metal structure reached high into the air, as if it could take off at any moment. All of the children loved to play on it.
The Rocket Slide had multiple levels to it. First, there was the lowest level, which consisted of four metal poles that held up the body of the rocket ship. From here, a child could climb up the ladder to reach the middle level of the structure. Those children not yet ready to try the slide found just as much fun playing in the sand around the poles and waving to their friends that entered the rocket.
The middle level was surrounded by strong copper bars and held the opening to the slide itself. It was a long way down; the slide was at least seven or eight feet off the ground, but to the children it was miles above the Earth itself. The floor was grated metal, allowing the children to look down at their feet to the sand below.
The final layer wasn't really intended to be played on, but the children did so anyway. The surrounding bars of the middle level could easily be squeezed through, and the children could then climb to the pointed top of the rocket. A circular window acted as the gateway to the top's interior, and many brave and happy children would one day work up the nerve to make the journey to the rocket's top. Since the top's interior was much smaller than the middle, it was an understood rule that one shouldn't dally there long. The children could see the entire expanse of the park from the top of the rocket.
Many of the children that grew up around the Rocket Slide held tight to the fond memories of it, even when they had grown too big to play on it. They continued to go to the park, taking their own children along to experience the Rocket Slide.
My father first took me to the park when I was three years old. I don't remember it much, but he still smiles as he tells me of my fascination with the slide. “You just kept staring at it with your mouth open wide,” he said.
The first time I attempted the Rocket Slide, I was four and a half years old. It was late afternoon, so most of the other children had been taken home to get ready for dinner. My father had waited so that the bigger children would be gone and I could try out the slide without fear of being embarrassed.
At first, I just stood on the bottom rung of the ladder, looking upward, unable to move. My father was right behind me.
“Daddy, it's too high.”
“It's okay. Just take your time.”
“I don't think I can make it up that high. What if I get tired on the way up?”
“If you get tired, we'll go home. Are you tired?”
“Do you want to try again some other time?”
“I can do it. Gimme a second.”
I stayed on that bottom rung for another five minutes. Finally, I reached up and gripped the next one tightly, then the next, slowly working my way up. When I was almost to the top, my sneakers slipped. I felt myself falling and let out a small scream.
Strong arms kept me from hitting the ground.
“I got you! I got you. You're okay.”
“I slipped.” I could feel the tears of disappointment welling in my eyes.
“It's okay. We'll try again next time.”
A few weeks later, I conquered the ladder. I got on my knees and peered down the hole back at my father, who was still standing by the ladder, should I slip.
“Look, Daddy, I did it!”
“That's my girl!”
I reveled in my achievement. Since there were no other children around, I had the rocket to myself. Lifting my head up high, I strutted away from the ladder. I gripped the metal bars that formed the interior's wall and stuck my head out between them, giggling.
A sudden thought made me pull my head back out and look down through the grated floor at my father.
“What do I do now?”
“You go down the slide, sweetheart.”
The opening to the slide was next to me. I gripped the bars tightly and leaned out, staring down at the slide. It was made of sleek, shimmering gray metal with a steep incline; it seemed it only lacked a few degrees more to be completely vertical. I turned and looked back down at my father again.
“I can't do that! It's really high and far from the ground!”
“You're already really far from the ground.”
Panic took hold. My distance from the ground seemed to triple, and I began to breathe heavy and cling to the metal bars.
“Daddy, I want down! I don't like it up high!”
“The easiest way down is the slide, sweetheart. It's fun! Trust me.”
“I don't like it, what if I fall?”
“I won't let you fall.”
He'd moved to the side of the slide and waved. I inched closer to the slide, still clinging to the bars.
“Just sit and let go. It's really easy.”
“You'll catch me if I miss?”
“You won't miss, sweetie.”
With slow, precise movements, I lowered myself into a sitting position, my legs dangling dangerously out of the caged interior. The slide somehow appeared to grow once I was sitting down. I waited.
“I'm not going. I'm stuck.”
“You need to scoot further down, or push yourself forward.”
I lifted myself up and inched my way closer to the edge. I felt the slippery metal on the skin of my bare calves, warm from the bright sun. Somewhere along the way, my hands had instinctively reached out and seized the bars on either side of the slide. They didn't seem to want to let go.
“Sweetie, you have to let go of the bars or you won't slide.”
“Okay…I'm going now!”
I squeezed my eyes shut and released the bars at the same time. There was a strange sensation of slipping into the unknown, squeaking sounds from underneath me, then the scratchy feeling of sand. I opened my eyes. I'd reached the bottom, sliding completely into the sand pit. My father was standing above me, smiling.
“Well? What did you think?”
I sat for a moment and stared up at him, then grinned and leapt to my feet.
“That was so neat! It was like, zoom and then whoosh! And I landed and oh, I have to do it again, Daddy!”
We were at the park until it began to grow dark and the fireflies drifted through the air. I was dirty and sweaty, my hands smelled of rusted metal and I loved every minute of it.
From then on, the Rocket Slide was the playground. Sometimes I might venture off toward the merry-go-round or the monkey bars or the jungle gym, but unless it was completely overflowing with other children, I was always on the Rocket Slide.
Over time, I met a number of other children playing on the slide, several who became fast friends. We'd create elaborate space stories to accompany our time around the Rocket Slide, each one ending the same way: the ship was about to explode and we were forced to take the slide to the escape pods. Everyone had a general understanding of how to play on the Rocket Slide. Everyone except Robert.
Robert was new to the town. His family had moved a great distance from their old home, a big city far to the north. Since there wasn't a park where he used to live, he wasn't really used to playing outside in the grass. His first day at the park, he gawked at the Rocket Slide for several minutes before asking, “You don't really play on that thing, do you?”
“Of course! It's loads of fun!” I said, hanging by one arm from the ladder. “C'mon, give it a try.”
“It's old. And rickety-looking,” said Robert, wrinkling his nose.
“That just makes it louder and more fun!” I scrambled up the ladder and dove headfirst down the slide. When I stood up, I had sand all over my shirt. Robert made a face.
“That doesn't look fun. That looks dirty.”
“C'mon, you gotta try it!” I said, tugging him toward the ladder. “Everyone's been on the Rocket Slide, c'mon, c'mon!”
Robert craned his neck up the ladder and grimaced at the rocket's insides as they floated above him. “How do you know it's not gonna fall when I'm up there?”
“It's been up this long, why would it mess up now?” I asked, throwing my arms back in exasperation. “Besides, it's made of super strong steel and metal and stuff. It's indestructible!”
Robert looked at me like I had bugs crawling out of my ears, then turned back to the ladder and began climbing. Halfway up, he looked back down, a mistake most newcomers make on their first experience with the Rocket Slide.
“This is really…really high!”
“Isn't it great?”
“It feels like the ladder's moving!”
“That's just the wind, keep going up!”
Robert continued up, agonizingly slow. I was almost ready to hurry up the ladder and shove him the rest of the way, when he finally reached the top. He let his legs hang over the edge as he sat and looked around the barred interior.
“Isn't it cool?” I asked grinning.
“It is kinda neat,” he said, taking in his surroundings.
“Now you just gotta go down the slide!”
“That huge thing?”
“It looks big, but it's so fast, you can't tell!”
Robert steadied himself and walked over to the slide, staring down with the same fear I had only a few years earlier.
“Are you crazy?! I can't do that!”
“If you don't hurry it up, I'm gonna push you down!” I was already on the ladder, eager to slide once more.
Robert cringed at the idea and plopped down at the top of the slide. He leaned forward slowly, until gravity took over and he slid down and landed softly in the sand. He hopped up and gawked at the slide again, unable to believe what he'd just accomplished.
“That was awesome!”
“I told you,” I said haughtily, already seated at the top of the slide. I reached for the bar above it and swung myself forward, my second favorite way to slide, after headfirst. I landed feet first and hopped around Robert.
“Wanna go again?”
We slid over and over, backwards, forwards, headfirst, upside-down, sideways, until we finally collapsed in the sand, laughing. Robert pointed to the pointed top of the rocket.
“How do you get up there? I didn't see a ladder when I was inside.”
“Oh, that'll take you a few more times before you're ready,” I said matter-of-factly. “You gotta be real used to the slide before you can climb on the outside of it.”
“What, you think I can't do it?” demanded Robert, frowning. He kicked the sand with his feet.
“You can do it later, just not now. You're not ready for it. Let's slide s'more!”
“Aw, sliding's boring,” grumbled Robert. “I'm gonna climb to the top.” He raced for the ladder and was inside before I could stop him.
“Wait! You're not ready yet!” I yelled after.
“I'm plenty strong,” he yelled back, squeezing through the bars. He pulled himself up until he'd reached the circular window, but instead of going through, he balanced his feet on the edge of the window and clung to the point of the rocket top itself. Having never done that before myself, or see anybody else do it, I began to get scared.
“Get down! That's not safe!” I cried.
“You told me it was plenty safe,” Robert yelled back. “Besides, I can see all over! It's so cool! Climb up here, there's plenty of room!”
“No, there isn't!” I scanned the playground for an adult, but couldn't see one within yelling distance. “That's not what you're supposed to do, you're supposed to go inside!”
“Phooey, I can see more this way,” said Robert. “Are you comin' up here or not? Or are you chicken?”
I turned in a circle, a final vain attempt to find an adult. I'd have to get him to come down myself. I crawled up the ladder slowly, raising my eyes up through the metal grates toward Robert. He turned his body so he was facing away from the window, with only one arm looped around the pointy top, a broad smile on his face.
“Robert, please! The bigger kids don't even do that!” I yelled. I'd reached the middle, but was unsure about how to get Robert to move.
“You're just jealous that I thought of this first,” he said. “You can see so much! There's plenty of room for your feet, I'll move over.”
Just as I was about to protest there was the sick, squeaking sound of Robert's shoes as he lost his footing. I could only watch between the metal bars as he plummeted past, landing with a crack in the sand below.
Robert was in the hospital for weeks. My father explained with kind words that accidents happen, and although Robert wouldn't be able to walk for a while, and would need crutches for some time after, he would be okay. Robert's parents were really upset. At first, I was afraid they would blame me, but to my horror they instead turned their anger at the Rocket Slide itself.
There was a town council meeting held once a month. I never went, since it usually consisted of boring adult conversations about potholes and traffic lights and money. This time, my father brought me with him since the topic of discussion was limited to the slide. I sat next to my father and held his hand throughout the entire meeting.
I don't remember exactly what was said, but the way it was said. Robert's father used a lot of exuberant gestures as he yelled, with Robert's mother sitting nearby dabbing her eyes with a silky handkerchief. A few words that kept repeating included “safety hazard”, “lead poisoning” and “sue”. The adults behind the bench that listened to him were quiet, nodding every now and then. After several painful minutes, they gave Robert's father the answer he wanted. My father squeezed my hand.
Within days of the town meeting, a yellow bulldozer arrived at the park, accompanied by a dump trunk and several men in hard hats. The children who normally gathered around the Rocket Slide, myself included, were shoved over to the jungle gym by the men. One of them stayed to watch us, preventing us from running after the bulldozer. At first, I was convinced the bulldozer wouldn't stand a chance against the mighty steel of the Rocket Slide, that the men would try hopelessly to knock it over until they left, and we would all go back to playing.
Instead, the four beams and ladder crumbled easily against the bulldozer's blade, the middle layer falling quickly with the top close behind, and the slide crunching beneath its fallen parts. The men in the hard hats gathered up the metal bits and pieces and tossed them into the dump truck without a moment's hesitation and were gone.
About a week later, there was a new slide added to the playground. Just a slide, not terribly tall, tan and green, plastic, strange. I tried it once and realized my dislike for it quickly. There were still the other parts of the playground to play on, but they didn't seem to matter as much. Soon, they gradually disappeared, replaced by the same tan and green plastic. The parts that were metal were small, low to the ground steps and walkways that were elevated three or four feet from the ground. There was a slight squish to these structures when I walked on them that made me uncomfortable.
Eventually, I stopped going to the playground. I'd grown too big for playgrounds, or rather, they had gradually begun to shrink in size.