“Perhaps,” I ventured, “not only the lack of space and free open in the city has something to do with it, but the fact that the seasons there grow and change so unperceived. Games, you remember, go by a kind of immutable rotation–as much a law of childhood as gravitation of the universe. Marbles belong to spring, to the first weeks after the frost is out of the ground. They are a kind of celebration of the season, of the return to bare earth. Tops belong to autumn, hockey to the ice, base-ball to the spring and summer, foot-ball to the cold, snappy fall, and I seem to remember that even such games as hide-and-seek or puss-in-the-corner were played constantly at one period, not at all at another. If you played ’em out of time, they didn’t seem right; there was no zest to them. Now, most of these game periods were determined long ago by physical conditions of ground and climate. They stem us back to nature. Cramp the youngsters in the artificial life of a city, and you snap this stem. My theory may be wild, all wrong. Yet I can’t help feeling that our games, which we accepted and absorbed as a part of the universe, as much as our parents or the woods and fields, were a part of that nature which surrounded us, linking us with the beginnings of the race. Most kids’ games are centuries upon centuries old, they say. I can’t help believing that for every sky-scraper we erect we end the life, for thousands of children, of one more game.”
Old Hundred had listened attentively to my long discourse, nodding his head approvingly. “No doubt, no doubt,” he said. “I shall hereafter regard the Metropolitan Tower as a memorial shaft, which ought to bear an inscription, ‘Hic jacet, Puss-in-the-corner.’ Yet I saw some poor little duffers on the East Side the other day trying to play soak with a tattered old ball, which kept getting lost under the push carts.”
“They die hard,” said I.
We had by this time come on our walk into a group of houses, the outskirts of a town. Several small boys were, apparently, aimlessly walking about.
“Why don’t they do something,” Old Hundred exclaimed, half to himself. “Don’t they know how, even out here?”
“Suppose you teach ’em,” I suggested.
Again Old Hundred grinned. He walked over among the small boys, who stopped their talk and regarded him silently. “Ever play duck-on-the-rock?” he asked, with that curiously embarrassed friendliness of the middle-aged man trying to make up to boyhood. After a certain period, most of us unconsciously regard a small boy as a kind of buzz-saw, to be handled with extreme care.
The boys looked at one another, as if picking a spokesman. Finally one of them, a freckle-faced, stocky youngster who looked more like a country lad than the rest, replied. “They dunno how,” he said. “They’re afraid the stones’ll hurt ’em. We used to play it up State all the time.”
“There’s your theory,” said Old Hundred in an aside to me.
“You’re a liar,” said one of the other boys. “We ain’t afraid, are we Bill?”
“Naw,” said Bill.
“Who’s a liar?” said the first speaker, doubling his fists. “I’ll knock your block off in about a minute.”
“Ah, come on an’ do it, Rube!” taunted the other.
Old Hundred hereupon interfered. “Let’s not fight, let’s play,” he said. “If they don’t know how, we’ll teach ’em, eh Rube? Want to learn, boys?”
They looked at him for a moment with the instinctive suspicion of their class, decided in his favor, and assented. Like all men, Old Hundred was flattered by this mark of confidence from the severest critics in the world. He and Rube hunted out a large rock, and placed it on the curb. Each boy found his individual duck, Old Hundred tried to count out for It, couldn’t remember the rhyme, and had to turn the job over to Rube, who delivered himself of the following: