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Brandon Park’s conversion

Brandon Park in the 1960s was a tale of two treasures.

With Packer Street serving as a Mason-Dixon Line snaking through the middle, there was the “upper half” of the park, pristine and full of rose arbors and trees and shade that comes with growth measured in centuries.

We knew of this botanical paradise because older people spoke of it. We did not go there. It might as well have been Burma. We only knew older people walked there and it was obscenely peaceful and quiet.

That’s not appealing to 12-year-olds. What’s appealing is other 12-year-olds, wiffle ball, football and our version of recreational jaywalking – golf.

The “lower half” of Brandon Park, visible from my second-floor bedroom at Parkwood and Elizabeth streets, was the seemingly private playground for our neighborhood. There was a rectangular, tree-free plot of about 100×50 yards that we configured into a wiffle ball diamond in the summer and a football field in the fall.

This inanimate plot of land served as the most reliable babysitter any mom could have a half century ago. All of us would finish our chores and spontaneously meet there. There were no text messages. There were no choreographed practices and games. There was just an arbitrary time and place that brought us together each mid-morning to pick sides for wiffle ball or, on fall weekends, football.

Every parent knew where we were and we knew, by checking the angle of the sun, when it was time to go home for lunch and supper.

After supper, we returned for a pre-dusk wiffle ball finale or — in August — preseason football practice for our Brandon Browns sandlot team. There were no shoulder pads and almost no helmets, just fearless tackling and a well-drilled offense led by Tony Grieco and the reckless running of Frankie “Crazy Legs” Help in his Sunday black shoes that defeated teams four years older than us.

Yes, there were Brandon Little League baseball fields that our youth was invested in. Yes, there were tennis courts where we learned what to do when there was only two of us around (not often).

But there was something indescribably special about the homemade sandlot we believed was ours — and only ours. A few of us so personalized the “lower half” that we designed our own golf course — the Brandon Country Club. It was complete with putting greens where the grass was cut low, with holes designed out of vegatable soup cans.

We had two golf clubs for all of us to use — a 9-iron and a putter. Try being left-handed and attempting to get a golf ball airborne with a right-handed club.

Our course was the most unlawful thing we had ever done, with holes designed for tee shots going directly over the children’s merry-go-round or careening over foul territory at the larger, American Legion baseball field.

The park manager was certain he saw illegal golf balls flying. When he stopped his blue truck to come speak with us, we would quickly hide our clubs behind trees or bushes and pretend to be just four kids talking in the park on a summer day. Right.

It was dangerous. It was wrong. It was stupid. And it was unforgettable.

A half century later, there are fast-growing trees where our athletic complex used to be. The center field on one of the Brandon Little League fields where I roamed for Ocker’s Fuel Oil for three years is overgrown with weeds. The newly resurfaced tennis courts — part of $557,000 worth of investment approved by City Council — look beautiful.

But what stands out is what is missing — people. There were two players on the courts on a recent summer morning. No one was giving lessons to a bunch of 12-year-olds. And no one was playing pickup baseball. So it’s probably wise the improvements include a Nature Play area (we designate such things these days).

If our personal athletic complex were available today, nobody would be there to use it. Today’s 12-year-olds would not choose wiffle ball games over Fortnite and a hundred other video games that keep them addicted to computers instead of experimenting with how to get the most curve on a wiffle ball.

We have organizations and leagues to take care of the physical pursuits of a childhood — soccer, T-ball, softball, baseball and gymnastics. Maybe that checks all the boxes when it comes to teaching kids what a team is, how to win, how to lose and the value of competition and sportsmanship.

Just don’t try to tell any of us who created all those things out of an open Brandon Park space 50 years ago that it’s better than what we had.

David F. Troisi is the retired editor of the Sun-Gazette.

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