The lessons I learned on the New Haven playgrounds still apply years later – CT Insider | Dauktion

Growing up on State Street in New Haven gave me many opportunities. Aside from its easy access to culinary bliss over the occasional slice of a modern apizza, I could easily walk the streets of downtown New Haven and around the Yale campus, enjoying the cultural and horticultural bonanza that awaited me there.

Every turn up the breezy avenues and down the tree-lined streets bombarded my senses with all manner of clothing, languages, music, aromas from a variety of restaurants, the incessant honking and beeping of all manner of transportation, and the sprawls of ivy and elms guard the fenced stone walls. Autumn fills my ears with the crackling of the leaves beneath my feet from the same elm trees, as do the horns and drums of Yale Bowl beating the rhythm of my youthful heart like welcome ghosts from the simpler days of the past.

I was young, innocent, and little did I know that the same ivy-covered walls I played in front of and spent time dreaming the dreams of naïve youth would protect a world that would prove to me almost as inaccessible as the moon. Wealth, social status, connections, or just plain luck—our very blue-hued tribe lacked sufficient amounts of everything needed to gain access to the privileged lives of those who pursued their scientific pursuits behind the covered walls. It was a time to learn one of the hardest lessons of growing up: that opportunity in life is not evenly distributed.

When I was first old enough to walk the four short blocks to the little park where the African American kids were playing ball and hanging out, I began to hone my social skills while running under the chestnut trees on those early fall afternoons and played far from the ivy-covered walls on the other side of town. I would learn much later in life that those same walls were equally inaccessible to most of us, who sought the comfort of the park’s shady nooks on those autumn afternoons when the sun was still warming our skin.

Those of us who are either old enough to make the trip unassisted or those accompanied by an older sibling or an occasional parent all expected to meet up with our new friends to play at the park , to show off our best football moves and comb the shady regions beneath the trees and swirling carpet of abandoned foliage, bent on expanding our supply of shiny buckeyes. When enough of these treasures had accumulated, we would punch holes in the largest and finest of the lot and string them together to make a collection of horse chestnut bolas. When we were done, we chose sides and fought a horse chestnut bola war, a fight to the death, or at least until dinner.

We ran in and out of the shadows, around the park and down side streets, throwing our bolas and hoping to catch our enemies’ legs and claim victory, at least for that afternoon. In truth, our bolas were inefficient at trapping the opponent, but worked much better as something that could be spun around overhead to create an odd whoosh. It does not matter; We all felt the excitement of the activity and a certain camaraderie as we gathered the chestnuts and crafted our weapons for the battle to come.

By the end of our afternoon activities we were all tired, dirty and stained with the green, sticky residue from the chestnut shells we had shelled to collect the brown nuts inside. Black, white, green—that was the color palette we mixed on those warm fall afternoons as we learned the lessons of the Horse Chestnut Brotherhood amidst the painted trees and cool breeze.

As the shadows deepened and our legs began to feel heavy, we laid down our weapons and made the short walk home; Black kids one way, the rest of us the other. Whichever direction we all made our way home to our families, skirting the occasional pile of leaves that gathered by the gullies and awaiting the smells of dinner and the sounds of our mothers telling us to clean up for dinner . We did not talk about the conflict we had just endured, nor did we make any reference to our opponents. We would wash our hands and faces, brush off the dust and hope our clothes weren’t too stained to pass a cursory glance through the parents before we settled down to eat.

After dinner, we escaped the company at the dining table and disappeared into our bedrooms, where we would change into our pajamas, brush our teeth, check our soccer cards, and hop into bed. Lying there, staring at the ceiling, listening to the muffled hum of traffic outside our windows on the streets below, we would replay in our minds the adventure of earlier that day as we began to succumb to the evening, in anticipation to fight again next day.

As our eyes began to close we thought of the bolas, the horse chestnuts, the pounding of our hearts and the smell of the fallen leaves as we speeded through the park that day. We would think about what we could do differently next time and about our opponents, their faces, their smiles and their laughter. We’d wonder if they’d be in trouble for coming home dirty, and we’d smile knowing that whatever the outcome on the battlefield that day, we’d be back soon, To fight when it wasn’t raining and when our mothers let us go.

Since those autumn days of my youth I have seen and experienced many wonderful things in my life; a life in which hope, despair, failure and victory were generously shared. Though the ivy-clad walls seem as inaccessible to me now as they did when I was young, I still get excited every fall as I walk down Elm Street and around New Haven Green.

While many things have changed about New Haven, and about myself, over the past few decades, the familiarity of the buzzing excitement of New Haven in the fall and the crunch of leaves beneath my aging feet offer a reassurance and a reminder that it doesn’t matter whatever destiny it brings in life, or where life has taken us, or how much happiness and opportunity each of us has experienced along the way in life, home is still to be found where our heart beats fastest, where the Drums are beating loudest and where the smell of a New Haven pizza remains as inviting as ever.


Joseph M. Korzon now resides in Ellington where he is working on his latest collection of short stories and essays entitled Whispering in the wheat field: finding inspiration and meaning in the folds of everyday life.


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