I used to play with mercury.
So did all of my brothers, sisters, and friends. We would crack the length of a thermometer against the sharp edge of a table and watch the silver globule fall to the floor and skitter this way and that. Then we poked at the droplet with the tips of our naked fingers, and if we caught it (it was as elusive as Tinkerbell flickering past Wendy’s bedroom window), we would jiggle it around in the palms of our hands.
Granted, there were only so many minutes we could devote to this activity before it became boring, but for long stretches of time, mercury was fun. Even though, somewhere along the line, it was drummed into our numb little skulls that mercury is an element, that its chemical symbol is derived from the Greek word hydrargyrum, which means liquid silver, and that it is poisonous.
Not that poison intimidated us while we were gleefully engaged in nudging the exquisite nodule as if it were a living thing it. Usually…always, in fact, our session with mercury ended when it disappeared in a crack between a tongue and a groove or escaped into the void between a baseboard and the edge of the kitchen floor.
Bye, bye mercury. On to the next dangerous toy. The one that we would joyfully discover at the bottom of a Cracker Jacks box. I am not referring here to the flat, boring whatnots which children can find in today’s Cracker Jacks boxes. I mean hard-edged trinkets it would be easy to choke on if you were stupid enough to shove it down your own throat: Substantial, useless objects that would fascinate us for eight-tenths of a second before we forgot about them or gave them away.
Pick-up sticks also merrily contributed to childhood’s dangers and joys. Slim wooden skewers with sharp ends that stuck into carpets at precarious angles when we dumped them out of their tube. They often had splinters, and they probably acquired their cheerful colors by being stained with toxic ink, but pick-up sticks challenged us to manipulate cautiously, develop strategies, and focus our brains; they were fun to play with.
And play we did.
Play. A delicious concept that evokes dicey memories of skate keys (they tightened the skates to the sides of our clunky shoes), kick-the-can (a can probably filled with salmonella bacteria), tag, hopscotch, tetherball, and baseball in the street.
Tag. When was the last time you saw a child ecstatic with fear while being chased by the outstretched hands of a friend about to shout, “You’re it!” When did you last see hopscotch boxes scrawled on a sidewalk in wide strokes of chalk? And tetherball: Ropes. Balls. Children. Ha! That one is long gone. Lawsuits, my dear. Lawsuits. We simply cannot take the risk.
But ... risk and childhood. Don’t they go together? Isn’t risk what childhood is all about? Birds leaving the nest. Toddlers taking their first steps. Girls terrorizing sisters who spilled cranberry juice on their favorite sweater. Boys being clobbered by Godzilla the Quarterback while trying out for the junior varsity football team.
My brothers, Mikey and Chucky, had a go-cart built by our father, and it was the envy of every kid on the block.
Our friends’ spiritless fathers, creatures with pasty complexions and soft white hands, had bought their go-carts—metal contraptions with slick paint jobs, rubber pedals, and no soul—from, heaven forbid, stores. My father’s go-cart, however, was wonderful beyond words. The body was a milk crate, and the wheels had been extracted from his hardware collection in the basement. A plank with two wheels protruded from the front of the crate, and it was steered by a rope.
Since our house was at the top of a steep slope, the boys could hop into the go-cart, careen down the sidewalk, jump the curb, and drift to a stop about a block and a half away. The go-cart had no brakes, so knees were skimmed, knuckles were scraped, joy was experienced, and childhood was sanctified.
We rode our bicycles without helmets back then, and the wind streamed through our hair. We gave our buddies rides on the handlebars; we sailed down hills, hands free. And we believed that we were immortal.
We weren’t, of course. But, when I think back on those days, it’s funny how not a single kid swallowed a toy soldier from a Cracker Jack box. Nor did we stab each other in the eye with the tips of pick-up sticks, experience strangulation courtesy of a tetherball cord, or get run over when playing baseball in the street. A few of us fell off the monkey bars in the playground, but that’s what monkey bars were for.
And (Quick. Bring me a thermometer and a hammer—the urge is upon me), none of us ever died of mercury poisoning.