Douglas Mitchell

Musician / Entertainer / Host

Robert & The Danger Bay Swingset (A Childhood Story)

    Growing up, I had quite a variety of friends. One of them who recently popped into my head is a boy named Robert. We didn’t call him Bobby or Rob, he was Robert. Now Robert was a bit of an angry kid with less to lose than most, and he seemed to find trouble with a natural ease. So, as found trouble is generally more interesting than the planned sort, let me tell you of the time he felled my swing-set all on his own with short sight and a furious swoop.

    Robert was a really funny boy. Although I wouldn’t have articulated it in this way at that age, I could tell that he was the emotionally neglected type. His haircut was the sort where your basic clippers were dragged across the skull, and he hadn’t developed his articulation of the letter R quite yet. I imagined he got to eat sugary cereal & mac n’ cheese which made me jealous as I was perpetually stuck with eggs & mom’s stew. In hindsight, he probably smoked the butts from his mom’s ash tray and yearned for loving touch, but that’s neither here nor there in this story.

    His appeal was how he could make me laugh. He knew bad words I didn’t and he would say them with such flair of combination that I would fall to the floor laughing. Once or twice I brought out my cassette tape recorder just to capture some of the ridiculous word magic that escaped from his mouth for listening to when he wasn’t around - that’s how memorable and entertaining he was to me. I’d only known swearing to be for when someone was angry. I’d never heard it used for humour before then.

    Robert always pushed everything to the limit. It was exciting, but it was also unnerving. He didn’t seem to have a sense of accountability to any consequence. At the age of 7, there can be a limit to the damage one can cause, but you’d be surprised what can be accomplished when the only fuel in the tank is reckless abandon.

    

    One fine summer day he decided to swing as high as he could in my back yard. My swing set was the “A” shaped metal type we all enjoyed back in the mid 80’s. Pale brown. I should note that all the bottoms of the swing-sets that belonged to kids whose parents owned their house were cemented into the ground. This was on account of the potential for the whole thing to topple when children went crazy on them. Letting the sets just free float on the grass was danger bay.

    We rented our house - which put us in a neighbourhood with the likes of “Kool-aid kids” like Robert. You know, the ones with the little sugary dyed devil horns on each side of their upper lip? So yeah, there was no anchoring of my swing-set into the ground. 

    Robert climbed on and began swinging. It didn’t take long before he started really putting some mustard into it, and I saw a bit of liftoff on the front legs of the frame. This would have been the end of my adventure, but not Robert’s. It just got him more excited. As he approached what would be his final swoop as an innocent child in the universe, we both savoured the moment of frozen suspension in the air. Nothing beats the moment a kid can pretend they’re floating weightless in the sky - not Nintendo, not Ghostbusters, not Gretzky winning a Stanley Cup for your team, not a kiss from Jennifer down the street. Everything is possible in that fleeting moment of magic.

    With reality beginning to seep back in, I could see the devil in Robert’s eye as if he’d decided to jump 13 buses, or eat the whole damn cake. His careening wrenched upwards. He must have been pulling Top Gun worthy G-forces because at the apex of this unruly revolution it was as if he invited the whole frame of the swing-set to follow him to glory. In a moment of imagination, I saw him turn his head back to yell ”COME WITH ME, MEN!!” The swing-set lifted up in to the air for but a moment and then Robert was unceremoniously jerked back towards the tumbling metallic mess of anarchy that awaited him.

    The crash itself was a bit of a blur as I couldn’t believe what I was witnessing. This was my friend going off the rails on a swing-set like so much gung-ho. Earlier that year the space shuttle Challenger had exploded & had been all over the TV - taking just a bit more of our collective innocence, so I have to admit that I was a bit more calloused to this disaster. Robert wasn’t a “best friend” or anything, so I allowed myself the morbid curiosity that occasionally rescued me from my fears at the strangest of times.

    Metal and dust clouds. Dirt clumps. Silence. Then a cough. He didn’t even lift his head. From beneath the ignominy of the sad pile of rag doll, Robert looked through the dirt in the air around his head, deep into the sky and cried “OWIE!!!” 

    He may have been calling out to his mother in need, or he may have called to his maker in desperation. All I know is the veneer of bad boy coolness was gone and I never saw him the same way after that.

 

    Robert was someone who used words I wasn’t allowed to, he got to roam the neighbourhood with more freedom than I enjoyed, and he didn’t have to go to bed as early as I did. Because of this, it was easy for me to think of him as older, but when he called out from the wreckage in my backyard, I was reminded that - although troubled, he was just a child - lying on the earth in a pile of his own awesome creation.