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Saturday, April 21, 2012

A Swing is a Marvelous Thing

Here's the next article for the Chronicle.  Note:  Sheldon and Sharon Western are my aunt and uncle and the nine Steele and Western kids, my cousins.  Playing on the swing at their home was the greatest childhood memory we share.  Lieu Boyd, who lives in Maryland, where she raised her family, says she loved that swing and played on it her entire youth, but can't imagine allowing her own children to do such a foolish and dangerous thing as jumping from a tree onto a home made swing.         

          There was a swing hanging in the enormous Cottonwood tree over the canal in front of the house Sheldon Western purchased next door to his parents' home in the 1950s.  Sometime in the early 60s, he decided the rope and plank construction of the original swing wasn't safe enough for his children, his Boy Scout Troop, and practically the entire kid population of Hinckley who were constantly playing on it.  So he fastened a 100' metal winch cable high on a central limb that grew parallel to the canal below, attached wooden ladder rungs up the trunk, and built a platform in the main fork of that tree.  He tied a half-filled burlap sack to the huge metal hook at the end of the cable, but found gunny sacks didn't hold up very long, so he started experimenting with different kinds of cloth feed and flour bags for the seat of the swing.

            Kids of every age came from all over town throughout the 1960s and 70s to swing on that amazing swing.  No matter what the weather or season, you could find smaller kids jumping from the edge of the ditch to swing to the other side and older kids climbing the tree and hollering for someone to throw the bag up to them. From the platform, you would have to lean forward, holding firmly to the hook, then make a dizzying leap while wrapping legs around the neck of the bag, then settling on the stuffed sacking as it dropped into its long, arching trajectory down the length of the canal.  During the summer months, the noise of happy swingers kept the neighbors awake late into the night.  Often Sheldon would have to go out and send kids home so his own family could sleep.

            Stephanie Steele King recalls growing up with that swing in her front yard and the thrill of letting go and dropping off into a ditch full of irrigation water, fall leaves, or piles of snow.  She says 'Many a wonderful dream was had on that swing.'  The nine Steele and Western children all remember their very proper mother, Sharon, climbing the tree and then being too frightened to swing, but even more terrified to climb back down.  After much cajoling and calling from the crowd below, she leapt onto the cotton sack, landed in a cockeyed fashion, and soared through the air screaming and clinging furiously to the swing with arms and legs.  Even the youngest Westerns, who weren't born at the time, will never forget the day their mother swung out of the tree because the occasion was filmed.  Lieuwen Steele Boyd claims the film quality is rather shaky due to fits of laughter their father experienced while holding the movie camera.

            Swinging double was a popular variation of use.  One kid would straddle the bag and swing out, as he came back another child would jump on in the opposite direction.  There were times when three or more kids would attempt to swing together. For awhile an old, blue pickup truck was parked near the ditch.  Kids crowded onto the bed and cab of the truck using it as a launching pad to jump onto the swing and sail over the ditch, to kick at the leaves while at the highest point and trail toes through the water at the lowest spot.

            Sharon remembers a young man who leaped from the tree onto the swing one summer day to have the overused and weathered sacking tear free of the hook and dump him into the irrigation water.  She says he was uninjured, but came up shocked, sputtering, and without his eye glasses.  With the swing out of commission, the kids spent the rest of that day diving and searching the muddy ditch bed for a pair of glasses.  Years later a similar incident, but without water in the canal, caused a broken arm.  That was the culminating event of the swing.  Hinckley City officials came by shortly afterwards and instructed Sheldon to dismantle his swing to prevent any other injury to children of the town.

            That swing hung in the same tree and was well used and beloved for over 20 years.  Literally hundreds enjoyed the breeze in their face; wind streaming through their hair; and the pleasurable sensation of falling and then being snatched back into the long, sweeping arc of that swing.  The Steele/Western swing doesn't hold the record for the longest continuous use or highest pivotal point of a swing, but according to at least one generation of Hinckley dwellers, it was 'the greatest swing in the whole world'.


Tina said...

Wow! what a fun post!

And guess what, no surprise . . . it brought up a few memories of my own. I think I'll make a note to myself and blog a "flashback" soon!

wendy said...

Once again, great memories. You go to a lot of work to record these thiings.
Reminded me of a swing we always had growing up too.
The seat was so big, you could sit one adult, and 2 small children on it. Awesome.