Occasionally, the path is smooth and you roll on

Occasionally, the path is smooth and you roll on
                        

Ever hear of monkey balls?

No?

How about hedge apples, Osage oranges or horse apples?

Not really?

Well, they’re all the same fruit, which also is filed under the most fascinating scientific heading of all, which is “Ghost of Evolution.”

I don’t know who coined that particular term, but I just love it because it has a mysterious aura, something vaguely scary but also very intriguing.

Monkey balls, on the other hand, has a playground ring to it, conjuring juvenile attempts at humor, something in the same vein as “Smear the Queer,” which was another iffy bit of kid lingo.

In that game the person who had control of the ball — usually, but not always, a football — was the prey, and the rest of the guys were predators whose job it was to corral and then tackle the, um, queer.

Chaos ensued.

I don’t think Smear the Queer still exists, at least not under that unfortunate appellation, and in that regard it’s comparable to Red Rover, which I think has been outlawed in 50 states and half of Canada.

Now that was a dangerous game.

For the uninitiated, Red Rover involved two opposing teams lined about 50 feet apart with one person asked to “come over,” which meant running full tilt and trying to break though the human chain.

Serious injuries, sometimes to the head and neck region, were always possible, yet Red Rover thrived during recess periods with nuns and teachers and sometimes even parents in the vicinity.

This was a decidedly different time.

I don’t know what passes for playground fun these days, but I’m guessing it’s a lot safer than it used to be.

Heck, maybe there are no playgrounds, either, which means another essential ingredient of growing up has been removed from the preteen stew. Again, I don’t have any firsthand knowledge of what today’s schoolyards are like, but I’m guessing modern diversion has more to do with smart phones than skinned knees.

And that’s too bad.

When I was growing up, there was nothing better than an after-school game of pickup football.

It really helped reduce the stress of another long day cooped up inside, staring at those ice-cube-tray florescent lights hanging from the ceiling of every classroom.

The tedium was broken by the occasional fire drill, but you couldn’t really count on them. In junior high bomb scares happened — this was the late '60s after all — and those were all phony too, but they did provide a great escape opportunity for those inclined not to return to the hallowed halls of learning.

I never took that route, though I was approached once.

“I’m outta here,” said a guy who was a big force in the after-school pickup football games. “You up for making a run for it?”

“Nah,” I said. “I’ll see you at the field later, though.”

The field was actually a stretch of grass bordered on one side by the hospital parking lot and on the other by a rather well-trafficked thoroughfare, but no one ever got run over.

Not by a car, anyway.

But those were full-contact contests, filled with epic collisions and more than a few loosened teeth, sprained ankles and bloody noses.

We told our mothers we were only playing touch football, which was a barefaced lie, but what they didn’t know couldn’t hurt them.

I was usually a split end, being tall and rangy and not too slow to work my way open on a skinny post pattern, but that meant unless I scored, pain awaited. So I got used to being upended, knocked backward and otherwise brought to ground level.

And that’s where I saw my first hedge apple or Osage orange.

Actually I felt it before I saw it because I fell right on it, but when I pulled myself up, I examined it. About the size of a grapefruit, it was a yellowish-green thing with a gnarled rind and white stuff oozing from inside.

“What’s this thing?” I asked, showing the offending object to the guys who’d run me down.

“It’s a monkey ball,” said a kid I sort of knew from biology class. “At least that’s what we call it. Hurts when you take one in the ribs, right?”

“A little,” I said, throwing it into the parking lot. “Not too bad.”

As it turned out, monkey balls and I had more contact.

Some Saturday mornings, after I’d mowed the neighbor’s yard, I would fold my hard-earned $5 bill into the pocket of my jeans and walk to the record store, where the new 45s were waiting.

My route took me right through the hospital grounds, and in the late fall and early winter, there would be a dozen or so monkey balls on the driveway leading to the emergency room entrance.

I’d find one that rolled really well and begin kicking it, 15 feet at a time, all the way along the sidewalk that ran downhill toward downtown. The pavement was uneven in places, so I had to be careful not to lose control of my monkey ball, though sometimes one would get away and get squashed by a station wagon or roll into a storm sewer.

Every now and then, I made it or, rather, we made it, the monkey ball and me, and I got a feeling of accomplishment, a fine sense of having seen something fraught with peril through to the end.

Like Dorothy on the Yellow Brick Road.

Or Frodo Baggins in Mordor.

I haven’t seen any horse apples or Osage oranges or monkey balls since I left home at the turn of the century, and I doubt that I will.

But that’s fine.

As Ghosts of Evolution, they’ve survived the millennia being one of the few fruits not eaten by man nor beast, which is rare enough.

Add to that their rolling nature and it’s hard not to be inspired.


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