At Play in the Field of Childhood Memories


Like the tennis balls he once bounced off the roof of his childhood home in Pikesville, Md., Steven Cohen enjoyed tossing out a story.

"When I was a kid," he would tell a group of friends, "we invented this game."

But before he could explain much more, the conversation would usually take off. Tales of childhood games popped up like spitballs from the back of the class. The epic battles. The dares. The strategies. The playing fields that stretched from bedroom hallways to staircases, front stoops and alleyways.

"You could hear everyone get excited," says Cohen, 32. "Maybe I had something. Maybe it was worth discussing."

The idea evolved into "The Games We Played" (Simon & Schuster, $20), a collection of more than two dozen childhood remembrances of writers and celebrities from former President Clinton and bestselling author Jackie Collins to writer George Plimpton and TV weatherman Al Roker.

Published last month, the book is a career departure for Cohen who, after earning a political science degree from Washington University in St. Louis a decade ago, hooked up with the budding presidential campaign of a longshot from Arkansas named Clinton.

The result was a lot of 18-hour workdays on the campaign followed by 21/2 years working in President Clinton's media office and several more years working as deputy communications director for First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton.

The essays cover a lot of ground. For Roker, the assignment triggered memories of growing up in New York, sitting on the front steps and negotiating at length among pals over how to spend a summer day.

Writer David Maraniss remembers losing a precious autographed baseball to Winky, a hungry elephant in a zoo whose cage turned out to be within a fly ball's reach of the field where he was playing.

For Billy Ripken, younger brother of Orioles baseball legend Cal, it was about playing ball with broomsticks and wadded-up tape in the hallways and locker rooms of the minor league parks where their father coached. Even then, he conceded his older brother's talent.

"I would throw that tape ball as hard as I could, always with the same result--over the wall, down the hill and across the street (to find Cal's ball I'd go)," he writes. "For me, tape ball was largely about chasing."

But even more intriguing are the stories of games that sprouted entirely from the imaginations of their players. Take Kid Crusher. Never heard of it? It was very big where novelist Daniel Wallace grew up.

It requires one player (often, his younger sister) to stand on the end of a bed. The second lies down on the other end and rolls like a human steamroller. The standing player jumps to avoid getting crushed. The game keeps going until the standing player is rolled.

The anecdotes speak volumes about their writers. Collins recalls cutting school and vamping her way through London's West End at age 13 in heels and makeup--early research, perhaps, for her future career writing romance novels about trashy Hollywood wives.

Clinton's recollections include tossing acorns at the hubcaps of passing cars, then hiding. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) recalls playing ball in suburban Chicago on a male-dominated street. "I had a lot of interest in playing, because I could play well enough to play with the boys," she writes.

As for Cohen's memories, they never made the cut, even though he played a game called Roof Baseball with best friend Jason Glasser.

"Children have an endless sense of possibility," says Cohen, a married father of an infant daughter. "Kids today live a more scheduled, more structured life, from soccer practice to piano lessons. Maybe it's worth discussing if all that comes at the cost of childhood imagination and creativity."

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