The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

February 22, 2013

Playing Jungle Jim and many other childhood games

By John Blankenship
For The Register-Herald

— When I was growing up, I spent many happy hours with my cousins playing jungle games in the woods.

The densely set poplars and birches standing amid the blackened stumps of an old pine forest provided a perfect setting for our jungle retreats.

At times we sought the long-lost treasures of fabled diamond mines. Often our rowdy routines pitted Tarzan against tomb robbers and poachers.

Jungle Jim became a famed Bwana of jungle movies that captured our imagination on screen every Saturday at the town theater. Jim was portrayed by an aging Johnny Weissmuller who had relinquished his loin cloth and trusty blade in favor of khakis and a hunting rifle. But the exotic episodes were no less thrilling to young audiences.  

Army knives were a premium purchase at the surplus store.

Just about any kind of military insignias, shoulder patches or medals were highly collectible by kids around the country.

Breakfast cereals offered Army and Air Force patches inside the boxes. It became a contest to see who could eat the most of the wheat, corn and rice products — with or without milk.

Trading became the craze of the day. Duplicates were exchanged for patches of a particular branch of the service seemingly hard to get. Stripes from private first class to master sergeant adorned the jackets of collectors.

Daisy “Red Rider” BB guns popped and cracked incessantly throughout the neighborhood. Bottles and cans provided most of the targets. After the sun went down, some of our winged prey included fruit bats. You could shoot an entire pack of BBs at the nocturnal predators and never score a hit. The bats would simply duck out of the way of our whizzing projectiles. After all, didn’t the flying monsters have radar? Or so we thought.

Gigs commonly used for “frogging” came into favor briefly, but soon vanished from the boyhood scene after parents voiced their displeasure about cruelty to amphibians.

Homemade toys were common. Bows and arrows were in vogue. Horseshoe nails were used for arrowheads. Doors and walls of outbuildings suddenly showed perforations from relentless attacks by throngs of budding archers.

But that soon halted after granddad discovered the damage, and he threatened to use a hoe handle on the shooters’ heads.

Building a cabin in the woods was another dream of nearly every youngster.

Many a sapling was felled by hatchet strokes. Make-shift shelters leaked, however, during summer downpours, and they, too, soon faded.

Fishing with a cane pole lasted longer than the fish in some streams, largely because of mine refuse waters. Country streams that once supplied families with daily catches eventually were void of minnows, let alone sizable bass and bluegill.

And yet, fish tales abound about “lunkers” cradled between an angler’s knees after it was brought to the bank to prevent it from escaping back into the water.

School playgrounds, meanwhile, were littered with a hundred circles in the dirt drawn by skillful marble shooters. Boys honed their craft at sticking in the ring with their favorite tall and clearing the mottled glass ornaments.

Cow pastures were alive with aspiring ballplayers, all eager to swing the bat when it came their turn.

Running from daylight till dark was the norm for most kids of the day. Exercise was plentiful, considering that few neighbors lived within hollering distance. Bicycles were the transportation of choice, even if it meant pushing the vehicles uphill when the going got rough. Doubling a friend on the front wasn’t considered dangerous back then, even though many a tumble was recorded on twisted downhill grades.

Today, most of the woodland where we used to play as children has disappeared, swallowed up by homes, businesses and thoroughfares. I wonder whether the children who live there ever want to play jungle games, or if they even lament there’s no place for them.

On the other hand, I doubt that anyone would notice. And if such games are still played by youth, they’re probably only imitations of the real thing, having been replaced by videos, joy sticks and virtual reality.

What a pity.

Top o’ the morning!

— Blankenship is a columnist for The Register-Herald. E-mail: