Family Fun—on a Shoestring


To be precise, it was at 8:40 A.M. on July 28 three summers ago that the energy crunch finally got to me. Until that moment my family had bravely—or perhaps blithely—taken rising fuel prices and rising everything prices in stride. “We have to drive,” I reasoned. “Even if gas goes up to five dollars a gallon, I still have to get to work.”

My wife, Karen, nodded gravely.

Brave words. Gasoline hadn’t even hit one dollar a gallon yet. And the truth is, we were doing a lot more driving than just getting downtown and back. In fact, our life-style hadn’t sacrificed anything at all to the energy shortage, although we had been telling ourselves that removing the decorative lamp from our front yard had been a pretty big conservation measure.

But July 28 rolled around. We were preparing to leave for a fun day at a well-known amusement park—the one with the monstrous roller coaster and what we called the “dipsy-doodle” ride. The station wagon was nearly out of gas, so I decided to drive down and fill it up.

I arrived at the station at 8:36 A.M. to find that it had finally happened:

REGULAR, $1.029

A dollar a gallon! I was stunned. A dollar a gallon in New York was one thing—but right here?

The .9 suddenly irritated me. “Why don’t they just say $1.03!” I thought. The $1.029 made it seem like I was being chopped up an inch at a time.

“What’ll it be?” the attendant asked.

I looked at him blankly for a moment and thought back to the time when my dad had bought gas for 15.9 cents a gallon during a gas war. Suddenly the expenses I could look forward to for this day in July ran through my head: gas, $20.00; parking at the amusement park, $1.5; admission for the whole family at $8.50 a head, $59.50 (suddenly the amusement park didn’t seem all that amusing); hot dogs and junk food, at least another $10.00—that’s something like a hundred dollars! At 8:40 A.M. I made a resolution.

“Two bucks worth,” I said. When I got home and drove straight into the garage, swung down the big door, and propped the wheelbarrow against it, Karen knew right away that something was wrong.

I went over the details with her matter-of-factly, then sighed, “There’s got to be a way for this family to have a great time without spending a hundred dollars.”

“You break it to the kids,” she replied, smiling.

The children were keenly disappointed when they learned that we were not going to the amusement park. But after the initial protests, they settled down sullenly to their usual form of weekend entertainment—the Saturday morning cartoons on TV.

“Aw, c’mon,” I said. “Don’t watch that stuff.”

They switched channels to a game show that in the space of three or four years had gone from innocent to suggestive to downright lewd.

“Come on, guys,” I said. “Turn it off, okay? Let’s go outside—and build something.”

“Build what?” they asked.

I thought for a moment, then said: “We’re going to build our own go-kart.”

They were interested, so I sent them in different directions for parts, and soon a pile of items began to accumulate on the driveway. We had an old reel-type lawnmower with an engine that still worked. To that was added a broken-down wagon minus a tongue, a long two-inch by ten-inch board, a short length of rope, and a can of odd nuts and bolts.

We didn’t waste time. The children dismantled the lawnmower, saving the engine and the pulley assembly. I took the wheels and axles off the wagon. We sawed the two-by-ten to the length we wanted, fitted two cross-members underneath it, and added axles, wheels, and a makeshift seat. A rope tied through holes on each side of the front cross-member provided steering.

Mounting the engine required the help of a genius of a neighbor, who welded one pulley directly to the right rear wheel and adjusted the engine so that the belt would fit. It was strictly a direct-drive arrangement, with much belt slippage—but it worked. We had to push it to get the engine started, and ram something to stop. But with a top speed of about four miles an hour, even the little ones could handle the kart, and driving around and over obstacles in the vacant lot next door became hilarious and harmless fun. The children named our machine the “Whizzer” and applied about two dozen decals to it.

The result of all this was a mob of kids in the vacant lot, all clamoring for a turn on the Whizzer. I ended up siphoning about half of that two dollars worth of gas out of the car so that they could go on riding the go-kart far into the evening. And at bedtime the children were unanimous in declaring that they would much rather ride the Whizzer than the dipsy-doodle.

That was very satisfying. We had invented our own family activity that was a world of fun; we had spent next to nothing doing it; in good conscience we had used a minimum of fossil fuels; and what’s more, dad was a hero.

It occurred to us that we had taken it for granted that what we needed for family fun was a lot of money and the freedom to go a lot of places. But we realized at that point that many great activities cost only a little imagination and a little time.

With that encouragement, we set out to have a lot of fun at home. Right away we found that neighborhood children tended to congregate whenever we started to have a good time, and the empty lot next door became a very busy place.

We tried “kick-soccer baseball” there—the rules being the same as they are for softball, except that there are no bats and the pitcher rolls a soft kickball to the “batter,” who kicks it and runs around the bases. Even the little ones were successful at that when we made the fielders stand back.

Then a neighbor built a kind of backyard obstacle course and drew some of the action his way. The largest obstacle looked like a giant sawhorse with three rows of old tires attached to each side. The children could climb over it on the run, military style. They also threw blankets over it to create an instant “fort,” where they could retreat after staging a battle in their “jungle” (a series of upright posts flanked by a battered swing set).

Not every activity has to involve apparatus or complex planning, though. Something as spontaneous as trying to sail paper plates across the living room into a box can be great fun, too.

The other day when it was raining, one of my boys walked through the kitchen carrying a six-foot length of hose.

“What are you going to do with that?” I said.

“Oh, nothing.”

He ended up using that piece of hose as a trumpet, as a giant pea-shooter, as a limbo stick, and as a siphon hose to drain water from the bathroom sink to the bathtub!

One day a friend and I heard the neighborhood kids complaining that there was nothing to do—that old familiar tune that parents find so incomprehensible on a warm summer day. So we took them down to a creek that trickles by about a block away, and using the kids as laborers we built a dam, piling up cobblestones and packing the holes with mud and twigs. In about two hours we were jumping about in a shallow pool behind our masterpiece, and when it was time to go home we had more fun kicking the dam down and leaving without a trace.

Another day we made stilts. I hadn’t even seen a pair of stilts since I was in grade school, but they were easy to make and so much fun that I was amazed I had forgotten about them. When I was a kid, we used to laugh ourselves weak trying to bump each other down while walking around the backyard on our stilts.

When I was a kid … A person doesn’t have to consider homemade fun for long before the memories of what it was like in the old days come pouring in. And for those who are fortunate enough to have older folks close by, nostalgia frequently becomes a fun reality.

One day grandma and grandpa came to our place for an outdoor barbecue. The children were constantly underfoot, trying to get into the olives and wondering when the hamburgers would be ready. So grandpa took them in hand to show them a game called “Old Sow,” which he used to play when he was a lad.

From the garage they got an assortment of sticks and some small boards for bases. A tin can served as the old sow, and a rock from the garden as the pigpen. The person who was “it” would whack the old sow in an attempt to knock it into the pigpen. The others could try to knock it away, but when anyone left his base, it was up for grabs. When the old sow did hit the pigpen, everyone had to run for the fence and back while “it” knocked the old sow far away and grabbed a base. One player would thus find himself without a base and would then be “it.”

It was a great evening for everyone. The children left the cook in peace, grandpa was the hero, and there were plenty of olives for dad.

Once during a visit to grandpa’s home we went driving in the country, and he took the time to point out and name the many different trees he had known since childhood. We were surprised to find that in our urban setting we had simply lost the vocabulary for trees. He also pointed out the differences in the coloring of horses—something else for which we have lost the vocabulary. Until then we had no idea what a “roan” horse was, or a “bay” or “pinto.”

For us, that was a unique experience. We felt something had been added to our mental horizons that brought us closer to the past, when people seemed to live closer to the earth. And what’s more, it was free.

During that same visit, the children got to help grandma fix breakfast. The featured item was “animal pancakes,” which they made by carefully pouring out the batter in designs of their own creation. When I came to the table, I was served a camel, a deformed elephant (which had started out as a goat), and a strange creature called a “fire-floater” (it looked like a burst balloon and was nearly black). It was fun, even though the breakfast dishes didn’t get washed until noon.

Since that day in July at 8:40 A.M., Karen and I and the family have changed some of our ways. We realize that most of our family entertainment had become money-oriented, ready-made, and expensive. When we did stay home, we usually turned to the television to pass the time mindlessly.

But now that we have begun doing more things at home—together—we realize that in a time when both money and energy need conserving, we can’t in good conscience continue to do the things we were doing and plan the things we were planning. And what’s more, we don’t want to. We’re having too much fun!

More Family Fun—Cheap!

Backyard Botany. Find the scientific names and classifications for every plant and creature in your yard.

Ecret-say Odes-cay. A sure-fire hit with the kids: spend an hour making up secret codes.

Aggies and Cat-eyes. Get mom to join in a game of marbles. Use a circle or play an old-fashioned game of “chase.”

Free Peeks behind the Scenes. Call ahead for a free visit to a farm, dairy, bakery, newspaper or magazine publisher, post office, firehouse, police station, aircraft factory, TV studio, glassmaker, stock exchange, auction, or bank.

Drink Out. Get grandpa to help you install a drinking fountain next to the back door. Kids and mom will love it.

Set a World’s Record. A number of records in the Guiness Book of World Records are quite within reach. Or create a new category and set a brand new record!

Color Me Happy. Try coloring books for the whole family—mom and dad included. Or use butcher paper for a freestyle group creation.

Get to the Root of It. Write your own life, story, or a family history as far back as you can go.

Hollywood at Home. Make a movie, using family and neighbors as cast, directors, and make-up crew. Costs are minimal with a home movie camera.

Organize a Family Reunion. Remember when … ? How long has it been?

Go Fly a Kite. These days, kites come in a stunning variety of designs and colors. Better get one for dad, too!

Let Music Ring. Make exotic musical instruments from odds and ends found in the attic, garage, and workshop.

The Old Mill Stream. A little tinkering can produce a fascinating waterwheel for a brook, ditch, or gutter.

Backyard Games. Remember kick the can, hide and seek, red rover, tag, ante over, keep away, Simon says, fox and geese?

Neighborhood News. Print a fun neighborhood newspaper, complete with news, cartoons, classifieds, and “Dear Blabby.”

Go to Court. An hour or two in a small claims or traffic court will be fascinating, eye-opening, and unforgettable.

Old-Fashioned Reading. Remember when you used to crowd around your mom while she read My Friend Flicka to you?

Go to the Library. Borrow books, records, tapes. (That’s ten or twelve dollars that will stay in your wallet.)

Pot Luck. Game for a feast? Let each family member prepare something in secret. Put it together and see what you get. No cheating!

Pedaling Party. Take a bike tour, either around town or cross-country. Let the kids plan the itinerary.

Let’s Talk about It

After reading “Family Fun—On a Shoestring,” you may wish to discuss some of the following ideas during a family discussion period:

1. What goals do you have as a family? What kinds of activities could best help you meet those goals?

2. Which activities that your family has enjoyed together do you remember best? Why?

3. What were the fun activities mom and dad (or grandma and grandpa) enjoyed with their families when they were small? What kind of play equipment did they have? Could you adapt any for your next activity?

4. Spend fifteen minutes brainstorming as long a list as possible of as many free —or nearly free—activities that you can think of.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Dale Kilbourn