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col 'It' happens -- across playgrounds and through life

By Steve Lange

slange@postbulletin.com

Last night I dreamt I was "it."

And, being a nightmare, it was a world without "touch backs."

In grade school no one wanted to be "it." All it took was a simple touch followed by someone shouting, "You're it!" And then you were.

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Being "it" was so powerful that it could penetrate even the most mighty of elementary-school defenses. Invisible force fields couldn't stop "it." Saying "I know you are but what am I?" didn't do anything. You couldn't even make the other person "'it' plus infinity."

The only way to un-"it" yourself was to touch someone else, followed by those magic words: "You're it."

Sounds simple enough. Except the code of the playground dictates that you chase someone who is going to be difficult for you to catch.

My friend Ian went to the kind of school where this code of the playground was not enforced. His friend Jeff, who is paralyzed from the waist down, claims he was "it" for three-and-a-half years.

Widespread deterioration of this code, incidentally, will be a harbinger to the collapse of our society. The fall of Rome can be traced to a disputed game of Duck Duck Goose.

(Note to lifelong Minnesotans: Duck Duck Goose is the official name of the game, played nationwide if not beyond, in which one child, who's "it," walks around the outside of a circle of children, tapping their heads and christening them as "ducks." When one child is chosen as the "goose," he or she gets up and chases the other around the circle. The purpose of the game is to condition children early that, if they are deemed by others as "goose like" or "different," they should lash out, preferably by running and screaming.

In Minnesota the game is called, I believe, Duck Duck Some Other Duck, which, if you take the time to think about it, is asinine. Geese, like the figurative geese chosen in the game, chase and scare people. And I have seen this firsthand. As a young child, I watched helplessly as two rogue geese at a KOA camp, clearly working in tandem, pulled down my older brother's sweatpants and shorts and were attempting to remove Dave's underpants before a camp ranger intervened.

My brother's now a professional engineer in his late 30s and still, when the story threatened to surface during the last family Christmas, Dave looked at me and shook his head and pointed with a nod toward his oldest son, who was in the room. Dave's still not ready to tell his family about the KOA goose incident. Though his wife, sitting beside him, squeezed his hand and pursed her lips and nodded slightly, so I guessed that, on some lonely night -- maybe as she held his head in her lap and stroked his hair -- he'd revealed all. "Oh god, honey, the webbed feet! The beaks!")

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But as puberty progressed, so too did the version of "it." One day I was avoiding the girls like the flesh-eating virus and the next day I had a poster of Farrah Fawcett taped in my lunch box and I was hiding in my tree fort practicing kissing my pillow.

Ah, the summer of '99.

Eventually, "it" progressed into "kiss tag" and the rules all seemed to change. When Michelle Mickelson used to be "it" I would scurry across the playground with my arms flailing. I would scream and if she followed me I'd jump on the monkey bars and pretend to spit at her.

When we started playing "kiss tag" and Michelle Mickelson would be the kisser it became a different story. I found that I couldn't run so fast. Sometimes I would just stand in the middle of the playground with my lips puckered.

The first time I played kiss tag I was just a filler. My older brother and three of his friends and five girls were playing in our yard, and I was dragged out of the sandbox to even things up.

The game, though, generally revolves around one or two couples who do most of the kissing. Everyone else is simply there for appearance. Being naive in the ways of love, I did not realize this. So when Brenda Bophart was the kisser I decided to make my best fifth-grade moves. Brenda was an eighth grader and she was about a foot taller than me. She was in the flag corps; I was in love.

So when she began running across the yard directly toward my brother I decided it was time to revolutionize kiss tag. I was, at an early age, tired of all the games.

Like everyone else, I ran. Like no one else, I ran directly at Brenda. She had her eyes fixed on my brother and didn't even see me coming. She really had no reason to even be looking for me -- never in the history of kiss tag had a filler attacked a kisser.

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So, with arms and lips outstretched, I met Brenda at a full sprint in the middle of our lawn on a hot and sticky summer day.

My first kiss.

I like to say that Brenda fell head over heels for me. Brenda, I have heard, likes to say that the collision left her with a pin in her wrist which becomes very painful when it rains or even in periods of high humidity.

Some might say talk about how these early life lessons set the stage for later learning, and there's probably an Everything I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten moral here: Sometimes you're "it" and you don't want to be. Sometimes you want nothing more. But you can change that. You just gotta have the touch.

I don't know about that, but I do know this: I've seen a lot of frightening stuff in my time -- comedian Carrot Top (live), doll museums, various made-for-TV movies starring Meredith Baxter Birney -- but those geese tearing at my brother's underpants ... man, that'll stay with me for a long, long while.

Steve Lange is the editor of Rochester Magazine, in which this piece previously appeared. Look for the March issue on newsstands now.

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