2022 Issue  >  Prose  >  Small Town Memories 'Point' to a Simpler Time

So Carefree.jpg
"So Carefree" by Jeff Weiland

Small Town Memories 'Point' to a Simpler Time

Mark Dahlke

A group of kids hurried down a darkened alley, their heads covered by hoods. They ran behind a single beam of light that danced from the broken pavement beneath their feet to the back walls of old, brick buildings.

 

The group fled toward an unknown hiding place, pausing only long enough to scrawl a mark on a sidewalk, tree, signpost, or on the side of some structure.

 

Another group followed, but from several blocks behind. They carried flashlights and pursued the first group in a deliberate and cautious manner, like hunters stalking prey. They spoke in hushed voices and searched for the subtle signs left behind.

 

This was all part of a simple game with a simple name played in a simpler time; we called it Point the Chalk. The game rose out of the ashes of boredom and desperation in our small village of Wonewoc.

 

Or did it?

 

The game wasn’t complicated or flashy. Rather, Point the Chalk reflected the ideals of the people who inhabited the village in which it was played: practical, straightforward, and friendly. And as with most things in town, everyone felt welcome. Likewise, any kid was welcome to join in a game of Point the Chalk.

 

All that the game required was a flashlight, chalk (which may have been pilfered from the blackboard tray at school), and darkness. The rules were few: leave adequate arrows, wait the agreed upon time before pursuing, and stay within the village limits.

 

With a premise much like “Hide and Seek,” one team got a head start and “pointed” their route with chalked arrows. The second team waited and then followed arrows left by the “Chalkers.” The routes often led through backyards, streets, alleys, and abandoned buildings.

 

Eventually, the last mark, drawn with a circle with four arrows pointed in each direction on a compass, signaled that it was the end of the chase and the Chalkers were hiding somewhere in the vicinity. Then, the goal was to see which team could scare the other first.

 

The communication network to organize a game for an evening was primitive by today’s standards, but we considered it quite sophisticated. The planning included note passing during school and navigating the party line phone system. Despite these obstacles, word spread quickly that a game of Point the Chalk was on for that night.

 

Although our small village probably did not qualify to have a South and North town, there was an arbitrary line bisecting the long, narrow village. Therefore, all we had to know was the end of town where the game would commence. Then, we’d  meet under the designated streetlight at the prescribed time.

 

Because these were simpler times, parents were more willing to let their children run around after dark, and townspeople tended not to panic at the sound of kids running through their yards, or mind chalk marks on their property. It also helped having a local constabulary who did not assume kids roaming the streets after dark meant trouble.

 

The allure for Point the Chalk was embedded in the excitement that came from the chase and the art of evasion. Yet, it would be disingenuous not to mention the strong attraction to social interaction that came with playing the game.

 

There were certainly times when hearts fluttered at the sight of a particular boy or girl who happened to show up under the streetlight. The idea of ending up on the same team with a certain person could make the game extra exciting.

 

While Point the Chalk may have offered a few opportunities for a “first kiss,” these were rare occurrences. It was more likely that maybe, just maybe, you got to hold hands with someone…a brief, stolen moment in the darker corners of the game.

 

I always believed that some Wonewoc youths, who predated me, put their creative imaginations to work and invented Point the Chalk. Alas, I recently discovered that, in fact, we were not the mothers of its invention.

 

Thanks to a Wonewoc Facebook page, a former resident and player told me that his father told him about a game called “Chalk the Rabbit.” According to the Dictionary of American Regional English, an 1899 newspaper from Kansas claimed, “Those symbols we see on the sidewalks every morning are put there by the school boys in their game of “chalk the rabbit.” There are several other notations about the game throughout the 1900’s in Midwest newspapers, including a full explanation of the game from the Des Moines Register in 1976.

 

So, my romanticized vision that Point the Chalk originated in my sleepy village was shattered. Yet, this fact does not diminish the fond memories tucked away in the minds of many current and former residents who played the game sometime over the last five decades.

 

My own children played it with their cousins when visiting Grandpa and Grandpa back in the 1990’s.  One current resident told me that her kids still play today. This fact alone should give us all hope for the future of our nation.

 

Memories like Point the Chalk meander through my mind like the waters of the Baraboo River that weaves its way in and out of Wonewoc. And, for those of you who grew up in a small town, I’m sure that you have your own memories, too–maybe even of inventing a game.

Mark Dahlke is a retired school counselor from Mauston, WI. A freelance writer, Dahlke's featured articles appeared monthly in South Wisconsin Central Newspapers in the Dells, Portage, Baraboo, Sauk, Mauston, and Reedsburg. During his retirement years, he enjoys fishing, bow and morel hunting, making maple syrup, and spending time with his family, including his wife of 41 years and his four-year-old grandson.

Jeff Weiland graduated from UW-Platteville Baraboo Sauk County in the 1980's and has always enjoyed photography.