Two of my brothers-in-law, Paul and Jerry, recount with pleasure their boyhoods when days were filled with play in the woods and fields near their Birmingham home. Days filled with plike. As in, “Plike I’m the Lone Ranger and you’re Tonto.” Plike being Southern for “play like.” When you’re 10 years old and you’ve got a fertile, unspoiled imagination, you can be anything you like. If you’re the Lone Ranger, you don’t even need a mask. You plike you’ve got one, and if Tonto raises the issue, you make him ride side-saddle.
I had the same kind of boyhood experience and – like Paul and Jerry – it was a powerful influence on the person I would become. It was the kind of thing, for them and me, that nurtured imagination. When you plike you’re the Lone Ranger, you are no longer a scrawny tow-headed boy, you become a hero of the Wild West. You become not only hero, you become his story. And you lay the groundwork for the imaginative work you’ll need to tackle as an adult.
My grandson Paul will be 2 years old in a couple of weeks, and he’s already heavy into plike. His dad David and I were talking awhile back about Paul’s toys, about how it’s important that he have things that require his imagination to bring them to life. Paul has several wooden toys. By themselves, they don’t sing, dance, talk, or make armored personnel carrier sounds. Instead, Paul has to lay his hands on them, engage his mind, and make them into whatever he wants them to be. Paul’s favorite toys are construction vehicles – we call them “diggies.” And the first verbal phrase he put together was, “Dump it out.” Paul can also tell you where diggie operators go for breakfast: Waffle House.
Paul is following in the footsteps of his parents, who had the same kind of play experience as kids. Our daughters’ favorite dolls when they were growing up were Raggedy Ann and Andy. They didn’t cry, wet their underwear, or say “Mama.” At least not on their own. But when the girls’ imaginations took over – well, they could be the King and Queen of England if that’s what the girls wanted. They also loved Legos, because you could turn them into things of the imagination.
When I walk through the toy section of a superstore, I see shelves full of toys that do things. They do too much. They don’t leave enough to the imagination. They don’t leave room for plike. And if kids aren’t getting in enough plike time when they’re young, how are they going to conjure up the imagination to solve adult problems – like how to save the world from global warming?
I guess I never really grew up, because I’m still heavy into plike. That’s what I do when I write stories – make up stuff and put it down on paper. People ask me where I get my ideas from, and I usually say, “I have no idea.” But that’s not really so. I have a whole storehouse of imagination to draw from, and I started storing stuff in it way back yonder when – like Paul and Jerry – I pliked my way through childhood, and never stopped.