I am looking at a 3x5” black and white photograph from about 1976 of five kids engaged in a tug of war. All five children are exerting themselves, leaning backwards, pulling enthusiastically on a rope. There seems to be a hint of hilarity as well as effort in all of the faces. The scene is from the lawn in front of our old farmhouse in Bradford, Vermont. It is summer. In the near background is a tree with a sign that reads “South Road Pottery. Open.” In the far distance there is a spectacular elm tree. Behind the action, an unpaved driveway winds off into the distance and meets with a road.
The ages of these tug of war participants are, approximately: nine, six, seven, four and ten. They were, in order: my brother Benjamin, my sister Eve, my cousin Leslie, my cousin Matthew, and myself.
The other end of the rope is not in the photo, and that is probably just as well, because we did not pull against other kids, we challenged grownups, one at a time. And the adults that we took on ended up in disbelief, astonished when they were pulled relentlessly forward by a group of little kids. As I remember, we defeated my father, my uncle, and even my aunt and father together. We also defeated, separately, Jimmy Perry and Jack Galt, strong carpenters who were working on the house.
I remember my Dad concluding that we had an advantage that you would not expect at first. Even though each of us was pretty small, together we had ten feet. We were like a stubborn caterpillar that moved inexorably backward. And we took the contests seriously: as the eldest, I got anchor position. My brother, who was a year and a half younger but awfully strong for his age, was in the front.
One of the matches (I think it was the last of them) got a quite a buildup over several days. It was with Rocco diFrancesco, a mason (and a pretty big guy) who was working on our foundation. We established that if the kids won they got a prize, a coke, something we rarely were allowed. I don’t remember what would have been Rocco’s prize but I do remember that he was confident and competitive. And that he tried to beat us by letting the rope slack so that we lost balance, and then pulling hard to gain advantage. But he too succumbed. And we enjoyed our triumph in the small glass bottles of the time.
We did not engage in very many tug of wars that summer, but they were great fun. They were the stuff of family legend, and a lesson in the power of collective action.