A few days ago I relived a very special memory from more than thirty years ago.
Despite a completely reasonable fear of heights, I climbed to the top of a thirty-foot metal playground rocket ship, and held on as it swayed ever so slightly in the strong wind. It’s a different rocket ship than the one I played on as a child, but it’s very similar. The nostalgia was so strong I felt like my heart would burst open and fly up, just like the rocket ship I’d climbed.
Some of my earliest memories are from the park in my LA neighborhood, where the playground rocket ship pointed high into the sky, sunshine glinting off its metal. We have photos of our family at the park when my sister is a newborn and I had just turned two. I remember my babysitter taking me to the park in a blue mesh umbrella stroller when I was no more than three. I took ballet lessons at the Park/Rec Center, and attended summer camp and school parties there. Birthdays. Picnics. We played there every week for almost a decade. It had everything: soaring pine trees, shade, sun, play equipment, basketball hoops, trees good for climbing…
When the rocket ship was taken down I was a young teen, past the age where the park was my regular hangout. I was surprised when they took it down and replaced all the 1960s metal play equipment with the newer plastic type. But by then I was too busy reading teen magazines to mourn the disappearance of part of my childhood. It was when I became a parent that I started to miss that old school equipment. Granted, our rocket ship did sway noticeably. Clearly, it wasn’t safe anymore, or up to code. The trend in the 80s was to build new playgrounds. Nostalgia for the original equipment wasn’t there, yet.
After this week’s visit to the rocket ship, I poked around online, looking for more information about this former park staple. Apparently, many parks across the US had a rocket ship slide in the 1960s. The Space Age was booming and this passion for space travel translated to design elements in cars, architecture, toys and playgrounds. There are plenty of stories online about rocket ship slides being removed from parks, one by one, as they aged, as safety codes changed, and as trends evolved.
Only a few of these original rocket ship slides remain. One of the final few dates from 1960 and is at Los Arboles Park in Torrance, CA, the one I visited this week. Like other rocket ship slides at other parks, it too was slated for removal in the late 1990s. But once word of the upcoming change got around, the community spoke up and urged that the rocket ship be retrofitted rather than be retired. And so it was.
I love design from the 50s and 60s—in cars, in architecture, in textiles, in funky wallpaper and shelf paper. So my nostalgia for the rocket ship slide is partly due to the actual look of it, and partly due to the childhood memories it evokes—the warm days at the park, the innocence of childhood…
Here’s an ad I found online, the kind that equipment companies sent parks. This model shows a spiral staircase inside, which is how our rocket ship was. Most had ladders going from one level to the next. The text is hard to read but I think its copyright date is 1960 or 1965.
Knowing that the Los Arboles rocket ship was saved is also meaningful in another way. It’s a reminder that sometimes a community has a lot of influence over which pieces of the past are preserved. Not everything can be left untouched—and I get that. But so much of Southern California has changed since I was a child. So being able to climb up a metal rocket ship like the one I played on long ago is more nostalgic for me than visiting a new park. Newer equipment is good, too, but physical reminders of my childhood are part of my soul.
Every child should have a neighborhood park. Play is important. Moving, climbing, laughing, reaching, running…Parks are good for the body but also the spirit. Thanks for the memories this week, rocket ship. We may not have left Earth, but you took me on an unforgettable journey…