Olly, Olly All Come Free

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When I was a boy we played games. We would gather at Mike’s house to decide what the game would be. Mike lived in the middle of the block so it was a centralized location and he had a stone retaining wall in his front yard. The wall was about knee-high, perfect for sitting, and if stood upon it gave you a perfect view of the surrounding area, both up and down the street. This was considered BASE. Everyone was safe at BASE.

The crew who played was a group ranging in age, connected by proximity. We all lived on the same street and because of that, we were expected to play together. Despite this – or because of it, not sure – we all became genuine friends and – for the most part – enjoyed each other’s company. There was Mike, of course, Stephen and Christine (brother and sister), Shannon and Kevin (also brother and sister), Rob, Trisha, Christopher, and myself. I was the youngest.

The games we played were the standard fair: Tag, Capture the Flag, Hide & Seek, etc. Nothing unusual, and to my knowledge we didn’t use any strange rules. I’ve no doubt that if a child were to arrive from a foreign land they would be able to join in without any problems whatsoever. The games we played were universal.

One key component – regardless of the game being played – was the phrase “Olly, Olly all come free.” This was the indication that the game was over, or that the IT person (the antagonist I guess you’d say) had given up and admitted defeat. And everyone could come back. We could start again.

One day we gathered at BASE and decided to play Hide & Seek. After a long process involving repeated sessions of One Potato, Two Potato I was chosen to be IT. I covered my eyes and the crew ran to hide as I counted to the customary 20, slowly with Mississippi between each number, and then – ready or not – there I came.

At first, there was an exhilarating feeling as I searched; the anticipation of finding one of my friends and the squeals of laughter to come as I chased them back to BASE. But that feeling soon dissipated when, as the minutes crawled by, I could not find any of them. I searched all the usual places – around parked cars, the hedge in front of the Clark’s house, the bushes around the apartments at the end of the block – and nowhere could I find a single kid. Up and down the street I looked and looked but I couldn’t find any of the crew. I started to panic.

A feeling of dread replaced anticipation. What if they left me? What if they really didn’t like me? What if this was an elaborate prank and they abandoned me to wander lost and confused up and down, back and forth, searching endlessly for friends that were not there? And never were. My search became more and more frantic, my thoughts more and more crazed and hazy. Old memories of good and happy times now seemed ominous and tainted because I was being tricked, and mocked, my whole life was leading to this moment of cruelty and pain. And I was alone. Truly alone. Unloved and alone.

But then in a last-ditch attempt, I returned to BASE, the place where we were safe and I called out…

“Olly, Olly all come free!”

There was a moment of silence. It was in reality just a moment but in my mind time had stretched, or stopped. That moment lasted for an eternity and the only sound was the sound of my heart beating, loud and fast in my chest. And I waited.

And then they came. All of them, one by one and then in pairs walked toward me standing on the retaining wall with clenched fists and holding back tears. I was teased of course. Chided about how terrible I was at playing the game. I couldn’t find even a single person! What a loser. My hair was mussed, my arm was punched, and I admitted defeat. And then we started again.

I am older now. Many, many decades have passed. I am far away from that old neighborhood, and many friends have come and gone since. And I find myself looking back on those times, that place, that moment that lasted an eternity and I’m not exactly sure why. I guess it’s because I find myself in an uncertain time now, a situation very much of my own making, but one that is unsettled nonetheless.

And I suppose I am longing for that simplicity. Because I knew the rules back then. It was uncomplicated. And even when I was afraid, worried, or alone I knew there was a reset. A way to start over. If only it were still that easy.

Olly, Olly all come free.

Originally published July 18, 2021

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