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Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Despite its faults, play structure still near and dear to local hearts

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

With patina etched by oxidation, and fueled by 40 years of days and nights of central Indiana weather, the so-called "Cowboy and Chinaman" playground structure at Greencastle's Robe-Ann Park had seen its better days.

Rusty in places, politically incorrect in others and just plain unsafe the way kids' activities are monitored today, the metal structure came tumbling down Tuesday morning on the southeast side of the park.

Camera in hand and fresh from having shot a donation photo across Tennessee Street at the Putnam County Emergency Food Pantry, I happened upon Park Maintenance Director Ed Neumann and two helpers, David Wells and Chris Sage, taking the play structure down (see photo, Page 1A).

With Wells and Sage first digging up the base of the smiling Cowboy portion of the structure, Neumann helped them push it over. They repeated the technique on the Chinaman (pardon my colloquialism) section of the playground equipment within a few moments.

Although the politically incorrect use of "The Chinaman" that has persisted sounds somewhat crass, there is obviously an oriental face painted on one figure, who is certainly wearing what appears to be a conical coolie laborer hat.

The other, meanwhile, has a smiling face in a cowboy hat. No mistaking that.

"'The Cowboy and the Chinaman,' that's what I've always heard them called," Neumann agreed, noting that his father Jim was the Greencastle park superintendent when the structure was erected, probably sometime in the early 1970s.

Back then you could get away with saying "Chinaman" -- or worse.

The structure was then part of three pieces of playground equipment, which if memory serves, were donated to the city by IBM Corp. A swing set and merry-go-round east and south of shelterhouse No. 2 were also included. They are long gone, also victims of wear and tear and tougher safety standards.

While swing sets are still playground staples, they now come with a bark/mulch or rubber softer landing area (instead of the gravel or asphalt of our apparently misguided youth).

Merry-go-rounds? They're another thing.

You'd have about as much luck finding a cigarette machine on a playground as you would a merry-go-round these days.

Neumann shook his head just thinking about the presence of a merry-go-round in 2011.

Meanwhile, it didn't take long for word of the removal to make the rounds.

Before the mud even had a chance to dry on the rusty supports, text messages and emails were coming in to us at the Banner Graphic.

"They're tearing out the Cowboy and Chinaman monkey bars at the park," read the first response from a 30-ish local native.

"My childhood is gone!" came another.

"I'm about to cry," another text read. "I might steal them!"

OK, let's not go to extremes just yet. Obviously, the demise of the old park playground equipment touched a nerve and jangled a few memory banks.

But before you start thinking the structure is headed for some ignominious end in a metal scrap heap, think again.

The horizontal ladder-like area between the two figures was removed first, leaving the two separated figures. And there is method to that madness, Neumann assured.

"We're thinking of putting them back up in a different way," he said. "Somewhere else in the park as a sort of sculpture."

Like two giant metal Rock 'em, Sock 'em Robots?

What a great idea!