Paul Batura: A Space Age playground taught me anything was possible in America

Whether you grew up in a city, the suburbs or a small, rural town, every American adult has memories of a childhood playground — that magical, happy place where you spent carefree hours during the early season of your life.

If I close my eyes, I can see the sweeping, leafy expanse of Baldwin Park on Long Island's south shore. It was built in the 1960s, a byproduct of the baby boom and post-World War II suburban living. Well-funded and meticulously maintained, it was one of our town’s golden jewels.

By comparison to today’s gentrified, safety-conscious parks that feature soft rubber mats, plastic equipment and no structure more than a few feet off the ground, the play structures of my childhood were lawsuits-in-waiting.

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There was lots of hard metal bolted onto asphalt and concrete along with sharp, shiny aluminum slides that seemed to heat well above 100 degrees in the hot summer sun. We even had tall pyramids made of brick that we would scale and leap from with wild abandon.

But the pièce de résistance of Baldwin Park had to be the rocket slide, a towering structure located beyond the swings and dizzying whirl that inevitably left a pile of kids in its wake.

To a kid like me, that rocket slide was a thousand feet tall, an imposing four-floor contraption that rose high up into the sky like the Apollo 11 spacecraft that years earlier had taken men to the moon.

I wasn't yet born when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin first set foot on the lunar surface, a defining moment that occurred 50 years ago this coming week. But my parents and siblings never stopped talking about that warm summer night and how they watched in awe and wonder as the walk on the moon it unfolded in grainy black and white television images.

By the time I came along in 1972, there had been four more crewed lunar landings and the awesomeness had become somewhat normalized. But not to me, especially each time I stepped inside that playground rocket and began the long climb to the top.

Symbols are often dismissed for their shallowness, but the presence of that towering space-inspired slide subtly but assuredly reminded me that I lived in a country and at a time when anything was possible.

It wasn’t the only one. Oceanside Pool had its own water version, a two-story red, white and blue rocket slide that sent riders splashing down into the lap lanes.

American culture was space-crazy in the late 1960s and 70s. Fashion, architecture and even children's television programs reflected both the pride and the realization of American potential.

"The Jetsons" animated television show was silly – but you couldn’t watch as a kid and wonder if there was some truth in the zaniness, a foretaste of the future, complete with flying cars and meals at the push of a button.

As we washed dishes each Sunday night after supper, we’d listen to the weekly sermon of Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, the long-time minister of New York City’s Marble Collegiate Church and the author of the classic best-seller, "The Power of Positive Thinking."

I loved his preaching, because he always spoke with such enthusiasm about the future. He also raved about human potential and the importance of reaching for things just beyond your grasp.

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"Shoot for the moon," the late minister once said. "Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars."

That was good advice 50 years ago – and it remains wise counsel today no matter who you are or where you want to go.

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