Story by Sandshoe
We played beamey at “little lunch” which was morning recess and at “big lunch” at midday underneath the raised school rooms on posts. The regular spacing of the posts black with creosote described the width of our courts and shallow grooves that were lines in the concrete floor made by its being laid in squares became serving lines-two equidistant from either side of the position of the central joist beam supporting the floor of the school rooms above. Players stood behind the second line that was the furtherest from the overhead central beam.
The wing of the school consisted of three rooms. The potential underneath it was two beamey courts under each room according to the spacing of the posts ie six games could be played at one time (12 players).
One player of an opposed pair standing at the serving line with a tennis ball in their hand raised their arm and bent their elbow to throw the ball from the level of their shoulder with an expert thrust. The object was to bounce the ball off the central joist beam so the ball returned to the player and could be caught.
If instead of it connecting with the central joist beam it flew off into the court of the player on the other (opposing) side (delineated by the central joist beam), or if the player failed to catch the ball on its return, the ‘turn’ faulted to the opposing player.
Each game was comprised of a set of throws by the player.
First set was ten throws that connected with the beam and full-catch with two hands each time the ball returned to the player as accomplishment of its bouncing off the beam.
Second was ten throws and full-catch with one hand.
Third was ten throws and clap-catch on the ball’s return (catch with two hands). Fourth was ten throws and two claps-catch and so on up to five claps for senior players who might also challenge a champion to execute six and so on.
Each set of ten throws had to be completed and if not were begun again when the ball faulted back to the player who had not accomplished their full set. Each set of ten that was accomplished by a player signalled that the players change sides and the players walked to the other end of the court – swapped ends – before resuming play.
Players held their own creatively, challenged to more complex tasks by each other including catching the ball behind their back and/or throwing the ball under a raised leg and alternate legs. The more experienced the players, yet more complex the challenges issued. The skill of the game included its self regulation that if a player was unable to progress to ten throws and consecutive catches or clap-catches within a reasonable time, they graciously conceded and the ball passed to a new player. The excitement generated keen contenders and audience that grew the longer the champion player held their ground as happens in any sport. The bystanders lined up between the courts in closely packed lines and exclaimed, clapped and jeered. For one set players threw the ball so it bounced off the beam and fell to bounce within the court before it was caught. The ball at the point of being caught had to have had enough spin originally incorporated into its trajectory to fall graciously into position as it lost momentum. The game slowed, but room for error caused a fluster of excitement among bystanders such was the level of skill required that was understood and appreciated.
The area was not uniformly or well lit at the best of times. The inner wall had a series of windows set in it high off the ground, but threw awkward shadow in dark blocks. Sunshine in changing striations cast angles of light into the eyes of the player facing the outer end of the court that was open to a quadrangle of bitumen. The sun’s glare generated a momentary illusion that the ball disappeared when it was thrown at the beam.
I had taken this game for granted until I read as a University student the volume by Iona and Peter Opie, pub.1959, The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren (Oxford University Press).
I recognised school yard games and rhymes I had half-forgotten. Oranges and Lemons as a well known example and its variations recalled our chanting in the school ground the names of these places and bells that in North Queensland in Australia we had little or no familiarity with. Yet, like ducks to water we chanted as if we knew what we were singing about.
Such was our enjoyment in the play we organised ourselves, I had never wondered how we knew the language of rhyme and play. Iona and Peter describe games they had collected from geographically far-flung contributors of knowledge of children’s activity, pastimes and social alliances through which games were reformed, child to child, generation to generation. Children moving to different schools in a neighbourhood took their rhymes to the next, making up variations on original games, but changing words and meanings depending on the interests of the day or the bright spark’s who made up a new joke on a refrain.
The random thought occurred that I might be unlikely to encounter in literature a description of the game of beamey. Might it be eccentric to my hometown and school. Since, I know from canvassing Facebook users on a local interest page that beamey was widely and fiercely played in other schools in the area in the same way we played it at my school, bouncing a ball off a central joist beam under the floorboards of an overhead school room…and dependent on a complex set of rules and challenges.
The Opies’ central thesis as I read it is that children live in a creative playscape (my word, I think) of skill and inventiveness that nevertheless has a common heritage, a childish built-play environment, schoolyard to schoolyard and across seas. Migrants bring their play and other travellers carry it back with variations in a never-ending criss-cross of fertilisation. Parents’ play with their children perpetuates the heritage.
The game of ‘tag’, as another example I can think of, is played the world over that a group of children forms into a circle a child runs around inside until they suddenly swoop to touch one of the children in the circle on the upper arm. A variation of it I played with my friends was the child ran around the outside of the circle. The children in the circle could not second guess who the next person ‘tagged’ would be. In either game, the resultant excitement was a whoop and a mix of exclamations and shouting, “You’re it”. The game is one of empathy and collusion. The collusion is designed to develop group skills and reflex judgment. A variation involves a melee of children darting and confusing in a good humoured manner the person who is ‘it’. The skill is to not get immediately tagged back when tagging.
The wonder of it all is that these games do not degenerate into bad feelings and wounded pride. ‘Tag’ proceeds apace so the huffing and puffing of the individual runners red in their face from exertion, but never anticipating serious harm turns into serious exercise. The attention paid concentration and focus, but particularly preparedness to maintain ‘tag’ and not generate a biff-up is evidence alone of the children’s creative intention. Readers will recall a host of variations of this simple game.
Although as far as I am aware entirely organised by children for children, beamey may be different in that it is shaped by the built environment itself, which is its limiter.