Everybody who played had to have their own unique soda can — Coke, Pepsi, Ginger Ale, Orange, etc. There could be no duplicates because everyone needed to be able to identify their own can at all times.
(And remember, back in those pre-aluminum days, the cans were a lot heavier and sturdier than they are now. They were heavy enough to toss a good distance, which was a central part of the game, and they endured the rough treatment).
One person was chosen — usually by bucking up — to be the “man in the middle.” He would set his can about a foot from the wall, while the rest of the players took up positions behind a line some 15 feet or so away. The object of the game was to toss your can at the can at the wall and then retrieve it and run back across the line without being tagged by the man in the middle. He could tag you only if you were holding your own can.
The game began by everyone tossing their cans at once or in succession. But once you tossed your can, you had to cross the line and approach your own can, waiting for the chance to retrieve it. Once again, the man in the middle could tag you if you were over the line and if you had your can in your hand. If he tagged you, then you were now the man in the middle.
It sounds simple but the rules made for some interesting strategies. The key was this one particular rule: the can of the man in the middle had to be standing for his tag to be valid. If someone knocked it down while tossing their can — (or kicked it down without being seen) — then everyone could grab their cans and run for the line, while the man in the middle had to re-set his can before he could tag you. With this set up, the players could follow a strategy like this:
Let’s say the first five of six players tossed their cans and then positioned themselves to retrieve them. The man in the middle would be standing away from the cans, in a position to tag anyone who retrieved their cans. The sixth player could then try to aim his toss so that he knocked the middle can down. The others could then pick up their cans and run across the line while the man in the middle ran to set up his own can before he could tag anyone. Alternatively, anyone could kick the middle can over at any time — as long as you were not seen by the man in the middle — but if you were, then you were now the middle man. One strategy would be for someone to try to distract the man in the middle so he was looking away from his can while another player kicked it over. Or everyone could huddle around the middle can, shouting, moving their feet, inching closer until someone kicked it over, hoping that the man in the middle did not see who it was.
I don’t know the origin of this game. There is a variation called “kick the can,” but it is not really similar. Our game of cans was sort of like playing bocce with cans. I’m sure it was played all over back then, while now it is one of those many forgotten games that we played.
I still think about the game of “cans,” especially when I go back to the Slide Park, where I used to play it most often. I even sometimes want to get a few guys together to play it again, though it might not work well with the light aluminum cans. I think it is worth a try. In fact, if anyone wants to have a game when the weather gets warm, let me know.