In the era before cholesterol was invented and seat belts were an alarmist extravagance, you could simply fling a decommissioned military jet into a playground and let the kiddies have at it.
From 1959 to 1993, a fighter plane graced Larsen Park, lending cachet to the otherwise quotidian Sunset District greenspace, and spawning mass quantities of nostalgia for young San Franciscans. But, between the Eisenhower and Clinton administrations, America changed a bit. And it turned out the Vietnam-era military-industrial plaything resting in the 19th Avenue park was better suited to target Charlies in the jungle than serve as a jungle gym for little Charlie.
"Planes designed to fly military personnel at high speed into combat turned out to have components that were not super safe for kids — like lead and asbestos," says Nano Visser, chair of the Friends of Larsen Park. So, in '93, the graffiti-strewn husk of the F-8 Crusader was unceremoniously carted out of the park. And, for the next 20 years, the playground has, in Visser's words, "been a big kitty-litter box."
And yet, within the next year, Larsen Park could again serve as a landing strip for a jet. But not a jet like the ones of yore. This will be a child-friendly aircraft, and one that meets the approval of an official California Playground Safety Inspector.
Visser's group recently passed the $100,000 fundraising plateau, which figures to cover the fabrication costs of a fiberglass-reinforced concrete jet structure, with climbing nets protruding from its faux afterburners like jetwash. It's part of a $1.2 million revamping of the erstwhile kitty-litter box, and, to the best of anyone's knowledge, this is the city's first Americans With Disabilities Act-accessible concrete jet play structure.
Everyone ought to be happy, save the feral cats. But that's not entirely how things are shaking out. The jet structure will be molded to resemble the venerable F-8 — but, in a nod to the sensitivities of today's San Francisco, will include no overt military logos or features. That's not good enough for the coterie of peaceniks, however, who last year held a protest on 19th Avenue claiming that warplanes are not toys.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Visser says many visitors to her group's Facebook page are grumbling that the future climbing structure isn't more overtly militaristic.
An effort to please everybody looks like it may please nobody — and at great cost. That's a San Francisco special. And yet, things figure to work out fine in this case. Because, in the end, it doesn't matter what the adults think.
The kids are gonna love it.