Why We Played Cooties

When I was a kid we played Cooties. By that time, kids had already been playing this game for decades, ever since the 1918 Pandemic.

“Cooties!” we’d yell as we tagged someone on the playground.

And all the rest of recess that person tried to infect the rest of us. But sometimes we’d have mercy on our friends.

Clicking a ball-point pen on their arms, we’d chant, “Circle, circle, dot, dot, now you’ve got your cooties’ shot.”

We were, after all, the first of the Round-Scar Generation, sporting dime-size scars from small-pox vaccinations on our upper left arms. And we had grown up with the fear of small pox and polio and whooping cough, which meant you couldn’t catch your breath.

Cootie GameBut my favorite Cooties game came from a box. With this dice-rolling table-top game, we tried to be the first to build a cootie—on purpose and piece by piece. Our cooties, when built, had heads, antennas, eyes, mouths, and six legs each.

Cooties from WordKids played the earliest version of cooties during the 1918 Pandemic when perhaps a third of the world’s population was infected and children were particularly vulnerable. They played later versions during the last smallpox outbreak in the United States in the late 1940s. And like me, they played it in the 1950s when the polio epidemic put their cousins onto crutches and into iron lungs that kept them breathing.

Kids have always played out their fears. This is why I stabbed my dolls with needles before getting vaccines and why I played No Bears Are Out Tonight, an evening running game that pushed me into the dreaded dark. And this is how the cooties games helped me explore fears of infection that lurked in my mind.

During this coronavirus shutdown, my eight grandchildren have been on my mind. And I’ve decided to send them a new version of Cooties. And in true coronavirus form, I’ll order a set for myself so we can play it together via Zoom.



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