Summer of Yo Yo

Every seven years or so YO YOs 

make a comeback. However the missing element today is a teacher.

By Frank Greenhalgh

During my early years, I thought that all yo-yos did was go up and down on a string. That was until the spring of 1948. As I left my grammar school one afternoon, I was attracted to a crowd of my peers on a nearby street corner surrounding someone. As I approached, I saw that the surrounded person was performing yo-yo tricks. Not just with the yo-yo going up and down, but with it spinning at the end of its string while all sorts of things were happening around it. The yo-yo was spinning as it went into orbit around the master's hand. It would rock in a cradle of strings or walk like a dog. "Truly amazing", I thought. I stopped to watch the tricks. The yo-yo master eventually stopped the tricks and announced that his name was Rod, and that he had come from Canada to show Americans how to do yo-yo tricks. Rod represented the Cheerio Company. He told us that he would be back the following week and if we had a Cheerio Yo-yo he would help us, show us tricks, and also have a contest with prizes.

I was hooked. That night I bought a yo-yo and a book of yo-yo tricks. I started to practice. Learning to make the yo-yo sleep was itself very difficult. It took hours and hours of practice to learn some of the technique and get it down so it is automatic. I wasn't alone. The following week we were there in number, watching Rod do more tricks, hold a clinic to show us where we were making mistakes with our technique and finally the contest. I was so nervous as we each would be asked to perform some trick. Miss it and you're eliminated. The last remaining kid would be given a Yo-yo or a patch to be sewn on a jacket or shirt stating that you were a "Cheerio Winner". After a few weeks, Rod announced that he would be finished (so would school) and on the last day the final prize would be "The Sweater". Rod wore a sweater that had a patch that said "Cheerio Champion" and he would be giving away a sweater just like it to the winner next week. Wow! What an opportunity this was. I must have practiced yo-yo every waking hour over the next week. When the contest was finally held, I ended up winning. Bob McLeod who really was the better yo-yo player had trouble with his yo-yo and it wouldn't sleep. I must have slept in that sweater the next week.

Now that school was closed I had more time to practice my yo-yo skills. The yo-yos were wood. Two wooden halves held together by a wooden axle. Many times when the string would break, so would the yo-yo as it crashed into a wall or sidewalk. If that didn't happen the constant turning of the string over the wooden axle would form a groove in the axle causing uncertain behavior and rendering the yo-yo useless. My father started to buy yo-yos wholesale, by the dozen in order to keep costs down. I would walk around all day with two yo-yos practicing two handed tricks, trying to perfect tricks such as the "Dog Bite", (yo-yo snags on pants) or putting the yo-yo in your pocket or catching it on the string. Although a relative journeyman I could do a lot of tricks.

Summers meant visiting my relatives in Ohio. My mother and I would take coach seats on the Jeffersonian Limited, which ran from New York to Chicago. After fifteen hours, we would get off in Dayton, Ohio and then on to Piqua, a small town about thirty miles north of Dayton, by car. It was there that I would spend the rest of my vacation. With all my friends back east and none in Piqua, it was easy to spend my time doing yo-yo tricks.

It was good times for all then. The war was over there was plenty of work for the factories in Piqua and the town even had acquired its own radio station (WPTW). I was walking through town doing my yo-yo tricks when the "Man on The Street" interviewed me and tried to describe the tricks I was doing. My uncles took me to the local pubs where I would do yo-yo tricks for free cokes. The people of Piqua had never seen a "sleeper" yo-yo and I was the first player to show it to them. I was a star.

As Andy Wharhol said, "Everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes" , and that summer, I had mine. When 1949 rolled around the yo-yos sat in the drawer while I spent the summer playing basketball, my new love. For years though, I have always owned a yo-yo and occasionally would take it out and do some of the old tricks.

Summer of 99

I noticed recently that yo-yos were making a comeback. Then I got a call from a local friend who is also a librarian. She asked me if I could run a yo-yo workshop for one hour at the library. I agreed. Soon I was surrounded by about twenty, eleven year olds who had brought their yo-yos and wanted to know how to use them. It was then that I realized how lucky I was to have had Rod to teach me. Without a teacher, these kids were lost. They did not have the fundamentals such as which finger to put the string on, how long should the string be, how to throw a sleeper or a "looper". It was a long hour but hopefully we started some kids on the right track.

Since the first workshop at the Amityville library, I have been asked to hold three more at other libraries on Long Island. Each time it was the same. Bad habits picked up due to no proper instruction. I hope I have helped these kids to become more skilled at the yo-yo.

During the classes I have noticed that yo-yos have changed significantly. Today you can spend $150 for one (one kid did). Instead of wooden axles today's speed demons have stainless steel axles which have a Teflon bearing around them. The string is tied to the bearing and it is the bearing that rotates reducing string wear and friction. In the old days, you would set string tension by changing the twist of the string. Today you can adjust it by tightening the yo-yo halves by screwing them closer together.

If you have a kid into yo-yos make sure he or she gets a reasonably good one. They cost about $15. My favorite is called "Da Bomb" and it is excellent for sleeping or looping tricks. Of course the Internet is the place to go for Yo-yos. Try looking at: yoyoplay for Yo-Yos and Yo-Yo information.        

 from there you can find links to all the yo-yo web sites of import, instructional videos are also available to replace Rod.

Frank Greenhalgh
July 26, 1999