We had the ultimate toy when we were kids! It cost little or nothing, didn't consume batteries and provided the most fun I could imagine (at the time) all year long. It was the fantastic, amazingly versatile INNER TUBE! No kidding! You probably have no idea what kind of things a kid can do with an inner tube. Well let me tell ya...
In the summer, our inner tubes were my almost daily entertainment. The big truck tubes were the ultimate choice. I have a big brother who could talk me into almost anything back in my gullible-little-sister years, and he'd somehow convince me to curl up inside the tube so he could roll me down the hill that sloped down beyond the edges of our yard. Being unreliable in their ability to stay on the same course you launched it in, the tube would often veer off in an unpredicted direction as it bounced down the hill. As the passenger, it's really difficult to remain coherent of your location and direction when you are in a state of constant somersault. He would aim me toward the swamp, where I'd be guaranteed a soft landing, even if it were wet. But if the tube hit a bump and decided to bounce a little to the left, I'd make a brutal connection with the side of Dad's shop. But hey, the element of danger added to the thrill.
Laying flat on the grass, inner tubes are great bouncers. My sister and I would bounce opposite of each other holding hands across the tube. We'd bounce around and around it. My little goats, who love to climb and play on anything they can (like Grampa's pickup), would join in the fun and jump on the tube with us.
We had a very large Douglas Fir tree in the front yard, and tied a rope up on a thick branch that hung down and was tied around the inner tube. I'd sit in that tube with my feet against the tree and swing around and around it like a tether ball.
My favorite summer fun was down at the lake. Of course, you can lay on a tube to sunbathe, or you can climb on it, jump off in the water or pull it behind a boat. Maybe the manufacturers who sell those expensive "water tubes" got the idea from us! My favorite thing to do was sit across from a friend, lock hands, and get the tube rocking up and down like a teeter-totter, plunging us up and down in the water until we rocked it far enough that when one person went up in the air, the tube would just keep going and flip clear over.
If you decide to skinny-dip, you can go out away from shore where no one can see and the tube makes a nice place to drape your suit while you enjoy the swim. Unless of course a boat goes by and the waves knock your suit off the tube and it sinks to the bottom of the lake, like my friend's did once! OK, at least she thought it did until she was in sufficient hysterics and I was laughing too hard to stay above the surface any more. For fear of drowning, I gave her suit back.
In the winter, there's nothing better on the snow than an inner tube. We lived in the woods on a gentle sloped mountain side. When the snow was just right for packing, we would make a chute starting from way up above the house that came down through the trees, across the driveway, down the hill below the house, past the barn and on down into the woods on the other side. It was a great ride! We just had to make sure the sides of the chute were high enough on the corners to keep from flying over the edge of the track and into a tree. Carrying a tube back up the hill is easy if you hang it on your head and over your back.
We'd often tie it behind the snowcat (our term for snowmobile) on a long rope. One day my brother was driving the snowcat, pulling me and Mark, our friend. We went about a mile up in the woods on an old logging road to a large meadow my family had cleared. Being the crazy brother he is, he wanted to make sure we had the best time possible, so he headed across the meadow at full throttle. When he had the machine going as fast as it could possibly go - I'd guess 70 or 80 mph - he leaned hard and spun the cat around. That of course, sent us spinning around like a yo-yo on the end of a string. I think our speed tripled, the world was a blur as my eyes were sucked back into my head and I could feel my face stretched back like a cartoon from the g-forces. It was a long rope! We spun around him so fast that the pull of the rope flipped the cat over him. I saw him jump up and the snowcat flip over him again. He'd jump up again and it would flip and he'd jump up. Through the blur, I think that happened about 4 times before we slowed down enough to just wrap around the snowcat and not flip it. I didn't fly off the tube with all that centripetal force because as I was holding onto the rope where it was tied around the tube, my hand just wedged down between the tube and the rope. My fingers would have come off before I could have flown off that tube!
We shortened the rope to head back down the mountain. The logging road is winding and there's very little room to swing around the corners. I told my brother the rope was still too long but he said, no, it would be fine - as long as he didn't go too fast. If you knew him like I do, you would know that he can't ever pass up a chance for a thrill - even if it is someone else's! He went flying down the logging road with Mark and I in tow. As if we hadn't had enough excitement for one day, we didn't go far before he flung us around a corner, the tube slammed into a tree, burst, and the two of us flew off in random directions into the woods. Don't worry, we had plenty more tubes stashed in the barn to continue our idea of fun with!
My grandpa's ranch, adjacent to our farm, had a meadow on either side of the ranch house. They both have a good slope to them and make for a great ride on a tube. Especially when the snow gets crusty on top. The smaller meadow is steeper and has no "landing" before the barbed wire fence across the bottom. You had to be able to bale off before the fence, which my brother failed to do one day and took out one of the wires, with himself.
One of my best memories is during the Christmas holiday when all the Aunts and Uncles and cousins were together at the ranch. We had a big tubing party out in the big meadow with 8 inner tubes. They were all placed next to each other and about 6 men - my dad and uncles - laid on the tubes and wrapped their arms around them to hold them together. Then my mom and all the aunts laid down on the men's backs and about 10 of us cousins piled on top of the moms. We roared down the meadow like Niagra Falls. My grampa's dog raced along side of us yapping and biting at the tubes. I suppose he thought we were crazy and was trying to stop it and save our lives. His tooth sunk in one of the tubes and when it popped about 5 or 6 bodies flew off across the meadow while the rest of the pile thundered away.
Now, who said you have to go out and spend hard earned money on plastic toys that break and never last long anyway when we have the best toys a kid could ever ask for laying around in shops and garages for cheap or free? Maybe we played with inner tubes because "necessity is the mother of invention", but I thought we had the ultimate kid's toys!