Friday, June 1, 2012
When I was a kid, a guy could wander. A fresh summer morning, any day of the week, a fellow could open his door, walk outside, and just go. As long as you were back “come dark.” The folks never worried. Dad had a job five out of seven, but he wouldn’t have worried even if he had been unemployed like Timmy Sloman’s dad. I think parents were made of tougher stuff in those days. They had grit.
There had never been a “check-in” policy with our parents; just the generally understood, “Be home come dark.” My friend Derrick and I had heard rumors of a kid on the next block whose parents had him check-in every hour. We shuddered to think of the humiliation. That kid was sure to never have friends. Because of that knowledge, we stuck pretty close to the “home come dark policy.” We knew that worried parents sometimes behaved irrationally, some to the point of instituting check-in policies. That was a fate too horrible to chance.
There weren’t any “bad people” back then; at least none that we knew of. Oh sure, the teenagers use to chase us and pound on us a bit. Once they even tied Derrick up and left him in the woods overnight. Luckily his parents didn’t find out, because they thought he was staying the night at my house. The big kids were just having fun though, and Derrick did sort of deserve it. He and Willy Slick had snuck into Willy’s brother, Sylvester’s, bathroom and poured melted Vaseline into his shampoo. I’d have been mad too if I was forever stuck with the nickname “Slick Slick.” It was too bad Sylvester was one of the “big kids.”
It’s not like they were “bad people.” The phase of the big kids terrorizing us didn’t last for long though. About the same time they all started smoking out in the woods, they got nicer. Well, maybe not nicer, but they stopped chasing and pounding on us. They just seemed sleepier most of the time; hungrier too.
I overheard my parents saying once that those teenagers should stop smoking those funny cigarettes. I was mighty worried that someone really might make them stop. I was sure if that happened, the chasings and the poundings would begin again. Derrick was of the same opinion.
One August Sunday when we were eight, just after returning home from church, Derrick and I overheard the older kids talking about this awesome waterfall where some guy had fallen and broken his back. We were really disappointed later when we found out the guy with the broken back wasn’t there anymore. I guess we thought they’d just keep him there like the old cannon at
; a living statue. The least they could have done was put up a
bronze one. After all, this was
history. It would have been a whole lot
cooler than a rusty old cannon that they don’t even shoot off anymore. What’s the fun in that? The waterfall was cool though. Cannon
We followed the big kids all the way to the waterfall, being very sneaky and careful so they wouldn’t know we were there. We didn’t want them to “shake us off their trail” like the bad guys always tried to do in the TV westerns when they were headed for a hide-out, or a lost gold mine.
We crept along through the woods behind the big kids after they had turned off the road. The trail wound through a sea of salal and ferns under the dark green canopy of conifer branches. Not far into the woods, the trail began to mirror the twists and turns of a stream that had carved a trench into the forest floor.
Derrick and I hopped down into the stream bed, so as to be more stealthy trackers of our quarry. As we splashed through the shallows, clanked over piles of rock and did the eight-year-old version of cursing, from tripping over branches, we approached our unwary foes. From our hidden position near to the big kids, we could hear their quiet conversation, though it was a little too low to understand. Then one voice raised above the others, “Boy, I think I’m ready to head home. If there were any little kids around they might want to follow, so they wouldn’t lose their way home.” I thought it was weird the way big kids couldn’t help being loud sometimes.
“Yeah, I think I’m ready to head home too,” said another voice. “You’re right though. A little kid wouldn’t want to forget how to get home.”
I silently agreed with the second talker. It was a good thing there weren’t any little kids around; at least none I could see.
“Yep,” the second voice said again, “a little kid sure wouldn’t want to be out here come dark.”
COME DARK! The words screetched through my brain like a metal leafrake on a chalkboard. Derrick and I both stared wide eyed at each other. Besides the obvious reasons for not being caught out COME DARK, reasons known by every adventurer that valued his soul and skin, there was the possibility that our parents might decide that they needed to institute a check-in during the day; maybe even two or three times. We couldn’t risk it.
At the sound of the big kids trudging back through the forest toward the road, we began to scramble to the top of the gully where we had been concealed. Just short of the brink the sandy clay mixture that made up the wall crumbled and deposited us back in the stream. Derrick pointed out that it was a good thing we had landed in the water because it had help wash some of the red clay out of our white Sunday school shirts, which we had still been wearing when we set out on the waterfall adventure.
After several minutes of the same repeated failures, we finally made it to the trail. We turned in the direction the big kids had headed and we started to follow. We couldn’t see them, but luckily big kids are easy to track, by sound and smell if for no other reasons.
Suddenly, Derrick froze. “We ain’t,” Derrick said and then flinched violently. His mom was an English teacher and I often saw that reaction out of him following a grammatical faux pas. “We haven’t seen the falls yet,“ he corrected.
“Yeah. That would be embarrassing.”
“Yeah.” We both turned and headed down the path in the opposite direction of home. Somewhere ahead we knew that we would find monstrous torrents of water thundering down with rock crushing, and back breaking force, to the boulders below.
It didn’t take us long to find the falls. The trail ended abruptly at a cliff. To the right of us, the stream that we had been following leapt out of V-shaped gouge in the top of the cliff. From there, it fanned out slightly as it curved earthward, then accelerated downward until crashing into a small pool, fifty feet below us.
Next, we did what every boy between the ages of 5 and 80 would have done. We started throwing stuff. Everything that was not nailed down got thrown. Happily, we were in the woods and nothing was nailed down. Rocks, sticks, small plants and old beer cans sailed over the brink in a seemingly endless stream.
We watched, time after time as the debris we threw leapt out, (fanned out if composed of loose materials) and headed earthward, crashing to the bottom of the chasm. After an indeterminable time, Derrick and I noticed that the stuff thrown mimicked the waterfall in the way it leapt, curved, accelerated and the crashed. This was the beginning of our road to understanding physics. At that tender age we were touched with insight into the way the universe worked. Derrick said it best after using both hands to uproot a large fern and throw it into the chasm, using a modified hammer-throw style.
“Cool. Did you see that?”
Later in life it turned out that our first physics lesson really took with Derrick. He is now working with a highly respected engineering firm and has several clusters of letters after his name. I, being the brighter of the two of us, have not yet decided what I want to be, if I ever grow up.
Eventually, the thrill of throwing stuff took a break. Any boy, of any age, will tell you that it never really goes away. During that break we decided that the real fun would be to go down in the canyon, which had been washed out by years and years of that stream racing downhill toward the sea. Well not really the sea, but the lake.
It took Derrick and I surprisingly little time to get to the bottom of the ravine. We would have been down sooner if it hadn’t taken several minutes to find a good overhang in the bank, on which to ride down. When we reached the bottom and looked up we were very disappointed to see that there weren’t any other overhangs on which we could repeat our tumbling method of decent.
We quickly got over our disappointment when we realized that we had landed in the pool of water, thereby rewashing our Sunday school shirts. Even better, we found that standing under the cascading waters of the falls further cleaned the fabric. Derrick was slightly dismayed when the force of the water tore the pocket from the front of his shirt, but recovered quickly when he realized how extraordinarily clean the pocket had become. He was sure his mom would be impressed.
For quite a while, we splashed in the pool, threw red clay mud balls at each other (requiring further dunkings in the pool) and found what we were sure were flecks of gold mixed in with the mud. This discovery of treasure finally headed us in the direction of home, because my dad had a gold pan, somewhere in our garage. I knew how to use it because I had once seen how it was done on an episode of Alias, Smith and Jones.
Surprisingly, our mothers were not impressed that we had washed our cloths. I just can’t figure out mothers. I couldn’t then and I can’t today. Derrick pulled out the shirt pocket remnant, which he had carefully folded and tucked away in his front pants pocket. He just kept holding it up to his mom. The look on his face said, “If you’ll just look closer, I’m sure you’ll see how marvelous this is.” She never looked close enough to be amazed.
The upside was that we were home “come dark,” and no mention was made of having check-ins.
My first experience with actually being caught out “come dark” was when I was four. My sister says it was because I was too gullible. I know that it was because I was blessed with an incredible imagination. I heard my dad once suggesting to my uncle that it might be something on the opposite end of the intellectual spectrum, whatever that meant.
One afternoon my sister and her friend were eating some red licorice. “Hey where did you get that,” I demanded sweetly. I had been practicing demanding sweetly,” and thought I was getting pretty good at it.
“From the licorice tree,” my sister said with a smile. I should have known something was up right then. My sister never smiled.
“Oh, I can’t tell you. It’s a secret.”
“Please…please…please!!!” It made me feel kind of soiled to say please to my sister; like I needed a bath. How often does a guy feel like that? I figured saying please at this point was for a good cause though.
“Well, let me check with my colleague.”
“Just a second,” she said, and then she leaned over and whispered something to her friend. Then she turned back to me. “We’ll take you to the tree, but you have to be blind folded.”
“No way! Never”
“Then we won’t take you.”
My sister ran into the house and emerged with a wad of cloth. “Turn around.” she said. Then she wrapped a strip of cloth over my eyes and around the back of my head where she tied it, with several clumps of my hair, into a knot.
“Hey, what’s that?” I said about the sack that was then yanked down over my head.
“A pillow case.” My sister replied. I could hear her dumb friend snickering off to my left. Not being satisfied with just a blindfold, my sister had put a pillow case over my head. That really bugged me because it was her pillow case, which probably had cooties. Also, I had been able to see pretty well around just blindfold by itself.
“How much farther is it?” I asked
“We have to go quite a ways just to get to the turtle.”
“Turtle. What turtle? I thought we were going to a tree.”
“We have to have the turtle carry us over the lake.”
Lake. What lake?
I want to go home.” I said.
“Never mind. When do we get to the turtle?” We had to walk a long way to get to the lake.
“Okay, we’re at the lake now. Step right where I take you, because if your feet splash it will scare off the turtle and we won’t be able to get a ride.”
“That turtle is a scaredy cat.”
“Shhh. You’ll hurt his feelings. Stop here. Now keep moving your feet so the turtle knows we’re here. If he can’t feel us walking, he won’t know we’re here and he’ll swim under water. You don’t want to go under water with a pillow case over your head do you?”
“How fast do I move my feet? Is this right? Should I go faster? Do you think this is too fast??????” I was happy it was a short turtle ride. It sure was a smooth ride and it’s back felt as sturdy as walking on solid ground.
After a quite a bit more walking, we finally arrived. The girls took off my blind fold and I looked up. I was really disappointed. “That’s not a licorice tree. It’s a cedar, just like the one in our back yard.”
“No really,” my sister said. “Licorice trees are a kind of cedar tree. I’ll prove it. You wait here and we’ll climb up and throw some licorice down to you.”
Soon, licorice started dropping down all around me. “Here you go. Here’s another.” It was good too. Apparently, licorice is warm when you pick it off a tree, almost as warm as if it had been in someone’s pocket for an hour of walking.
“I’m coming up too,” I called. There was a pause.
“No don’t bother. That was the last piece.”
I scrambled up anyway. I was sure she was lying. After getting up in the tree I could see she was right. They had picked them all.
“When will it grow more?”
“Well, its magic. After dark they grow again. If you clean my room for me, I’ll bring you back tomorrow for more, but you’ll have to wear the blindfold again.”
Just as I was about to agree, I noticed a house through the trees, and a swing set, and bicycle. And I knew whose bike that was. It was Chris Jameson’s. I realized that they had tricked me, that it had been a sham.
“Hey, I know where we are. You liar. That’s Chris’ house right there.” That darn licorice tree was hardly more than a block from home. That’s when I had realized that dumb turtle hadn’t even gone across the lake. I yelled some stuff at my sister that the big kids in the neighborhood sometimes yelled at me. I didn’t know what it meant, but my sister seemed to and it must have been bad.
She climbed down out of the tree with her friend, and then yelled for me to come down too.
“No. Now I know where we are and I’m going to stay up until this tree grows more licorice. It’s already starting to get dark. I’ll come home after that.”
“We made up the stuff about the licorice tree. There isn’t going to be any more.” My sister called.
Well, since I had just caught her in one really big lie about a turtle, I wasn’t going to believe that story, and I told her so. She yelled for a while, and finally gave up and stomped off.
Before long, I noticed that “come dark” had arrived, and I was caught out in it. I kept waiting for the licorice, but it never arrived.
Well into the night, my parents and my sister arrived. Apparently, they had forced a confession out of her. Later, I began to suspect that the confession had been concerning the whereabouts of a missing pillow case, and finding me had just been a byproduct of the pillowcase search.
Luckily, my parents blamed the “getting caught out come dark incident,” on my sister and there were no talks about instituting a check-in policy for me.
When I was nine I had my next, “caught out come dark incident.” I blamed that one on the big kids.
By that time, the big kids had already begun smoking their funny cigarettes and had decided they needed a more private place to smoke them. Privacy to a kid is spelled f-o-r-t. They decided, with surprising wisdom, not to build a tree fort that they could fall out of. The alternative being an underground fort.
Derrick and I stumbled across the fort one day as we were exploring the woods. It was a good thing we didn’t actually stumble into it though because it was deep; really deep.
The first stage of the big kid’s fort, the hole, was the first thing we had ever seen the big kids do that we considered cool. They had dug a square hole, with straight up and down sides. It was as long and wide as my room at home and deeper than my room was tall. It was awesome.
“Wow,” Derrick said turning to me “It’s furnished.” He pointed back down to a couch that had been dropped into the pit, and pushed up against one flat sandy wall.
Next to the pit, there was a pile of lumber that the big kids had stolen from a construction site. They were obviously going to put a roof on their fort. They just hadn’t gotten around to it yet. There wasn’t a ladder, but after searching around we found some rope. We tied one end to a tree, using a good sturdy knot Derrick had learned from his cousin, and we climbed in.
There were some sticks on the floor of the pit which we used to carve our names and little shelves and tunnels in the sandy walls. We were very surprised later to find out that the big kids didn’t consider these to be improvements. After that attempt at interior design, the chasings and poundings resumed again for a while.
Shortly after getting tired of improving the fort for the big kids, and then deciding we needed to make a fort like it for our own, we noticed that it was starting to get dark. Shortly after that, we noticed that what we had thought was a good sturdy knot, wasn’t. I had grabbed the rope with both hands and hopped my feet several feet up the dirt wall when I heard the sounds of “swish” and “kerpow,” just like Indian Jones’ whip would have made. Then I noticed that the rope was no longer holding me up. Derrick said the sound I made when I landed was really funny. I don’t seem to remember that. I just remember the sense of doom, and a bit of pain.
Wide-eyed, open-mouthed and unusually quite, Derrick and I gazed up at a darkening square of sky above us. Derrick flopped down on the, until now ignored, couch that the big kids had lowered down into their fort. He unflopped even quicker when two rats ran out from underneath it. I thought the rats were monumentally cool, until I realized that I was likely to be spending a long dark night with them.
After several minutes of scurrying and squeaking, Derrick and I were able to calm ourselves down. During that time the rats had thoughtfully disappeared back under the couch. I didn’t have any faith that they would stay there once the darkness had completely arrived.
Derrick and I spent the few remaining minutes of light digging and scraping holes in the walls that we hoped would serve as a ladder to climb out. We soon realized that dirt that was really good for digging deep holes in, carving names in and scraping shelves into is not the kinds of soil that supports the weight of a nine year old boy.
Just as we were coming to the realization that we were about to be caught out “come dark,” we snatched up sticks to protect ourselves. I didn’t say anything to Derrick, but I was pretty sure that sticks the size of pencils which had been perfect for carving names in hard sandy walls were probably not going to be perfect for protecting little boys from monsters. I kept that little tidbit to myself. I figured that when the creatures of the night attacked I’d yell, “Get em’ Derrick.” While they were chewing him up, I would hopefully figure another way out.
Knowing it was going to be a long night we did what we could to increase the likelihood that we would be able to get some sleep. We screamed for help and scrabbled frantically at the walls until we dropped, exhausted, to the ground.
Through the night we could occasionally hear the scurrying, sniffing sounds of the rats. That wasn’t so bad. What really bothered us was the sound of the mummies, vampires, and werewolves that circled above us all night long. We could hear them shuffling along, just out of view. Occasionally, we would hear them sniff; testing the air for the scent of little boys to devour. The only thing that kept those villains at bay was the sound of our war cries. These war cries sounded remarkably like whimpering, sniveling and crying.
The next morning we were found by the big kids. After hauling us out of the pit, they proceeded to chase and pound us for a while. We didn’t mind. It was a small price to pay for our rescue. We then ran home embraced our parents and begged them to institute a check-in policy. Twice, maybe even three times, a day sounded pretty good.