Friday, July 6, 2012

Summer 1978: A day in the life

I am 11 years old and my brother is 9. We live in an Ohio suburb made up of lower-middle income families where most parents work blue, pink or low-level white-collar jobs. When we roll out of bed in the very late morning, our mom is just returning home from the breakfast shift at a local restaurant. Dad works more conventional hours, so we won't see him until dinnertime.

Mom visits with us briefly before heading off to the bedroom for a long nap. My brother and I scarf down bowls of cereal and decide what we'll do on this hot and sticky day. The windows are thrown open and box fans whir in the doorways. It's cooler outside than in. We pull on shorts, t-shirts, sneakers and steal a pack of my mom's Merit menthols from the kitchen cupboard where she keeps them (right next to Dad's Benson & Hedges, which are nasty), along with a box of Ohio Blue Tip matches. The screen door bangs shut behind us as we run out into the front yard.

Past the driveway, our side yard slopes sharply down lilac-covered banks to a small creek. There's a huge concrete tube under the street that allows the creek to flow from the woods across the street into our backyard, where it joins with another creek that runs behind all the houses on our side of the street. We head down to the cement tube first, to see if any of our friends are already there. They aren't, but someone has written on the inside of the tube with a chunk of drywall. We write our names, mine in big bubble letters. We never walk the full length of the tube to the other side of the street, too freaked at the idea of getting caught in the middle if there's a flash flood, or if the mean kids from the circle street try to corner us.

We scramble up the opposite creek bank into our neighbor's yard, where there is a path leading back into the woods. We follow it across the creek in back, stepping carefully on mossy wet stones, and climb slightly uphill until we get to our forts. These are natural structures formed by the funky growth patterns of wild grapevines. They've grown into hut-like configurations and there are three of them -- one for me, one for my brother, and one for my best friend who lives on the other side of us. My fort is best because it has a swing -- a vine that has looped down from the canopy overhead, then looped back up again. It's plenty strong enough to hold me, but if I try to actually swing on it the whole structure shakes like an earthquake, threatening to come down on me. So it's really more of a seat. My brother's fort has a seat, too -- a vine that has grown up from the ground and then humped back over again to form an upside-down U. My friend has the crappy fort, because she lets us push her around like that.

We decide not to smoke the cigarettes and instead hide them and the matches in my fort under some leaves. Then we walk back down to the creek and follow it until it the woods begin to thin out. That means we're approaching the farmhouse where old Shotgun Annie lives. No one's ever seen her, of course, but she has shot at some kids we know with a pellet gun while they've been fishing for tadpoles in her pond. Word is she shoots salt pellets -- nasty. We spend some time goofing around in the creek, daring each other to walk out into the open so the old lady can get a shot at us. Then we walk back up the creek until we reach our backyard.

We're bored, but we don't want to go inside. Instead, we walk up the street to see if any of our friends are out. No one is, so we keep walking until we get to the sidewalk that leads to the neighborhood elementary school. I went to this school for third and fourth grade, but that was when we lived in another neighborhood and I had to ride the bus. My brother goes there now and gets to walk. He'll be starting 4th grade in the fall, and I'll be starting 7th at the middle school.

We meander up the sidewalk until we get to the chain-link fence that surrounds whatever mysterious external machinery is connected with the school. Furnace? Generator? We don't know. It's hot there, so we keep walking until we get to the school. There are a couple of cars in the parking lot. We walk around the outside of the building, peeking in all the windows, marking out the classrooms we've occupied in the past. The classrooms look weird over the summer, like some kind of school museum with everything in suspended animation.

Eventually, we make our way over to the loading dock. This is where all the supplies for the school are dropped off and stored. Today, we're in luck! They've had a delivery of pop bottles for the machine in the teacher's lounge. The rolling metal gate is halfway open, and absolutely no one is around. I stand guard while my brother darts inside and grabs two bottles of Orange Crush. We hide them under our shirts as we run breathless back to the chained-in machinery, popping the bottle caps off with the aid of the wire fence. We suck down warm, overly sweet pop and feel not at all guilty, just a little scared that we'll get caught. The ground here is littered with bottlecaps. We aren't the only thieves in the neighborhood, and all of our friends will be jealous that we scored today without them.

We walk back down the sidewalk toward home, tossing the empty bottles into the woods along the path, where they clink against other long-ago discards. Halfway between the school and the street where we live, we turn off the sidewalk and climb over a metal guard rail onto the dead-end street below. We walk along the street furtively, counting houses, trying not to be seen, until we reach the house we're looking for.

It doesn't look like anyone's around to yell at us, so we dart through the backyard and into the cover of the trees. A couple more steps and we are at The Cliffs. It's a huge sinkhole, maybe 30 feet deep, big enough around to fit at least six or eight houses. There's no fence around it -- nothing whatsoever to keep people out. It's a favorite hangout because of the danger factor. If you're not brave enough to climb down the rocks to the bottom, you're a wimp. I once saw the toughest kid in school chicken out while halfway down and my friend's brother, who was two years younger, had to help him the rest of the way.

My brother and I walk along the rim, quietly, peering down to see if anyone's already there. It looks deserted so we make our way to the easiest path down, the one that takes a little longer but won't drop you straight onto a huge slab of rock if you misstep. He goes first because while younger and smaller, he is much tougher and braver than me. And I am faster than him -- if he falls, I can run and get help more quickly than he can if our situations are reversed.

We make it down to the bottom and run around giddily for a while, happy to have the whole place to ourselves. It's a little like the fantasy of being locked in the mall overnight. We OWN this place! Woo! After running around like idiots, we start searching out all the hidden places where we know people like to stash stuff. We find an old harmonica, a bunch of bottlecaps, a lighter that's out of fluid, some stained and torn Wacky Pack trading cards. Finally we get hungry and climb back out, running along the dead-end street to the guard rail, hauling ourselves back up onto the sidewalk and then walking down our own street toward home.

Mom is awake, smoking a cigarette and talking on the phone to Grandma. The menthol smell makes me want one, and with a warm glow I remember the pack I have stashed in my fort. If she notices it missing, she doesn't say anything. She fixes us a couple of bologna sandwiches and some chips and Kool-Aid, and we're off again.

By now my friend next door is home, so she tags along with us. She's jealous that we scored pop at the school and wants to see if there's any more. We are dubious as to her ability to come along without all of us getting caught, but work out a plan whereby she will wait at the fence, I'll stand guard and my brother will grab the bottles.

It's so hot that the tar in the pavement under our feet has formed little bubbles. I love the sound they make when I stomp on them so I zigzag all over the road to catch them all, even though I know my mom will have a fit if I track tar into the house.

By the time we reach the school again we're dripping with sweat. To our dismay, the gate to the loading dock has been closed and locked. All the cars are gone from the parking lot. We walk over to the playground and drink from the outdoor drinking fountain as a last resort. The water is warm and metallic and slightly orange in appearance so we sip only as much as we think we'll need to keep from dying of thirst. As we walk back down the sidewalk, the cool shade of the overhanging trees is very welcome. My brother and I dart off into the woods, dodging bees, to produce our discarded bottles as proof that yes we DID TOO get pop today. Look! There's still a little bit in the bottle! That would be dried by now if the bottles were old.

My friend wants to go to The Cliffs but we are hot and cranky and we know we'll have to help her climb out again, so we veto the idea. Back on the street, we decide to chance picking blackberries from the side yard of our across-the-street neighbors, who are universally hated because they have slightly more money and think they're better than the rest of us. We step off the road a couple of houses up the street, keeping to the edge of the woods so we won't be seen. It looks like no one is home, so we pick and scarf berries at a furious rate, taking even the slightly unripe ones so the hated neighbors won't get any at all. We move slightly deeper into the woods and pick mulberries, which are not at all ripe, and eat those until our stomachs hurt.

We cross the street, pass the sour cherry tree in our side yard (even WE won't eat THOSE cherries) and swing down into the tube under the road where the creek runs. We show my friend where we've written our names with drywall, and she adds hers as well. Then we head into the house for more Kool-Aid.

It's too hot to ride bikes, so we decide to walk back to the forts. It's cool and shady here, but the mosquitoes are out and about. We fish out the hidden pack of cigarettes and pass them around, lighting up and waving them about in hopes the smoke will keep the bugs away. We make a show of puffing at them but none of us inhale. The cigarettes make us lightheaded and goofy and we speak in whispers even though we're far from any houses. We stub out the butts in damp loam and cover the evidence with wet leaves, replacing the pack of menthols in its secret hiding place. The afternoon slowly turns to early evening and we nearly doze, me in my grapevine swing, my brother lying on a fallen log, my friend sitting cross-legged on the forest floor with her back against a tree.

We hear my friend's mom calling her for dinner and say our farewells. It's getting dusky and the bugs are out in force, so my brother and I make our way to our backyard. The dog is chained out under the black walnut tree so we play with him for a bit, and then our mom calls us in for supper.

Dad is home, wearing his "home" clothes but still smelling of air conditioning and machine oil and cigarettes and soap. Over dinner he asks us what we've been up to all day and we say, "nothing." After dinner we go out in the front yard, which we're not allowed to leave at this time of the evening, and see if anyone we know walks or rides their bike past our house. My friend comes outside again and gets permission to play in our front yard, and a couple of kids ride by on bikes and agree to join us. We play Kick The Can with a freshly emptied beer can my dad gives us and make tons of noise.

Finally it's dark and our moms call us inside. My brother and I take baths and watch a scant half-hour of TV in our pajamas before being sent off to bed. When we think our parents aren't paying attention, we sneak into each other's rooms and lie there in the dark, talking and acting out elaborate scenarios with our stuffed animals. When Dad tells us for the tenth time to STAY IN OUR OWN ROOMS, and threatens to shut our doors (the horror!) to keep us there, we crawl into our walk-in closets, which back up to one another, and quietly tap Morse code messages to each other through the wall.

Finally, one of us gives the signal that means "I'm tired -- good night" and we crawl into our beds, drifting off to the sounds of TV and crickets.


  1. This is a lovely memory - beautifully written.

    Keep writing!

  2. I loved reading this so much.

  3. This was amazingly beautiful.