99. Where the Wild Things Were

Back in the day of my childhood there were woods that no one laid claim to, at least we kids did not know the owners. And our parents did not either. Across the street behind the Bashams’ house was an open field big enough for a mini-baseball diamond. I have a vague memory of a chain link backstop… long before people bothered to fence their yards. There’s priority for you. Then the land sloped down steeply into a little creekbed that was a flowing creek most months of the year. We mongrel kids lived there in that patch of woods, all of ten acres maybe. We claimed that patch like the stream that ran through it most of the year, because we were pirates we were. Aye, matie.

It was cool in the summer and a wonderful place for forts made of branches and leaves in the fall. In the winter we would track animals in the snow and break the ice on the creek’s surface with our black buckled overboots. It was just enough, I believe, to create a sense of wonder and wildness in the heart of suburbia in the 1960’s. We’d hunt for lizards and snakes and turtles. We caught birds and a possum once. In the creek we’d catch salamanders and crayfish and frogs. Without a bit of sense or caution, we had rock and stick fights, and in the winter snowball fights fit for a television documentary on disturbed youth. A lot of wild things happened in those empty unsupervised woods.

We played with matches, of course, and hid things there. Once we found a big stash of someone’s pornography buried in the leaves. I’ll never forget Varushka, the German Amazon woman in African furs strategically placed on her lithe body. That was visually intoxicating to a pre-adolescent boy. Nearly as impactful as the time Arthur Scholl’s little brother peed on a nest of yellow jackets and they attacked him, his bare hands, and his little boy toy. I forget how many stings were reported and which mothers helped pick off the stingers. Whew!  That could have been me. Invisible yellow jackets stung my brain and permanently imprinted lithe Varushka, however.

Of course we played army and cowboys and Indians. The federal government had not outlawed those activities yet. Unfortunately Barry Miller brought real arrows to the game once. He shot live metal tipped arrows over the Scholls’ rec room addition when it was under construction. Lee Gorman was on the other side looking up. One arrow landed in his left eye and nearly killed him. No one who was on our street that day will ever forget that incident, though it happened fifty years ago. Barry was forever traumatized as the villain and Lee as the victim. Neither deserved either fate, but both had to live on with their curse. That moment is frozen in time as the arrow arced over the peak of the unshingled roof. What were the odds of finding another boy’s muddy brown eye? What costs followed the release of that single arrow? You need a tragedy actuary to calculate such things.

Behind the Scholls’ house there was a wild cherry tree on the edge of the slope just before the field sloped off to the left. We climbed that tree and pulled off thick amber sap balls from the trunk. I have no idea what we did with these sap balls, but we had to have them to experiment on– did they bounce or burn? What did they taste like? Could you freeze them next to the ice cream? Below this tree was another tall oak that some older boy or foolish dad had tied a rope onto. This rope swing swung out over the creek bed exactly where it dropped down about three feet. The Swing was in constant use throughout summer, spring and fall. Not so much in winter, but some daredevil would swing occasionally across snow and ice, even daring to drop and land like 007 on the other bank.

A trail ran alongside the creek, just like in the early days of America. Only our trail carried kids and dogs and bikes exclusively. It was sort of a short cut if we missed the bus to school, I recall, as we preferred it to the paved road of Dorset Drive. The creek disappeared down a large storm drain behind Sue Carson’s house and ran under two roads and several houses before reappearing in a patch of woods behind Berkshire Drive. Other groups of kids had claimed those woods, though we often walked through them. On rare occasions we would even team up with kids from the other streets for winter sledding or snowball fights. Their turf was not as familiar or welcoming as ours. We did not know their trees and deep spots in the creek. Anyway, the creek flowed away from that neighborhood street as well, falling to Telegraph Road and a larger flow, eventually emptying into the Potomac River. With it flow melancholy memories into the wild blue beyond. Cue up Unchained Melody for me, won’t you?

Lonely rivers flow to the sea to the sea
To the open arms of the sea
Lonely rivers sigh wait for me wait for me
I’ll be coming home wait for me

And all the wild things eventually sink to the bottom of the Chesapeake Bay or even the graveyard of the Atlantic. Occasionally stirred up at chance meetings or high school reunions that don’t really happen anymore.


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