War In the Hood

I stood next to the path, gritty sweat running down my face and bare chest. Overhead the sun shown like a molten rock in a diamond sky. I patiently waited, shifting restlessly from bare foot to another, feeling the gritty sand shifting beneath my feet.  A big bark covered log leaned across my shoulder, my hands gripping its rough gray surface like a baseball bat. It was pine, about two inches around, and much longer than me – about six feet tall. Beneath my bare feet the fine white sand was cool between my bare toes; a gentle summer breeze caressed my dust covered legs. All I wore was a set of short cutoffs made from a pair of pants; nothing else. I had no shirt or shoes on – just a firm brown tan carrying a scar or two.

I cocked my head, listening. Not just listening, but listening hard ­for that soft ‘pad-pad’ of feet striking soft sand. Thus far, nothing. The narrow path I was standing next to meandered down the hill in a more or less straight line, threading through thin pine and oak and around scrappy clumps of scrub. I had stationed myself somewhere in the middle, not far behind our house, and almost right behind the teenager’s place – hiding myself beside a thin screen of leaves and finding my weapon of choice.

We had been busy, my team and I, digging sporadically spaced shallow holes along the path. There was one every four or five feet from where I stood, stretching away for a good sixty or more foot in each direction. My team had disappeared – that was the plan – and I stood by to catch ‘them’, the enemy we had been given orders to harm. Even killing was an option, though I chose not to do so. I simply wanted to harm someone, do my part: take one out, or down.

In each hole we had placed stakes selected for the task. Unfortunately, none of us owned a shovel much less a knife, so we had to rely on our skills and intuition – digging holes with our bare hands and fashioning stakes by breaking dry branches so sharpened ends would form. Sometimes we sharpened them on rocks a bit. Then we would dig our shallow holes – odd how the land turned from stark white to a chocolate brown as soon as you scraped the earth. It was a painful task, packing dirt underneath our fingernails and almost ripping them off. Mine were kept short, courtesy of my nervous habit of biting them all the time, but still it hurt as the sand ate away at the skin on the end of your fingers.

I wanted our holes to be deeper, so I had encouraged my team to use the stakes as digging sticks where they could, but soon it became obvious. Looking up and down the path we could see the pine needle patchworks like frayed brown mats covering the holes scattered up and down the sandy white path.  None were much bigger than my foot.  I had measured mine to determine the size of the holes we must dig – and none were very deep. We had covered the holes with laced pine twigs to hold the pine straw mats, but there was no denying it: our traps stood out in the noontime sun like furry brown blisters on the fine white sand. I wiped sweat from my brow with the back of a dusty hand. Above the sun hung like a molten moon – small, distant, and hot. The sky, white-azure, was a leaded plate of glass radiating the heat down, only to suck it back up and send it back later on with more fury. It beat in a continuous wave – a hot July that left your breathless, like standing in blast furnace at noon, which would settle out to simply sweltering at night.

That was one thing about the Georgia sand hills, site of ancient seas – it was cool sometimes despite the rich Southern heat. Set above the Savannah river valley, the breezes carried wafts of ancient air, as cooling to the dinosaurs as it was to me. The settlers ‘down there’ in the valley would come up here in old times, seeking relief from the heat and diseases of the swampy south part of town – Augusta, Georgia it was, and we were not too far off the Tobacco road of fame and infamy.  Not that it had progressed much since that novel was written. Jeeter still lives there, with his mother-in-law and kids – many of them, for they have reproduced like rabbits down here in the south, and there’s no fox to kill them. So they just go on, generation after generation . . . drifting down into the earth like the fossils they are, and leaving only derelict buildings and old outhouses behind . . .

We had moved there some years before, and I was the one calling the shots. After all, I was an officer’s kid – or so they thought. In actuality my dad was but a Warrant Officer, W-1 – the earliest grade available. He was the one who had taught me to fight and showed me some pressure points and things – this was when I was about seven years old and was being matched up against the teenager and kids much older than me. He’d seen me come in bleeding but proud – I’d won another fight with my windmilling approach, but I had no sense of guard; I knew nothing about blocking any blows. Instead I’d just go ahead and suck them up while attacking the other kid – windmilling my arms, head down, feet a’charging. This, I later learned, was not the way to be doing things – and even while fighting like that I knew there had to be something better. So he spent a few hours one afternoon teaching me how to hold my arms up, make a guard – punching out instead of simply lashing out with those wide round houses kids often made. And I became a good fighter, practicing on my friend. He and I were into fighting all of the time; that’s part of what made us such good friends! We’d fight for awhile, determine who was the dominate one – and then with wide grins and big smiles we’d clasp each other around the shoulders and go walking down the road like two soldiers or best buddies, best friends until the end. There was never any animosity between us: we’d simply fight, settle it out, and go on about our play – no harm done.

But this time we were on a different kind of mission. The teenager may had set this one up, though I may be wrong. He often worked for his father as a mason and during the summer he was gone – off on some job site hauling some block, mixing some concrete, or doing some other kind of errand for his dad. That’s why he liked school so much, but it made him strong. The teenager was one of, but not the strongest in the ‘hood. That in part (I think) was due to his age: he was younger than some of them, but older than most of ‘my gang’ – who he hung around most often. Sometimes his attention was split between us – trying to seduce us kids while at the same time maintaining a somewhat normal relationship with the teenagers he in turn wanted to be like: the Fedrickson’s with their nice cars, or even the Stephensons, though he, like us and the rest of the hood hated their bullying ways. All of those kids were older than him – not by much, but enough, I suppose, to have that effect on him: him always ‘looking up’ and wanting to be like them (plus their families were ‘rich’ compared to him; they seemed to have everything, but his own family? Some of the poorest people in the ‘hood. Sometimes ‘we’, our family, came in at a close second. A very close second sometimes.)

This time we were in a war. My ‘team’ – a group of three of my friends and myself – had been selected to patrol – and set up and ‘mine’ – this part of the path. Then, after my friends were done, they were supposed to hightail it up to ‘the ridge’ (a hump in the ground further up on the hill) where our opponents, vastly outnumbering us (it was about twelve to one, including a teenager on their side) – were waiting for us to come up there, or us wait for them. Us little kids had immediately decided to take an alternative action. We had dug our traps – my team had gone up as described – and now I was waiting for something else. That’s why I had picked up this log.

Looking at this path it had occurred to us just how ineffective these traps were. For one reason: you could see them, scattered like the wind tossed mats of pine needle. Our team had discussed it after trying to top the needles with sand (it simply trickled through, burying the hole – or the weight would collapse it down). Not only that but the holes were too small – just big enough for a bare foot to get caught in, sparing a few inches. Due to our lack of construction tools, most of the holes were quite shallow – four to six inches deep, maybe a bit more, depending on the hardness of the sand we were digging in and the time we had allotted for ourselves to get this thing done.

We had brushed out most of the tracks on the path and fingermarks scarring the holes. Most of the kids knew about pit traps – or at least those who played war did. And this wasn’t the first time we had used pit traps. We’d even remarked how bad it was that we couldn’t get some feces to rub on them – that way the ‘enemy’ did – but in the end we had abandoned that idea. Everyone knew we’d get into trouble if we did – the grownups would get mad. Just the pit and the stakes were enough – all that was asked for. Injure some kid bad enough . . . it was enough to make the whole group of us shudder . . .

So we had discussed it, my team and I, before coming up with another plan of action – one that ran counter to what we had been told. I would stand beside the path and ambush somebody – taking them down – and then fading back, do it again – if anyone should come running down that path. We were all agreed I was the most capable of doing this thing: tackling somebody and bringing them down. Meanwhile my team would go ‘up there’ towards the other team’s home (which was behind the ridge) – and lead them down this merry path to my hell. And I was waiting for them to do it; exactly this kind of thing.

However it had occurred to me as my team dissipated along the sides of the path, scurrying through the low brush towards the top of the hill that I was unarmed and unable to do anything against a group of kids who might be coming down that hill. Critically scrutinizing the path, I thought about the games I played – the other games with my dad. A lot of them were ‘war’ games, meaning chess and things – but sometimes he brought equipment home. We had yet to get the missile launchers* – those would come later, when I was about ten or eleven – but they were unarmed. They were simply the collapsible tubes and aiming sights (as well as fold down hand grips, buttons, and instructions on how to use them) – which we would aim at each other when playing war.

So I looked at the path and thought about it – seeing ‘me’ running down the path and knowing what I would do when I saw ‘them’, the traps we had made. I could literally almost ‘see’ myself running towards me, head down, scrutinizing the path – dodging this way and that, avoiding this hole and jumping over another one. I looked up. There was yelling on the hill. Looking around I espied this stick of mine – a broken down tree laying on the ground. I picked it up and took my station, positioning myself behind the bushes . . .

because I knew – knew with an almost complete certainty how the kid would come. He would come like me – head down, concentrating on the path – looking where the next hole was and not where he was going. Already I could hear one running down the path. I knew it wasn’t one of my own – we had all agreed not to use this path; it was mined and ‘booby trapped’ from stem to stern – if not by one of our boys, then one of ‘their’ own. We would just wait here . . . waiting by this path until the enemy came . . . with this great big old stick braced against my shoulder, its end dug into the ground . . .

I heard the pitter-patter of feet coming a lot closer – and the yelling and shouting like mad Indians or wild hoodlums grew louder as the crashing of bushes came down the hill – and I tensed, bracing myself. Glancing around the thin screen of bush I could see him – a kid like me coming on down the path, his head down, hair crew cut like mine – maybe a spot or two thinner (all of our ribs were showing) – and a bit smaller in frame – and he was running, his head down as he concentrated on his path. He was hopping and dodging like a rabbit down the path, his feet skipping between the holes like it was a game, shooting little sand geysers like sparks and flame, leaving dust behind. As he came abreast of me, I stepped out and took my swing . . .

He barely saw me – barely had time to slow down, his face a slate of blank astonishment – but the motion of his body carried him on – and before he had time to turn around, I had taken that great big ‘log’ – that two inch wide stick in my hands – and cracked him in the back with it – right there, right above the middle section, just below his ‘blades (his shoulder blades, I mean) – and POW! – he goes down skidding across the sand on his belly, hands thrown out in front of him. And I had hit him so hard that that branch or log or stick in my hands broke right in half across his back – one end going spinning away into the brush somewhere while the other end stayed in my hand, flaking bark still from the force of my blow.

I looked at him. He looked like a beached fish in the sand; he lay there gasping, his hands making vague clawing motions in the sand. I could hear the yelling on the hill. It was no longer growing louder; indeed, it had settled down somewhat. Had my team taken them? Spinning in my heels I turned, looked up the path and then back down at the kid. He had stopped moving and was just laying there, his ribs going up and down. I felt a wave of contempt mixed with self-sympathy and sympathy for him. That, I knew deep down as I began running through the woods towards where my friends were battling the teenager and someone else, could have been me. That was the nature of our warfare. Grim and determined. And sometimes we kept it real.

Real wars in the ‘hood.

Battle and battle on . . .

Sometimes it seems it was the story of my life sometimes . . . in those days and days to come . . .




*I learned later those disposable rocket launchers were M72 LAW‘s , a Light Anti-Armor weapon which was developed after the Korean war in response to the expected threat of overwhelming masses of Soviet tanks and armor crossing into Western Europe – and perhaps America – in a war which was to come. One might think this, along with the training I had later overseas as an older kid would lead to something . . . but I think not, or do not know. It almost seems as though ‘they’ (the parents, the grownups, and the Army) were training kids for ‘that war’ (the one that never came). The expectation was a Soviet invasion in which our soldiers might die – and so maybe us kids were meant to fight as guerrilla fighter, individually or in groups – and fight hard – until we either died or succeeded in our mission – which was to overcome, overwhelm – and simply survive, if nothing else, in a forgotten and blasted land . . .

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