Tag Archive: games

Ol’ Granddad

Ol’ Granddad

I squirmed in the damp sand, feeling the hard ripples beneath my back. A few inches from my face a curved concrete wall, lit by barely reflected light, threatened to scrape my nose. The tunnel was half filled with sand, its wavy surface betraying that flood waters sometimes rushed through. I squirmed a bit further, paused, and tipped my head so I could look between my bare feet to see my friend.

“You comin’?” I hoarsely half-shouted, half-whispered, trying not to sound loud, and spacing my words out. Sounds tended to get lost in the tunnels, bouncing around until each word and whisper got mixed. Somebody could be say something ten feet away and it would sound like it was in your ear – or hardly make a sound at all. Sounds seemed to travel a mile, rounding every corner. A shout would become a whisper, a whisper a shout – echoing in the tunnels, making judging distance difficult. It wasn’t uncommon to run into someone crawling in the darkness when we would make a chain – head-butting them in the rear with your forehead. You learned to crawl head down and bent. There’s nothing like a face full of butt to teach you that kind of lesson.

“Yeah!” I heard my friend whisper. Only, like I said, it sounded like he was beside me. I grimaced – the tunnel was pinching my broad shoulders – and wormed on.

Ahead the tunnel opened into a small space, a cube. Beyond lay the next round. I carefully shimmied into it, and stood, half squatting in the packed sand. A low concrete roof with an iron ring and cover was over my head; to my right a short shelf ran along the wall. I sat on the sandy shelf, looking out at the world beyond.

I was staring at a small street from a slit in the ground. Ahead lay the road, the dirt eye level. I shifted, digging my feet in the sand after checking for glass. This place was bright compared to some of the tunnels I’d been in. My thoughts turned to Ol’ Granddad – the granddaddy of them all.  All us kids called it that – that big round opening like the pale end of a worm tunneling into the dirt. From its entrance we would sit and debate entering. Few ventured beyond the narrow cone of light entering it during the day. Fewer still knew what lay beyond the curve – of the narrow rooms and narrower pipes that the bravest of us had found.

We were like rats, crawling – carefully, most often blind because none of us owned a flashlight. We would crawl and crawl – not hundreds of feet, but hundreds of yards. It was fun and always a scary adventure.  The fact that it did not bother our knees tells you how tough and hard scrabble us young boys were.  The fact that we were willing to brave the risks of the unknown, what lay in the darkness – knowing there might be rats or glass or snakes (including our own personal terror, the mighty loathsome cottonmouth).  There was a vicious braveness inside of us – a willingness to stick our heads in where angels feared to tread – if just to see what they were so mucking afraid of – and then challenge that thing.

Ol’ Granddad was a terminator pipe that dumped into a ditch a few hundred yards beyond the bend of the road at the bottom of the hill we lived on. It was the tail end of a network of pipes put in to handle the storm water that thunderstorms would bring. The water would sheet down the hill in a crystalline torrent when the Georgia thundershowers would roll in.  Granddad was big and built to handle them. He was concrete – big and strong – and long, curving into the dirt of the ‘hood, diving beneath it.

I don’t know how us kids – “older” kids now, ranging between eight and eleven – came up with the name for that particular section of concrete pipe, except that of them all, it was the biggest, longest, and to most kids, scariest. Few ever dared  explore the tunnels beyond. It curved with the road. Often us boys would gather at the end, for this was a favored dirt clod war zone. The ditches along both sides were deep enough to pose as trenches, protecting everyone who was smart enough – and quick enough – to duck a well thrown clod. Sandy clods full of sharp gravel would arc across that road until a car came, at which point a short truce would be drawn until it passed – then the rain of clods would begin again. Around the corner mid-hill where we lived there was no such protection, and the clods were as soft as sugar.  So we often went down there, slinging these clods – mixtures of clay, sand, and pebbles – at each other. We delighted in the way they would explode in a powdery puff when they hit someone. Using clods with big rocks was forbidden – not by the grownups, but by us – for when a regular clod hit you, it would simply disintegrate, showering you in dust and sand. The ones with rocks hurt; as did clay clods. It just goes to show: children can understand something about cooperation, or else it was from fear. Throwing a rock studded clod could lead to a violent escalation that could end in fisticuffs. At the very least, if you threw one you might find yourself pelted by rock studded clods by both sides, leaving you in welts.

But Ol’ Granddad – that was a big draw, a scary dare, luring us with its dark embrace, its cool concrete walls – beckoning with mysterious whispers. You could hear it whispering to you sometimes; strange sounds – especially when we were gathered around its entrance, debating about entering its mysterious depths and what, if anything we might find.

It took us months to decide to venture into this big old pipe. I can still see it now, still remember it as clear as if those times took place yesterday. How we would sit in front of the pipe, debating – and then finally making the decisions – who was to go first, who was going to go second, and so on.

“Rats might be in there,” someone would nervously say every time, eyeing the dark opening.  “Watch out for glass.”  We would look at our calloused dusty palms, as if envisioning cuts to come.

“Snakes, too,” another might whisper. Everyone was scared of snakes – we knew they sought cool shade during the summer – and rats, we were sure, carried rabies, turning them (in our imagination) into ferocious sharp toothed ravenous monsters. And I didn’t want to get rabies shots again!  (Those scarred me for life in some ways.)  Finally debating – and daring – each other out of our fear, we would venture in.

I’ll never forget those journeys into the darkness. You could ‘duck squat’ if you were short enough, but that took a toll on the legs, so we usually crawled.   The cool, rough cement beneath our hands and knees, we’d crawl along, dragging our toes; the entrance of the pipe – a round white circle – growing smaller and smaller and then disappearing as we’d round the curve. That final glimpse of light before it’s gone. Like an eclipse of the sun it would grow dimmer, the cone of shadow lengthen – and then it would be gone. There would be complete darkness. A sense of vertigo would overtake us; disorientated by the lack of vision, we would find ourselves slowly angling up the curved sides of the tunnel, our sense of gravity gone awry. Your only warning would be a vertigo to warn you. We never took flashlights; that was part of the dare – and it was a long way through the pitch blackness. Not to mention, I don’t think anyone had one. Then slowly, it would appear: a dim gray dot far, far ahead. We would crawl along faster now, more sure of ourselves – a line of boys all in a row, our voices and toes whispering along the concrete.

At the far end Ol’ Granddad abruptly terminated in a concrete room. It was tall – much taller than us, about twelve feet high, with about six feet on each side. Spilling out of the drainage pipe, we’d stand on the sand floor and stare up, relieved to be in the light. The light always seemed gray. Far above our heads the light would trickle around the edges of the heavy plated manhole, and seep through the finger holes you would use to lift it like lances. It was always dry when we crawled. We never ventured into it when it rained, or even if it looked like it might rain, instinctively knowing the threat of a flash flood, and knowing our parents would skin us alive if they knew we were there. There was only one other pipe leading into this terminal, this “junction box” as I came to learn in engineering. That pipe was much smaller, with a thick bed of sand. Looking into it you could see another dim circle of light further on. And of course, only the braver kids would go. There were only two or three of them – me and my best friends.

I remember that pipe very well, the one that we were facing as we stood in that narrow distribution box of the storm drain. It was always damp in that pipe, the sand rose to the middle. You had to crawl on your back or your belly, your nose bumping, shoulders scraping the walls. It wasn’t as dark as Ol’ Granddad – light would trickle in from both ends – nor was it was long as Ol’ Granddad. But the claustrophobic sensation of being squeezed in on all sides was always a bit uncomfortable – more mental than physical – until eventually you would find yourself emerging into a new room, a much smaller room, with another shelf to sit on.

From that vantage point us kids – or at least the few of us who dared – could sit and watch the cars go by on the road outside. Peering through the narrow slit of the rainwater inlet, we would sit there in the cool darkness, whispering and debating to one another, and feeling the thrill of seeing without being seen. It became one of our favorite secret hiding places: no one knew we were there, not even most of the kids of the hood.

“Pssst!” A sharp whisper came at from my feet. I looked down. My friend’s head, dirty blonde and curly, peeped from the pipe. I watched with interest as he squirmed through like a sandy brown worm, kicking aside a shard of glass that I spotted. He squatted, pivoting and peering through the slit, then sat on the sandy bench beside me. A car thundered by, its tires sending deep thumps through the tunnel ahead. The road was ribbed as well with an accordion like layer of sand on top of the hard packed clay and gravel. I could see the little spurts of dust glancing off each one as the car drove by. Its wheels just skipped across the tops of the curves. That’s the only way to take a washboard road – fast. If you go slow you beat both your car and yourself with its harmonics and rhythm. So you fly, just touching the tops of the bumps so that the shocks can’t drop your tires in the middle. It goes a long way towards smoothing out a ride on a washboard road. I know that from having driven plenty of them.

Facing us was another pipe. This one was small, dank, and round. Always it was almost full of sand, choked by the silt which would wash in. It ran directly underneath the road to the storm water inlet on the other side – sitting there on our ‘bench’ we could hear faint rumbles emanating from its dark throat as cars would pass overhead. None of the other pipes we crawled through passed under the road; only this one did. And this was the ultimate dare: to go through this pipe and see what lay on the other side.

As far as I know only I and another friend took that dare – and just a few times. Squeezing my shoulders together, I crawled in on my back – I didn’t want a face full of dirt – and with my nose scraping the top of the tunnel, I inched my way along. It was thrilling and terrifying, and like the patter of running rats my heart would race whenever a car would come over, its wheels sending thunder echoing around me. You could feel the vibration thudding through the concrete walls; the sand above was washboard, testing the car’s suspension – and our nerves. We would voice our fears in a whisper: what if a cave-in happened? What if the tunnel collapsed? And even worse: what would happen if we got stuck? Childish fears, of course – but we were children then.

At the far end of this tunnel lay another box, identical to the one we’d left, only more full of sand. To one side lay yet another tunnel, and even smaller section of pipe. It didn’t take us long, fresh from our fears, to decide: we weren’t going into that one. It was much smaller, much darker, and even more packed with sand. Enough was enough, we decided, and then sliding back into that dark dank pipe, we made our way back to our magic hideout.

Ol’ Granddad. I remember we abandoned our secret pleasure for a week or two when a murderous prisoner escaped from a local jail. The call went out; our parents warned us, we heard it on the radio. Warnings that he could be hiding anywhere – in the bushes, the woods, abandoned cars . . . and drainage pipes. That sort of perked our ears. For a week we would drop by the entrance to Ol’ Granddad and eyeing its round mouth, whisper.

“Do you think we should go in?”

“I don’t know – do you think he’s there?”

“I don’t know – why don’t you go in and find out?”

“Not me! You go! You’re the one that wants to go in!”

And so the debate would rage. Eventually we worked up our courage high enough to venture in – and no, he was not there. But every pebble we’d hear rattling, every stray glint of light from the errant pebble or piece of glass would throw us into a panic. Several times we had jumbles of kids as the ones up front would suddenly try to bolt backwards – only to run into us other kids who were moving on. But we found only the cool darkness, the mysterious stretch of black; the open pit, the branching tunnel. I remember the sighs of relief as we reached the ‘main room’ – the “Sun Room” as we called it, that concrete pit with its dim gray light.

Just one of our ‘grand adventures’ – one that, when we’ve gotten together as adults, we still talk about. The times spent in “Ol’ Granddad” – the pit, and how we’d sit in our secret hiding place, watching the cars go by. As a parent I know I would be horrified to find my child doing such a thing – but I would understand.  There is a huge maze of culverts not too far away – I wouldn’t be surprised to find children exploring them (though they are strictly forbidden).  The lure of the darkness, the desire to discover the secrets beyond. And I think after giving them a good scolding and warning never do it again, I would drop my arm around their shoulders in silent congratulation and pride as I led them gently away . . . shaking with silent laughter.

War In the Hood

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 . . .