Growing Up with Billy (Part IV)
by G.A. Cribari
Bill got the idea to stockpile ammunition. He had Mark and I duck behind the partition wall and make a snowball arsenal, while he and Dick fought off the enemy. As I prepared half a dozen snowballs, I could hear the smack and thump of hits against the wall. I put my left arm across my chest and loaded up. Mark and I ran out in the open and converged on our opponents from opposite directions.
I was able to score hits on all four adversaries but took a hit to my face due to using my arm for my cargo instead of defense. By this time the ‘enemy’ had copied our munitions stockpiling and had sued the seat of the picnic table behind them to line their ammo.
Mark and I had retreated to our arms factory behind the commode wall. Meanwhile, Dick and Bill charged the old shelter. When Dick and saw all the snowballs on the picnic table seat he ran over and put both arms down on the died of the seat and shoved all the balls on the ground, stepping on each one.
This angered Mike and he ran after Dick. He tackled him and grabbed his head and shoved it into the snow a little too vigorously. Dick was crying when Mike let him go. Dick got up and headed quickly out of the park, down Vosburg Road, to home.
We could still hear Dick’s sobs as he went down the road, feel the flush of his face and tears, making the cold day seem colder. It spoiled the fun. The two elder cousins, Bill and Mike, decided to call it quits and gathered up Mark, Scotty and Jimmy and asked me if I wanted to go home with them. I said I wanted to stick around and we said goodbye as they headed out of the park along Forest Drive.
What had happened to Dick bothered me. And I felt sorry for the situation he had at home. I walked over to the old shelter and sat on a table at the end that was furthest from the Party House. The pavilion’s roof kept out most of the snow except for some drifts that the West wind blew in at the opposite end. As I sat there, the wind nestled the dried brown leaves that had collected under the dozen picnic tables beneath the shelter. This amplified the feeling of emptiness and abandonment that the park’s imminent end conjured in me.
I sat there for ten minutes with my thoughts and then decided it was time to go. As I approached the Party House I wanted to walk around it for one last look before it was torn down and gone forever. I went around to the left hoping to get a glimpse inside, when I noticed footprints in the snow leading to a small back porch. I looked at the porch door and noticed that the hook that held it closed was undone. The only thing keeping it closed was a large bank of snow that twisted along the side of the building.
I kicked away the snow and carefully pried the door open. Going onto the porch I saw another half open door, opened it and went in. I found myself behind a lengthy bar. Apparently, people had gone in and had consumed what alcohol was left over in the almost empty bottles and had smashed them on the large dance floor. There was a large painting reproduction of dogs playing poker and a large empty bottle of Ancient Age bourbon on the floor. The vandalism made me nervous and I decided I should leave. As I headed for the door to the back porch, I noticed a small rectangular picture on the wall. It was very atmospheric, and it was of an immense cliff with people at its top and waves smashing at its base. I didn’t like taking something that wasn’t mine, but the condition of the building and its inevitable destruction made me want to take a souvenir of sorts. Did I know at the time that the picture and its subject matter could have been considered a foreshadowing? Did the destruction of the Party House amidst that beautiful winter in nature mean more than I could understand at that formidable time in my life? Do things always mean more to us than we care to imagine in our limited, rationalistic view of time and causality? Would we act differently, would we be more careful if we could see events as moments in a larger chain of events, every present action and every present event being as important as the most important action and event in our history and in our future?
I exited the Party House and made my way home with my keepsake.
February dragged on with snow almost every day and bitter cold penetrating my body, despite gloves, woolen hat, and layers of clothing. On the rare day when the sun would break through, I had to squint to see on the way to the bus stop, as the sun reflected off the expanse of shimmering white snow.
One Saturday, Mom answered the phone and said it was for me. It was cousin Jimmy from down the street. He was home for the weekend from college in Syracuse. He asked me if I wanted to go to the movies with him and his younger brothers and sister. ‘Of course!’, I said. He said they would pick me up in 15 minutes. The sun had just set and the temperature was only a few degrees above zero, so I bundled up and waited. Soon, I heard the honking of a horn and rushed out of the door.
I saw uncle Elmer’s truck in the driveway with Jimmy’s youngest brother Mike sitting in the bed of the truck with his arms folded across chest and his head down. Mike looked up at me and shouted for me to jump in. I went to the back of the truck and climbed in and sat down next to Mike against the back of the cab. Jimmy was driving with Mike’s older brother Steve, and youngest sister patty, squeezed in together.
We quickly headed up the street and took a left on Vosburg, continued down the little hill to its base at Shipbuilders Creek, and then went up the big hill and headed right towards Klem Road. We went left on Klem to Five Mile Line Road and took a left when we reached Ridge Road. Jimmy must have known we were freezing in the back and he picked up speed as we headed toward Webster Village. The cold wind coming around the front of the cab felt like a knife going through me and my teeth were chattering as fast as a piece by Rachmaninov. Mike and I could hardly stand it and soon we were both bouncing our legs up and down on the truck bed to keep warm. In what seemed like an eternity we were at the village four corners and arrived at the Ridge Theater. Frozen and stiff as boards, we both stumbled out of the back of the truck and all went into the theater.
I was so excited to see Jim that I didn’t even ask what was playing and saw that it was a double feature of ‘Thunder road’ and ‘The Vikings’. We paced around the lobby to warm up and while walking around the lobby to warm up and while walking around I saw Charlie, a friend from school. Charlie’s parents owned the theater. He said he was filling in for the projectionist and told me to come up to the booth in between shows.
We got some popcorn and went in to see the show. Being a weekend, the house was almost full and the first movie was a black and white film starring Robert Mitchum, about a whisky bootlegger who used a souped-up hotrod to out-run the police and deliver his stash. It was a great film, and afterwards I went up the stairs to the booth to visit Charlie. He was changing reels to get ready for the next film and said he had some presents for me. He gave me a press book from the movie, ‘Fall of the Roman Empire’. The book was a catalog of all the available posters and lobby cards to advertise the film. He also gave me a huge poster that came in three pieces for the film, ‘Shock Treatment’.
I went back down and watched the next film which was about the Viking raids on England and that was filmed in Norway, in color. It too, was a classic but before it started everyone was talking about the ending of ‘Thunder Road’, where spikes were put in the road to blow-out the tires of the whisky runners’ cars. At the end of ‘The Vikings’ everyone was talking about the scene where they throw axes into the wooden door of the castle so the prince could use them as steps to climb up and open the gate for the attackers.
February ended very cold but with a little more sun. March came in like a lion, very windy and blustery, with more snow. By the second week the weather broke with the temperature reaching almost 40 degrees every other day.
One Friday in March was a particularly lovely day with lots of sun and blue sky with the kind of fluffy white clouds that suggest faces next to different types of objects. School let out for the weekend and the bus dropped me off at the top of the street. The snowbanks which had been over ten feet high in places were now melting in the bright sun.
As I walked down the street I could hear water gurgling under the sheets of ice that were protruding from the edges of the white banks which were now down to three feet and quickly beginning to disappear under the relentless photonics. Descending down the street and half way to home and the forest, I looked down to my left and could see bubbles in the ice and the water flowing beneath it. On impulse, I jumped into the air and came down on the inch-thick ice sheet breaking it with a loud crack and snap. I felt a perverse pleasure in this unprosecutable vandalism and was soon hopping and jumping my way down the street. Not content with mere crushing, I began to drop-kick the ice into the air and delighted in seeing glistening shards of frozen water fly through the air with tiny, blinding flashes of the sun’s reflection.
Soon, I arrived home and when I entered the house I could smell the sweet smell of my favorite lasagna. I gorged myself on several plates with garlic bread and butter. Even then, I had a big appetite. I felt the meal was a just reward for my successful campaign against the enemy, Winter, which was now close to vanquished.
My brother John and I shared a bedroom together. We awoke just after sunrise a little after seven and soon Mom was cooking us a pancake and sausage breakfast with syrup and orange juice. We went into the living room and turned on the television to watch the Saturday morning cartoons, which were already in progress. John’s favorite ‘Ruff and Ready’, was on, and afterwards, was ‘Top Cat’, which was my favorite.
The cartoons ended around noon and outside there was another beautiful, almost-Spring day to enjoy. We decided to go down hiking and exploring in the large woods that surrounded the end of our street. We went out and walked across the backyard to the edge of the forest where a large four and half-foot by three-foot boulder marked the property line. Uncle Bun had dug it up with his backhoe while doing work on the yard. Just in front of the rock was a 15 by 15-foot pen made of wire-mesh nailed to poles that was a large playpen for John when he was young. Mom could watch him from the house and he could play outdoors while she cooked and cleaned. It didn’t last long. While she was watching one day, John managed to climb out and escape the ‘prison’. She finally caught up with him half-way up the street. We passed the big rock to our left and past the tall sassafras trees that framed our back lot and provided a canopy for the forest. We crossed the dirt path that ran from Vosburg Road north through the woods and ended at Lake Road in Forest Lawn where there was a small convenience store we called the ‘Little Store’.
John and I headed west on a trail that crossed the path leading to the lake. Directly in front of us was a huge black tree with a very wide trunk. To our left we passed a stand of mature pine trees whose shed needles provided a soft cushion when walked on. These trees ran the length of the street and were about thirty yards wide. As we passed them there was another path to the left that ran parallel to the little stone path. It separated the big pines from a large field of much shorter pines that the owners of the property sold as Christmas trees.
Up a little way to our right was an enigmatic structure about the size of a one car garage. It was made from very large cinder blocks and had a small window on each side. We opened the lone door and looked in to see the metal frame of an old cot and a weathered wooden chair. It was one of many structures and natural features that gave our neighborhood a sense of mystery and forgotten history.
We kept going and at the end of the property on the left of the trail, on a small hill, we saw an old wooden outhouse. Was this somehow connected to the stone cabin? Was if for a migrant worker? We went to our right into the forest and at the summit of the hill we descended to a gully. At the bottom it was muddy from the melting snow that still held out in patches that were cooler, shaded from most of the sun’s light. I got to the bottom first and, menaced by the blackening leaves and mud, I decided to cross as quickly as I could. I ran through the muck taking long strides to minimize my risk. After a few jump-steps I started to get stuck. My new strategy was to spread my legs as far as I could and waddle-jump like a duck that’s being ‘goosed’. My feet made a sucking sound as I yanked my boots across the quicksand. I stretched out my arms and finally pushed my way back to solid ground.
By now John was yelling and screaming because he was currently stuck in the bog. Worse, he was beginning to sink further and couldn’t get his boots of the slime. Thinking quickly, I grabbed a large tree branch from the hill and had John grab hold. I pulled it as hard as I could and got him out minus his new pair of rubber Christmas boots. We climbed to the top of the hill and reached there out of breath. We cut across to the left and got back on the trail we started on. We headed for home and passed the outhouse and were soon in our backyard where my father was talking with Uncle Bun and some neighbors.
Uncle Elmer had been digging-up the leech lines next door and had uncovered human remains. Everyone headed next door and soon the police and medical examiner were there investigating. After a while the hubbub subsided and Dad took us home.
It was almost suppertime but before we went in Dad reached into his back pocket and said he had something for me. It was a large arrowhead that popped out of the ground while he was raking the yard. I looked at this treasure with amazement and went inside to bring it to the room John and I shared.
Walking down the hall I remembered the ‘visions’ and ‘nightmares’ from when we moved into the house after it was built. I would ‘see’ skeletons dancing at the end of the hall at night. The hall pointed directly north to next door, where the human skulls were unearthed! I slept very soundly that night due, no doubt, to the day’s dramatic events.
After church on Sunday, I went up the street to Jimmy and Scotty’s to play. We went to the next door up to their Italian cousins and shot a few hoops in their backyard. Afterwards I told the others about the arrowhead and took it out of show them. It was passed around and while we were talking there was a distraction. Everyone began to leave and I became startled when I realized the Indian relic was no longer in my possession. I hurriedly scoured the ground to see if it dropped. When I couldn’t locate it, I called to my friends but no one knew where it had gone. I went home dejected and ashamed about the loss. I had supper and watched TV with my family and went to bed. While I was asleep, I dreamt that I was at Shipbuilders Creek playing and while wading in the creek I picked up a rock to catch a tadpole that had swam under it and I found a perfect Indian spearhead.
Mom got me up in the morning and got me off to school. All day in class I kept thinking about the dream I had and images of the arrowhead and a certain spot at the creek filled my mind.
School let out and while on the bus home I got an idea to get Mike, the older boy from across the street, to help me search the creek bed. I got off the bus and walked home and dropped off my school books. I went to Mike’s and at first, he was skeptical, but he agreed to go with me. We walked to the backyard property line and slid down a steep hill that led to the railroad tracks that ran behind our street. There was another large, steep hill on the opposite side of the tracks so we went right. After 50 yards the hill leveled off and was almost flush with the railroad tracks. We had to slide down what was left of the hill to get to the plain that led to the creek. I was wearing my new rubber boots I got for Christmas and thought I would be safe walking through the woods. Boy was I wrong. While sliding down the 10-foot embankment my left leg caught the metal barbs of a pole that was hidden by the greenery. My left boot was completely ripped open and I had had a 4-inch scratch on my leg that was bleeding a little. If it wasn’t for the thick boot I would have had to get stitched up I think. Mike followed after me and asked if I wanted to go home. Not wanting to give up on my vision quest I told him I was OK. We walked through some tall grass and shrubbery until we reached the sandy creek-shore.
We could see the footprints of various animals in the sand. Mike and I traded guesses of what they were. Raccoons? Squirrels? Or maybe even foxes.
We stepped into the creek and at my suggestion started lifting up the large slabs of stone and shale that lined the creek bed. At this part the creek was fairly shallow – between 6 inches and a foot or two. After a few minutes I was startled by a loud ‘Oh!’ that Mike yelled. I looked over and there it was lying under a couple of inches of water. It was a perfect arrowhead similar to the one Dad had found.
Mike picked it up and handed it to me. We both looked at it in amazement. I handed it back to Mike and said that because he found it she should have it. I was happy just to have found it and have the dream I dreamed the other night actually come true. There was definitely more to reality than our immediate sensory perceptions and immediate causation. Maybe I learned the truth of this early in life in part because I was open to its possibility. Nothing is proven unless it is tested.
On the way home Mike made a point of saying what an unusual person I was. He recalled that when we played hide and seek at his house with his brother and sister and the other kids, I seemed to know where he was hiding. While we looked for him I told everyone I could ‘smell’ him in the large willow tree in the backyard. It wasn’t smelling a body odor but something different I guess. The kids looked up the tree but couldn’t see him. They made fun of me and thought I was crazy but when they shouted ‘We give up!’ Mike climbed down from the top of the willow!
Professor G.A. Cribari is a science fiction writer, raconteur, cosmologist, sommelier, and independent historian. He lives in Center City.