As a kid, summers offered a sense of freedom that I took for granted. When you are younger you tend to focus on the freedoms you obtain when you become an adult and rarely understand the freedoms you already had. The appeal of driving, going where you want, and staying up late blind you and you don’t see the beauty of being a kid. These highlights of being an adult only seem to come to the surface during arguments with your parents over bed time, wanting to go somewhere they don’t, or wanting something they didn’t or couldn’t get you. Those arguments planted a seed in your head that was false, a lie, that being a grown-up was better than being a kid.
As I stand on the edge of 40, going on 41 (an edge of today, it’s my Birthday), my mind wanders to those days of my youth. Those summer days of adventure, freedom, and discovery. I’ll never say “I’m old” (I’m far from it and it makes me mad when I hear punk ass kids in their twenties cry about being old. Hell, there are people my age that are ready to crank up the heat and bundle up in an afghan while they yell at kids to stay off their lawn.), but those days feel so long ago.
Anyways, let me paint a portrait of summers long ago in a little town in Northern Maryland.
The house I grew-up in was old, very old. It was once a wash house that accompanied the large house next door that my Grandparents lived in. As a wash house it was used to launder clothes and at the time that meant over a fire and in a large cauldron. The clothes were strung up around the room to dry. There was a second story that was primarily used for storage, but in total it was a two room structure with a basement for cold storage. The wash house was built years before Civil War erupted across the nation. Fast Forward sixty, seventy years and the wash house was built upon to make it a house. the basement was extended to add a foundation to another room and bathroom to the ground floor and another room to the second.
This seems like a lot of backstory to just inform you that the house was old, small, and very outdated when it came to things like electricity. This lack of modern electricity meant that I grew up with out A/C and for most of my life our only heat came from a small fireplace that once housed a bubbling caldron of clothes a few decades before.
Summer nights were hot and it was hard to sleep with only a box fan moving the still, humid hot air. But in a twisted form of irony the morning seemed cold yet inviting. I would awake to the sounds of life outside my opened, screened-in windows. Birds of all varieties would be singing, the sounds of squirrels and groundhogs passing through the fallen leaves of countless past autumns would drift up to my room. These sounds called out to me to get dressed and join them in the yard and the dense woods surrounding the house. I heeded the call and bounded out of bed, ready for the days adventure.
The area around my house was something that had to been seen to believe. My house and my Grandparent’s house sat on nine acres of lawns and woods. Also on the land was an ancient barn, chicken coop, and other manner of out buildings. This slice of country living was wedged between the modern world that grew around it.
Across the street from our small homestead was a small strip mall of a couple stores and a mechanic’s garage and auto parts / general store. Next to that was a gas station. To one side of our property was a church with a large parking lot and a great hill that I used every snow fall to sled. To the other side of our property were newer homes. Behind us was a huge parking lot and a Moose Club and just beyond that was a private club that had a pool. Some days the sounds of kids playing it that pool would drift down the hill to me and cause me to be quiet envois. Oh, and beyond the garage and shops and gas station across the road from us was the busy, dangerous highway that was the main thoroughfare of our town and countless other towns up and down the county.
I hope this paints picture of my environment. Some of my other posts (if you’ve read) fill in some of the other details of my home life. Don’t worry if you’re new around here, it’s done in humor.
Between the road in front of my house and the highway sat the small shopping center I mentioned before, but next to that was one of my favorite adventure spots. The shopping center had a small parking lot that extended around to it’s side. I would spend hours riding my bike up and down the shopping center’s sidewalk and parking lot. These were the days when EVERYTHING mom and pop closed at 5 o’clock. I would wait in my Grandparents yard until I saw the last car pull away, then I would jump onto my bike and head across the street. Mind you this was when I was really young and not allowed to venture to far from home. Don’t worry this isn’t the exciting part.
Next to the parking lot was a very long and pretty wide culvert. It would have been a perfect concrete half-pipe if not for the sharp angles of the transitions between walls and the floor. The culvert was 6 feet deep and required a bit of climbing to get out of it but getting in was never an issue. The culvert was used for rain runoff from the highway and started further up the highway as a smaller drainage system. It disappeared into a large dark pipe as it ran under the parking lot, shopping center, gas station, and a small used car dealership down the road. At the beginning of this pipe there was a natural spring that flowed from a much smaller pipe that ran under the highway. The spring flowed with enough force that a level of about 10 inches of water rushed from the pipe and flowed through the larger six foot tall pipe. Where the spring met with the culvert there was a constant supply of algae and moss (at least during the summer). On really hot days the algae would bubble up and look like hundreds of slime green orbs that looked eerily familiar to the end of Gremlins when Stripe met his doom in the fountain inside the Wards Department Store.
Oh and I forgot to mention that there was a ramp down from the culvert into the large, ominous pipe that disappeared underground. Add a coat to slime to that and you had a great time sliding on your bum into what could be sudden death at the hands of a C.H.U.D..
The fear of the unknown kept me away from that opening for years and when night would begin to fall I would claw and scamper my way out of the culvert and return home on my bike, never looking back over my shoulder.
I knew where the pipe lead, in a manner of speaking. The spring eventually turned into a creek after it made its journey through the pipe. The creek was pretty good sized in its own right and it passed through an area at the bend in our street that my father called “The Swamp”. At this time I was to young to travel to the end of our street so the idea of a swamp seemed so awesome, scary, and mysterious.
At the bend at the end of our road, our street changed names and made its way through an older part of town with houses and ended as it intersected with Main Street. At the bend a gravel road split off of the paved road and went down into a dense patch of woods with a row of houses. On the other side of the gravel one-lane road was a large pole building that was a body shop and impromptu junk yard….with its own junk yard dog. I never saw the dog but I heard its loud bellows and earth shaking barks at all times of day. But all of this was just the entrance to what was known as “The Swamp”.
For a couple of years the “Pipe” taunted me. Every now and again I would notice new graffiti marring its concrete entrance and as deep as the sunlight would illuminate it. As with most graffiti in those days it was meant to shock so it was mostly poorly drawn pentagrams and “Satan lives here” type of rhetoric. These stick figure levels of shock and awe played on my mind but did little to sway my growing need to investigate this gapping maw of an urban dungeon.
I still to this day don’t know why one day was better than any other, but one hot summer day in 1985 when I just turned nine I decided to enter the “Pipe”.
Flashlights around my house were a rare thing to come across. It was like my dad had his “special’ one for working around the house and we had one hidden away for emergencies and that was it. So when the time came to finally head into the underworld I had no flashlight, no torch like Indy used, or lighter like would-be-heroes used in the movies. It was just me, dressed in short jogging shorts, a t-shirt, sneakers, and ringed socks…like most kids at the time. I felt naked. I didn’t have the attire of my heroes, I didn’t have a bright orange flight suit or a brown fedora to provide me some sort of shielding or protection, because short shorts couldn’t help me for shit. But I did have a screwdriver.
I needed some sort of protection, just in case. I had seen Alligator and C.H.U.D. on cable and I knew what sort of creatures could be lurking in the shadowy depths of a sewer. Either it be an enlarged pissed off reptile or Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dweller, I needed protection. There was one thing around the house I could take and not get in trouble for having, a screwdriver. Sure we had kitchen knives, hatchets, axes, and other assorted farming instruments but the use of any one of those items could have gotten me in trouble and a grounding during the summer was the pits. No, my father had plenty of screwdrivers in a variety of different sizes and he wouldn’t miss just one of them while he and my mother were at work.
Standing in front of the large six foot opening of “The Pipe” I started to reconsider my new found courage. The air felt colder just being near the opening and the sound of running water echoed back at me. Every pebble or leaf that broke the flow of the water gave it an eerie popping type sound that seemed to swirl around the smooth sides of “The Pipe” until it landed in my ears. Outside of the “The Pipe” the world was silent as the heavy humidity hanging in the air seemed to cushion the sounds of traffic and of the singing birds in the trees nearby. My hand went to the clear and red handle of the Craftsman screwdriver secured in the waistband of my jogging shorts and a slight nudge of calmness came over me.
Now it was time…
To Be Continued…