There is a seminal moment every evening just before dusk. For precious minutes, the world is in a state of suspended animation. Sandwiched between the commotion of the day and the mystery of the night, it’s an unnamed snippet of eerie tranquility where neither a drowsy sun nor bestirring moon reigns.
It was the best part of any day during the summer of ’85.
I was 13 years old.
Bathed in the 15-watt glow of a crescent moon that seemed to hang inches above the current circumstance, I crouched in front of the garage door. I was standing sentry at the northeast corner of the white rambler where my mother, brother, and I sheltered during the Reagan-Bush era.
Just off the poured-concrete stairs that lead around to the backyard, I held my position next to the downspout, periodically edging my left eyeball around the corner for a quick southward peek. Although the moon was fair-to-partly-dim that evening, the damn street light at the base of our driveway suddenly burst onto the scene dousing me with its harsh white glare. I suddenly understood how an x-rayed tibia felt. I had no time to give it much thought, however, as I was preparing to run like hell at any moment.
Positioned at the northwest corner of the house opposite me, near the overgrown arborvitae that had swallowed up footballs, baseballs, and snowballs too numerous to count, was my comrade-in-arms: Brandon. When the world, or at least Plymouth, MN, was not obscured in a dusky mist, he was more easily recognizable as my younger, larger, and considerably blonder brother. I could only assume he was strategically edging his right eyeball around the corner for a fleeting glance southward. If not, I’d have to kick his ass later—there was no time for shenanigans, however—we were fighting for our lives.
Together, we were employing the classic “scan and scamper” technique. This was accomplished by respectively covering each other’s unprotected flanks. If flanker #1 (Brandon) spotted the Drill Sergeant’s flashlight off the southeast corner of the house, he’d run like wind to the northwest corner of the house where flanker #2 (yours truly) was waiting. Flanker #1 would then relieve flanker #2 of his post and take up position to scan eastward from there. In turn, flanker #2 would scamper to the southwest corner of the house and find a good spot from which to settle in and also scan eastward. Both flankers would then lie in wait while calming their breathing and peeling their eyeballs. It was flawless. And if you could cajole a partner, you could do it all, night. long.
Having just been relieved of my post by my panting bro, I flew down the stairs to the backyard and hunched down in my new position behind the peaked shrubs that were trying to grow in the 20′ x 10′ patch of desert behind our garage—it was the only spot on the entire property that was seemingly never shaded.
My breath aside, it was deathly calm. As my huffing and puffing faded back into unconscious reflex, I began to marvel at the frenetic serenity that had engulfed me. An orchestra of crickets provided a dull-yet-mellifluous murmur. The occasional flop of a bullhead or slap of a beaver’s tail from the small hidden lake in the backyard would send ripples across the surface of the water and sound waves across the drums of my ears. The omnipotent scent of an early summer evening would fill my lungs, drench my skin, and saturate my clothing, so as to be present long after I went in for the evening.
Only the occasional whoosh of a passing car on the adjacent road would mar all of these natural melodies with a momentary blast of mechanical resonance briefly reminding me that I was not in some Guatemalan jungle or Appalachian forest. And the flittering night wind, that would occasionally swirl and rustle the hairs on my head, seemed an ominous harbinger of something unseen and unknown —a characteristic notably absent from the refreshing breezes that invigorated me on too-numerous summer afternoons.
By sheer serendipity, I found myself in an idyllic setting…to be a kid.
We called it Army—the innocent gamification of something that, unbeknownst to all of us at the time, was considerably more ominous, more ruthless, more deleterious. But it was the era of Platoon, and Full Metal Jacket—we all wanted to be “in country” with CCR thrumming in our heads, at least in our back yard for the evening.’
It was entertainment invented by my brother and me with considerable input from our three stalwart neighborhood buddies: Angus, Robin (Rob), and Heath. Together, we divided, explored and conquered our minuscule corner of the planet as a band of misfits, that somehow together, fit.
Our creation was surely inspired by, and a conflation of, numerous outdoor games we played on too many dusky, musky, murky summer nights. It was a little capture the flag mixed with a little kick the can amidst a backdrop of flashlight tag.
I have no clear recollection of how this diversion came into its prominent existence. Like most total awesomeness, it was likely spawned at the crossroads of utter boredom and precipitous imagination. And for at least one wondrous summer, it captured the imagination of five kids from the neighborhood quite utterly.
The game was simple, yet inexplicably the rules somehow became more subjective as we continued to fine-tune them:
- Someone was the Drill Sergeant, and for whatever reason, Rob was always the drill sergeant.
- Everyone else was a soldier and began the evening at the rank of “Private”.
- Drill Sergeant Rob was equipped with a flashlight of his choosing (or bringing — mostly bringing—(he didn’t trust us to equip him).
- Privates were allowed no gear other than swift feet, sharp wits, and the clothes on their backs.
- If Rob caught anyone in the cross hairs of his flashlight beam, that soldier had to freeze regardless of whether he was 15 or 1015 feet away (his chosen flashlight was no joke).
- Upon being caught in the light, Rob assigned the soldier a physical challenge. Judgement, imagination, and mercy were his only guides. These are a few common examples:
- Do 30 push-ups
- Climb to some specific branch of a tree
- Run around the house 10 times in under 5 minutes (oh yea, he also had a stopwatch dangling from his neck)
- If the challenge was completed successfully, the soldier moved up a rank.
- If the challenge was not completed successfully or refused, the soldier moved down a rank (Private -1, Private -2—these were common ranks)
- Here’s where subjectivity crept in: if the soldier was successful in not being caught for a particularly extended period (at least 30 minutes), Rob could simply grant him a higher rank based on his prowess at evading the deadly glare of his flashlight. If a soldier managed to evade Rob for an hour or longer, Rob might move the soldier up multiple ranks.
- In general, the reward was significantly higher for being stealthy rather than being able complete an endless series twisted calisthenics. Plus, none of us much enjoyed Rob’s cavalcade of twisted calisthenics unless we were feeling especially masochistic, and it was usually hot as hell outside.
- In the end, glory, distinction, and legend came by reaching your final rank not with brawn but with stealth and brains.
- The game ended when the platoon was spent, or a soldier was beckoned home by a bellowing mother’s voice from across the ’hood.
We played this game nightly with fervor reminiscent of addicted gamblers consistently returning to the same bank of slot machines. What strikes me now, is that we never bothered to consider that there was anywhere else for a kid to be on a summer’s eve than outside. The very notion of siting inside and watching television when the weather was so nice was anathema to us all.
The backdrop for our collective nocturnal pastime was the kinda-bucolic acre lot upon which our rightsized rambler was situated—a setting where I would tirelessly labor to craft an imperfectly pristine childhood.
The home itself was perched on a substantial hill by suburban Minneapolis standards. In the winter, the embankment just off of the aforementioned poured-concrete stairs was steep enough to get a sled up to about 25 mph just before colliding with the leafless branches of trees, shrubs and vines in the wooded area that too-quickly met you at the nadir. Incidentally, the same speed could be achieved on foot in summer by getting a running start and simply allowing gravity to plunge you down the hill into the awaiting leafy arms of Mother Nature.
On the other end of the lot was a heavily wooded area that stretched for nearly a mile around the small lake in the backyard—a body of water that was given the apt moniker “Hidden Lake” because only those that called its banks home knew it was there. Within this marvelous, magnificent and mystical forest were numerous foot paths worn down by the steady trampling of boys’ and periodically a girl’s sneaker. All paths, plus various semaphoring tree limbs directing the way, eventually led to a fort constructed of stacked logs. This fort functioned quite well as a home base for any “operation” upon which our little neighborhood “battalion” needed to conspire and subsequently execute.
Just past the enchanted forest, at the base of a shallow slope covered in tall grass, was a rather dynamic rail line. This freeway for train traffic provided numerous opportunities for fun including (but not limited to): flattening pennies, collecting railroad spikes and walking the world’s longest balance beam.
In turn, it could be quite inconvenient for reasons including (but not limited to): blaring steam whistles at all hours, pictures vibrating off your bedroom wall as you slept nearly scaring you to the grim reaper’s door step, and waiting for train cars to pass before reaching or returning from the bus stop. Either way, there was something spooky and sublime about watching a locomotive rumble through the evening’s dewy particulate.
The house, being a walkout, had a rather impressive upper deck off the back that spanned the length of the main level with a concrete patio just below it that spanned the length of the ground level. The railing of the upper deck provided a built-in ladder for convenient roof access (much to our mother’s chagrin). The grange was attached to the west end of the house, but there was nothing behind it. Thus, a natural nook or cranny (not sure which) was formed in the backyard directly behind the garage.
There were dozens of climbable trees on the property – most notably a Weeping Willow that grew horizontally from the lake shore spanning 20 feet out and over the lake. Another notorious tree, which like the roof, was accessible from the upper deck railing, always beckoned me with its enticing-yet-scary canopy. Already 10 feet closer to heaven when starting the climb, the daredevil that scaled it had a birds-eye view of the entire backyard and a partial view of the front. At 50 feet from ground level at it most climbable point, it was where only legends (and some birds) dared to perch.
One of my personal favorite moments from our summer “in the army” involved hastily hiding, the aforementioned arborvitae, and a bonnet of bees.
In an effort to find some quick cover from the flashlight beam of doom, I passed the overgrown arborvitae on the northeast corner of the house in a full sprint and proceeded slam on the brakes in order to dive into it.
As I attempted to silence my locomotive breath—the result of chugging up the hill, I watched Rob saunter past my shrubby disguise and then slow down. Although I was in no actual danger, I was immediately stricken with that sinking sensation you get when you first hear sirens and then see flashing lights in your rear-view mirror; I instinctively held my breath. I started to turn blue as Rob more closely investigated the general area in which I was cowering. As he intensified his search, I think my skin shade darkened a bit toward the purple end of the spectrum.
Mercifully, he moved on, as I gulped vast quantities of thick-as-pudding, humid, evening air. When the color returned to my cheeks, I noticed what I thought was a ball lodged in the evergreen branches not more than a foot in front of my face. Having previously retrieved all manner of long-lost recreational items from this particular shrub, I instinctively reached out to grab it.
As I wrapped my fingers around it—it was no larger than a softball—I noticed that it started to vibrate. Seconds later, I noticed that my index finger was throbbing in intense pain. Split-seconds later that, I bolted from the shrub screaming “Bees! Bees! Run! Bees!!!” This immediately elicited a flashing of Rob’s light in my direction. I was busted by the Drill Sergeant, but at least I escaped certain death by multiple bee stings!
On another occasion, one of my fellow comrades decided to scale the previously ballyhooed tree that was instantly accessible from the deck railing. It strikes me today that the obvious threat of ghastly injury was generally disregarded back then, just as I’d dismiss the chance of being struck by lightning on a trip to the mailbox during a thunderstorm today. I guess I’ve always embodied the idiom: “fools rush in where angels fear to tread”, and we were all spectacular fools in those halcyon days; little has changed…for me at least.
A broken wrist, arm, or leg seemed a negligible risk for the reward of shimmying up a tree trunk for a million dollar view of the evening’s festivities. And one of my platoon-mates decided to go higher into that tree than anyone had previously dared. So high in fact, that he was not seen on maneuvers by anyone throughout the course of the entire evening.
I often recollect this endeavor when I imagine the most pristine place on earth. Especially when suffering endless hours in a scrubbed-clean, white-noise-filled, chi-destroying cubicle. I imagine the hot dewy air rushing in where trade winds fear to tread. I imagine the view of endless woods from five stories aloft. From that vantage point, I can envision the street that divided the tranquility with the periodic ’78 Buick Regal or ’82 Cutlass Supreme whizzing past and destroying the silence. I imagine what I’d imagine nestled in such a spot in the universe. I imagine the unparalleled beauty of the scene. I imagine perfection…at least on this astral plain…
Anyway, we could nary locate Angus as we decided to pack it in and launch an all out manhunt to pinpoint his coordinates—now four weary, wet, pungent, Drill Sergeants vs. one soldier. As I canvassed the backyard, it was not until I heard Angus’ telltale cackle cascading down from the heavens, that he finally revealed himself. I recall being shocked at his Spider-man-like skills and thinking that he had a real future as an Indonesian coconut retrieval monkey. He definitely claimed the brass ring that night—of that there was no doubt.
This diversion of ours —it caused us to think. It forced engagement of the mind to propel the body which lifted the spirit. It was a magnificent synergy that could only be achieved in the great outdoors, in the heat of summer, in the still of the night.
We were all residents of our respective imaginations each time we navigated this fantastic twilight saga. We were elite paramilitary troopers specially trained in camouflage, quiet, and evasive maneuvers. We were superheroes that could perform amazing feats of agility, speed, and strength. We were stealthy ninjas disappearing in the shadows, melding with the flora (arborvitae) whilst evading the fauna (bees).
Even if we weren’t.
It didn’t matter.
Thant was the point.
Likely, we each achieved varying degrees of legend in our own minds as we traversed our opaque fairy-tale. This shared endeavor unfolded as much in our minds as it did in front of our faces.Despite running, and ducking, and exerting ourselves, there was plenty of time to think, and plot, and plan. We were kings of our hills, masters of our universe, and explorers sans compasses. But that was very much the point. Our imaginations flourished—because we refused to hold them back—because we had to rely on them to persevere.
Today, we seem to be on some bent quest to organize, compartmentalize and homogenize the childhood episode in life’s mini-series. This often results in a sort of institutionalized play that resembles the hour of outdoor activity accorded to inmates incarcerated at maximum security prisons. Ironically, this institutionalized play is often rationalized under the guise of protecting kids from potential dangers posed by the type of folks that end up as prison inmates.
It seems to me that we need to disorganize, randomize, and colorize the childhood installment of life once again. As I sit in my Dilbert-style cubicle during these hazy summer afternoons, I often catch myself daydreaming about things I did decades in the past…outside…at night. In those fleeting weeks of endless childhood summers, my life seemed like an ancient Greek epic poem by Homer—an Odyssey.
Copyright © this hellish fucked up year of the lord, 2020
– ∞ B. Charles Donley