by Robert Boucheron
The creek was a few inches deep and a few feet wide. The rear boundary of the lots it flowed past, the creek was no-man’s-land, or so it seemed to a child. In the 1950s, every family in Bellewood had children. We jumped from grassy bank to bank, slipped, and fell in.
We roamed in gangs. We played in weedy vacant lots, on the tar-and-gravel streets, on swings, in piles of brush in the back yard, and in the creek. In winter, we tunneled through snow drifts, built forts with snow boulders, and sledded downhill at breakneck speed, often into the ice-clad creek. In summer, we played running games. Hide-and-seek had verbal formulas which had to be shouted word-perfect. War had rules that changed on a whim, daring raids, prisoners bound and blindfolded, heroic escapes, and disputes over who shot first and therefore who was dead. We filled our water pistols in the creek.
On a summer evening, we chased the fogger. This was a cart that sprayed insecticide to keep down the mosquitoes which bred in the creek. Men of the neighborhood took turns towing the fogger behind their cars at dusk, when there was no breeze. We raced ahead and lay face down on the grass. The white, sweet-smelling fog washed over us. The fogger roared. Deafened, our lungs filled with poison, we writhed in ecstasy.
Where the creek crossed Leroy Road through a culvert, it widened to a shallow pool. The south bank had a seesaw and stubby mounts to ride, a half-hearted attempt at a playground. The ground was strewn with pebbles and trash. The creek, for that matter, was polluted by runoff, drains from washing machines, and more. Each house had its own waste tank and drainfield, a septic system prone to mishaps. Foam clung to the edges of the creek, and objects lurked in its bed—shoes, cans, a pouchy, airless ball. Still, the water was clear. Minnows lived in it, frogs and creeping things.
The culvert was dark, the bottom was slick with algae, and cobwebs hung in the air. Three times, I crept halfway through the culvert and chickened out. Finally, disgusted by fear, I dashed all the way through to daylight, and came out splashed with mud and glory.
In rubber boots or barefoot in summer, I waded in the shallow pool next to Leroy Road. Other children might be there, but the attraction was hydraulic engineering. Bending double to use my hands, I built dams of sand and gravel. I observed patterns of ripples, the rising flood, and slowly drowning islands. As water overtopped it, the dam eroded. Then it broke and gushed a torrent. This moment of disaster was worth hours of effort. My back ached, and my hands and feet grew numb with cold, but I was never happier.
My older brother Pete led me to the jungle. This was a marshy area upstream, overgrown with reeds and poison sumac, which was death to touch. Trails wandered through the jungle, which steamed under a pitiless sun. The mud and rotting plants smelled vile.
“Is it the breath of a cougar?” I asked.
“Yes,” Pete said. “Cougars lurk on low branches. They spring out of hiding and eat you.”
“You’re walking too fast.”
“You have to keep up. But stay on the path. One false step, and you’ll sink up to your neck in quicksand. No one will hear you cry for help.”
There were forts in the jungle, but all I saw was a small clearing, with a fallen tree trunk that served as a bench. Pete never specified what they did, the gang of older boys. I believe they sat solemnly in council, trooped through the jungle in single file, raided a fort with bloodcurdling yelps, and perfected their skill with jackknives. Every boy had a jackknife. Some had ropes and other useful gear. Pete’s specialty was pulleys, which he rigged between trees to transfer cargo. His training as a Boy Scout was not for nothing.
Farther upstream, beyond the jungle, was a private dump. The creek was a trickle here, down a steep bank, engulfed by briars. Pete and his friends roamed the hillocks of the dump and destroyed whatever they could find—bottles, boards, crates, and paint cans. I was drawn to construction debris—bricks, lumber, and globs of plaster that looked squishy but were hard as rock. I collected ceramic tiles and scraps of wood in a damp cardboard box to carry home.
We had a bin of scraps, a miscellany of wooden dowels, offcuts, shingles, alphabet blocks, and dominoes. Eddie and I built cities that sprawled across our bedroom floor. He had an army of little green soldiers to garrison the cities. He also had a catapult with a rubber band to launch marbles and wooden spools. We laid siege, admired the ruins, and cleared them to build again. I would grow up to be an architect. Eddie would become an engineer in thermodynamics and join a company that made bombs.
Where did the creek flow downstream? One listless, overcast day, Eddie and I explored. We plunged into a dense forest whose canopy blotted out the sky. Along a streambed that twisted and turned, we trudged for miles through uncharted wilderness. There was no path. The trees had giant roots that were hard to step over. There were bushes and briars. We wore shorts, and our legs got scratched.
“Where are we?” Eddie asked plaintively.
“I forgot to borrow Pete’s compass,” I said. “Lichen grows on the north side of tree trunks. If we get lost, we can find our way back.”
“I’m hungry,” Eddie said. “Did you bring supplies?”
“No. Tighten your belt a notch.”
“It’s lonely out here.”
“An explorer has to keep going, regardless.”
“I want to go home.”
We never discovered the end of the creek.