Beyond The Pale

On Childhood, Mud, Cathedrals

From the time that we moved to the house on Crottinger to the time that I finally got around to leaving for college, I lived a good portion of my life outside. As I’ve mentioned before, I would spend hour upon hour traipsing around in the woods, imagining that I was some kind of pioneer, a shepherd of the forest. These times formed a large part of who I would eventually become, and it is probably because of these that one of my great improbable post-retirement career ideas has been doing some time as a forest ranger.

The parents at NWAG seemed to have some kind of “getting the kids out of our hair” scheme that involved passing us around on Sunday afternoons, giving parents a break and allowing kids the opportunity to try to ruin their clothes before the evening service. My parents didn’t really seem to be in on the scheme though because out of six Sundays, I’d guess that I went over to a friend’s house once, just hung out with the family once, and had friends over four times. Not a fair trade for my parents, especially since my brother and sister pretty much worked on the same schedule that I did, so it was unusual for my parents to get an afternoon with less than three kids. Usually there were more rather than fewer kids to keep track of.

These Sunday afternoon excursions were fairly eclectic in terms of who the participants were. It wasn’t uncommon for me to invite over a kid who I had just met, or a kid with whom I had been at odds for most of my childhood. Also, younger siblings of my friends were fair game. Older kids were always too busy to come over.

One Sunday afternoon in the early spring, I invited Josh Web, the youngest of the Web boys, over for the afternoon, and after we had the every-Sunday meal of Spaghetti that was traditional in my family, we set off into the farmer’s freshly tilled field next door to show him this cool little creek-fort that Derek Bergemann and I had found. The weather had finally warmed up to the lower 60s, and the spring rains had started, though it wasn’t raining that day, so of course I loaned him a pair of shorts and a T-shirt—seeing as the low 60s is perfect for that kind of clothing.

We never made it because Josh lost a boot in the mud, and I fell on my butt trying to pull first him then the boot out of the mire, and before long we were throwing great piles of mud at each other and had made mud-coneheads for ourselves and caked up mud all over our bodies so that you couldn’t see our clothes or skin at all. We thought this was high comedy, so we set out for the house to show my dad.

Anyone who has ever played in the mud as a kid knows where this one is headed. About half way back to the house, the mud started to dry on our skin and pull at the hair on our arms, legs, and, worst of all, necks. By the time we rounded the corner of Taylor and came into view of the house, we were walking like zombies and almost crying with every step that we took. Dad was outside chopping wood, and he later told me that when he first saw us come staggering around the bend, he thought that two naked little black kids were walking down the road.

Even through the torture of pulled out neck hairs and, we were having a good time because the mud was actually keeping us warm—until we wanted to get cleaned off.

Dad wouldn’t let us in the house.

Instead of letting us cook off all of the mud and ruin the drainage in the house, as had been my plan, Dad said we would have to hose off outside. I’d been through this ordeal before, so I immediately panicked and started clawing at the now dry plaster coating my body. This worked exactly none. Dad got out the hose and started spraying us while we danced around and whooped and hollered and ran away, pulling at our shirts to keep them from touching our skin and screeching whenever the water found the backs of our knees or our butt cracks. Then, when I wouldn’t hold still, Dad grabbed me by the neck and hosed off my conehead and sprayed water down my back. While he did the same to Josh, I took off my clothes, other than undies, and left them in a pile. While Josh discarded his clothes, I got the worst, coldest part of the hosing while dad laughed at me and said he hoped it taught me a lesson.

Still, when it was over, we got hot showers and mom made us hot chocolate while we sat on top of the Buck stove in the living room trying to get as warm as possible without burning ourselves.

That farmer’s field to the Northwest of the house always has cold memories for me, probably because I was fairly well banned from going near it during the summer due to an unfortunate accident involving a “controlled burn” and the near destruction of the entire soybean crop, but that’s another story. During the winter, when there wasn’t anything for me to destroy, and the farmer wasn’t so vigilant, the field was fair game.

The winter before the naked black kid incident, Derek Bergemann and I had been chasing the creek through the woods, trying to map every inch of its trek and hoping that if we followed it long enough, we would end up having a path to Industrial Parkway—and thereby the Village Mart, with all the glory of its meatball sandwiches and chocolate milk—that didn’t involve my typical M.O. of either walking five miles on the road or getting hopelessly lost in the woods, when we saw the dried up, almost hidden, erosionary evidence of a tributary creek feeding into our own. Well, this couldn’t be passed up, and after several false starts and much wetness of boots, we found that the forest behind the farmer’s field we were skirting wasn’t a forest at all but a narrow strip of trees and drainage full of robins, squirrels, crawdads, mice, and thorn bushes.

As we were on a hero-quest to follow creeks wherever they might lead, skirting the thorns was simply not to be done, so we sucked it up and went knee high in the only part of the creek that still had water to get under the thorns. What we found under the biggest thicket, one that had looked impenetrable from all other routes but the creek, was a cathedral of thorns with all of the grandeur and interesting play of light that this entailed. It was partially hollowed out by a lay where a deer had been seeking shelter during the hunting season. Around that was a huge body of dried out thorns in turn surrounded by the outer layer of living thicket.

The thicket was growing on the side of a hill, but one curiously shaped not like the typical parabola of a dune, but more along the lines of a bell-curve bordering on the creek, providing natural protection from wind on one side and from invasion on the other.

Our journey was clearly at an end.

The rest of that day was spent clearing the ground of thorns, which were carefully preserved in a pile off to the less fortified side of the thicket, and breaking off branches enough to raise the roof to the point where we could stand without stooping. We also used sticks to open two passages in the thicket, a grand entrance for when we wanted to come back, and an escape route for if the farmer ever caught us out there. We were at this for hours until I heard the shrill whistle that my dad used to let me know that it was time to get home.

That night I obtained a promise from Dad that Derek and I could go winter camping out there when the snow came, as long as we avoided getting caught by the farmer. Derek and I spent Sundays for a month developing the aesthetic of the spot, with my dedicating at least two hours every afternoon to perfecting it, and then the snow came.

The weather that winter was prodigious. And the night we chose, a couple weeks after Christmas, turned out to be one of the coldest of the winter, though for once it wasn’t snowing. The actual low was 12 degrees Fahrenheit that night, and it is anyone’s guess what the wind chill might have been. About four we set off with our paraffin logs and our magnesium matches (we wanted to avoid using real matches on this one, though I think we eventually gave up that idea and just one of those long handled candle lighters that I had ganked from the kitchen), a pack of hotdogs, a dome tent, and two winter sleeping bags a piece. It was a serious project dragging my heavy loaded sled through the woods, and we eventually gave up and carried it out to the field to sneak up on the site that way.

By five o’clock, we had the fire going and the hotdogs cooking.

By five thirty, with the sun setting, we had eaten and were starting to get bored and cold.

By six, we were dead asleep in the tent.

At seven, I was awakened by the sound of someone doing that whisper-shout that men sometimes do on camping trips when they are trying to scare skunks away from the cooler at night without waking up their kids, who will promptly get themselves sprayed. The tent started shaking, lights flashing. The farmer had caught us.

Groggy and cozy warm, I didn’t care at this point, but I braved the cold and sat up to open the tent window. Briefly blinded by the light of a flashlight, it took me a minute to realize that it wasn’t the farmer, but my dad, who had found us.

“You guys alright?”

“Huh? Yeah, we’re great. What are you doing out here in the middle of the night?”

“It isn’t even eight o’clock yet. You guys want to come in?” He hadn’t figured we would make it until sundown, and when we didn’t come back, he came looking for us. We didn’t want to come in though. We were way too cozy in our sleeping bags for going anywhere.

About ten, I woke up because the fire had gotten big, and I saw dad sitting by it.

By eleven, the fired had died back down and dad was gone, along with our leftover hotdogs.

The next morning we packed up and dragged the stuff back to the house where we dedicated the day to Hot Chocolate and Super Metroid.

As far as I remember, Derek and I never went back to that fort together. It had served its purpose.


September 2, 2009 - Posted by | Camping, Childhood, Church


  1. You are a great storyteller… and now I know the secret to the beautiful complexion of your youth;)

    Comment by Ilona | September 3, 2009 | Reply

  2. I love to read your stories. The last one (after this one) isn’t about you, is it…if so what is Huntington???

    Comment by Mom | September 4, 2009 | Reply

  3. @ MOM, Yeah, that one is pure fiction.

    Comment by davidjgross | September 4, 2009 | Reply

  4. You ARE a great storyteller. Such fun. Thank you for writing these for …me…and for why-ever else you’ve chosen to write them.

    Comment by Rachel B. | October 21, 2009 | Reply

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