Saturday, December 04, 2004

Buckeyes, Tadpoles, and Vines for Swinging

I once lived in a small brick house that sat near a rise in the road and backed up to a great big woods. We moved there in the summer of 1958, between my 1st and 2nd grade years. In fact, when we took occupancy of that house, I had not yet even turned seven years old. But the boyhood pleasures that encompassed me for the three years that we lived there, still resonate deep in my heart.

Our house sat in the curve on the road, on the north side—or the right—as one ascends the hill. The ranch style home on Joliet Avenue had three bedrooms and one bath. It rested on a poured concrete basement foundation, and looked like every other house on the street—except for the number posted on the little wooden sign to the right of our front door—244.

Our new home was not that far from my grandma’s house. She lived in Edgemont, just across the Cincinnati Corporation line, and prior to our move, I too had lived there with Mom, Dad, and Ellen, in grandma’s second floor apartment. In fact, I had lived at Grandma’s ever since the day my mom brought me home from Good Samaritan Hospital, where I had been born.

To get from Grandma’s to our new house, we crossed the Mill Creek Expressway, made a right, and headed north, up the Springfield Pike (Ohio Route 747). We drove past the tall neon Indian who pointed at the used cars, crossed the singing bridge, passed through Hartwell and Wyoming (not the state—the town), entered our little burg of Woodlawn, and made a left onto Riddle Road. Just past Woodlawn School and up the hill, we entered our little subdivision, turning right onto Roberta Drive, and then left onto Joliet. The trip normally took about fifteen minutes.

The spring before we moved in, we often made that trek on Saturdays to watch and measure the progress of construction. We had even made acquaintance with the man operating the bulldozer, grading the lot prior to the excavation for the basement pour. That’s why my very first “When I grow up, I wanna be a _____,” was populated with “bulldozer driver.”

Those were my halcyon days. Summers especially found me filled with happiness as my friends and I ventured ever so carefully down the steep hill that finished off my backyard, and into the woods behind my house, where so many wonders awaited us city-grown boys.

It is a common lament that children today grow up too fast, that society is conspiring to deprive them of the halcyon childhood they deserve.
Keith Bradsher, “Fear of Crime Trumps the Fear of Lost Youth,” New York Times, November 21, 1999

They call Ohio the Buckeye State. And down that hill, into those woods, we found many.

The Buckeye tree (scientific name Aesculus Glabra Wildenow) grows throughout Ohio. In Latin, the name means "oak and smooth." The tree is short, only reaching a height of about fifty feet. The buckeye nut is round and brown, with one little tan-colored spot. Buckeyes look like the eyes of a male deer, thus the name “buck-eye.”

Even as a seven-year-old kid, I had an understanding that the buckeye was unique to my area of the country. But don’t ask me how I knew that. Perhaps Dad told me. I only knew that buckeyes were legendary, special, something few kids had seen.

And they were great for throwing too, like a small stone. You could zing those suckers far and fast with a pitch of the arm and a snap of the wrist, and send them buzzing through the woods like a bullet. Almost every time Dennis and Tommy and I entered that woods, we would pick out a distant tree, and test our aim and accuracy. It wasn’t quite a “ping,” and it wasn’t quite a “thwack,” but when that buckeye made contact with that tree, you knew it. Oh the joys of boyhood!

Upon entering our lush, green forest, we never failed to go down to our creek. In fact, our creek was but a few yards from the bottom of the hill.

We loved that creek and it became our playground. It meandered through those woods with such grace. Heavy storms had carved out great, gaping holes under some of the huge trees that hung alongside the edge of the creek bed, especially where the water’s course made a sharp bend to the left or the right. Webs of roots shot out of the earth like elephant snouts, twisting and turning beneath their tree’s trunks, exposed to the open air. Some of the voids amidst those twinings were so large that we could climb inside, and sit under the trees that perched themselves precariously above our heads.

"The path of least resistance makes [both] men and rivers crooked."
Charles Simpson

Creeks are living. They teem with all kinds of critters. We caught tadpoles and frogs, and every variation in between. We snatched up crawdads with our fingers and put them in buckets to bring home to our moms, who immediately sent us back down the hill to return them to their homes in the mud. We grabbed up salamanders and snails. I even tried to catch a snake once, by picking it up right behind the head. But the snake snapped around, biting me on the finger. I still have the scar.

One summer we dammed up that creek. We dragged big rocks from all around, laid a good foundation, and created the basic outline of the dam. Then we shoveled mud and dirt over those rocks and built it up, while directing the flow of water to one side. Finally we found an old galvanized pipe about 2” in diameter, stuck it in the dam wall, and covered it over. Then we closed off our little channel and watched the water’s elevation slowly rise. Soon the water reached the mouth of our pipe and began the flow through it.

We had created a lake! Right there in our own, private woods—our woods—we had engineered and constructed a magnificent, colossal, structure. Our chests puffed out. Our pride swelled. You would have thought that we had just finished building Hoover Dam.

Stones are great for skipping across the water. And we had them—plenty of them. Smooth, flat, rounded stones, weighted just right, perfect to the touch. Eons of creek water rushing over these rocks had honed them to perfection—made them just right for skipping. Knees bent, eyes sharpened, a sidearm sling, a flick of the wrist, and whoosh, there it went, gliding, skipping, floating in the air. One, two three, four, five … how many times did that stone touch the water and rise again? Oh the joys of triumph, watching that stone slip again and again from the grasp of gravity’s pull!

Not far from our creek, on the other side from where we entered our woods, stood a stand of trees from which a plethora of vines hung, suspended. These were the kinds of vines found in the Tarzan movies—the movies where Johnny Weissmuller swung from tree to tree with Cheetah in tow. Our vines measured two to three inches in diameter, and had, over time, wrapped themselves tightly around the trees’ upper branches. When we first found these hanging vines, it was almost impossible to get to them. Undergrowth made passage in and out of that area very difficult. But over time we cleared it out.

Once accessible, we grabbed those vines and swung for our lives. Anybody can swing on a rope tied to a tree branch, but this was the real thing. Tarzan swung on real vines. And now we did, too!

Ours was an old growth forest. Everything was original. And our woods boasted some of the biggest trees around. Besides the buckeye, we found hickory, ash, oak, sycamore, and walnut along with others. Some of those trees made for great climbing. With low-slung branches, we could easily grab on and pull ourselves up. But the best climbing trees were the ones that didn’t grow straight up, but instead shot out of the ground at odd angles. Those trees made the best climbing trees. A good climber could get way up into the limbs and appendages of those gargantuan monsters.

Trees are ponderous. Like humans, each one owns unique elements. The lowest branches of some are unreachable to the eight-year-old boy. But others invite climbing and exploring. Some are straight, others gnarly. Some are nearly symmetrical. Others are twisted, irregular, and lopsided—kind of like people.

Our little trio of woods-loving pals often scoured the ground for unique looking rocks. We collected them. Like trees, they came in all shapes and sizes. And colors too. My favorites were the quartz stones we often found, with their translucence and near transparency. We also dug up flint and sometimes limestone.

But our most wonderful finds transported us back to ancient history, to the time when great creatures roamed the wild. For in that uncharted, previously unexplored wilderness we called our woods, buried in the soil, we unearthed countless fossils—petrifications of plants, trees, and once-living creatures that peppered that Buckeye-State soil. And we happened upon them often.

We also found arrowheads—Indian arrowheads. The Shawnee had been the most recent occupants of this land, before we white men came. They had once hunted in these woods—now our woods. The Shawnee—some of the bravest, fiercest warriors of Indian lore had roamed this ground. Blue Jacket, Cornstalk, and the mightiest of them all, Tecumseh, had hunted here—at least in our fertile imaginations. And now we—we the brave—held their weapons of war in our fingertips.

I can almost hear their battle cry now, rising up from deep within the bowels of their terrifying manhood. It feels almost like the low, guttural groan of Tim, “the Tool Man” Taylor, expressing a virile, primeval masculinity.

Such are the undomesticated fancies of a young boy—and a middle-aged man.

One day my pals and I decided to leave our comfortable little paradise and go exploring. Just behind our creek rose a hill that sort of curved along with the creek’s contours. We had never been to the top of that hill, nor beyond, but often wondered what we might find on the other side.

We struck out one morning and ascended that hill. We walked along the top of the thickety ridge for quite some ways. In our minds, that hill became a mountain. And then, suddenly, through a clearing in the trees, we saw something that stopped us in our tracks. Below us, spread out for acres and acres at our feet, we beheld a lush pasture carpeted in green. And beyond that pasture, more woods, more trees, more unexplored, virgin forest. It seemed to go on forever.

Now I understood how those first pioneers must have felt. They crested ridge after unexplored ridge, standing again and again in awe and wonderment at the endless American forest and its hidden mysteries.

Add to our great pleasure, that the pasture was populated with what must have been a hundred head of cattle. Now I had seen cattle before, from the window of our Chevy Nomad, driving through the country with Mom and Dad. But this—this wonderful, strange moment came so unexpectedly, so unpredictably, I had not been prepared. None of us had. Not a thing stood between those cows and three young wide-eyed city boys. Not a car window, not a fence, not a parent holding our hand, nothing.

And the wonder of it all was this. Mark and Dennis and Tommy had found that place—that magical, enchanted place—all by ourselves. We, the great explorers of our virgin, pristine woods had stumbled upon this great discovery alone, by our own wits, our own cunning, our own forest-honed skills. We, the hunters and capturers of wild, exotic sea creatures—we, the builders of magnificent dams and creators of lakes—we, the clearers of great forests and the Tarzan-like swingers of vines—we, the climbers of huge, knotted trees—we, the wise archeologists, the conquerors who tread the same ground where Shawnee bowmen had once hunted for game—we the buckeye-wielding warriors, had now laid open the mysteries beyond that mountain.

We never returned to that wild, distant place again. Time passed quickly, and we retreated back into our ticky-tack homes, our black and white television screens, our homework for school, and our manicured baseball diamonds.

Those had been my halcyon days—my youthful days of joy and boyhood wonderment. Not long after that monumental discovery from the mountaintop, our family moved away—far, far away, to Texas, where a whole new set of adventures awaited this soon-to-be ten-year-old boy.


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