Friday, December 5, 2008

My own private Lord of the Flies

I'm going to tell you a story.

Sorry, I'm feeling a touch nostalgic.

It's the early 1990's, and we find ourselves in the midst of a newly booming suburb about 40 minutes west of Chicago. Everywhere, corn fields and streams are being bulldozed to make way for identical fairy rings of bland, Barbie Doll houses. This once quaint river town is quickly transforming, its outer reaches spreading like spilled water on porous paper with the construction of big box retailers and chain restaurants.

In the middle of one housing development, a band of adolescent children have begun to take advantage of the sudden proliferation of dirt hills, trenches, cast-off bits of wood, and rocks. Gleefully, they begin to build ramshackle forts and huts within these side effects of progress, using the battlefield-like terrain to wage petty wars of harmless fun against rival groups of kids.

Me and my two best friends--Alicia and Dave--were one such tribe. Only three in number, we still considered ourselves a force to be reckoned with. In the side yard of Dave's house, just across the street from where Alicia lived (I, the odd one out, lived some distance away in the church manse, a small house blessedly surrounded by trees instead of muddy fields), new houses had yet to go up, but space had been cleared for the purpose. This meant several large heaps of dirt and rocks, plus scattered pieces of wooden boards and pallets that practically screamed at us to be used as building materials.

We were powerless to resist. Spending countless summer hours outdoors, toiling in the dirt, we eventually built a fort in one such mound. It had an inner cave area, with ledges on top protected by packed dirt parapets. From it, we could keep an eye on the next nearest band of ruffians, who had dug into a dirt pile just two yards down.

From our fortified perches, we kept an eye on one another, wary that, should we leave our fort for any amount of time, our enemies would rush in and attempt to seize control. We stockpiled throwing-sized dirt clods, stick swords, a few small rocks, and--perhaps our most prized possessions--a mound of discarded, mutant-huge, rotting vegetables from a nearby garden. No joke, these turnips and such were gigantic and stinky, ie: perfect.

And so, when the assault finally came, we were ready--or so we thought. A handful of boys and one girl, all a few years younger than us but bold as barbarians, came charging down from their hill, intent on taking our fort.

Dirt clods and giant vegetables flew threw the air, accompanied by war cries and the occasional yelp of shock from being hit. We stood atop our ledges and lobbed with all our might, confident that we would prevail.

I was kneeling to pick up a particularly large and decomposing turnip when everything went south. Something obscenely hard and painful thumped into the back of my head and knocked me clean over. I tumbled down the back side of the mound. At the bottom, clutching the quickly forming lump, I bent over and picked up the offending projectile. A dirt clump with a huge rock clearly embedded in its side.

Oh, the line had been crossed.

The unspoken rule of the suburban battlefield was that no real pain was to be inflicted, no actual rocks thrown--only dirt and vegetables and insults. But there was no way my attacker hadn't noticed the stone lodged into his dirt bomb, I thought. I called dirty pool.

It wasn't the most tactically sound plan ever, but my temper took over. I ran out from behind the hill, empty-handed, looking for the offending kid. Most of them were distracted, busily trying to scramble up the dirt and toward my two friends, who had continued their defense in my absence. One of the older boys, though, was still standing at its foot, clearly looking for good pieces of dirt to throw. Jackpot.

I rushed him, shoving him sideways onto the ground before he knew what was happening. I could have punched him in the face, or kicked him in the groin, or any number of things to pay him back for the rock to the head.

Instead, at that very moment, one of their mother's started calling them in to dinner, and the atmosphere changed in an instant. Two of the attackers--siblings, apparently--turned tail and ran back toward their house, yelling something about it being pizza night. Alicia and Dave started chatting with the remaining kids about some upcoming street hockey game.

The distraction provided enough time for the kid I had tackled to push me off and scramble back to his feet.

"See you later!" he said and then trotted away. As my fugue state slowly subsided, I stood and brushed dirt from my clothes, still smarting from the knock I'd taken. But I was glad that things had gone as they had. I didn't really want to beat anyone up. The rock in the dirt was probably an accident, or just a poor but not malicious choice.

Whatever, the important thing was that we'd maintained control over the fort.

Three days later, bulldozers came and destroyed the dirt mounds and began laying the foundations of several new homes. We had to go further and further away to find dirt fields and mounds on which to play, until eventually the whole subdivision had been filled in by houses and small parks. Even the nearby stretch of woods, where we'd built a sprawling tree fort, was cut down to make way for more development.

Some of us turned to garage bands and elaborate scavenger hunts to pass the time. Others went for less wholesome activities, of course. Eventually we all moved away or drifted apart. But sometimes, even today, I still rub the back of my head and think about how silly we were, and yet, how terribly human. Mostly, though, I think, man, that kid was a total douchebag.


Cam said...

those were good cupcakes.

Emily said...

They had words on them.

The Lost Albatross