I grew up across the street from a large field. It was a wide open plain, probably a little less than an acre square, or maybe a bit larger, we were small back then. With Colonial Drive, my street, as the north boundary, it had the Middle Branch of the Rouge River on its south. The area was a flood plain for this one of many rivers that meandered southeast emptying into the Detroit River. Inkster Road was its east border and the houses on Helen at the top of a twenty foot hill closed the west side. But for two widely placed rows of trees, each a couple hundred feet in length running due North/South, one in the center and one near Inkster Road, the field was flat and empty. It was the perfect playground for a child. As it followed the Rouge River the park would eventually become one of a collection owned by the City of Inkster Michigan. A maze of bicycle paths meandered through the woods that grew thickly along the length of the river with wild red and black raspberries, poison oak, and all manner of weeds. Fairly regularly mowed in the summer, flooding in the winter and freezing vast areas for ice skating, this playground played a central role in our lives while we grew up. The neighborhood contained a dozen or so kids that played together in a variety of configurations in all seasons. We couldn't have asked for a better place to stretch our imaginations.
The predominant activity in summer was baseball. There were plenty of kids of all ages to make a couple of teams and fill most positions. We played hard ball, pitched overhand. In the rare times a hardball was not available but a softball was, typically the game would be refused. We were purists. Christmas gifts frequently contained baseball equipment and most everybody played. It was embarrassing to be the last one picked as sides were drawn up, the oldest, biggest, and toughest kids volunteered themselves as captains, and the selection usually followed age or height except in the presence of few gifted players. I fell roughly in the middle of the pack or toward the end; fortunately rarely at the very end. On Saturdays by the mid-morning the gathering would occur on an unspoken queue and we'd play for hours until exhaustion or the last ball available was lost. It was great. We'd measure off the bases ourselves as there was no permanent diamond, and home plate would usually be situated at the base of the hill on the west edge of the park. At the top of the hill was a huge mansion-type residence, perfect for imagining as a haunted house. In its backyard at the base of the hill was a giant willow tree where we'd collect the long whips used for fighting each other, all in fun, of course. The baseline of the hill would grow scraggly with tall weeds and we lost many a baseball when hit foul into the brush.
This hill would also make the perfect snow sledding hill in the depths of winter, which in southern Michigan was usually from mid November to early April. Christmas gifts would also invariably include toboggans and sleds. After a foot or two of snowfall (usually right before Thanksgiving!) the snow would last for months. A small child growing up would view the hill as a massive edifice, a struggle to climb pulling a sled behind and a thrill and a danger to race down, wildly careening around people and shrubs. It was a blast! The hill ended at the bottom with a smaller toe-strip of a hill about three feet high where a sewer line was buried. So if you got up enough speed on the way down you could blast off into space from the ramp and crash back to earth a second or two later still speeding into the park laughing hysterically whether you were still on your sled or not. Of course one really didn't have to have a sled to make use of the hill. It was quite steep enough to just run at the top and belly smack and skid to the bottom. Kids are remarkably resilient, built to withstand all forms of punishment, except when doled out by a punishing parent when we didn't come in from play when called four or five times. We could even somehow forget the near frostbite conditions and blizzards and spend hours out there. It seemed like hours to us; to our mothers it probably seemed like minutes after successfully shooing us out of the house into the arctic blast so they could avail themselves of some much needed peace and quiet.
When the river overflowed its banks in the deep winter great ice skating ponds would form. We'd run downstairs to the basement for our cold weather gear, lace up our ice skates and wobble across the street to place hockey or just to skate around. We'd shovel the snow off if the ice was covered, and repeat the honorable picking-of-sides tradition. Hockey teams would form, goals would be created with whatever sticks, branches or rocks that could be pried out of the frozen tundra and we'd proceed to bash each other and the puck around until the game was won. Usually no serious injuries occurred though at a later age a neighbor kid (Keith Becker) skated at me as I defended a goal and as he followed through his slap shot the blade of his stick met my right eye. That brought a direct halt to the game, at least until they could usher me off the ice and my mother rushed me to Garden City Clinic, whereupon the game would resume otherwise unaffected. I can't remember if Keith scored on the shot or not; I like to suppose not. The wound was not too serious and I enjoy the notoriety for a couple weeks wearing an eye patch.
While we were still small a few crab apple trees in the park made magic jungle gyms for us as we'd climb all through them, playing tag and other creative games. There were two trees that grew near our baseball field about thirty feet apart. The tree to the north was the best one to climb since its branches were not as close together, an aid to climbing into all of its furthest reaches. We could climb to the top and test our skills of balance and daring. It seemed fifty feet down, though the distance was really only about fifteen. Still plenty of height to cause injury, which we never witnessed. The most damage we'd do to ourselves was getting stuck with the one and two inch thorns that grew everywhere on branches and the trunk. We had to really watch where we were climbing so as not to be impaled.
The woods held the greatest fascination for us. All manner of wildlife thrived there. We would try to see how close we could get to a pheasant before it would explode out of the weeds screaming in a flurry of feathers. Usually we'd not even notice they were there until they'd scare the daylights out of us in such enthusiasm to escape such rugged hunters. Walking trails snaked around becoming great places to take a bike or just walk through the shade and sunshine. It was easy to imagine being an early pioneer or Indian at the dawn of history surviving in the wilderness by our own wits. Or we'd play army, running through the forest hiding from each other, yelling at the top of our lungs, killing each other as Allies conquered Germans over and over. We'd bring our dad's shovels out there to dig trenches and foxholes. After an especially good episode of Gallant Men or Combat or Swamp Fox on TV we'd go off mimicking the story, choosing up sides, creating bunkers, and having way too much fun. Christmas gifts frequently would include weapons and ordinance like machine guns or a bazooka, helmets and other utilities. We'd argue who shot who and who was really dead, "I'm just wounded, not dead," "you didn't get me," "yes I did!"
Even back in those late nineteen-fifties the river was no longer a fresh water stream, and we'd notice the foul smell and dare not step intentionally into the water. We would get soakers once in a while when we'd try to cross the shallow areas on rocks or fallen branches. It was no fun when we wouldn't make it across dry. Usually it required a trip home for a fresh pair of socks or pants, trying to sneak in to avoid the parental questions we knew would come about what mischief we were up to. During the appropriate season with blackberries and raspberries in bloom and we'd venture into the long tangle of picker bushes trying to gorge on the delectable fruit. It was a battle, getting your arms and face scratched with thorns and pickers and trying to dodge the swarms of mosquitoes that formed as thick clouds around you. We'd painfully extract ourselves from the bushes after we couldn't take anymore and then find someplace to sit and pick from our pants, socks, shirts and skin the burrs and needles. But we'd always eventually go back for more.
And when in later years the county addressed the annual flooding of the park by installing a large sewer line through the middle of the woods cutting a huge swath as it paralleled the river, we enjoyed the exploration of the pitch-black tunnel it made during construction. The manhole covers were easily pried off and a few of us brave souls would descend into the inky, chilly blackness. Having no light we'd slowly feel our way along seeing if we could make it to the next access without scaring ourselves to death. And of course the further we'd travel the more some wiseacre would try to take advantage of the built-in terror. Voices echoed loudly and at length in that concrete tube which was large enough for us little kids to walk upright without fear for hitting our heads on the top. If our parents knew what we were doing they'd certainly forbid this adventure.
We couldn't get enough of running around, yelling, having fun, climbing trees, playing with the other kids. When the street lights came on it was time to disperse, usually only after mothers repeatedly called their children's names at the top of their lungs. Until such time we'd make up games and enjoy the warm summer evenings. We'd play our own variation of hide-and-seek with our own rules and while IT counted to twenty, the rest of us would scatter around the houses and park, up trees, in the weeds, behind houses, in garages. It was a vast playing field. I could get so carried away with running and horsing around I'd truly become hoarse. I'd enjoy making the deep cough sound as I'd try to catch my breath and I would experiment with the tones of the asthma-like symptoms. But this didn't stop me from running around wildly till the street lights came on. We had a special time playing with each other.
And then the stars would come out. And there weren't as many street lights abounding as there are today, the sky filled with the glory of Creation, and the Milky Way stretched from horizon to horizon. The music, the glorious symphony of the night, would bless our ears as all manner of crickets and frogs and the rest of the park orchestra would sing in ancient harmonies. These lullabies like an ocean of song would enter our bedroom windows and lull us to peaceful sleep at night. On occasion I'd hear the faint whistle of a train as it made it way from Detroit to Chicago, the tracks parallelled Michigan Avenue near our house. I would follow the growing sound as the train met crossroads every mile or so and then strain to hear its faint receding as it made its way west. The mind took me to many foreign lands as I'd imagine riding those rails into adventures much more exciting that the normal day to day events. Eventually sleep would prevail and dreams would continue those thoughts in magic and miracles such as flying Superman-like through the air.
It's almost difficult to remember who the kids were we played with. Next door to us to the east towards Inkster Road was the Harrison family, who had two daughters older than I, Linda and Sherry. The younger (and latter) was noted for her remarkable attractiveness. Next door to them were the Beckers with two sons. Jeff was my older brother Jim's age and Keith was my next younger brother Bill's age. A number of houses further down were the Minor's. Larry was the bully of the neighborhood, terrorizing us smaller kids every chance he got and occasionally getting in fights with some his own age. When I bought some toy at the local market around the corner I passed by his house and he'd tell me to give the item to him because his mother made them in his basement and they belonged to him. His older brother Jim was the normal child of the family, much more at peace with the rest of us.
The house to the west of us remained empty for much of our growing up period. I now realize that it was not easy living next door to a family of eight young rowdy kids! The next house was the Demon family, Dennis was Jim's age and he had two younger sisters, and sometimes he'd live up to his evil name. He could display a sense of humor that bordered on the bizarre. The Cloutier's lived further down but only had two girls, and across the street from them was the large Perkovich family. Like ours they were Catholic and had around eight kids. But there were enough boys to have a great deal of fun in the park and woods. Danny, John, and Larry were the oldest that we hung around with, and a cousin Nash, we called Butchie, spent a lot of time there. The Neph family lived up around the corner and were a part of the summer gang. Rob and John were the boys and Pam and Kitty (Catherine) were the girls. The next few blocks around us supplied the other kids that only came down to play baseball and I didn't know much about them except for how well they played ball.
During the rainy season in summer the park would frequently flood creating great lakes, ponds really. We'd get our boots on and go playing on the fringes of those new bodies of water. And as the water eventually subsided it revealed another world of crayfish and polliwogs, tadpoles, and minnows. A little kid's endless fascination with those exotic aquatic creatures would could keep one focused for hours out in that park after a heavy rain. We'd go exploring finding the fresh mounds of clay the crayfish would build from their hole in the ground, rarely actually seeing the creature itself, except for an unlucky one or two that didn't survive and lay exposed in the grass, just waiting for little fingers to dissect it to see what made it tick. There were the few species of harmless snakes as well, mostly just garter snakes, dark green with yellow stripes running its length. Harmless but they still could freak out a little kid who didn't know any better.
When we were growing up it seemed like life and our small world would never end. We knew only of going to school and church and playing with friends in the neighborhood and park. I remember laying on our front lawn on a cool, early summer morning, the sun not halfway yet between horizon and zenith, drinking deep of the golden wash of light filtering through the thick canopy of trees that lined our street, and feeling such a peace, a sense of being at one with the world. Wispy puffs of clouds would lazily float through their sea of deeply rich blue bringing to life the imaginations of shapes and forms. Or swinging on the swing set on my back yard I could watch a thunderhead develop, meanly spitting its lightning and grumbling its deep-voiced displeasure onto the world. And I would be awed as I'd continue watching it develop still swinging away before the rains came. I would stay as long as I could until called inside by my mother, she not quite as enthusiastic as I concerning the swirling darkness consuming the earth.
On that early glorious summer morning while I lay on our carpet of green grass an Inkster city road crew made its way along Colonial Drive patching the many holes in the asphalt. A garbage truck rambled by, its brakes painfully screeching a greeting at every house as its crew jumped on and off clanging and throwing the cans around the truck and the yards and street. I watched their progression, blissfully unaware of the dark story behind these common occurrences, having no notion of the responsibilities of life that enveloped these men and that awaited me. As it should be. A child wouldn't be a child with that kind of knowledge. It's from these harsh realities that a wise parent shields their children, at least until an appropriate age. This loss of innocence, this loss of the Inner Child, comes with a heavy price. We then needed to cling tightly to the security that all was O.K., that it was a marvelous world in which we lived and played. We needed to make the dream last as long as possible. There would never such a time as this again. It comes only once and no matter how hard you try it won't come back. I suppose that's why the memory is so precious. Those times can be relived only for a precious moment, a fleeting breath of fresh air calming the soul. When reality gets too oppressive and heavy as it sometimes can, it is good to recall there was a period when everything really was all right with the world. As a child sees it.