When I was a kid, I was terrified of Superman. Most kids 5 and 6 used to worry about turtleheads under the bed or monsters lurking in the closet waiting for them to fall asleep so they could creak open the door, breathe a few foul breaths across the bed, then pounce and eat them limb from limb. Me? I had visions of Superman crashing through the bedroom wall, spraying bricks and mortar all over my room, letting the rain and the snow howl in through the huge gap. My dad would be all pissed and have to fix the wall. My mother would fret about an unexpected guest and what to feed him. My sister would pee her pants because he was so handsome. And me? I’d be scared sh**tless wondering what he had seen me do that made him crash through my bedroom wall. Really. It was a nightmare that all played out in my mind from the instant I put my head on the pillow at night.
That was around the time all the kids in the neighbourhood decided to dig a hole out back. We’d all heard the rumour that if you dug far enough down you’d reach China, and it was summer and we were bored. The summertimes of our memories always seemed to be endless, always hot, always sunny and never rainy or dreary. But this one truly was a long, hot summer. I know because that was the year AFTER my father decided to put a pool in the backyard. It wasn’t a big yard or a very big pool. He dug the hole himself and built concrete walls with a drain in the bottom. Again with an unreliable memory because everything seemed way bigger to a kid than an adult, if I had to guess, the ‘pool’ was maybe four feet by ten feet and just deep enough to sit in and have the water come up to your shoulders. It also never benefitted from a liner or tiles, so every time we sat it in or played in it, we came out with no ass left in our bathing suits. I’m sure the local Woolworth’s store wondered about the run on bathing suits that year. At the end of the summer, the pool got filled in again and that was the end of that, we were back to sprinklers and hoses.
However, digging out the pool gave us the idea to dig to China. Of course. A natural progression.
Back then, houses rarely came with garages attached. They usually sat at the end of the yard in a separate structure. Our house was on the corner lot, so the front of the house faced one street and the garage doors faced the other. Between the garage and the first house going down that street, there was a gap of about ten feet, where my dad stored all the junk that didn’t fit in the garage, like the wheelbarrow and old bricks and stuff my mother told him to throw out but he couldn’t part with so he hid back there where she never went. It was closed off from the street by a wooden fence, ditto on the side that divided our property from the neighbour. The access to the yard was gated and my dad had a lock on it just in case my mother ever did wander down that way. So it was secluded, away from the house, and not visible from any windows. Just the kind of place most parents these days would never have on their property.
But my little gang and I had taken it over as our Fort. We loosened boards so we could get in and out whenever we wanted. It was the perfect place to launch a game of cowboys and Indians or Robin Hood or turn it into the Alamo and put it under seige. One of the kids lucked out one Christmas and got a Daniel Boone hat with a racoon tail, so we played Alamo all that next summer. I, of course, had my Dale Evans fringed skirt and shirt and gun holsters, and we all had toy rifles and pistols, and most of them were cap guns. The ‘gang’ consisted of the five boys on the street, myself and Francis Campbell who lived two doors away. We were all about the same age, so there were no worries about older kids taking over or telling us what we could or couldn’t play. We all shared a mutual disdain for older brothers and sisters anyway and dreaded the family days when we had to stay clean, remember our manners (even when a fat old aunt hugged us so hard our tongues squirted out), and pretend we liked our siblings. So the Fort was OURS. My dad clued in after the first week or so, but since we called it the Alamo he was okay with it. He even went in there one day and moved all his stuff around so we didn’t sit on nails or get stabbed by sharp edges of metal. All that first summer it was our Fort, our clubhouse, our secret place. So it was only natural that when we decided to dig to China, that should be the site for the excavation.
Back then we kids had another unusual habit. We never knocked on doors or rang doorbells when we wanted to call on our friends. We stood under a window and yelled OHHHH FRANCIS! at the top of our lungs, or OHHHHH COLIN. Mornings echoed with the sound of the kids going door to door gathering up the gang to play. And that summer when we decided to visit China, there were sounds of dragging shovels and hoes and rakes too as everyone grabbed something to dig with and trooped into the Alamo. We started digging and we dug and we dug and we dug. It was slow work because after we went down a foot, someone thought of a neat game we could play. I remember Francis and I trying to turn it into a play house and we moved in plastic cups and saucers and a tea set. They got throfted over the fence and were never allowed back in again.
So we dug and dug and dug. I keep saying “back then” to characterize things, but really, back then parents didn’t check on where their kids were throughout the day. There was no need. There were no perverts or child molesters, no horror stories about kids going missing, so parents just sent us out in the morning and sometimes we never showed up again until suppertime.
We dug for about three weeks before my dad thought to look and see what we were doing back there. By then the hole was about four feet deep and mothers were beginning to wonder why we all came home at night looking like tunnel rats from the Great Escape. The hole was deep enough and wide enough that it took him all night to fill it in again and the next morning, the loose board had been nailed firmly shut and we all had lectures over breakfast about doing stupid things that could cause someone to break a leg. That was the end of the Alamo, of the excavation to China and, because we moved the next year, the end of the gang itself. I never saw any of them again because…er…back then kids were never allowed to use the phone except to sing happy birthday to a grandparent. We never went back to visit. The reason WHY we moved is fodder for a whole other story but we moved to a new subdivision about fifty miles away, where people knocked on doors and used doorbells and garages were built into the houses and none of the floorboards squeeked and there were no creepy basements or attics for playing Haunted House.
And I never had the nightmare about Superman smashing through my bedroom wall again. I had a worse nightmare to face every night: I had to share a bedroom and, for the first six months until we came perilously close to beating each other black and blue every night, a bed with my older sister. Back then, that was just what you did.