Judging by some old 8mm family home movies, I must have been about two when my parents bought a house on what was then the Eastern edge of Laramie, Wyoming. There I am in grainy glory, sporting a topknot of blonde hair. Wearing droopy short pants, I am balanced precariously on little bow legs, trying to pull a wagon across the grass in front of this house.
Our house on Kearney Street had been built on a double lot. The house and garage were all built on the West side of this lot, leaving the East side for a huge expanse of grass. It was good for Freeze Tag or flying balsawood airplanes with rubber-band motors, but I think my three brothers and I spent more time mowing that big side lawn than actually playing on it. Most of our growing-up time was spent on the West side of the house, on the other side of the lilac hedge that separated our property from a vacant lot.
The Vacant Lot featured dirt piles, rocks, broken glass and big, tall stands of ragweed. In the back, next to the alley, was an empty foundation where somebody had once tried to build a little house and then given it up. The foundation walls contained piles of cracked flagstones and broken chunks of concrete. In short, the entirety of the lot was a boys’ wonderland.
Some of my life’s Great Lessons were learned in that lot. I learned, for example, that if you and your brothers fill a glass jar with every strange and smelly thing you can find in the kitchen – vinegar, mustard, dish soap, Molasses, and Crisco among other things, then stir in toilet paper and call it Crushbones, don’t try to get rid of it by burying it in the vacant lot. Two months later when you and your friends decide to dig a foxhole, you will start digging right in the same place where you buried that jar of Crushbones and then forgot about it. The shovel will break the glass and the suffocating smell will be almost overpowering.
On the subject of foxholes, I would guess that over the course of my boyhood, any number of them were dug in that vacant lot and then filled in again. Since this all took place during the Korean War and the McCarthy era, these were invariably fortifications against “The Commies”. This designation usually included whatever rabble of neighborhood kids that hadn’t helped dig the foxhole in the first place. Some of these excavations were just simple holes in the ground where my friend Tommy D. and I could scrunch down with our broomstick rifles and try to catch a glimpse through the ragweed of the Chinese Hordes bearing down on us. Others were more elaborate.
One summer the annual foxhole became deep with a sloping entrance and a roof overhead. A nearby construction site had yielded boards and scraps of plywood which we put over the hole then covered with dirt. Four of us could jam inside and congratulate ourselves on becoming completely invisible. Some of the other neighborhood kids came over and demanded a look inside. We called them “Commies” and drove them away with a barrage of dirt clods thrown through the entrance tunnel.
Our defenses became immediately suspect when they got on the roof and started jumping up and down. Boards began to bounce and shift. Rocks, dirt, and weeds fell on our heads and down our necks. We scrambled out of the foxhole coughing and shaking the dirt out of our clothes. Harsh words were exchanged, threats made, more dirt clods were thrown. In short, a good time was had by all.
It is difficult to ponder the vacant lot without the phrase “bike jump” coming to mind. Long before custom-made BMX bicycles, we had our old fat-tire Schwinns with fenders over the wheels and chrome kickstands that were never used. Instead of designer concrete skate parks and ramps we had a board and a cinderblock. And instead of protective helmets and pads, we had only skin – much of which was left on the gravel of our landing zone.
But the vacant lot truly came into its own on summer evenings when the neighborhood kids would gather to play “Kick the Can.”
To play the game, an empty tin can was set in the middle of a clear space in the vacant lot. One person was chosen to be “it” in a procedure that usually involved catching a tiger by the toe. While “It” would cover his or her eyes and count loudly to 100, the rest of us would go hide. Then “it” would begin to search, always keeping a sharp eye for lurkers. When someone was seen, “it” would run for the can, leap over it, and yell “One, two, three on Tommy N. behind the garbage can!” Tommy N. would then have to go sit in “jail” – usually inside the old foundation. The only way to avoid this was to get to the can first, and kick it. At this point, everybody in jail was set free and given time to hide again. Then “it” set out, once more, to “One, two, three…” all the players. If and when he succeeded, a new “it” was chosen and the rest of us scurried off to find the absolute, best hiding place in the known world.
At some point, the game would end, usually because someone’s mother was calling or it had gotten too dark to see. Then the “End Call” would be chanted. When the first group of kids who played this game in the fading twilight a long, long time ago called for the game to end, perhaps they yelled, “All In Free!”. By the time it had been passed down to the kids in my neighborhood, it had become the meaningless but melodic, “Ollie, Ollie Oxen Free-oh!”
When my time is finally up and I draw my last breath, I do not hope for a long, dark tunnel with a bright golden light at the end. I am not dreaming of Teutonic goddesses wearing bronze brassieres and riding flying horses appearing to bear me away. I want it to be a Summer evening in a little town in Wyoming, the last pink and purple light of sunset fading in the West, and a clear but far away voice chanting, “Ollie, Ollie Oxen Free-oh!”