Sunday, July 15, 2012

Summer Part 3 - Trench Warfare


Trench Warfare

An army hospital occupied the upper level of a two-story structure. Bandages and intravenous fluid bags were in short supply. The battle had been long and fierce. One medic and two nurses triaged incoming patients according to the severity of their wounds. The dead were removed by orderlies who grew so tired they would soon lack the strength to carry on without rest and nourishment. Mrs. Sellenger made cupcakes in her kitchen.

Some of the best times we had growing up in the low-tech 1960s resulted when all the kids in our neighborhood got involved in a single role-playing game. Outside of age-segregated school it was relatively rare for second and fourth graders to mix. But when “war” broke out in the neighborhood, little brothers and sisters were drafted and assigned to a chain of command. Our army needed a few good soldiers.

The Sellengers lived in a large house on a double lot, a privileged play place for their two kids and a host of friends. They also had the nicest playhouse in the neighborhood, and a dad whose interests ranged from hydroponic gardening to chemistry sets, rockets to mini-bikes. Mr. Sellenger worked in medical sales and was a well-funded adult child. Their playhouse became the infirmary, stocked with real supplies from which needles had been removed.

The western front of our war was waged in the vacant lot next to my house. It was strategically located to the south of the big dirt hill, just west of the sandbox. Casualties were taken across the street to the Sellengers, where they were examined, treated and released for further combat.

We played at war, oblivious to the possibility that we would several years later be stressed over a lottery for the draft that could send us to Vietnam and a real war. Ours was an unnamed battle in the style of great wars of the past, armed with the latest in plastic military hardware, some of which made realistic battle sounds.

We dug foxholes as if our lives depended on them. They were real holes dug with real shovels. We were generally unsupervised and free to dig as deep as we wished. Our parents no doubt appreciated the exercise we got digging the holes and the hours of focused energy that otherwise would have been misdirected in idle troublemaking. Hole-digging occupied us like the videogames of a later era.

Our vacant lot resembled the cratered surface of the moon, dusty and dangerous by the end of each day. The holes never reached more than about three feet deep. Digging became difficult and less gratifying after the loose topsoil was excavated and a layer of compacted clay was reached. It was much more fun to start a new hole. We dug dozens of them.

Such was not the case with the deepest hole we ever dug. We worked that hole like a team of miners, rotating shifts of diggers, dumpers and dredgers. A bucket at the end of a rope was lowered down into the depths of the increasingly deepening hole to the latest crew, then hauled out by the surface workers, emptied and handed back down. A six-foot tall ladder disappeared into one end of the rectangular scar in the earth. The walls of the shaft were unsupported but firm. We would have breeched the water table in a wetter summer.

The hole look disturbingly like a grave by the time Mr. Sellenger came out to see what we were up to. The wide-eyed look on his face probably explained the mysterious filling-in of the hole by the next morning. If there were calls of concern from other parents, we never heard about them.

One afternoon an approaching storm interrupted our play. We were called inside as the sky darkened. Torrents of rain rushed out of downspouts from the houses on either side of the vacant lot, a low spot in the neighborhood. The holes vanished by the end of the brief deluge.

From my bedroom window I watched as Donny and Mike arrived when the storm broke and the sun came out. They were awestruck by the watery scene they found upon their return, and their cautious exploration of the submerged lunar landscape quickly became a game of guessing the location of foxholes, first with sticks, and then with feet and legs.

It wasn’t long before they “fell” into the muddy swimming pools that had been created by the combination of our earlier digging and Mother Nature’s faucet. They frolicked and laughed, splashing and covered in mud from head to toe. From one hole to the next, they army-crawled through the muddy water that covered the entire lot, then slipped beneath the surface of the next mud pot, sputtering and laughing. Any thought of their parents’ reaction or the cleanup they faced when they went home vanished in the pure joy of the moment. Oh, how I wanted to be out there with them.

We weren’t privy to the eventual scenes at Mike and Donny’s respective homes. They were at the very least chastised and stripped naked in their laundry rooms, then sent to take thorough baths. Whatever happened, it wasn’t good, because it was the end of our hole digging period. But that was okay, since we had a carnival to plan.

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