Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Gravel Pit. . .

As far back as my memory goes into the dim reaches of my youth, I have loved wildlife. One story my mother often related to me, was of her listening in as my best friend, Bob Adams, who lived right across the street and I talked as we played when we were 4 or 5 years old. I said to Bobby, “Isn’t nature wonderful”, Bobby replied, “What’s nature?”

I remember my mother had a very pretty flower garden, along our east property line. I remember sitting on our little patio in the early mornings, watching as robins hunted for worms, and insects in my mom’s little garden.

We lived not far from a dry gravel pit. It was a hole in the ground 10 or 12 feet deep, covering maybe 20 or more acres or so. I say dry, but there were semi-permanent wet spots in the bottom of it. These low areas, being so close to the water table, would have 6 inches to maybe a foot of water for 50 weeks out of the year. Too shallow and impermanent for fish, but there were tadpoles galore, and because of the abundance of toads, and frogs found there, an equally wondrous (to a 9 or 10 year old boy) assortment of snakes were to be found.

Friendly hognosed snakes. Never known to bite. Looking fierce. If you touched them they would puff way up and hiss at you. If that failed to scare you off, they would roll over and play dead. The hognosed snakes ate toads as their main staple. If you caught one too soon after eating, he would disgorge the still recognizable toad from his belly. . .

A few weeks of the year, bank swallows nested in the sides of this large area. Their large colonies a flurry of entering and exiting birds gathering insects for the young inside the holes in the gravel pits dirt cliff side walls. Rabbits, opossums, raccoons, box turtles. . .salamanders, hog nosed, blue racer, and the abundant garter snakes. . . all kinds of critters inhabited this area.

It was said. . . I think my Dad told me that the Indiana National Guard, had at one time used this pit for training some years before. All I know is that many of the neighborhood kids, possessed large coffee cans full of lead bullets, which would wash out of the sides of the pit after every rain.

We melted down, and made our own fishing sinkers from this lead, or saved especially nice pieces which might have nearly perfect lead and intact and shiny brass jackets on the bullets that hit no stones in their passage through the sand. I almost lived out in this pit. We would disappear from home on our bicycles in the morning, come back for a quick bite of lunch and go back to our adventures in the pit and surrounding fields and forest from May to September, and during the weekends before and after that. Sometimes we would take lunches. . . Velveeta sandwiches with apple butter on them, and eat them in our wilderness. The rule was that I had to be home when the streetlights came on, or my Mom had a hated brass plated bell that she would ring if I was required at other times.

You could hear that bell, maybe not all the way to the gravel pit, but all over the neighborhood proper. . . “Dave, your Mom’s ringing the bell”, how many times I heard that, and really hated the stigma of being called home, by what I referred to as a cow bell.

To the west of the gravel pit, was a thick woods of unknown size. As far as I know, none of my friends ever reached the end of it. We certainly had no idea who owned it. There was a small sluggish stream which meandered through it. When I was 12 or 13, we started camping out in this little woods during the summer. Eggs, bacon or sausages, and potatoes, pop. . .occasionally someone would bring swisher sweet or rum soaked crook cigars, but never any alcohol or drugs. I don’t remember any tent. . .just our bicycles, a blanket or two, and a pillow was the extent of our camping equipment.

We would sleep on the ground, stay up late, cook our wilderness meal on a skillet over a wood fire bounded by stones found in the woods. . . We had BB guns, and pocket knives almost from the start. I remember my Mom or Dad. . . I don’t remember which or for what occasion, gave me a pocket knife when I was six. I precisely remember my age. I think it was the first day that I had it, I was whittling on a stick. . .and I cut my right thumb, at the joint where it attaches to the hand. I cut it pretty good. It could have used a stitch or two. I remember wrapping it in my handkerchief. . . I even remember the handkerchief design, it was kind of a purple/lavender plaid on the edge with a white center. . .now with bloody splotches in it. . .anyway, I remember wrapping my cut thumb up to stop the bleeding. I remember as handed the knife back to my Mom, telling her, “I guess I’m not old enough for this yet. . .”

I am looking at the faintly visible scar, on my right thumb, even as I type this some almost 52 years later. For some reason, I often don’t know my left from my right hand. If you ask me, I do not know automatically. If you tell me to go to the right, I might still catch myself looking at the scar on my thumb to tell. . . a thousand times or more, over the years, I’ve used that scar to identify my right hand.

We had .22 rifles we went plinking with. We shot trees. . . sometimes to my grief even then. . . birds (I shed tears once after unexpectedly hitting a bird in flight with my .22). . . more often we shot bottles, and tin cans. We used axes, hatchets, machetes, and slingshots. . . went swimming and camping and fishing and hunting. . . without any adult supervision. I lived on my bicycle. We had set boundaries which we were not to cross, and we didn’t cross them, but even at that often I was gone on my bicycle, from morning until the streetlights came on, and no disasters occurred.

I frequented a peat bog/swamp a mile or so from my house, when Bobby Adams my friend moved to that neighborhood. Oh we had so much fun out there. I spent one summer excavating the peat bog. Digging a hole by myself. Preserving specimens I found, pretending I was a paleontologist, collecting (in my mind) the ancient snail shells which were found in the peat abundantly.

We waded in the stinking swamp muck, beyond our waists, on at least one occasion to the depth of my neck, trying to catch turtles, or fishing or crossing wide spots in the damp areas. We called it quicksand. . . We had adventures unending in our tall grass peat bog and swamp. We played cowboys, and Indians, and army. . . and hide and seek in a natural wonderland. We knew the woods, the gravel pit, and the swamp probably as well as any native American. Every tree a friend. . . Every contour of the land, cover in our childhood games of war. . .We lived in the land. We knew it intimately.

We made our own ball field complete with dugouts, sidelines, backstop, and a home run fence, out of the scrap lumber the trailer factory threw away in the burn pit, in the field behind our house. Again without a single hour of adult help or supervision. . . we played neighborhood football, baseball. . . ping pong by the hour with my best friend Steve Gunts (after Bobby moved away), in his garage across the street.

My childhood outside of the home, could not be bettered. I relish those memories. Writing this I realized that maybe I never fully grieved moving away from my childhood neighborhood on “A Court”. We moved to Fremont Street in 1968, and it was different. It was in the city. It’s not often I feel sad about the past. I wouldn’t go backwards a year or twenty-five years for any amount of money.

For me, Life’s lessons are too painfully gained to give up. . . I would never want to relive the greatest majority of my life, but Oh. . . how my heart aches. . .how I would love to have another carefree summer afternoon in the gravel pit hunting for snakes, and bullets. . .

I love you my God. . .
I thank you for my childhood. . .
I thank you for my mother and father. . .
I thank you for watching over me. . .
I love you my God. . .

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