To Daisy, the whimsical girl who inspired this, and me.
The promontory rises above the Missouri River. As the city grew around it, the stone abutment tried to find a purpose. It was used as a pest house, where people who died of infectious disease were buried. Then the city made it a park. The only reason it became a park was because the neighborhood needed one and it was the only available space. There was a few flat, green areas suitable for picnics and kite flying and such. But most of it was steep, rocky brush choked woods once described as “a squirrel pasture with land too rugged for a goat to climb.”
We weren’t aware of any of this, although it would have been cool knowing about the bodies buried there. To us the scrub land was a jungle, a fort, a wilderness and a battle ground. It was the place where evil lurked, ready to pounce on unsuspecting children. It was the hiding place of buried treasure. It was a mysterious land that guarded itself. It was our living video game, our three-dimensional Xbox. It’s official name was North Terrace Park. We just called it the bluff.
It is a squirrel pasture with land too rugged for a goat to climb.
There were five of us in my “gang.” We all lived right across the street from the bluff. It was a wonderful playground at our front door. We had no interest in the flat, green, developed part of the park. We liked the steep and uninviting woods.
Our favorite game to play at the bluff was “army.” We fought a perpetual battle against the Germans. We wore helmets and carried plastic guns. These were not the girly bright neon guns with the orange tips. These were modeled after real guns and they shot caps. Cops back then were actually able to discern a piece of plastic from a deadly firearm. There were also a lot fewer gangs of heavily armed eight-year-olds in those days.
Driveways and backyards lost their luster as places to fight for the American ideal. You saw the bad guys almost immediately and the rest of the battle involved arguing over who was dead. But the bluff offered trees to climb, rocks to hide behind and gullies to jump into. The rough terrain made for much longer battles before we argued about who was dead.
It’s function as a miniature Ardennes forest was but one attraction of the bluff. It also served as a giant club house. We stashed our purloined Playboy magazines there (worth their weight in gold in the pre Internet days). Of course, no girls were allowed to enter the woods, although I won’t say there was never a private rendezvous for a quick game of “you show me yours and I’ll show you mine.”
It was a place to go exploring, to hike when we were bored, and to “run away” to when our parents pissed us off. We had contests there such as peeing for distance or testing a person’s ability to climb out of “Glass Mountain” (a gully with very steep sides). We walked through it on our way to school and back as a brief, daily adventure.
When we were in those woods we were free. There were no parents, teachers, no girls and no rules. It was our kingdom, our domain. It was an idyllic place.
Well, almost idyllic. It seems that there can be nothing in the world, no matter how great, that does not come with a problem. In our case it was those evil beings who’s sole existence is based on keeping kids from having fun- The Mothers.
Dads were cool. They didn’t care if we went in the woods. They probably had their “bluffs” when they were kids. Even when they were called in as enforcers, their admonitions were half-hearted and done mostly to placate mom.
My father was especially cool. He would actually go hiking with me over there. Occasionally we would load up a backpack with bread, ketchup and hot dogs, go into the woods, make a fire (he was a fireman so it was okay) and have a weenie roast.
The Mothers would have none of this going into the woods nonsense. Their natural instinct to thwart their kids’ pleasures made them a powerful force. And they were relentless.
The Mothers flatly forbade us to “go over the bluff,” which referred to leaving the visible open park area and entering the woods. There was no argument, no negotiating, no excuses and no exceptions. Being caught over the bluff brought swift and cruel justice.
If you made them angry, there was always the real possibility of a spanking. The usual punishment, however, was grounding. For more severe breaches of decorum there was the much hated going to bed early. If you really committed an egregious violation, you were banned from watching TV. This cruel and unusual punishment should have been unconstitutional. Not only did you miss the show, you were pariah in the kid social circle for at least a week. All conversations and many games at school were based on the previous night’s TV show. There was no cable thus no 237 repeats within the next week. The best you could do was catch the episode six months later in summer reruns, long after the other kids had ruined it.
Since our houses were all along the street which adjoined the bluff there was always the chance a mom would see you if you went over into the woods. This was in the long gone times when parents not only kept an eye on their own kids, they spied on those of others. Our homes were silent traitors. They were the guard towers that watched over us and made sure we did not cross the arboreal dead line.
Our street was also the direct route to school. Unlike today, every kid who lived more than 30 feet to school did not ride a bus. We actually walked. Six blocks, each way, even in the snow. Of course, we would dart over the bluff and walk there via the woods. That provided a small adventure to get us through the boredom of being educated.
With our houses lined up along the way to school, they formed a series of checkpoints the East Germans would have been proud of. The Mothers could see us all the way to the turnoff for school. We never knew when a spot check would reveal we had strayed from the concrete and narrow.
Even with such ironclad security, The Mothers knew they could not keep an eye on us every minute. So they invoked a weapon long used by oppressors: fear. They tried to convince us they going over the bluff was dangerous. They didn’t claim there were wild animals or monsters. The tactic they used to terrify us into compliance was telling us “The Bums would grab us.”
The bluff looked out over the vast expanse known as The East Bottoms. This was an industrial district consisting of factories, grain elevators, warehouses. At the foot of the bluff was the huge Missouri Pacific Railroad Neff yard. I am not sure how far above the bottoms the bluff stood but the railroad cars looked to be about the size of matchboxes.
The story was that The Bums rode the trains and hung out in the railroad yard. Being the ravenous evil that we all know Bums are, their favorite thing in all the world was to hide in the woods where we played. Should the wayward child wander by, The Bum would grab him.
There are several holes in this scenario. First of all, it was not 1936. The day of the hobo with the kerchief on a stick was long gone. Next, why would anyone want to hang in an area with no food, no shelter and no people who were not inside a fenced area or vehicle? Perhaps this industrial desolation is what encouraged The Bums to climb hundreds of feet up a steep, brush choked near-cliff and then sit for endless hours in the woods, hoping for a child who was ripe for the grabbing.
And exactly what did “grabbing” consist of? In the days before the media induced unreasonable panic, the idea any kind of molestation did not even enter our thoughts. Would they eat us? Perfectly understandable considering the terrible conditions The Bums had to endure to reach their prize.
Since no details were provided regarding being grabbed by The Bums, my assumption was that they would firmly grasp one’s arm, wag a finger and issue a reprimand for defying a Mother. Then kill you and bury you under a rock.
Of course the idea of evil Bums who were bent on our destruction haunting our playground was ridiculous. And, of course, we believed it.
Our minds had already filled those woods with murder victims (everyone knew the mob dumped bodies in “Green Lake”), rattlesnakes “as big around as my leg,” and the German Army. Vampire Vagabonds were not that much of a stretch.
One afternoon Mikey, Larry and myself were over the bluff, just hanging in our favorite spot. There was a sudden crashing down in the thick brush. All of our other friends were otherwise occupied so it was no one we knew. Even more worrisome, it was coming up from below, not from along the path or the direction of the street above. These were the routes people would normally take.
The ominous cracking and crunching came closer. As it did, we could hear panting, then a growl and a low human voice. It was a Bum! We were anchored in place by both fear and fascination. We did not want to be “grabbed” but were not about to miss the opportunity to be the first to make an official Bum sighting.
There was no doubt he was coming right at us. The cracking, panting, groaning and talking grew closer. He spoke to us through the foliage “Come on , boy, over here.” We looked at each other in terror. Which one of us was he speaking to? Who would be the victim of the first grabbing in bluff history?
With a mighty crunch the final layer of brush was pushed aside. Our assailant had come! It was too late to run! There was no place to hide! Mom why didn’t I listen to you? As we stared pop-eyed in terror we got our first glimpse of the one who had come to drag us into the seventh level of hell.
It was an old man walking his dog.
Instilling this fear in us may have actually been a strategic mistake for The Mothers. Like having sex in a church, the potential danger made the idea of going over the bluff more exciting. This strengthened our resolve to win the war of wills.
Our assailant had come! It was too late to run! There was no place to hide! Mom why didn’t I listen to you?
Of course we had many tactics. We had other secret routes, we spent time at the homes of mythical friends, we would bribe the girls to lie and threaten them should they tattle, and, no matter how hard we tried to avoid it, it seemed our balls were always rolling over the bluff. We had to go get them, they cost money.
We occasionally got caught. We would lose track of time and trigger a Mother’s natural suspicion of children who have been quiet too long. Sometimes we had the bad luck to come out of the woods just as a Mother was driving by or coming out of the house.
There were also sisters, the rats in the corn. There was a great deal of resentment from the girl camp. They were not allowed in the woods. They were relegated to the empty storage space under Mikey’s house for their stupid tea parties and other girly activities.
The deal was simple. They stayed out of the woods and we didn’t blow the heads off their Barbies with firecrackers.
It was an uneasy truce which was violated quite often. When hostilities broke out, their beady girl eyes would spy on us. Should they see us over the bluff, the sisters would run to a Mother with their yappy girl mouths.
Of course, we retaliated. During these brush wars, the number of Barbie and butt cheek casualties was appalling.
But it was not poor planning, bad luck or sisters that caused Bluff Armageddon, it was Larry.
Some days you can feel the magic in the air. From the time you wake up, you just know you will experience something special. This Saturday in early summer was one of those days.
Saturdays were easy. Dads went fishing or puttered around the house. The Mothers ran errands or hung out with friends. Routine was the basis of the entire Mother Detection Network. Departing from it sent a warning of possible bluff-related activity. On Saturday, there was no routine.
Stacy’s parents had just bought him a new machine gun. Having the newest, coolest weapon guaranteed him a position as Sergeant (the highest rank allowed) on the American (good guy) side. As his best friend, I would be a Corporal and get to push everyone but him (these would either be Privates or Germans) around.
It was not poor planning, bad luck or sisters that caused Bluff Armageddon, it was Larry.
Arriving at the bluff I was disappointed. It did not happen very often but the older kids were there. They were in their early teens and, when they came to the bluff, the choice was either leave for the boring backyards or stay and take their crap. On such a golden Saturday I sucked up my instant demotion and decided to hang around.
The bluff was the scene of frenetic activity. Jimmy was the ringleader. He was renowned for his ability to get every kid in the neighborhood involved in shenanigans yet escaping any of the repercussions that resulted from them. I am sure he modeled himself after Eddie Haskell. Today Jimmy had decided to gather a bipartisan group of older and younger kids for a special project. We were digging a hole.
Yes, there were several very nice pre-made holes washed out by the rain but this was going to be a special hole. It was, in fact, going to be a fort. It would be big enough to fit all of us and deep enough to defend against all enemies. There would be steps dug into the walls. We would bring food, water, lawn chairs and even a transistor radio and make it our second home. There was even talk of placing branches and leaves over it as camouflage and a roof.
And thus it began. As kids arrived they were overtaken with excitement for the project. When they found out what was going on, they happily joined in the effort. Using spades, garden trowels, snow shovels, even spoons, we spent the day digging what we were sure would be the Eighth Wonder of the World.
A circulating crew of kids numbering up to about ten at its height worked on that hole. We soon discovered that there was a lot of work between living our dream and constructing it. The task grew boring and it started to feel a lot like cleaning the garage or mowing the lawn. Boredom grew and, with the realization that a valuable Saturday was being wasted, those digging the hole wandered off one by one. Soon construction was halted due to lack of interest.
It was not the Fortress of Soil-itude we had envisioned but it was a big hole, probably 20 ft in diameter and 8 ft deep. Larry and I were the only ones left to enjoy it. The hole was a gift.
There was one rule that none of us ever dreamed of violating. It superseded even the rules god handed to Moses. This one was not based on the caprices of the fearful Mothers. This one had the full backing and support of the dads. None of the namby-pamby go to your room crap Violating it presented the very real possibility that dad would whip your ass.
When the streetlights came on, it was time to go in.
You were given a reasonable amount of time to get home. If you passed that grace period, your name would be shouted from the front door very loudly. You were already in trouble but, if you hurried, you might get away with a tongue lashing.
If you missed the lights and hearing your name because you were over the bluff, you had no more hope than the people entering Hades.
When the streetlights came on, it was time to go in.
I got hungry and left Larry and the hole to go eat. I told him I would be back. When I got home I found out Dad was barbecuing. I roped into staying there and enduring the torture of family time. I didn’t notice as the streetlights came on and names were yelled. I was in safe territory.
It was starting to get really dark when the phone rang. My mom came out with her Mother look and asked, “David, do you know where Larry is?”
Uh oh. I had a pretty good idea where he was- still in that hole. But it was dark and even if he had not seen the streetlights come on, he had to know it was long past time to be home. I could suggest he was in the hole and get the whole neighborhood busted. Or I could say something that was not really a lie. “I don’t know, mom, I have been here since dinner.”
The Mothers went to Defcon 1. The dads shed their mantle of passive support and became The Fathers. There was no doubt in their minds where Larry was- the bluff.
In those days of yore, “neighborhood” defined a community not just a geographical area. Today people have interfriends in Ass End Australia but don’t know the people next door. Back then, everyone in the neighborhood was involved with each other. A crowd gathered at the bluff.
I was there with The Mothers and the other kids while The Fathers yelled Larry’s name and looked around the periphery of the woods. I suppose I should have been worried about my friend but I was more concerned about what would happen to me. He was probably trying to get out of the hole and broke his leg or something. I had real problems. I was facing being grounded to bed with a sore ass and no TV for the rest of my life.
Mikey, Stacy, Steve and I stood there acting like we didn’t even know each other. There was no doubt this was going to go badly for all of us. The giant, freshly dug hole was damning evidence. And, being the scurrilous kids that we were, our thoughts were on how to minimize our involvement. Even if it meant throwing each other under the bus.
Suddenly a cry went up as Larry emerged from the woods under his own power. Everyone was happy to see him- except for the people who cared about him. His parents were overjoyed for as long as took to verify he was okay. Then the angry shouted promises of dire consequences came.
We, his friends, were only concerned about what the little rat would say and how deeply he would drag our butts into this mess.
The festivities ended with Larry being dragged away like a murderer going to the gallows. The rest of us went back to our homes with our folks lecturing us about the dangers of going over the bluff and how Larry was lucky that he was not grabbed by a Bum.
We did not see Larry for a long time. He got the proverbial book thrown at him as much for the embarrassment he caused as for his lawlessness. He did point the finger at us in a vain attempt to garner mercy.
The parents were not about to let the rest of us off scot free. They came up with a painful punishment. Those of us who were Larry’s known accomplices had to help him- I can still barely say it without choking back tears- fill in the hole.
What had happened? When I left to go home and eat, the plan was that I was coming back. I did not know I was going to be waylaid into spending time with my (yuck) family. Larry remained in the hole waiting for me. After a long day of digging and playing, the quiet solitude overpowered Larry…and he fell asleep. He woke to the darkness and the sound of his name being called.
These were but a few of the adventures we had in a small part of the larger land that was the bluff. I know those of you with more recent childhoods have to be chuckling at my walk down memory lane.
Playing out in the heat and cold in a place with dirt and rocks and brush and bugs. Using sticks as swords and plastic guns to fight against monsters and bad guys that only existed in our heads. Sneaking around in fear of our mothers, conducting cold war with girls and being terrified by elderly dog walkers. Doing all this with same people we saw all day, every day, for years. How horrid it must have been for us.
How can this compare with never having to leave the comfort of your living room or venturing more than a room away from the fridge? Now you can fight against three-dimensional fire ball spitting Nazi demons on a 52” plasma screen with Dolby 5.1 and THX surround sound. You can do this with “friends” that you have never met from Argentina, Belgium, and Moose Hoof Canada. And whom you can replace as quickly as they bore you. If your parents were around they would not care and your neighbors don’t even know your name.
You may have the MicroSony Superheterodyne GMX8000 with a 230GhZ core processor and direct OC48 fiber optics link while I just had a piece of land that was not even suitable for dead people. But the bluff gave me something all of the technology in the world will never give you: a lot of great memories.