When I was a boy, the neighborhood kids roamed the countryside seemingly at will, and from an early age. Perhaps our parents were watching, but we never noticed. We were six miles from town, traipsing over farmland in rural Oregon. No harm could come to us except that of our own devising. And we did devise ways to hurt ourselves: dirt clod fights, near drownings, accidents with horses, etc. When our parents wanted us home, they would phone around the neighborhood, or, if that failed, they would stand outside and shout: “TOH-rey! DAY-vid! SHAW-un! JEH-uf!” and we would make our way home. (Shawn used to have extended shouted conversations with his mother, from half a mile away; that was pretty funny.)
Often we met the other kids at the Big Tree (which was, alas, cut down last summer), where once we found a stash of porn mags. Sometimes we rode our bikes the mile down to Charlie’s Market to buy Wacky Packs and Bottle Caps and taffy and Dr. Pepper. We romped through the filbert orchard, where we raced our bikes down rows of trees, scaring ourselves with stories of Homer Knopp’s shotgun (which he kept loaded with rock salt to shoot kids). We rode our bikes back to Grandpa’s Woods.
My grandparents lived a quarter-mile from us. Behind their house grew a stand of oak and pine and fir, a thicket we called Grandpa’s Woods. We spent a lot of time in Grandpa’s Woods. We built forts. We played hide-and-seek. We played in Sputnik, the rusting hulk of a car left behind by Uncle Stan and Aunt Virginia. There were often other miscellaneous pieces of farm equipment in the woods with which to play: plows and implements and tools of all sorts.
For a long time, Grandpa kept his cows in the woods. There was a lane that led from Grandpa’s barn, back past a small field, and into the trees. The front half of the woods was thick with all sorts of trees, but dominated by towering oaks. The back half of the land had fewer trees, and was generally open, covered with grass and weeds and blackberry brambles. Grandpa’s cows grazed in this grassy area. To keep them contained, Grandpa had an electric fence. We used to play games trying to see who could hold the fence the longest (despite the shocking pulses), what objects we could use to touch the fence without being shocked, or how quickly we could crawl under the fence. Being boys, we considered a mark of honor to urinate on the fence.
One year, on my birthday, Jeff and I took Sean and Cory Brown back to Grandpa’s woods. For some reason, we had a hatchet. The winter had been harsh, and several trees had fallen. One had been arrested mid-fall, and lay at maybe a thirty degree angle to the ground. The Brown twins climbed the tree and started hacking at it, trying to cut off the top. “Let me try,” I said, and I climbed past them. I was a little nervous to be so high above the ground (twenty feet? thirty?). I was happily hacking away when the trunk snapped and suddenly I was in free fall. I hadn’t anticipated that sitting on the wrong side of the cut might be dangerous. Fortunately, the trunk fell away from me, and my fall was slowed by a thick growth of branches all around me. When I hit the ground with a thud, Jeff rushed to my side. “Are you okay?” he asked. I wasn’t sure at first, once I realized I was in one piece, I proclaimed: “That was fun!”
When we were older, we played “life-size D&D”, a game we made up as we went along, the rules of which were relatively fluid. (This is years before we were aware of the concept of live-action roleplaying.) We played with Jeremy Martin and Torey Lam. (And maybe Dave — Dave did you ever play with us?). We would run around with stout limbs as swords and axes. If we were magicians we would carry pine cones or oak puffs and throw them at our targets as we shouted, “Magic missile! Magic missile!” (Similar to this but without costumes, and with far fewer people.) Even in those formative years, priests were valued party members, capable of restoring our dwindling health.
Eventually I cast aside my youthful ways. I no longer went back to Grandpa’s woods to play. When I was in high school and college, I’d sometimes walk back there to be alone, to think, to write. It also became a fun place to take girls I was dating, a fun place to make out. (For some reason, they never thought it was as fun as I did.)
The last time I was back in Grandpa’s Woods was for a photography class. The land isn’t in our family anymore, but I felt no compunction about trespassing to make some pictures. While I was working, somebody came along on a four-wheeler and stared at me for a while. I waved, but the watcher did not wave back. Soon after, several new signs appeared announcing “private property — keep out”. Somebody new may own the woods, but they do not own my memories.