When I was a little idiot West Duluth kid in the early 1980s there were many constructive things for juvenile brats to do. Fighting or just generally acting tough was probably the number one pastime, followed by hanging out on the railroad tracks and throwing taconite pellets at each other. When that got boring there were always guns and wrist rockets to load with those pellets.
We also enjoyed riding our bikes to the market, stealing things and breaking them, listening to satanic heavy-metal music and verbally assaulting each other with complete insensitivity. You know, normal kid stuff.
There were also a few wholesome American activities weaved into the fabric of our youth. My friends and I liked to play sports and various chasing games like “Capture the Flag” and “Tin-can Alley.”
All of it really just falls into the category of fighting, though. Strength, speed, agility or physical force-of-will would generally determine the victor in any contest, and if it didn’t there would be an argument about it so the tougher kid could still come out on top. Since the element of strategy was always loosely involved, however, the winner could claim both physical and intellectual dominance. It was a pretty good way to establish and constantly reinforce a pecking order among the boys, but more than that it was an excellent way for the boys to prove how much better they were than the girls. Or so it seemed.
The favorite game on my block was Tin-can Alley, also known as “Kick the Can.” Two blocks to the west, Capture the Flag was the recreation activity of choice. There was another game called “Wolf Trail” that we played only one time. I think one of the neighborhood kids just made it up on the spot, but it might have been passed down from one cruel generation to the next. I’ve never heard anyone talk about it since my youth. It’s kind of an ingenious farce of a game, so I’ll digress for another paragraph to explain it.
This is how to play Wolf Trail: 1) Gather your core friends and explain how to play Wolf Trail. 2) Wait for a new kid to come around when it’s getting dark out. 3) Casually suggest playing Wolf Trail and let your friends respond with excitement. 4) New kid will ask how to play. 5) Say, “It’s easy. The first thing to do is establish the trail. Everybody follow me and we’ll tell the new kid how to play while we walk the trail.” 6) Walk through the woods single-file on a trail and talk about other stuff, maybe noting that you’ll get to the rules of the game later. 7) Stop after a while and say that’s the end of the trail, then tell the new kid the most important thing is to remember the trail. The rest is pretty simple, and you’ll explain on the walk back. 8) On the walk back, your appointed friend who quietly slipped away earlier now jumps out of the woods and scares the holy pants off the new kid, who will suffer trauma the rest of his life and never go outside at night or into the woods ever again.
Ah, good times.
In the realm of sports, we played a lot of hockey on neighborhood rinks and often on paved driveways and alleys in our boots. When it came to football and baseball, there were a lot of designated sports fields to choose from, but for some reason we seldom used them. When you are cobbling together a pickup game with six kids it’s easier to play in a big yard where the owner isn’t home or doesn’t care. If the game is baseball, substitute a tennis ball and you can bounce it off windows carefree.
If we had eight or more kids and really wanted to play with the hardball, we’d go to the practice field at Denfeld High School. It was important to have a home run fence, so this field was excellent because we could just put home plate wherever we wanted so the fence would be the appropriate distance for little-kid home-run hitting. And since the fence was at the top of a grassy hill, we could call it the “Green Monster.” Nevermind that hitting it over the monster would land the ball on a street with parked cars. The odds were pretty strong against hitting one, and when we did all we needed to do was run away.
Actually, running away might have been our favorite pastime, now that I think more about it. I’m kind of kidding, but let’s just say it was a common pastime. When you’re young and making thoughtless mistakes 30 times a day, you can’t accept the consequences of every little thing you do wrong. You’ll get caught once or twice a day, and that’s enough punishment.
When it came to bigger games of football that practice field at Denfeld didn’t cut it. We had to climb the 10-foot-tall chain-link fence and play inside Public Schools Stadium. That’s the spot where the hotshot high schoolers played, so we had to risk catching the crotches of our sweatpants on the pointy wire tips at the top of the fence in order to trespass on the property and play on the big field. Then we had to spend time figuring out how to divide the field into a smaller field, because there were never 22 of us — enough to fill the 100-yard field that we felt the need to break the law to play on.
Maybe the lawbreaking was part of why we wanted to play at PSS. None of the other places to play football had a fence designed to keep us out. The fact that we weren’t supposed to play at PSS made it the best place to play. Obviously we were pretty flagrant about trespassing there, because we were in plain view of hundreds of people driving or walking by, or dozens who could look out their living room windows and see us. We knew all that would happen if someone wanted to bust us would be a loud yell, causing us to scatter in all directions, climb the fence in haste, and live to play football there again 45 minutes later.
In addition to football, there was one chasing game we liked to play inside PSS. It’s a pretty common neighborhood game called “Jail.”
Jail is basically a team game similar to tag, where people from the hiding team who are caught have to go to a designated “jail.” If you’re in jail, players from your team can tag you to free you. It’s kind of the perfect game for a bunch of little hoodlums, when you think about it. It’s also very similar to Capture the Flag and Tin-can Alley, except there is no flag and no can — just raw hiding, chasing and jailbreaking.
As it turned out, the bleachers at PSS were an excellent place to play jail, though you might not think so at first consideration. It was the quality of the hiding places, or rather the lack of quality of the hiding places, that made it perfect. There were a lot of dark nooks to duck into under the bleachers, but nowhere you could completely hide. That’s good, because playing jail can be boring if there are really good hiding places and everyone just stays hidden. If people are kind of easy to find there is a lot of action.
One day my friends and I met up at PSS for another game of jail, and somehow a group of older girls — corralled by a sister of one of our friends — ended up playing with us. This was a challenge for us as young boys. The older girls were a little bigger and had longer strides than us, but they were still girls and, therefore, we would be humiliated to be caught by any of them. (And perhaps girl germs were also of concern at the time.)
It’s funny how the same forces of nature that make 9-year-old boys athletically superior to 9-year-old girls also make 13-year-old girls athletically superior to 9-year-old boys. Cruel fate.
I don’t remember where I decided to hide during this game of Jail, but I remember quite clearly what happened when I was found. Flushed out of my spot by a giant girl, I took off running up the bleachers. This turned out to be a really stupid thing to do because, when I got to the top, I was obviously trapped.
So there I stood in the top corner of the bleachers, at the mercy of a girl. I was going to be the first person caught. She approached slowly, relishing the moment and being cautious not to let me slip away. I was like a man trapped at the edge of a cliff with a grizzly bear closing in. I actually turned and looked down to see if it would be possible to survive the leap to the ground. Then I noticed something. There was an escape route after all! I ducked through the railing and, without bothering to take a moment to summon my courage, leapt down to the roof of a small ticket shack below. I was then free to climb down the fence to the ground and escape.
I turned around and looked back at my nemesis. She was apprehensively beginning her attempt to use my escape method to pursue me. I continued running away, then heard a crash and a splat. The girl had jumped off the top of the bleachers and landed on the edge of the roof of the ticket shack, then had fallen to the pavement below.
It was clear right away she was hurt. The world froze for a moment, except for the slow movement of various kids coming out of hiding and gathering around the scene. We started to look at each other, wondering what we should do next. Obviously we were supposed to help the girl, but none of us really had any first-aid training. So someone should run for help and the rest of us should console her, right?
Well, the first thing all the boys remembered is that we were all trespassing. So we took off running. We were over the fence and across the street in seconds, watching from the bushes of a house where one of us lived.
I can’t remember if the rest of the girls stayed with their fallen friend or took off in another direction. My gut tells me they stayed. I like to think we didn’t completely abandon that girl. I want to say we just knew there wasn’t anything we could do, so since the girls were staying we realized we might as well save our own skin. But I think we also knew that our carefree lawbreaking ways had real consequences in this situation, so we just bolted.
I know that we at least cared enough to hide in the bushes across the street, watching the scene for what seemed like a long time. Eventually, help arrived. I don’t remember the order, but I recall clearly that outside the gate was an ambulance, a fire engine, a police car and for some reason a Duluth Transit Authority bus. We couldn’t see if anyone came with a key or wire cutters, or if paramedics climbed the fence, but eventually the girl was whisked away in the ambulance.
The word around the neighborhood a few days later was that she was OK — maybe a broken bone or something. I never knew who she was, and I never saw her again.
Or maybe I did see her years later and never put it together. I published a version of this story 16 years ago in the Ripsaw newspaper. Shortly afterward I got an email from one of the girls who had been there. She remembered it all. Told me specifics about the injury, the girl’s name, and other details that I think made me feel less like a jerk. I have since forgot all of it. But I will always remember watching that girl close in on me, the fall, fleeing the scene and watching in the bushes like a little 9-year-old coward.
I don’t know if I’m rolling out this story all these years later because the girl survived the fall and therefore it’s a happy ending, or to remind myself I did a lousy thing running away that day. Even if it was clear she was OK, and even if the girls were staying with her, in the version of the story I tell myself all these years later we just left her there to die.
It would be only a few more years before we’d come to know death for real. Not the grandma-passed-away kind of death, but the loss of a good buddy who played stupid games in the neighborhood with us. More would follow as the years passed. A leukemia here, a blood clot there. Decades pass and pretty soon the losses start to pile up. The kid whose bushes we hid in after fleeing the jail scene, well, he died in his sleep about three years ago. The fellow who slid off I-35 and crashed into the St. Louis River last week, well, he was an old classmate with a soul I won’t forget.
Deaths of a peer are still fairly scattered at age 44. It’s not something one stops and thinks about cumulatively or with regard to the passage of time.
In 2014 the Duluth band Trampled by Turtles covered the song “Owner of a Lonely Heart” on the Onion AV Club’s Undercover web series. It’s a song originally released by the band Yes in 1983, and was one of the most popular songs in America in 1984, back when 100 percent of my childhood friends were alive. When the TBT version of the song came out, I was working with an intern and she mentioned she had never heard the original. I thought that couldn’t be possible. It was on the radio all the time. MTV played the video ceaselessly. Then I realized the intern was born around 1993. Maybe she had heard the song on a classic rock station a few times, but not often enough to recognize it. I thought about the passage of time, the passage of friends and the passage of “Owner of a Lonely Heart” appreciation. Then I looked at the intern and said something kind of comical but still gut-wrenchingly painful.
“I’ve got friends who’ve been dead longer than you’ve been alive.”
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