In the smart little town of Three Springs, college kids are hired to supervise a summer youth program known as ‘the playground’. It takes a village to raise a child and a playground to keep them busy. There is a baseball field, swing sets and lots of trees to climb. Limestone caverns are found near the playground and are accessible only by wading across a small stream that helps to give the town its name. Kids with little supervision go there to play ball and to explore dark caverns with boxes of wooden matches, even though the town officially does not promote dangerous cave explorations. When we tired of bad mitten and catching balls with gloves we left supervision behind and crossed the crick to climb cave hill. Our moms never knew.
We gathered with kids from all over town on hot summer mornings to pass the twighlight hours that dragged before the Three Springs community swimming pool opened sharply at one.
An abandoned tabernacle where summer church services were hosted in generations past served as the unofficial office of the playground program. Older teens coordinated what activities would be played each morning and often served as umpires in baseball or the extra team member for an uneven side.
When it rained, we sought shelter in the Three Springs tabernacle, near a piano that was covered with a wooden box that reminded me of a coffin. Our little arms were thin enough to reach through cracks in two-by-fours to touch the keyboard.
Volleyball, puzzles, softball, finger painting and dog shows were a way to pass what was not time during the seemingly endless summers days. Life was simple in the county. Parents permitted children to run in packs, like wild dogs, with the playground serving as a kennel of sorts. Kidnaping was never an issue. There were so many kids in that little town and none of the grownups there wanted any more kids anyway.
The population of the tiny mountain village was just over 500, not enough to warrant the need for a sheriff. It is a town of guns. Every grown male and most women owned guns there in 1980. I learned to shoot one when I was eight and had a B.B. gun for as long as I can remember. There was no need to worry when it came to ‘child supervision’. The town took care of its own and the older kids were put in charge of younger children. Most men were gone from town during summer days. They worked in cities nearby with factories that paid minimum wage. It was less expensive to hire college kids to run the playground or work as lifeguards at the pool than to set up a police headquarters as a means of keeping an eye on the little town and its little ones. The community was poor. Parents were strict and kids knew that if they did anything really bad that any grown person in town had authorization to take off belt and start whipping the off-spring of another, as long as there was good cause. We were always on our best behavior.
There were many old, retired people who lived in Three Springs and watched over us too. The elderly peeked from behind curtains covering windows of little homes and trailers when we passed their property on our dirt bikes and ten-speeds. There was no need for families to lock their doors at night. The place was so safe. College students served as our babysitters and we could pretty much get away with anything we set our minds on.
Robbie and Bryan Smirnoff stopped by my house, on their way downtown to the playground one muggy July morning in 1980, to pick- up my brother Bill and me. Racing bicycles rattled across the gravel of our driveway as the two brothers pedaled up the lane, stirring dust that could easily have ruined Mom’s sheets drying on a line. They slowed down as they neared the back porch and clothesline.
“Are you guys coming?” Robbie asked with reddish hair falling over heavily lashed eyelids.
“We gotta snap these beans,” I said, pointing to six large buckets filled with tender, finger-like vegetables. My stepfather told Bill and me that we had to pick and snap all the beans on Monday before going to the pool or the playground. He wasn’t around during the week, like most fathers in Three Springs. He worked on construction and stayed in hotels in larger towns, mostly East of Three Springs. He made out a list of chores for Bill and me before he left for work each Monday. There were tasks to do that could well have taken eight hours to finish, but we somehow always managed to complete everything he left for us in time to go to the playground with Robbie and Bryan.. Mom made us stick to Dad’s rules and chores. On Monday we had to do the beans. Mom was canning. All the beans had to get snapped before the sun went down or else they would appear wilted inside Mason jars in which my mother preserved them after blanching.
“What if we help?” Bryan suggested. Bryan was my age. Robbie was my brother Bill’s age.
“Then we will get done faster. Hey, do you guys wanna see our walkie-talkies? You can hear astronauts on them,” I insisted.
The nine-volt batteries inside the hand-held communications devices were not that good. They didn’t sting the tip of my tongue very much, bust still, I wanted to show my playmates what I had heard earlier that morning while I was sitting on the back porch waiting for Bill to finish breakfast. I placed the two talkies together and pressed the transmit buttons simultaneously. A loud clear voice came over the walkie-talkie in my right hand. It was a language that was not our own. I wasn’t sure who it was, but the clear voice sounded a lot like an astronaut.
“Watch this,” I said, placing a bowl of snapped beans upon the patio while reaching for the radios. “These things can pick up astronauts. I heard one this morning. Stay still and listen.”
Nothing happened. Just a loud screech.
“You are fun to play with, but you lie too much,” Robbie said. His little brother Bryan agreed. So did Bill. I started snapping beans again.
“Show them what you got, Robbie,” Bryan ordered.
“Not yet. Not here by the house. Their mom knows our mom,” Robbie, the oldest of all and the one with the most common sense demanded.
I grabbed an entire handful of beans and quickly pinched off the pointed ends with sharp fingernails embedded with deep green spinacia. We already smoked a cigarette in the woods together with a Brad Williams who was old enough to buy them from Beatty’s gas station. I wondered if Robbie somehow bought a pack of cigarettes at a vending machine or maybe Brad got him a pack.
By the look in his dark brown eyes, I could tell Robbie had another pack of Camels on him or something even more forbidden. I couldn’t wait to get to cave hill. We got dizzy on the top of the mountain in a hidden spur known by kids in town as “the crow’s nest”. The four of us climbed up there after the pool had closed one afternoon. Brad Rupert, a supervisor at the summer program came along. Brad lit a cigarette when we got to the top, away from all the grown-ups of town. It burned my throat but I felt grown-up. We momentarily turned into real men that day, smoking with Brad, a staff member of the playground who had been hired by the town even though he had absolutely no plans of going to college. Brad’s mom Margie was the town’s treasurer and somehow managed to get Brad the part-time job for $2.50 an hour.
We all chewed an entire pack of Bubble Yum bubble gum. A whole pack was only twenty-five cents and I could easily fit all five pieces in my mouth. The gum covered the smell of smoke perfectly. Our moms didn’t suspect any wrong doing.
Brad showed us he was turning into a man after he smoked the last of the Camel. I was so dizzy and couldn’t believe what I saw in the crow’s nest. As Brad took his last hit, he had to piss. He turned his back to us and pointed over the cliff. For a moment it appeared he may accidentally fall over. He was pissing like a man. Robbie was the first to say anything–
“You got more hair on your nuts than me.”
Brad quickly finished pulling up his fly. He crushed the cigarette butt with a manly stride, wanting not to appear queer.
“Where’s your underwear?” Bryan asked. “I’d get my pecker caught if I didn’t wear underwear.”
We all laughed like little girls.
Brad blew smoke out his nose and just laughed at us kids. The hair over Brad’s nuts was same shade of orangish-red that dangled from under his well-worn Wible’s Trucking baseball cap. I was freaked out and still dizzy from smoking. We were all boys– no girls around. It was no big deal, but still, I was never able to look at Brad’s red head again and not laugh and think it was so funny.
I wanted to smoke again and couldn’t wait to finish with our chores. After the last bean had been snapped and the tips dumped in the woods, we jumped on our bikes and headed down the Back Alley, past Barb Benson’s big white house. Robbie led the pack on his bike. He turned right at the stop sign and charged at full speed towards the crick. He stopped suddenly, sending a puff of dirt in all our faces—
“Show ‘em Robbie, Show ‘em.”
I stood breathless while balancing my ten speed with my left foot.
“You got snuff?” My brother Bill yelled. “He got snuff. Where’d you get it from?”
To be continued…