Barron was abducted during a game of kick- the- cans. My little brother vanished into the pine- scented air behind our home. I prayed that he hadn’t been taken away by aliens in a UFO.
The sun was down and stars already dotted the purple and orange sky. Crickets were crooning in an evening opera of insect unison. Soon, the entire mountainside that extended beyond the periphery of our pole light would turn darker than the blackening sky. Billions of sand-sized points of lights would cover a shore of total nothingness above. Somewhere in the forest below, my little brother was lost and night was falling. We were so worried. We searched desperately for hours and it seemed that UFO’s were real.
Night snugged in, wrapping a dark comforter of blackness gently over the landscape . We hoped that Barron wasn’t bitten by a snake and now dead somewhere in the woods.
Bob warned us constantly about playing kick-the-cans, especially in the Fall when it was dry and the rattlers from the sandstone quarry nearby slithered down Jack’s Mountain to find water and cool places to shed paper-thin skin. Bob didn’t want the entire neighborhood hanging out at our place–
“I can’t be responsible for all these damned kids. Too many snakes around. One of younz is going to get bit if you keep crawlin’ round that woodpile,” Bob snipped. “Go play at the Hoffman’s… Better yet, if you have so much energy, why not wheel in six loads of wood tonight. I want that done before any games are played on my property.”
“It’s still September and we haven’t built a fire yet,” I protested.
“Just for that, carry in seven loads tonight!” My stepfather yelled.
Playing kick-the-cans at Brian Hoffman’s was fun, and Brian’s parents, Pam and Dave seemed to enjoy us running around the yard as they sat on their front porch, smoked cigarettes, and aimed their smoldering butts over our heads, towards an area of the yard where the grass was at least three times taller than the rest of the lawn. Pam’s hair was as red as the ember on her Winston and Dave’s was grey like the ashes that they flicked onto the porch without using ashtrays.
There were not as many hiding places for playing kick-the-cans at the Hoffman’s. At our place, there were abandoned snowmobiles to duck behind, a rust Chevy Impala to crawl under, and a tractor shed that stood adjacent to the wood shop and a race car garage. Our place offered the perfect hiding-spots for a game requiring stealth. Besides, Barron wasn’t old enough to travel to the Hoffman’s, three doors away. He was much too young to understand the concept of the game, but we let him play anyway when the town gang came over.
I regretted not keeping a close watch over Barron during the advanced game of hide-and-go-seek. At least if we had gone to the Hoffman’s, like Bob said, we wouldn’t have lost him.
Unlike in tag when one is ‘it’, there is a ‘guardian of the cans’ in the game of kick-the-cans. He or she who is ‘it’ is not required to run after and touch those being captured. The guardian must only see an opponent to capture and ‘tag’ them. The guardian simply taps the cans and reports where one was seen hidden. Hiding well is the key to success in kick-the-cans. The guardian of the cans must spot and capture everyone else in order to relinquish the title. There is no physical chasing in the game. The guardian, after seeing a player, touches the top of a stack of beer cans, and shouts out who was seen and where they were spotted.
It’s infuriating for the guardian of the cans if and when the cans get kicked. The trick to winning is to capture everyone before anyone kicks the cans. A guardian cannot simply hover above the cans and expect to find everyone, especially those who hide in the most obvious of kick-the-can spots.
The first player spotted in a round is ‘it’ in next match. Being the guardian of the cans is not fun, so everyone works to free the person caught first, whose destiny may be to serve as ‘guardian of the cans’. Only after the guardian has spotted, or ‘tap-tapped’ everyone out, does guardianship change in kick-the-cans. If the guardian wanders too far from the stack of cans, trying to spot others in hiding, one may just sneak up and kicks the cans– freeing everyone previously called-out. The game begins anew with no changeover in guardianship of the cans.
The guardian, when spotting an opponent, touches the cans and shouts the phrase– “Tap- Tap” and then reports the name of the kid seen and where they were hiding. That was when we realized Barron was missing. The guardian had spotted and captured everyone but Barron. We were all now desperately searching for him as guardians, not protecting the cans at all, hoping the little boy would sneak out of hiding and kick the cans– freeing us all of the torture of realizing he was lost. The game ended hours ago. We hoped he understood the rules.
“I can’t be responsible for everyone’s child,” Bob snipped before the game even started. “Go play kick-the-cans at the Hoffman’s tonight. Better yet, I got work for you boys to do. I want six wheelbarrow loads of wood carried into the cellar before you start stacking beer cans in the driveway.”
Everyone pitched in to help with carrying the wood because it wasn’t as fun playing the game elsewhere. Chris Smith, the kid our age with a single mom was always tickled to help with our chores. He lived two doors away in a light-blue trailer with insufficient hiding places and wished his mom, Deb, had a wood stove like we did. Chris didn’t mind helping us carry in wood, so that our nightly game of kick-the-cans could begin. Bob was fond of Chris, taking the blue-eyed chap under his wing in step-father fashion too, instilling in us all a hard work ethic and understanding of enlightenment– chop wood, carry water…chop wood, carry water.
Poor Barron wasn’t much taller than ferns that grew among orchid lady slippers in the woods up- back. He could easily have hidden there, not wanting to come out, crouched down in hiding among the ferns like a tiny snail that had out-grown a diaper shell.
There was soggy marshland just beyond our woodpile where the ladyslippers grew. We didn’t hide among the ferns during kick-the-cans, not out of respect for the rare orchids, but because the ground remained saturated with water all year long. If one stood too long up there, their sneakers would get soaked and white tube socks would be drenched in a black muck of a decomposing forest floor that poured into high top shoes like wet cement into a footer.
I searched way beyond the ditch that separated the marsh from the woodpile and kept yelling “Bear-Bear,” almost crying with every shout. Bob had the ditch that I leaped over like a deer dug into the outskirts of his property when he first purchased the land. The ditch was wide enough to make jumping across a slight challenge. Was it even possible for Bear Bear to make it to the other sid? Bob said that if hadn’t dug that ditch we’d have lady slippers all around the cellar would stay flooded. There would have been water in our basement all the time, especially after heavy rains. He dug the ditch before he married Mom. Already, the clay embankments had caved in from erosion, forming more of a natural streambed than the hollowed portion of earth that had been ripped out with a back-hoe, long before Bob became our Dad.
“Game’s over, Barron. You can come out now,” Sally Benson belted at the top of her tom-boy wind pipes as she too crossed the ditch to join me in the search in the dark recesses of the woods where the lady slippers grew.
Barron didn’t respond. I figured he was well on his way to Jupiter, held hostage by aliens in a UFO, by the time the evening faded to total darkness and he was still nowhere to be seen.
Typically, Barron hid behind the woodpile during kick-the-cans, but close examination under the blue plastic tarp that protected the chopped wood revealed only the severed inside of logs, piled neatly, at least nine feet high.
Sally Benson saw Barron last, just after Jason North had kicked the pyramid pile of fifteen aluminum beer cans– freeing everyone who had been captured by Chris Smith who at the time was ‘it’– with a responsibility of guarding the cans while searching for everyone else, hoping that no one would kick the cans, not even little Bear Bear. Such a kick would cause Chris to start his game of go-seek all over again.
Nobody was paying attention. Poor Bear Bear!
Sally said she spotted Barron crawling down the ditch.
Evening had fallen and the pole light came on.
We all started crying, standing on a little wooden bridge that crossed the ditch on the road that led to the Benson’s trailer. We searched under that bridge thoroughly after Sally Benson reporting seeing Barron hidden well in the ditch.
The crickets stopped chirping the moment the pole light flicked automatically on at the cusp of twilight .
“Help,” Barron cried in a faint whisper, nearby.
He was stuck in a cement pipe that littered the forest floor. The tubing was supposed to be placed under the wooden bridge, but like rusting snowmobiles, the piece of the industrialized world was overgrown by the forest. The pipe was never rolled or kicked into the ditch. It became as much a part of the landscape as ladyslipper orchids.
Barron was stuck inside a giant can-shaped ring of concrete that was overgrown by thick briers and covered in a blanket of green moss. He whimpered when we discovered him, obviously relieved because he could hardly breathe. His leg was jammed in the narrow space between the round walls of where he was hidden– his chest was pressed in as he sat there hunkered over, sealed by the pressure of cement all around. He tried to un-lodge himself but only made his predicament worse. He could hardly cry for help.
Bill reached into the pipe and yanked Barron’s jammed leg free.
He explained that he got jammed when he attempted to turn around inside the pipe just as Chris Smith walked right by.
“If I was a snake, I would have bit, ‘em,” Barron explained, upset that the game had already ended.