These were all things one of my friends and I detailed recently as very real, once entirely logical past-times of Kiddom.
Ah, Kiddom. That time when virtually anything seemed possible, and sharp boundaries of good judgment often took on a somewhat hazy, more Guideline-oriented position in our enthusiastic, still-developing brains.
I suspect the brains of my friend Sarah and I had been stunted due to one of these boundary issues. If not before one particular day, certainly afterward.
Sarah had lived down the street from me for Practically All of My Life. Which was to say, a couple of years.
And at the very end of her housing complex, at the far back of a long winding drive, was the closest most of us New Jersey-born city kids ever came to Nature...
It was a small park by a brook.
Oh, the park wasn't anything to speak of. It had two metal creatures on springs you could bounce on-- at least until the summer sun got too hot, would heat 'em up until transparent waves reached the power lines, and they'd sizzle our shorts-clad thighs like flabby grilled cheese sandwiches.
There was a circular board on a reluctant lazy-susan type apparatus. Where, with enough energy, you could get to speeds of upwards 1/4 mile an hour. We were more likely to pass out of exhaustion from the effort rather than the thrill.
There was a rusty jungle gym, which soon became just a little too low for us to enjoy in any particular Tarzan antics.
And there were a set of swings, which squeaked their plea for oil the moment you looked at 'em.
Sarah and I liked the swings well enough. But we actually preferred the metal safety bars in front of them. They were designed to keep non-swinging spectators a sensible distance back. But we found them ideal for practicing Olympic-style uneven bars routines.
It was just as Sarah was going for the Gold one day, that I noticed the drops of blood on the ground below her. Sarah was one of those kids who got nosebleeds practically on schedule. I was sure there was a paper on her fridge at home that read:
- Home from school
No, we decided we would instead find something to sop up the bleeding.
And my, didn't those giant leaves over there by the little brook look handy?
We moved in closer for examination. Or rather, we both moved in-- but Sarah had her head elevated, so I examined. The leaves were beautiful. Great crinkled prehistoric-looking things on long stalks. Something straight out of Land of the Lost. A quick moment of discussion, and we ripped one off and Sarah pressed it to her leaking facial feature. It was working! We had done it! How resourceful we were!
Until we noticed the smell.
We learned later that this beautiful leaf, this fine example of botany was, in fact, Skunk Cabbage. And its stench which-- if we had been truly honest with ourselves, probably smelled no worse than we did as we radiated Olympic sweat and spilled soured Yoo-hoo from lunch-- sent us fleeing into the gently babbling brook.
Sarah began to wash her face, ewwing and shrieking as only a pre-teen girl could. And it was there, in the greenly leaf-dappled light, in the world of waterbugs and mossy rocks and the occasional oily rainbow swirling along the water, it was there we became very thirsty.
And we decided to drink of Nature's Bounty. We'd seen them do just like this on Little House on the Prairie. And Mr. Ingalls would never steer us wrong.
Well, when we arrived back at Sarah's, it didn't take much to determine we'd been up to something. Blood still traced around Sarah's neck. Leafy green stains still smeared her nose and freckled cheeks. Our shoes squelched. Our socks sagged damply around our ankles. Mud dotted our calves.
And in moments, the story unraveled of how yes, Sarah had had another nosebleed but we had completely taken care of it. We were wholly self-sufficient. We mopped up the blood and even enjoyed a nice little drink from the stream.
"Er, which stream?"
"The one by the park."
Here we learned a new word: contaminants. And that our region of Jersey was one of the largest pharmaceutical and chemical producers in the state. And how that particular creek stretched for miles, in and around this amazing mecca of export, until it eventually dumped into the Lackawanna River along the railroad tracks not far from my house.
A phone call brought this little geographic and manufacturing trivia to the attention of my own mother. Who made me promise never to drink from the stream or any other non-faucet water source again.
And I couldn't be sure, but Mom seemed to survey me more closely that evening at dinner.
It wasn't with anger, necessarily. Just this uneasy, furtive evaluation.
In retrospect I think I now know what she was looking for. She was searching for signs of a third eye, the bud of an 11th finger. Or skunk cabbage leaves to sprout from my ears.
This was North Central Jersey Nature, after all. You never could be too sure. Nature, we knew, worked in mysterious ways.