Wednesday, November 14, 2012
The Gang Who Couldn't Rake Straight
I was part of a gang when I was younger.
Wait…that’s not what it sounds like. You have to understand that I was a kid in a small town in northern Maine in the 1970s. In that context, a “gang” could be defined as “a bunch of kids in roughly the same age group from the same general part of town, playing together spontaneously because they had all been thrown outside by mothers or sitters to get them out of their hair”. That’s the kind of gang of which I was a part. At any given time, there were usually five or six of us in my neighborhood gang, the core being me and my friends Andy and Rick (names changed for privacy, of course). There was also a rotating cast of other characters of both genders that included siblings, other kids who lived nearby, and kids who often visited the neighborhood because they had relatives or friends there.
Almost the entire neighborhood was our playground. There were always one or two of the “you dang kids stay off my lawn” types around, but for the most part it was a less suspicious and litigious time, and people were not as hung up on kids playing on their property as they are now. It was not out of the ordinary, nor particularly worrisome, for one of our neighbors to look out the back window and see upwards of a dozen kids gathered at their picnic table devising plans for a game of Whiffleball or British Bulldog. The neighbors knew us and our families, and we knew well what the limits were for our activities on certain properties, having been warned numerous times by our parents to be respectful of them. The main rules were pretty simple: Don’t play too close to the house or cars. Stay out of gardens and flowers. Don’t play with outside “stuff” (e.g.-hoses, decorations, tools, etc). Leave no sign you were there when you were gone.
There was a notable exception to that last one, however, and it typically came up at this time of year. Everybody’s fallen leaves were fair game for us kids, and no one in the neighborhood minded a bit if we gathered theirs up and hauled them off.
Our usual home base was Rick’s house, mainly because it was centrally-located and had a large, flat backyard that was perfect for many activities. Rick’s yard, and most others around, had numerous large maple trees in or around it. As the leaves first began to fall, we’d ignore them in favor of touch football, a favorite autumn pastime. They became harder to ignore when they became a carpet several inches thick. At that point, Rick’s father would break out a couple of rakes while the gang was playing nearby, and leave them strategically placed against his garage while he raked up a small pile of leaves and let Rick’s younger brothers jump and play in it. Obviously taking a page from Twain’s Tom Sawyer, Rick’s father was trying to make a mundane chore seem like a barrel of monkeys for his unsuspecting son and his friends. And it worked.
For a span of about three years, my friends and I were old enough to do a good job at cleaning up the leaves, and young enough not to care that we were not being paid to do it. Rick’s yard alone yielded a massive pile, which we would then jump into in the most outrageous manner possible, emulating our two heroes of that time, Evel Knievel and the Six Billion Dollar Man. We’d jump from the deck or tree low tree branches, we’d bail off our bicycles, or we’d catapult each other in. I will not confirm or deny that we may have even found ways to jump off a garage roof into a particularly large pile one year. There were no limits to the number of ridiculous things we would do to ourselves and each other in the name of taking a cool dive into a gigantic pile of leaves. It’s amazing that none of us ended up in wheelchairs.
There was more to it than jumping in, however. Hiding in the leaves and leaping out to scare some unsuspecting person was also great sport. One member of our gang was a pretty blond girl named Darcy who lived in the house next to Rick’s and was very cool. The problem was, Darcy had the most sour and irritating older sister in the world. The sister’s name was Karen, and all she ever did was complain, look down her nose at us, and tattle on every little thing that she didn't like, which was most everything we did. We loved nothing more than teasing our neighborhood party-pooper. I wouldn't be surprised if Karen works for the I.R.S. now.
Late one afternoon when it was nearly dark, Darcy told us that Karen would be coming home any minute from some after-school activity she had been attending. She thought we ought to do something to scare her. (You can probably see why we liked Darcy so much.) My friends and I hurriedly relocated our large pile of leaves to the edge of the lawn near the sidewalk, where Karen would have to pass on her way home. Darcy, Andy and I buried ourselves under the pile, while the other kids acted as lookouts, milling around the yard, tossing a football and looking as innocent as possible. We didn't time things out terribly well though, and the three of us were sweating under the pile for what seemed like forever. It was probably more like 10 minutes, but that’s a long time to hold still and be quiet at that age. Eventually, we heard stage whispers from the others that Karen was coming down the street. A low whistle by Rick was the agreed-upon signal to act. The three of us who had been hiding under the leaves in great anticipation immediately jumped up, waving our arms, screaming and lunging at Karen. Her reaction was absolutely electric. She screamed louder than anyone I had ever heard in my life and reflexively swung her full bookbag at us, missing by a mile, before running at top speed down the sidewalk to her house. It was priceless, especially the look on her face. Did I mention that the three of us were also wearing gruesome Halloween masks when we popped up? If we’d only had a video camera in those days, I know we would have become YouTube sensations.
After a while, however, our large pile of leaves was not nearly as large. All of our jumping in them and moving them around eventually shredded the leaves into pieces the size of a quarter. Undaunted, we would just go collect more leaves from nearby yards. Not surprisingly, none of the neighbors had a problem with a group of rake-wielding kids descending upon their yards to clean up all their leaves for free and carry them away on a large borrowed tarp. Little old ladies who normally shooed us away from anywhere near their homes would step out onto their porches and summon us over. “You can have all these leaves if you want them,” they’d tell us, feigning great benevolence and generosity. “Just take them back to the pile you already have.” The rest of the year, these ladies only gave us dark looks and occasional threats, but for a few days in the late fall, they acted like they were our best friends.
Now while my friends and I were just kids, we were not stupid. We knew full well that collecting all those leaves was providing a handy and apparently free service for the adults in the neighborhood. However, we were young, full of boundless energy, and there were quite a few of us in our group. The actual amount of work done by any one individual kid was not that great really. And, the payoff we got from the things we could do with such a huge pile of leaves was plenty of recompense at the time. There was nothing more satisfying than having a pile of leaves so large that your could stand upright in the middle and still be covered. Granted, we were not that tall, but still, it was a lot of leaves.
There was one linchpin to this whole endeavor that made it feasible: the willingness of Rick’s dad to allow us to cart all the neighbor’s leaves onto his lawn. Why would he allow such a thing, you might ask? Two words: avid gardener. Rick’s dad had the largest and most prosperous vegetable garden in that part of town. He spent hours and hours working in it during the growing season, and even after everything had been harvested he was testing soil composition, adding fertilizer, planting cover crops and generally fussing with it. By the time we kids had grown tired of the leaves we had collected, they had been chopped into a fine mulch from the beating we put on them. The pile that had once been as tall as we were was now just a few inches high. Before the ground froze for the winter, Rick’s dad would back his pickup truck onto the lawn, shovel the shredded leaves into the back, and then take them out back to his garden, where he would spread them around and till them under. It was very much a mutually beneficial arrangement between Rick’s dad and his son’s gang of friends.
At this time of year, as I am raking up the leaves in my yard, I like to think back to those days when piling up leaves was a game and not a chore. Even now in middle-age, when I've accumulated a particularly large pile, there is a temptation, deep down inside, for me to take a running leap into it. Of course the temptation not to break a hip is even greater, so I don’t do it, but that doesn't mean the thought hasn't crossed my mind. Like most things in life, it’s our perspective that makes a crucial difference in the things we undertake. I believe we’d all be better off sometimes if we could only see things through the eyes we had when we were at the age when we could stand upright and yet hidden in a large pile of fallen leaves.