Backroads Through the Perilous Years

In the outlying areas of 1950s Seattle, there were not actually suburbs yet, just land to be bought and cleared of tall trees and developed into houses and homes. It was sort of the modified Wild West. We boys 13 and 14 ran in packs, unchallenged in the backroads and new groups of houses springing up outside Seattle. Later we grew up to become upstanding men, but our youthful curiosity was endless and dangerous and with a few small turns we might well all have ended up criminals.

Immediate little morsels from my boyhood include stealing landing light trophies from edges of the major airport, firing a dad’s hunting rifle at a small fishing boat a mile away, leaving a real pipe bomb sitting on fiery Sterno cans on a neighborhood road…to explode sometime later sending shrapnel for half a mile, lurking down lovers’ lanes to surround a lonely parked car with flashlights, smoking coffee flakes and dog hair, chaining a police car’s rear axle to dock pillar so the axle and universal joint ripped out when he took off in hot pursuit. To tell truth, our subsequent discovery of girls probably tamed us down a great deal. It certainly limited the range of our truly creative, truly fiendish, truly destructive imagination. Girls, at least, were finite as a species, if individually not quite all the same.

To drop back a bit: When my family moved from cold Minneapolis to Seattle in 1949, it was just my mother, me, and Charlie, whom she had married after the end of the war, and with the assurance of my real father’s death in combat. New to the Seattle area, we lived for a year in the “apartments” not too far from the airport where my stepfather was working first as a ground mechanic, and then as a flight engineer for Northwest Airlines in some of the first commercial aircraft flying the Pacific. The Boeing Stratocruisers, build here in Seattle, had four propellers that had to be kept going for seemingly endless yawning hours over water. The pilot held the plane in the right direction, but the flight engineer constantly monitored each engine — and kept them aloft through that whole forbidding expanse of time and water.

At the same time dads were in the air or otherwise at work, we children of families who had migrated to the Pacific Northwest became kid-mobs racing around the apartments on dime-store roller skates that clipped onto the soles of our shoes. The apartments, about 200 or more of them filled with families moving to the Seattle area for work were the haunts of us younger kids on roller skates. This was before elbow or knee pads were even thought of, and so every kid was a patchwork of scabs on top of scabs from falls on the concrete at high speed.

Meanwhile the older kids went off into the “woods,” uncleared land between the apartment and Puget Sound, and had BB gun wars. Some lost eyes, I heard from my mother, who forbade me to run with the big kids and I believe must have been thankful that my roller skates confined me to the sidewalks running through the big apartment complex. Most young families in the “apartments” were looking for homes they could afford to buy. The GI Bill helped a lot of them, and other new mortgage schemes developed since the war encouraged everyone else. Out near the airport in a swath of forest with roads that they called Normandy Park, getting a home meant buying a parcel of land and building a house on it. When there were enough families, a little mom-and-pop grocery store sprung up on a once remote road, and just as we arrived, the community brought in its own school for elementary grades.

We could easily have bought beachfront property in Normandy Park, but my mother, from Oklahoma, thought the sea could someday rise and come over us. That waterfront land could now be worth a fortune…but then who knows, she may have been right in the long run after all.

Yet even with property back a safe mile from the water, we kids still had the Normandy Park beach for running along the driftwood which had been brought from all parts of the world stripped of its bark and limbs, and washed up high on the beach to form a running, leaping pathway above the sand for boys with their limitless sped and balance. We’d race along those logs, zigging from one to another, leaping through space like squirrels through several trees, most of all never never touching the sand below. Needless to say, there were no parental supervised activities. Parents could never keep up with us anyway, so they just put us in sturdy clothes and said to be home for dinner or dark, whichever came first.

Ah the beach… Puget Sound was salt water, and freezing cold with its Alaska currents, but we swam in it. (Our kids later were more civilized and would not touch the cold water of Puget Sound.) On the Normandy Park public beach, we’d build rafts of driftwood logs laced and wrapped with long strands of tough seaweed. After a day’s hard work, we would stand like Polynesian seafarers on our all-natural rafts. And one day someone brought a submarine to the beach. It didn’t start out as a submarine, but as the rubberized gas tank from a World War Two bomber. People tended to glom onto all manner of war surplus in those days. So someone’s Dad brought it down in a truck to see if it would float, and left it there with us, a rubber tank we could fit with a makeshift paddle to move it about, and a top hatch where a small person could slide inside.

That small person was Denver Carney. None of the rest of us dared get inside the contraption, but Denver did so quite happily. He was inside and it was floating around the shallow water, and he was actually maneuvering it with the paddle attachment he moved back and forth. As we watched from shore, Denver shouted “Crash dive, crash dive” and other stuff he’d heard in the submarine movies.

We thought he was having far too good a time (we timid ones on the shore) and someone suggested “Let’s torpedo Denver!”

“Yeah, let’s torpedo Denver.” Repeated by everyone in that enthusiastic fashion, it seemed like an idea whose time had come, a mandate for action.

Right at hand on the beach were long slender logs that it took three of us to lift, and they made perfect “torpedoes”. We selected one and in unison glided it into the water toward Denver, who was happily shouting out movie commands inside his submarine. The first torpedo slithered past his bow and he never knew. The second log “torpedo” we hoisted and slung in unison was a winner. It hit the stern “klunk” where Denver’s head was against the soft inside wall of the rubber sub. The sub’s motion stopped. Denver’s gleeful shouted commands stopped.

We looked at each other. “Do you think we killed Denver?” One of us said.

“Better get him out” said someone more responsible. We all jumped into the cold salt water and pulled the rubber sub into shore. Denver’s eyes were rolled back in their sockets. We dragged him out onto the beach, fearing the worst as we looked at the large knot protruding from Denver’s orange red hair. We contemplated running for parental guidance, but then Denver’s eyes straightened out.

“Hey,” he said, “that was cool! Who’s next?”

None of us was next.

I think Denver was with us when Larry Mortenson brought his dad’s hunting rifle to help settle an argument. Most of the boys thought the rifle couldn’t even hit the water from the high bluff we hiked along, overlooking Puget Sound, a body of water about 5 miles wide.

“Yes it can,” said Larry. “My uncle was a sniper and said he could hit something a mile away. He drank a lot though, and we were never sure whether to believe him.”

“Well, let’s shoot it and see.”

Larry got in a prone position on the top of the bluff, some 500 feet above the beach below, and fired a couple of rounds out over the large body of water.

“Did you see any splashes?” He asked.

No one had.

“Then how are we going to know how far it goes?”

“See those guys in the boat way out there?” There was a small fishing boat maybe a mile  out. It was too deep to anchor, but they seemed to be holding a position, probably slowly trolling.

Larry was quite sure as he fired the first round from his prone position. “This couldn’t possibly get out to where they are.”

“If it does, we’re in trouble.”

“No way.” Larry said, confidently. And fired another round.

The little fishing boat started to move quickly to the Northwest. Perhaps they were headed home. Perhaps they knew of better fishing areas. But to this day I think they might have seen one or two rounds splash beside them, or skip off the water, or even hit their boat. I also cannot imagine anyone sniping with real bullets merely out of idle curiousity, but there it is: we did it.

You wonder sometimes how kids – and more importantly – you as a kid, possibly made it through those perilous years.  For instance, at the new elementary school there was blacktop surrounding the main building, and then a covered passway to the administration offices and the small gymnasium. We had discovered geared “English” bikes then, with 5 gear speeds as I remember, and they were a step up in speed and lightness from the old balloon-tire cruisers which had so much trouble going up the many hills in our community. Often we had to walk the balloon tire bikes up the hill. There was another large difference, too. The brakes on the “English” bikes were front and rear hand brakes, on the front handle bars with the gearshift lever, which moved the chain through low to high gears as you kept pedaling. It took a while to convert from the balloon tire brake, which you stepped back on with the pedal of either side, so you could put your full weight onto stopping your hurtling bike. If you tried to use the balloon tire braking method while riding an “English” bicycle, your legs would spin helplessly backward and nothing would even slow down at all.

I had just gotten my new “English” bike and was following the pack around the roads of Normandy Park on a Saturday, when we decided how cool it would be to have bicycle races on the asphalt that created a sort of track all around the main classroom building, going through the underpass between buildings. The school was locked up, and no one was around it at all. It was a dry day and as we built up breathtaking speeds, we could hit the corners and lean, braking just enough, and then building up speed to pull through the leaning turn. I was keeping up with the pack and getting the hang of leaning on the corners and knocking it a gear down from the top to churn back to high speed after each turn. The new lightweight bicycle was thrilling and I pulled away on successive turns faster and faster. I was pulling out ahead when I approached the turn toward the underpass and realized I had too much speed for that corner. My reflexes from my balloon tire days made me stomp backwards on the pedal, and my legs spun backward as the bicycle hurtled toward the corner. Way too late,  I realized I must grab a handbrake, and instead caught my hand on the gear shift, which stopped nothing.

My body hit the large plate glass window to the administration offices going – probably – 40 miles an hour. It was the early 50s and plate glass was just that, no safety glass, nothing. I burst through the window like some movie stunt man, shoulder first I believe, and the 6 foot by 6 foot window gave way all at once, and I flew hard onto the hallway which was deserted on a non-school day. The glass had broken away in an instant, and the top broken part of about 3 feet by 6 feet suspended in air for a moment, and then came slicing straight down like a guillotine…and broke in to shards on the floor just behind me. I had superficial cuts on my arms and my legs. I was actually locked into the administration building, so we broke the rest of the plate glass away so that I could climb back out. The bicycle had stopped dead at the lower wall. It was still ridable and so I pedaled home and told the story to my terrified mother. She took me to the emergency room so the cuts didn’t get infected and any bits of glass were pulled out. They said I had been lucky. I to this day remember the helpless feeling of my feet spinning backward on the pedals of that “English” bike.

That next summer we were fiddling around the week before the Fourth of July and all of us had massive amounts of firecrackers stored up, and George suggested we make one big firecracker. From somewhere he came up with a foot long iron pipe threaded at both ends, and the caps to screw onto the ends of that section of pipe. Gleefully we broke open our firecrackers and dumped them into one end of the pipe. There was a lot of gunpowder in that pipe and I’m not sure what George put in with it, if anything, but he then sealed off the pipe ends tightly. For a little while we wondered how we would set it off, and then someone suggested these little war surplus cans of Sterno, which you could use to heat up canned stuff, and adults heated up water for coffee, when we were on camping trips.

We found a secluded patch of woods about a hundred yards in from the road which was cleared of big timber, but many small alder trees had grown back quickly over a few years. We lit three of the small Sterno cans and set the pipe section – full of gunpowder – on top of the three cans in a row. It dawned on us that we should be some distance away when it went off so we waited out on one of the roads. This new property development had road names on wooden posts, but there were very few houses, very far apart, on these new roads. After about 15 minutes we crept back in to see what was happening with the pipe. Nothing…The Sterno cans burned happily along and we knew they would run out of fuel soon, so we waited a while longer out at the roadway, and then we decided that was a failure. We also knew there would be a football game developing down the road at a large grassy expanse someone planned to build a house on but had not yet. It was perfect for football.

We’d been playing football for about half an hour during that weekday afternoon, when the largest firecracker in the world went off. The sound was frightening. We timidly made our way back toward the site of the pipe and Sterno cans. Within about a quarter mile we saw little pieces of shrapnel in trees. At a crossroads not far from the pipe, we saw the post of the road sign cut in half and dangling by a sliver. We decided to go down to the beach and pretend we’d never been in the area.

As the gods of fortune determine, no one was driving by at the moment of the blast, no mother with her baby carriage was out for a stroll, no kids on their bikes were in a small pack in the area where the young alder trees were nearly mowed to the ground by shrapnel. Later, the police milled around the site and found that there were bits of shrapnel in the sides of houses a half mile away.

I cannot say we were good boys ever after, but I believe it may have been the first time when a bit of caution entered our exploits. We’d missed an opportunity to be called murderers and also – ourselves — to be quite dead. I certainly hope there were not opportunities like ours for our own children to learn cause and effect and caution, but I suspect there were…and I don’t want to hear about it. Mayhem is always lurking so close in Life, without being invited in for a party. You can wish it were not so, but perhaps our tenuous civilization has to be learned and relearned in those dangerous years.

Copyright 2018 David Hon – All rights reserved

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