It’s interesting how often railroad tracks divide one part of town from another. This was certainly true in my town of Hyannis when I was a young man.
Every neighborhood has clearly defined borders, and ours was from South Street on the north side to the marsh on the south. On the west was Sea Street, and to the east it was the old railroad tracks behind the junior high school. It wasn’t that we couldn’t go outside of our territory, but anyone coming into ours would be at risk. Now don’t misunderstand me. I’m not comparing Hyannis in the 1960s to Compton in Los Angeles, although we did have our weapons. To defend our territory we would spend hours stockpiling arms. Carefully concealed from prying eyes were piles and piles of pine cones and rotten apples. Yes, we were ready for any invasion. It was understood by everyone back then that pine cones and rotten apples were the only weapons allowed. Occasionally someone would escalate the conflict by throwing a rock, but that happened very rarely. We had our own honor system, and from the Cold War we knew the term MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction). Any rock thrower was instantly singled out for special treatment.
The railroad tracks are no more. Many years ago the town paved the old railroad right of way, which became Old Colony Boulevard … and a way of life was gone forever. I knew the woods on the west side of the tracks better than I knew my own bedroom. There wasn’t a path, a tree, or a rock that I wasn’t familiar with. On the east side, I knew very little—mainly escape routes. Exploratory forays into the forbidden east were always undertaken cautiously. There were rivals over there, and we were only armed with as many pine cones and apples as we could easily carry. If we accidentally ran into one of the enemy’s strongholds, we would be annihilated. Low and slow was the order of the day. My “gang” was made up of me, Peter, Johnny, Bill, and Rat. (His real name was Ritchie, but we always called him Rat. To this day when I see him I have to remind myself not to call him Rat.) Peter and Johnny were brothers, as were Billy and Rat. My intrepid comrades and I would spend weekends exploring our domain. To the south of our territory, across the street from my mother’s house, there was a sewer pipe that drained into the marsh, which we called “the swamp.” Rumors of quicksand kept us close to the edges of the swamp, but I’m pretty sure now that no quicksand existed—our mothers just told us that to keep us out of the marsh. It worked; seldom did we venture more than a hundred feet or so into the swamp. We did have trails though, and we built “forts” along those trails to protect our territory. There were at least two of those “gangs in the east” that we had to be concerned about, but I don’t remember any pitched battles with any of them. Confrontations usually happened when one or two of us ran into three or four of them, and then the chase was on. Off we’d run to get back to our side of the railroad tracks. Neither group ever chased the other across the tracks: There was an unwritten understanding that the tracks were the border, and crossing them simply wasn’t done. We had rules, and they were scrupulously obeyed. The fun part came when we would walk down the tracks and spot the other gang walking toward us on the same tracks. Both sides would stop about fifty feet apart, and the “Your Momma” game would start. The two sides would trade mother insults at each other, and the object was to come up with such a vile insult that the other side would charge. “Your momma so fat that when she sits around the house, she sits AROUND the house!” “Life ain’t easy, but your momma is!”
“Your momma’s so stupid she tried to climb Mountain Dew!” You know the deal. Billy was our best, and he would gleefully shout things the rest of us couldn’t imagine saying. Needless to say he would rile the other side so much that they inevitably came after us, and we would split up and head toward the junior high school and safety. One of the best spots in the woods was known as Pineneedle Hill. This was where we would bring our sleds when the snow flew. Haul the sled to the top, wait for the other kids to clear out, and off we’d go, screaming our lungs out. I went back to Pineneedle Hill when I was in college, but although I knew right where it was, I couldn’t seem to find it. There was only a small mound of dirt where the mighty Hill had stood. Could that little pile of dirt actually be Pineneedle Hill? I finally realized it was, and that I had grown up and I wasn’t a little kid anymore. Just one more part of my childhood it was time to leave behind.
The woods held many adventures for a kid from Hyannis. It was where Ron and I would follow Leesa and Mary, throwing pine cones at them to prove our everlasting love. It was also where Ron and I got trapped after we climbed up into my mother’s apple tree to throw rotten apples at the cars that passed beneath. This went on until we made the mistake of throwing them at a guy driving a convertible, and we hit him. He squealed to a stop, and we literally jumped out of the tree and headed to “our” woods, where we could outmaneuver him. Eventually we got away, but it took several hours because the guy wouldn’t give up. The railroad tracks were where we lost Larry out of my 1945 Willys Army Jeep; we hit a bounce, the tailgate opened, and out he went. Not to worry, we went back and picked him up. The woods were one of the first places I made out with my girlfriend, who later became my wife.
Those woods are gone now, and the railroad tracks have been paved into a new road that no one uses. The forts have all fallen apart, and the stocks of pine cones and rotten apples have gone back to the earth. It’s no longer a dangerous place for a young kid, and I miss it. More important, there are no more groups of kids to declare and defend territory without actually hurting anyone.
But it was a damn good place to grow up.