It’s kind of funny how a sudden smell or brief glimpse can bring a childhood rushing back and slam it into you like a speeding locomotive. One minute I’m a thirty three year old husband and father of three walking through the detergent aisle of our local Wal- Mart, and the next It’s 1978 and I’m a normal and hyper seven year old boy, swinging on a tire swing right next to a clothes line full of recently washed and summer breeze drying jeans and shirts.
My name is “Bill Bitters” and I lived in a small community right outside of Walton Hills Ohio, called Oakwood Village. I have three older sisters, Tammy, Debbie, and Diane, and two younger sisters; Barb and Gerry, and a younger, but no less great brother; Albert (J.R.). We lead a seemingly normal life in a small and humble house on Pettibone road.
I can remember in my grade school years where all you had to worry about was if you matched up your socks good when you got dressed in the dark as you were running late for the school bus, oh yea and that bully that was waiting to take your lunch money as soon as he seen you coming down the hall.
Those were the times it was nice to have three older and very mature sisters to stick up for you. See, the way we were brought up was that there was no embarrassment in having your family (whether it was brother or sister) stick up for you when the chips were down. We were taught to respect one another and treat everyone with respect and the common courtesy that you yourself deserve, and let me tell you, that wasn’t always the easiest thing to do. My brother wasn’t born until I was ten years old, so for a while I was the only boy living in house full of five emotionally driven and bathroom loving girls.
The lessons must have gotten through because it seemed that even though I was always at my wit’s end with all the confrontations and races to answer the phone at eleven thirty on a Saturday morning in July, we still seemed to pull it together when one of us was in need of someone.
I did make it through and yes I’m still sane, which is mostly attributed to the arrival of my little brother, who came not a minute too soon to say the least. Seriously though, I couldn’t have been happier when my mom, step dad and then just four day old new addition to our family arrived home from the hospital. Now this is where the real problems start for even the most devoted parents. You see the odds were a little more even now.
It’s funny how looking back can so vividly make all the sounds and smells of your past hit you like a ton of bricks. As I sit here writing this, I can almost smell the aroma of the neighbors, (mister H’s) ripening grape vines, being carried through my open bedroom window by a warm summer night’s breeze. Or the swaying trees rubbing together to mimic the sound of the covers brushing against the perfectly pulled bed sheets as you were tucked into a warm bed in December.
It’s almost like I can walk out of my bedroom right now and bump into a screaming brigade of five racing girls as they try to be the first to answer the door on a Friday night sleep over. But I’m sure that if I did go out there, all I would bump into is my life now, which is great, don’t get me wrong, but let’s face it, it’s not my childhood.
Man life there was good, it seemed like every summer day was spent just playing in our woods which to a band of pint sized rug rats as us seemed mysteriously endless.
You see in those days you didn’t have to be on the look out for someone lurking in the shadows just waiting for the right time to snatch up a child or a driver trying to get back at a rival gang member who has mistakenly entered into un-invited territory.
Things that normally concern us were usually as innocent as a driver who is temporarily blinded by the sun while turning into a street or service station, or cutting through a hedge fence to save a few steps on the way up a friend’s driveway and coming face to face with a watermelon sized hornets nest.
Parents didn’t need to keep their kids on a short leash; they just relied on the basic values that they constantly instilled into our ever growing minds, (you know; the values that kids now a days just don’t understand).
They were free to let their children roam wildly in the back woods with not one single worry, except the worry that someone will probably come home totally muddy.
And let me tell you; roam we did! It’s amazing how vivid those memories are to me, you see I don’t usually have a good memory, most of the time I had to rely on the family reunions to listen about what we did as children and think to myself “wow, I did that?”
©Copyright 2004 Bill B.
Sept. 6, 2004
It wasn’t until just recently that a traumatic turn of events helped spark some memorable moments in time come back to me. My mom was diagnosed with stage four terminal pancreatic and liver cancer, and after the initial shock set in and after the emotional over load subsided the feelings and memories just started pouring into my mind, like god was saying “you’re going to remember everything including your mother”.
So let me take you into my past for a while, to a time when a bottle of Pepsi cola came in a returnable 16 ounce long neck bottle and most of the candy you could ever want was only a penny a piece. The year was 1978 and it seemed like every one of our friends either lived within shouting distance or no more than a quick sprint away. We had these neighbors Ricky, and Jimmy , who were always tearing something apart or riding through their back yard on a recently constructed jalopy that was the neighbor hoods most sought after secret for weeks prior.
Man they were good at taking junk and turning it into something that was to become our thing to do for weeks on end. I remember this one mini bike they made out of an old schwin bike with the big green banana seat, we were totally astounded and secretly embarrassed when Jimmy went screaming through his back yard and crossed into ours to come show us the newest addition to the Oakwood Village version of the Smithsonian. When he pulled up it was so loud that it was shaking our windows in the kitchen, which was just in side the un-finished attached garage. My mom who was in the basement just finishing up putting the last of the cloths through the ringer washer hears the intense pulsation and comes running up stairs and almost gets the words out “Billy what the heck did you do now?” when she sees the then nine year old Jimmy sitting just out side the dinning room window on this big ugly green bicycle with the raised ape handles and A green sparkly banana seat. Now if that wasn’t a sight to see in itself, just below the seat was a five horse power Sears lawn mower engine that didn’t have an exhaust any more and was being controlled by a string connected to the throttle and attached to the handle bars. Now the whole bag of bolts was attached to the frame of the bike by a borage of strategically placed bungee cords and old speaker wire which was more than likely taken from an experiment gone wrong a few days ago.
Man; was my mom flabbergasted she just stood there with her mouth on the verge of hanging wide open, I’ve never seen her with less emotion on her face as I did at that exact time. That was until the biker wannabe Jimmy pulled the string a little too hard and one too many times. And just then there was this enormous BANG! And Jimmy went flying off the bike like something had bit him. After patting his back side ferociously he looked around in tremendous doubt at what had just happened. Now I’m not sure if it was because everyone was standing there when it happened or he was honestly hurt, but he went screaming home right after the initial shock of the blast had set in. Now we all knew the two boys including my parents, so when the bike exploded into the history books we all hit the floor not knowing what might be coming through the window in a matter of seconds. So if it was the embarrassment that sparked the gallop home, he really had nothing to worry about. We were all on the floor and weren’t getting up until we crawled to the next room and were able to get out of the direct line of fire in case there was a second blast. Which by the time we arose; Jimmy was nowhere to be seen.
©Copyright 2004 Bill B.
Sept. 15, 2004
A few days went by before we seen Jimmy again, so all the unanswered and unimportant questions that only children can find reason enough to ask would have to wait, still when we did see him come outside once again we all just were either too scared that we would be punched by all the others if we would ask him anything or make fun of him. Or maybe we were all truly understanding toward his (now at the very least) dented ego.
So we went on with our spontaneous lives, letting the now fading recollection of his failed invention have a peaceful funeral. Instead we just looked toward the anticipation of what might come screaming out of his garage in the next few weeks or so. And trust me the mechanical monstrosities were never a rare commodity.
Some of other neighbors were Kathy and Mike, now let me tell you Kathy and Mike were something else. Kathy (a smarter and much older than most of us girl) was I guess about twelve or so, and really into school and being at the top of her class and really, really into music. While her brother Mike whom I guess at the age of about ten or eleven was more into just trying to slide through school as fast as possible, while playing the saxophone. He did however have this un-controllable obsession with “Terry Bradshaw” a quarter back for the “Pittsburg Steelers” at the time. It seemed like everything he did we would hear something like “and Terry Bradshaw is back to pass”, we would just kind of giggle to ourselves and go on in what we were doing. We however accepted him how he was; you see once you became friends with us and our friends, you were probably safe to assume that we would be friends forever no matter what.
Now my sister whom I will not mention her name had a little secret, you see when we were all kind of snickering under our breath at the antics of Mike and his love of his legend, she had an insatiable crush on him and would constantly be so sorry for joining in on the laughter aimed at the “Mike festival”. Now by the time we were all let in on the big hush, hush secret, there wasn’t anything anyone could do to understand the rational thinking that was going on in her twisted and hormone driven mind, you see Mike would always bully us and pick on everyone especially the girls of our clan. So I guess it explained a lot looking back now.
When he would pick on us though, he would some how get himself in deeper trouble than he expected, you see when ever he would come in our house, our mom would directly ask him why he was always bullying all the kids of the neighborhood and threaten to tell his mom if he didn’t stop. I guess my mom knew more about the value of good friendships than we gave her credit for. What we didn’t know was when she would threaten to console with his mother it was more than likely already too late for him to seek redemption, because she had probably already been on the phone with his mom and they had been just chatting for hours about us kids of Pettibone Road. And then we wouldn’t see Mike for a few days after that, his parents were very strict and didn’t tolerate picking and bullying. But then he would be back out and allowed to play once again with the kids that not only helped him to discover what true friendship meant, but who also wouldn’t torment him when he would let his imagination go hog wild.
© Copyright 2004 Bill B.
Oct. 5, 2004
Then once again the troops were assembled and the “back forty” as we called it was again filled with the rustling of adolescent feet and the ear piercing decibels of a kid screaming after being spotted in a game of hide and seek. You see that was one of our favorite things to do, but I guess we had a lot of favorite things to do seeing how all we had was time and space. We had this one particular game of hide and seek where it was open to all the woods, and to us that was a lot. I recently seen a map of our old area and it just looks like you could sprint across the “back forty” in a mere second or two. Funny how big it seemed then though, well that game of hide and seek was going as well as it could until my buddy Ricky and I decided to see how far into the woods we could get before someone found us, and before we knew it we were in some really strange and unrecognizable woods. I’ll tell you I was so scared and I knew that Ricky was too but the two kids who had not only established the bond of all the kids in our neighborhood, but were solely responsible for most of our childhood fears would never admit to another person that they were scared let alone each other. So we just kept walking like as if we knew where we were going.
After about an hour or so I guess, we see something that we had never seen before. Just out of recognizable sight sat a little white house or shack, with no driveway to be seen or flower beds that usually accompanied most houses in our neighborhood. There were no visible windows left in the dwelling and the door had been taken off. As we approached the house I got this feeling that something just wasn’t right. There was this stagnant smell and damp motionless air that seemed to be all around. But we weren’t going to get as close as we had gotten and then just turn back so we went to the door way and peeked in. There were broken floorboards and a set of decrepit stairs in the far right side of the shack, as we entered and inspected more rooms of the house we learned that we weren’t the first one’s to discover the place (that I knew we were both hoping to call our new clubhouse). There was so much graffiti on the walls that it looked like something out of a horror movie someone had seen and been telling us about. As we were getting board just walking the two rooms on the ground floor, I was thinking “man I wish Ricky would ask to go up stairs so I didn’t have to go first”, and like he was reading my mind or something Ricky walked over to the stairs and said “hey I wonder what’s up here?” So big brave Billy (as I thought of myself as) said “I don’t know, you want to go see?”
Now even though there was only about sixteen stairs or so, I bet it took us about ten minutes to make the journey to the top and when we got there we got the shock of our lives, you see there was nothing strange up there at all. There was however a big hole in the roof right above where the stairs broke through into the second floor. It looked like a tree branch had fallen through the roof and the part that really amazed us was that someone had drug the branch over to the middle of the room and burned it as if to keep warm or to cook something.
Now about that time our new find was just settling in we heard this voice come from down stairs, “hey cool a house!” It was the voice of my best friend, that had come over to play and learned that we were all in the “back forty”, so he came out to find us. I heard his voice and I yelled out “hey DUKE, we’re upstairs”. It was Brian; (whom most of us including his family called “DUKE”), one of my best friends in the whole world. I don’t think that since the day we met, either of us did anything without contemplating letting the other in on it. So like this was any different right? I invited him up to our new clubhouse and after giving him the grand tour we made a pact to never tell anyone outside our clan about the house. We all agreed and decided that if no one was to know about the find then we needed to get out of there before someone came looking for us.
Walking out of the woods we met up with the rest of the kids that were playing hide and seek, they were extremely upset and said that we went too far into the woods and we were automatically it the next round. Now since we were trying to keep our find a secret from everyone, we decided that if we just agreed with them (that they were right), they might not ask where we were and our secret would be safe. Now while being it wasn’t exactly a good thing; them not finding out about what we found surely was. So we went on and kept playing into the night until one by one, our parents called us home and we split off to deal with our nightly chores and dwell on the anticipation of what was in store for us tomorrow.
Amazingly it only took about three days “three of the longest days of our lives I might add” before every one of our closest friends knew about our new clubhouse, now you may say to yourself that that’s not A long time at all to keep a secret, but you had to know me and my friends, You see that was probably an all time Oakwood village record of a secret being kept. Then not long after, everybody in our group knew about the place we found that was to; from then on simply be referred to as: “the white house”. And that’s funny now that I can see it from a different perspective, and think that such a simple name like that held such a huge description back then.
©Copyright 2004 Bill B.
Well in no time at all most of our tribe was meeting at the now eerier and older looking shack; you see autumn was falling and the house had seemed to take on a new appearance as if someone had come and replaced it with a much scarier dwelling that had a seriously dark past to reveal. But as a kid that only meant that now it was cooler, at least that’s what you wanted everyone to believe you thought. So did it deter us at all? Heck no, we were in there without a second thought, we must have spent the better part of three years just going to the house in different seasons and finding out new and more confusing parts of it’s history like as if the house was trying to pull us in with our own unrivaled curiosities a little at a time. You would think that as time went by, the place would take on a more boring sense, but it never did. I think that what attributed to that was the fact that no adults knew of the house and we could be free to act like ourselves with no limitations as we got to know the emotions of the place.
Now as we did go to the house a lot through the years, we still kept up with the usual occupations that always filled our days with excitement, and our nights with adventure like tag, catch, hide and seek and the one thing that only me and three of my better friends (Brian, Mike, and Greg) ever knew about until now; “garden picking”. Now this may sound like something that only a true juvenile delinquent would do, but you have to remember, this was along time ago. People were a lot more understanding and forgiving towards childish antics. Garden picking was when we would spend the night at a different friend’s house each weekend and around one o’clock in the morning we would dress up all in black, and sneak out to raid different gardens in the area, pick some vegetables and put them into a black garbage bag to be brought back to Brian’s tree house, cut up and eaten until we were swelled with so much gas that we needed to just get away from each other for some fresh air. Now while we would raid people’s crops we would never destroy nor disturb anyone’s garden. We may have been taking some peppers and tomatoes and other veggies, but we were definitely not into mayhem and destruction, (at least when it came to garden’s that is).
Even with the camaraderie and excitement that came with garden picking the one fun thing that holds the most enjoyable memories for all of us has to be hide and seek. And for me it has to be one particular game we played. You see while it doesn’t sound all that memorable, in fact it can seem to be quite boring the more and more you play it, it has an even greater memory to me than most of all my childhood experiences put together. While playing one night we decided to pick teams, and see if two people hiding in a group and two people seeking everyone else would be more interesting. I thought ok great; mostly everyone here are girls and Brian wasn’t here so I’ll never get picked so I sat there and expected everyone else to pair up and the last one of the older kids (who always got to pick first) that didn’t have a team mate yet would sigh and say; “well I’ll take Billy I guess”. Then to my total amazement and disbelief the first to pick was Kathy, an older girl who was best friends with my oldest sister Tammy, she proudly uttered the words “I’ll take Billy” and even when everyone sat there in awe and disbelief, she stuck by her decision with total conviction. As I walked over and stood next to her I didn’t know if I should laugh or cheer or just accompany everyone else in their lack of understanding. You see she was someone whom I’ve had a crush on since as far back as I can remember and every time I seen her I just couldn’t take my mind or eyes off her even for a moment.
Now as we walked into the field together at the game’s beginning, I can’t remember a single time in my life that I trembled with as much fear as well as outer envy as I did right at that very moment. When the game began we probably walked no more than fifty yards when we came to a tent that our neighbors Ricky and Jimmy had used the night before to escape the tireless heat of their rooms and didn’t bother to take down. Just then with every sense in my maturing mind at high alert, I heard a sensitive and equally nervous voice mutter the words “how about we hide in there”? Now; as every rationale thought (of what a good hiding spot should be) went coursing through my mind, all I could bring my lips to speak was “o.k.” Well I know for sure that when she said “we should get under the blanket to hide” it wasn’t the best choice of places to keep from being found.
©Copyright 2004 Bill B.
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