Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The River, the Wagon Bridge, and the Catapult Tree

When I was growing up in Colonia Juarez, there were two bridges that crossed the river. An ancient suspension footbridge known as the Swinging Bridge, and a single lane cement bridge known as the Wagon Bridge. The Swinging Bridge got its name from the side-to-side/up-and-down movements it makes as you walk across it. (I still take my kids to walk across it everytime we go visit my parents)
The Wagon Bridge was the bridge we used to cross the river when we walked home from school. It was made entirely out of cement, and was supported by two cement pillars that were built on the riverbed. Watching the water flow under the bridge was hypnotizing, and we wasted a lot of time standing on the bridge throwing sticks and rocks into the river below. More often than not, we would wind up climbing down the bridge to get to the river itself, where we would waste more time, get wet, filthy dirty, and destroy our shoes.

There were several ways to do get down to the river from the bridge: Walk down to the river from the east bank, take a running jump off of the west end of the bridge to the bank below, and (our favorite) climbing down the pillars that supported the bridge. When the river was flooded, we couldn't actually get down and play in it, but when the waters started going down again, it broke into two channels around a large segment of land in the middle of the river bed, creating an island. Our inner pirates couldn't resist playing on the island, so as soon as the island looked dry enough to walk on without sinking to our hips in muck, we went over the side of the bridge and down to the island.

The only way to reach the island was to climb down the easternmost pillar on the bridge. Looking at it now it isn't so big a deal, but when I was ten that was quite a distance to go down for short little squirts. Fortunately for us, there was a young elm tree that grew right up against the pillar. However, we were much more creative than simply climbing down the tree. We grabbed the top of the tree and jumped off the pillar. The tree would bend all the way down to the ground letting us off gently onto the island. When we wanted back up, we jumped halfway up the tree, bent it down, and then jumped again holding onto the top of the tree. It would fling us onto the pillar and we would then climb the rest of the way up onto the bridge. We called that elm the Catapult Tree, and enjoyed jumping back and forth off the pillar almost as much as we enjoyed the island.
Once on the island we would make mud/sand castles, cut river willows and have sword fights with them, throw mud at each other and sticks into the river and have a grand old time. 1983 was the best year for flooding while I was growing up (I was 10 that year), and we seemed to live on that island. I know that I got in trouble several times for coming home so late, wet, and dirty, but it didn't stop us. I must have gone through about 8 pairs of shoes that school year and, if I remember right, that was the year my parents got their first grey hairs. It was awesome!
Next up - tubing, body surfing, and other stupid stuff.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Lawnmowers, Gas, Gopher Holes, and Third Degree Burns

Our steady supply of gasoline came to my brother and I because of the enormous lawn that we had to mow each week. We had three different lawns that were mowed - two side lawns and the orchard out back, and it required a lot of gas to keep the mower running. Dad always seemed to have at least two or three 5 gallon gas cans for us each Saturday, and away we went. It was kind of mind numbing work, but it did give you a lot of time to just think about stuff and several hair-brained ideas were hatched as we made the trip around and around the lawn with the mower.

One of the more idiotic ones was how to deal with the large number of gopher holes that kept popping up all over one of the side lawns. Each week we set traps and caught three of four of the beggars, but they just kept coming back. Dad gassed a couple with a special poison gas bomb that he buried in their burrows and that gave us a great idea. Why not burn the critters crispy by pouring gas down their hole and then dropping a match?

OK - gopher control had nothing to do with the idea because we knew that they were far enough down in their burrows that we probably wouldn't do any lasting damage to them. Besides, we had already done the ditch experiment and were still dissapointed with those results. Still, it would be a good story if Dad asked us what we were doing. DK and I started pouring gas down the holes and then dropping matches. The result was pretty cool - a quick flash of flame shot out of the hole and sometimes blew dirt out as well, but it wasn't so spectacular that we did it all the time. Every so often, after we had finished mowing the lawn and we had gas left, we would flash gopher holes.

On one particular Saturday it was DK's turn to mow the side lawn. He got it finished and then decided to flash a few gopher holes. He had already flashed one and liked the effect so much that he decided to pour more gas down the hole and flash it again. Unfortunately something in the hole was still burning, and the fire flashed back up into the plastic gas can as DK was pouring. He didn't realize it at first, but when it started to burn his elbow he saw that the can was on fire and dropped it. Burning gas splashed up through the opening and all over his clothes, lighting him on fire. He took off running at first, but then remembered his cub scout training of "Stop, Drop, and Roll" which probably saved his life. He executed the maneuver and then ripped his clothes off. His shirt, which was made out of polyester, had already melted to his skin in a couple of places.

I was inside the house when this happened, but heard him yelling and ran out with my mom. DK was in the driveway wearing only his underwear and his socks and was limping towards the house. Behind him the gas can was melting away, and the fire grew to an enormous height - well above the level of our roof. Mom helped get DK in the house while I ran over to the fire to try to put it out or at least keep it from spreading. There was nothing I could do but wet down the lawn around the perimeter of the fire, and the heat was so intense that I couldn't get close enough to really even do that. The fire was right by a tall elm tree and I could hear the sap boiling and popping in the trunk. It was a jaw-dropping awesome fire. (And I mean "awesome" in the original sense of the term - not "cool")
The top of the tree caught fire, but the whole thing only lasted about 10 minutes and it was all out. The tree was a total loss and had to be chopped down later that year.

DK was soaking in the bathtub inside the house as Mom dumped ice into the water. While Mom watched, DK's skin started bubbling and boiling right before her eyes as if he were a chicharron. We carried him out to the car and Mom took him to Dr. Hatch's. He returned a few hours later wrapped like a mummy and wearing very loose fitting clothes.

DK still has a rather nasty scar on his leg and a more minor one on his belly. (You can just make it out on his left leg in this picture.) It is painful to see him in shorts, but other than that he doesn't have any other ill effects from flashing that gopher hole.

In terms of coming close to tragedy, DK pretty much takes the cake. He was very fortunate to get off as light as he did. I would like to say that this little event kept us away from gas and fire, but it didn't. We had several other close calls, one explosion in particular almost knocked me on my fanny (about a month after DK's brush with death) but we somehow avoided serious accidents after DK taught us not to flash things twice.

Next up - The River

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Matches, Gas, Fire, and Other Wonderful Elements!

I don't remember when my fascination with all things combustible came into being but, almost 36 years into this mortality thing, I am still intrigued by burning stuff. I think I am more rational about it now than I was earlier in life, but I sure had a lot of fun with it before I became rational.

Learning how to burn oleander bushes
My first experience with matches outside of the home came as my brother DK and I walked home from Alta Vista Elementary School in Phoenix. Just a few feet from school there was an alley with tall oleander bushes lining one side. As DK and I walked by the alley this afternoon there was a group of about three other boys huddled around a rock looking at something. They invited my brother and I to join them and showed us a book of matches that one of the boys had brought to school with him. They were trying to strike the matches on the rock without success. I had watched my Dad light the BBQ with these types of matches so I showed them how to light them on the book. I lit my match, showed them, and then put it out. Everybody got a match from the book and waited their turn to light it. DK lit his and put it out and then the rocket scientist that had been trying to light paper matches on the rock lit his and threw it into a pile of dead oleander leaves at our feet. They caught fire and everybody started throwing more leaves on the fire to put it out. That didn't turn out so well. Pretty soon the oleander bushes caught fire and five little boys came out of the alley at a dead run. We didn't stop till we got home and as we ran we could hear the fire trucks come to douse our experiment.
A letter was sent home with us from school the following day, but DK and I tore it up and didn't tell our parents about it until about three years later. (And then only after our Dad promised he wouldn't spank us.)

Matches + Gasoline Makes a Bigger Fire

Soon after the incident with the oleander bushes, my family moved to Mexico. This not only saved me from prosecution for the wanton murder of innocent oleander bushes, it also gave me a much larger "field of fire" to play with. Soon after arriving, my Primo H. introduced me to the absolute wonder of gasoline. Not only did you get a much bigger fire, it created a real cool whooshing sound as it exploded. As an added bonus, if you added enough of this magical stuff, debris would fly into the air when you lit the pile. I was hooked!

Road Blocks

Our home was at the edge of town, and trucks were constantly speeding by our house on the way to their orchards. Dad was always worried that someone would run over one of his daughters, so he hauled in some dirt and made a speed bump or tope on the dirt road. (For the gringos reading this post - tope is pronounced "topeh") All this seemed to do was encourage younger drivers to hit the gas as they approached the tope so they could catch some air as they went over. Dad dug a small ditch on one side of the tope to remedy this new behavior, and this time his system had the desired effect. Once that was in, any driver who took the tope too fast would lose teeth when their wheels hit the ditch.

Dad was pretty satisfied with this arrangement, but the neighborhood boys (me, DK, Primo H, Primo R, L. and E.) felt that we could improve on the concept.

We filled the ditch with gasoline and waited for the next speeding truck to come along.

We were sure that the resulting fireball would stop the speeder dead in his tracks. After all, we had been watching the A-Team for some time now and that was how they did it.

To our great dissapointment, no trucks came for awhile and our gasoline soaked into the ground. We decided to test the ditch and were rewarded with a very brief and very nonspectacular "poof". (If we had done it at night it would have rocked)

We knew that we needed more gasoline for this to work, but we also knew we didn't have enough money between the six of us to get what we needed, so we gave up the project.

Instead, we took the gasoline over to our wall and filled up one of the pipe/posts that were used to shut the gate. We lit that up and got a great explosion.

Being the careful pyros we were, we had a hose handy to take care of things if the fire got too big. We had just filled up the pipe again and were lighting it when Grandma came around the corner and asked us what we were doing. (ALL of our parents were out of town and Grandma was riding herd on us)

We called out in chorus "Nothing Grandma" just as I aimed a strong burst of water into the pipe full of burning gasoline to put it out. Instead, the water flushed all of the gas out of the pipe, into the air, and onto our front porch with the spectacular fireball we had hoped to have over at the ditch. Grandma about had a stroke and we all scrambled around trying to figure out why water wouldn't put out burning gas and was instead pushing the fire closer to the house.

Fortunately the gas gave out before our stupidity did, and the house didn't catch fire. Grandma promptly confiscated our stash of matches and gasoline and made us do something productive.
I don't remember getting in any serious trouble when all of our parents got back, so Grandma obviously didn't tell our parents. She was pretty cool even though we all deserved a good cowhiding.
To be continued...

Stupid Stuff I Have Survived

So, I haven't posted anything for quite some time now. I have been busy and I confess that my interest in blogging comes and goes in waves. The other day I was having lunch with one of my childhood friends when we started talking about some of the incredibly dumb things we did as kids and somehow managed to survive. As we reminisced about our youthful adventures I thought that I really needed to record these things before I get too senile to remember them.

Before I get started with this I might as well provide a couple of disclaimers:
  • Most of this stuff happened well over 20 years ago. My memory may leave out details on some of the stories or add details from other stories. If you were an eyewitness to some of this foolishness, I would welcome your version of the events.
  • Some of the stories may not be all that exciting to you, but they sure bring a smile to my face. If you don't think they are that big a deal, just indulge me in recounting some of my youthful "adventures". At the time they happened I thought they were pretty dang cool.
  • Some stories may be beyond belief, but I swear that I am being absolutely honest in my retelling of them. Any omissions or additions are the result of a faulty memory, not an unholy desire to embellish the truth.
  • I am not going to say that I was a professional at the time I did some of this stuff, but I definitely wouldn't recommend that you try to re-create some of these stories. How I made it to adulthood with all of my digits attached and my skin where it is supposed to be is a mystery to me. On several occasions I could have been killed, seriously hurt, or worse (in my mind at least) grounded for the remainder of my natural life.

Maybe you'll be entertained by my stories, or maybe you'll think my stories are stupid. I don't really care. My interest is in recording these memories in a way that my kids can access them even after I am too old to remember them. I'll start with the most appealing of all childhood menaces - FIRE.