Growing Up Free Range; A Few True Short Stories
The following stories actually happened to me and my friends while we were growing up. Hopefully, you can see that we all survived and didn't need a plastic bubble.
Story #1 - South Hill, Ithaca, NY
So back when I was young, I had these three friends - Danko, Chris, and Gary. We lived in a little neighborhood in Ithaca, NY which is where Cornell University is located.
One day in the winter, we took our sleds out into the woods behind our houses. That area is called the six-mile creek nature preserve now. Back then, it was called our backyard.
We hiked down into the woods about half a mile, then up a large hill where it flattened out. On the backside of that hill, it fell off into a steep slope that ran down about an 1/8 of a mile until it reached a thirty foot cliff that overlooked a reservoir.
Before you reached the cliff, there was a five foot deep pit off to one side of the trail that was filled with leaves. The goal was to race down the trail and fly into the leaf pit to stop all your momentum. If you missed the leaf pit, there was a tree you could grab onto and that would swing you sideways to follow the trail parallel to the edge of the cliff that ran down further to the water's edge. Being winter though, the reservoir was frozen over solid.
So we laid our sleds out at the edge of the top of the hill and walked back about twenty feet. We counted down from five and then sprinted to the sleds. Gary made it first, then Chris was right behind him, both going in head-first. I was next head-first, then Danko who jumped in feet-first.
A short way down, I watched as Chris grabbed Gary's sled and turned him off to the side of the trail. Gary reached back though and grabbed onto Chris and latched on so they both went off to the side, allowing me to fly by and into the lead. I looked back to see them pull even with each other and race side-by-side with Danko behind them still.
I reached the leaf-pit first and flew in, hitting the far wall and rolling down to the bottom. Chris came flying in next and we high-fived at the bottom.
"He missed the turn!" We heard Danko yell out.
We both climbed out of the leaf pit as Danko went sprinting by, all three of us getting to the tree to see four finger lines in the snow where Gary had gained speed on top of some ice we never thought to check for. His sled track went right up to, and over the cliff's edge.
We looked out and saw his sled on the ice below and feared for the worst.
"Help!!!!" we then heard and looked out further to see Gary hanging about five feet down on the cliff wall clinging to some roots of a tree stump that had grown through the cliff.
We all knew this tree stump. They had cut the tree down because back in the 70's they had a rope attached to some limbs and someone had swung out, forgot to let go, and smashed into the cliff wall before falling and killing themselves. So they cut the tree down, but left the stump.
Chris and Danko proceeded to stand on either side of the stump and then lower me down head-first so I could grab onto Gary and pull him up. Everything went smoothly, although a bit harrowing looking straight down the cliff at solid ice thirty feet below.
Once back on solid ground, we walked down to the ice's edge, walked out on the frozen reservoir, and got Gary's sled.
Once back on land at the bottom of the trail Gary looked at the rest of us and said, "wanna go again?"
Story #2 - East Hill, Ithaca, NY
It was the Summer between our freshman and sophomore years of high school. I had made some close friends during my first year at the new school, friends from marching band who had similar interests. Those interests ranged from music, to nature, to Dungeons & Dragons. We were a bit nerdy, I realize this now.
One weekend during the Summer, my friends Joe and James decided we should get together and camp out in the woods behind James' house. There were some trails that ran right out of his backyard and he knew them well. He said at the end of one of them, on a plateau, was a great spot to set up a tent and have a fire.
We all packed up a bunch of gear and food and said goodbye to his Dad for a few days. James led us down the trail and into the woods about a mile to the spot he was thinking. It was indeed a plateau overlooking a small valley.
On right side of the plateau, there was a small stream that ran out of the woods and then around to the front. Down to left was a larger stream that flowed. The smaller stream ran along the front of the plateau until it went down the slope to connect to the water from the right.
To the right of the stream on the right was a large open space of scattered trees. To the left of the stream down the hill on the left, was a hill that went back upwards.
We began unpacking, collecting firewood, and setting up the tent. We got everything settled, had the fire going, and went about eating before it got dark. We talked around the fire until the night came then settled into our sleeping bags for the night.
The next day, after breakfast, James suggested we play a game. Joe and I asked what kind and he said 'War Games.' Neither of us had heard of that so we asked what the rules were. You won by being the last person still in the game. You eliminated people by shooting them with one of the three BB rifles that we had brought with us. The catch was that after a minute of being eliminated, you could re-enter the game. So the game would be continuous unless you could strike within one minute of another elimination.
Joe and I looked at each other nervously for a second. James then said that we would only use three pumps on the BB guns to make sure that it would only provide a small sting and not break the skin. That sounded more agreeable.
We all grabbed a rifle and went out in three different points, Joe out into the open area to the right, James down the hill towards the stream to the right, and me back towards the house.
We counted to sixty and then the game would be on.
James knew the terrain really well and owned the guns. He was also in the ROTC at school as one of his activities. In this game, he was going to be a formidable adversary. I made the decision to loop back around towards Joe's side and the open area with the scattered trees.
It didn't take long for me to realize Joe had the same plan and we met shortly into the game, both hiding behind a tree and popping out to shoot at each other. We exchanged rounds for a few minutes until I heard a groan and he called out that I got him in the side.
I turned towards James direction, with the camp between me and the hill beyond where I thought he might be. I started moving towards him, hoping I could get him before Joe got to sixty on his count and could re-enter the game.
It was then that I heard the 'bzzzzzz' and felt the sting on my neck around my adam's apple from where the BB hit.
"You got me," I called out and watched as James stood up from the slope just past the campsite.
"Joe's down behind the trees back there, and you got me, you won this one," I said as James crossed the campsite and then the small stream before walking up to me.
He peered oddly at me for a second and then said, "it's still in."
"What?" I replied.
"It's still in,'"he repeated and then reach up to point at a spot where my collar bone was in the front.
Apparently, the BB had hit me in the throat around my adam's apple and then broke the skin and rolled down a few inches to rest just above my collar bone.
"Well, we have to get it out," I told James.
"Ok, hold still," and I felt him pinch the skin of my neck and the BB until I felt him reach the entry point. "Damn, the hole has clotted."
"Well, we have to get it out," I repeated.
"Ok." I watched as James withdrew his hunting knife and brought it up to the hole in my neck.
"As long as you're going to be cutting my throat, perhaps we can be a little more stable," and I began to lay down on the ground.
James then sat on my chest like we were MMA fighting and he had mounted me for some ground-and-pound. I felt him pinch my skin again and begin to lightly saw away at the now-clotted hole.
It was at this moment that Joe had re-counted his way into the game and popped out from behind the trees. The look of confusion on his face was evident as he yelled across, "I thought we were using the guns!"
James finished cutting, pinched the BB again, and brought it up to the hole. This time, the BB slipped through and he held it up in front of me with slightly bloody fingers.
We gathered together, decided to go back to the house to clean out the wound and put a band-aid on it, and worked on our cover story for all of our parents. Me running into an exposed branch was the plan we were going to go with.
We didn't run into anyone at the house, were able to clean the wound, and then finish our camping trip without playing another minute of War Games. The story we concocted worked, although when I finally saw my own Dad a few weeks later on a visit, I could tell he was skeptical.
The next week, with a different group of James' ROTC friends, he shot out a guy's tooth and that ended War Games forever.