Magic. With our strange incantations, Kevin Patterson and I froze childhood. Tinker Bell’s special dust sprinkled over our heads, and for three years we lived an enchanted life. And the world almost destroyed itself.
How can I explain how those three years, from 1963 to 1966, molded me? Magic.
“Salami. Salami. No cheese. Baloney!” I shouted into the antiseptically clean medicine cabinet, and Kevin’s deeper voice echoed my words. Slamming the cabinet door shut (it would bounce back open), I raced downstairs, catching the banister as I flew over the last three steps, and landed sure footedly upon Mom’s recently waxed parquet floor. I dashed across Mom’s braided rug, the one that later “smothered” me when I had high fever hallucinations, and skid across the wood plank dining room floor. Fortunately, I stopped before impaling myself upon the arm of one the dining room chairs.
Next, I whipped myself around the corner, flailing my small sun kissed body against the swinging door and dumping onto the black and white checked floor. Scrambling on my knees, I raced for the door and plummeted out of the house head first. Like Mickey Mantle sliding into home plate, I skidded across the back porch and into the red brick wall that separated our porch from the Patterson’s.
I scrambled onto the top of the dividing wall and perched in a nonchalant pose that said, “What took you so long? I’ve been here for hours.” And I waited for Kevin to tumble out of his back door.
“First!” the word exploded from Kevin. Then he saw me sitting above him. “Ah, geesh. I lost again.” He shrugged his lanky shoulders and pivoted on his heels, disappearing into his house. Seconds later, he reappeared with our feast. Two pieces of salami, no cheese, and a slice of baloney. A meat feast for each of us.
We sat together on our back porch perch and laughed about our daily ritual. Of course, our mothers hated the scrambling, banging, bumbling race; so we did it daily.
That’s a special memory, isn’t it? A private game played with one special friend while our fathers flew missions in and out of South Vietnam. Everyone’s dad disappeared for long tours of duty back then. It was normal. Four weeks home. Eight or ten weeks gone.
So Kevin and I held onto our magic. We roamed our quarter of NCO housing with our mixture of friends. At dusk, eight or ten of us gathered to play “One cheeked-Two cheeked Goons.” Only played as night fell, this hide-n-seek game pitted the girls (two cheeked goons) against the boys (one cheeked goons). The “It” team grouped around one of the swing sets by the open field. Base.
Eyes squinched shut, the boys began croaking in unison, “One . . . two . . . three . . . four . . ."“This way!” Paula whispered urgently as she yanked my arm out of its socket. “I’ve got the perfect hiding place for you.”
“Yeah,” I thought with panic as I tried to pull away from my older sister, “like the garbage dumpster again.” I balled my small hand into a tight fist, swung around, and landed a punch squarely into Paula’s gut. Free at last!
“You little pig!” she squealed as I vanished into the shadows. Then she dashed off in the opposite direction in search of her own shadowy hiding place.
“Fifty-three . . .fifty-four.. . . fifty-five . . .” the boys sang on.
I slunk against the wall, using my best James Bond spy techniques. When a car pulled into the large black topped parking area, I threw myself down on my stomach and snaked my way to one of the other swing sets.
I knew I didn’t have the speed to out run the boys. They were all older than me, with long gangly legs and elbows that always got in the way. My little pixie legs couldn’t fly as fast as they could gallop. So I aimed for the second option of “One cheeked-Two cheeked Goon.” If you can’t make it back to Base under your own steam, you try to capture one of the opponents. He became a hostage and could buy you safe passage to Base.
This time I had the perfect plan. I shimmied up the swing set pole, monkey swung to the center pole, and silently squirmed onto the top bar of the swing set. This I did as the boys shouted, “Ninety-eight . . . ninety-nine . . .ONE—HUNDRED! Ready or not, here we come!”
Lying atop the swing set, I watched the one cheeked goons fan out. Kevin paused by the light of our back porch, and I saw he had his cheek sucked in as a good one cheeked goon should.
His eyes scanned the shadows with meticulous care. Kevin stepped back into a darkened doorway and vanished. Unlike the other boys who dashed around the houses, punched bushes, clambered over cars, and screamed “Gottcha!” every five seconds, Kevin waited patiently. He stood far enough away from Base to make the girls think they could run in free. But I knew better.
Bursts of laughter and high pitched screeches filled the night air as Vicki, Paula, and Susan made their unsuccessful attempts to reach Base.
“Where’s Lizzy?” Tony shouted, punching his chubby right fist into his left hand. “I really wanted to get her tonight.”
“Why don’t you call ‘All-ee, all-ee in come free?” suggested Vicki.
“No way!” the boys shouted in unison.
“Look,” Mike Patterson’s logical voice sailed confidently through the night air, “she can’t get to the base because we’re all here. So we just stay put. Kevin’s out looking for her. He’ll find her.”
So they waited.
After a few minutes, Tony blasted, “All-eeee, all-eeee in come freeeee!”
Still, I waited. I’d discovered the perfect hiding place; but if I jumped down, everyone would know about it.
It didn’t take long for everyone to decide I wasn’t coming out, so another round of the game began. From my perch, I watched the boys scatter to their hiding spots. Then I soundlessly swung done.
“Hey,” Kevin whispered as he came up behind me and patted my head, “good hiding place.”
I beamed a smile at him as his hand on my head guided me back into the shadows. My tall and lanky hero wouldn’t give away my secret. Instead, he let me “capture” him and bring him back to Base. A wonderful victory for the youngest in the group.And so we passed our spring time evenings. A special hide-n-seek game with regulated rules and ritualistic chants. Magic.
Our mothers coped alone with bills, broken down cars, and burst pipes. They bandaged our scrapes and cuts and tried to hold onto normalcy while our fathers vanished into the shadows of their own dangerous hide-n-seek game.
Somehow, we tenaciously held onto our innocence during those years. During the scorching summer days, when the black top of the parking lot bubbled and oozed, we toiled and tinkered. And when the cooler breeze of evening wafted into our neighborhood, we met outside, clutching newly cleaned Jiffy peanut butter jars in our hands.
“Tonight, let’s catch as many fireflies as we can,” Mike instructed. “We’ll have a miniature light show.”
I opened my jar and looked inside, making certain no peanut butter clung to any edges. Then I scanned the fence line by the swamp and the open field in front of the fence. “I don’t see nothin’,” I whispered.
“Watch,” Kevin leaned closely and pointed his finger to my left. “There.”
As if on his command, a small light flit on. Instantly, it was gone. But then another one sparkled. And another. And another. As twilight deepened, little sparks filled the field. Stars within our grasp.
“Now?” Paula asked impatiently as she shifted her weight from one foot to the other.
“Now,” Mike signaled.
Silently, we scampered into the field. I scooped the humid air into my jar, and a tiny flight flickered briefly. “I got one!” I shouted and pirouetted blithely. Then I slowly filled my jar.
“Will you look at that!” Paula breathed the words with awe.
We stood together, arms linked, and watched our universe of captured stars twinkle from their jars. Separate worlds, four of them, encased in glass, sitting upon a brick wall. Tiny lights flickering on, off, on. Bright, secure, whole.
I took my tiny universe within my hands and clambered upon the dividing wall. Kevin’s finger glided across the smooth glass; and we sat in silence, our heads bent together, our breaths mixing, as we watched this minute miracle of life. Then with silent agreement, we set the fireflies free. Magic.
And when we found our mothers crying together over their morning coffee chat, we tiptoed away. We heard words like “missing in action,” or “plane downed,” or “prisoner of war.” Whispered words between our mothers as they prepared to go give support to a friend. And when JFK died, Kevin and I sat hand-in-hand by the old black and white TV set and watched over and over again the images we couldn’t understand. Then we crept outside to our perch on the back porch wall, and we cried. We didn’t know why.
Still, we held onto our magic. When winter storms hit and drifts six feet high surrounded us, we worked together. Like Hogan’s Heroes, we tunneled our way from house to house.
“If you kids go out, you’re going to –ugh--,” Mom groaned as she forced my red rubber boot onto my Saran-wrapped foot, “stay out!” She leaned back and examined her handiwork.
That handiwork consisted of me being twice my width due to the layers of tights, sweaters, jackets, coats, scarves, and gloves.
“I can’t move,” I wailed as I tried to bend over to pick up my red furry cap.
“You’ll be warm,” Mom scooped my hat off the floor and pulled it down on my head. “Now scoot.” Her hand gently pushed my waddling body out the door.
“All set to start our fort?” Kevin’s breath puffed white clouds. He didn’t wait for my answer, but instead he grabbed my twice gloved hand and toddled me off toward the field.
“Me and Mike staked out this area. Pretty neat, huh?”
My green eyes, the only part of my body not enveloped by wool, surveyed the pristine world before me. No footsteps on this field. No snow angels, nor snowmen, nor piles of snowball ammunition. No slush, no mud, no brown ice. Just a silent field of white snow.
“Do we have to ruin it?” I asked.
Kevin thought a moment, “Well, the way I see it, we’ve been offered a gift. It would be awful rude to turn it down, now wouldn’t it? How about you make the first angel?” He helped me turn around and gave me a gentle push so my bundled bottom plopped softly into the fresh snow. “Go on. Give it a go,” Kevin chirped with a smile.
And my second of hesitation melted way as I fell back into the feathery whiteness. With legs and arms moving as fast as the layers of clothes would allow, I made my snow angel.
The rest of the day passed with a flurry of snowball fights, igloo building and fort reinforcing.
“If you come in one more time,” Mom complained as she chunked the caked-on snow off my coat, “you’re staying in!”
After defrosting my toes and fingers, and warming my stomach with hot chocolate, Mom’s exasperation increased because I begged to be layered up again. As she fastened the last button on my coat, she exclaimed, “Next time, you stay in!” But she smiled as she watched me waddle out the door.
By the end of the day, the white field of snow looked like a battlefield. Our igloo’s roof caved in under Tony’s weight. Our lop-sided forts, tipsy snowmen, and muddy tracks scarred the entire area. Our clean and pure world was soiled.
But that night an even heavier snow fell. In the morning, I looked out my bedroom window to see a new world. Pure, white, crystalline. A sprinkling of white fairy dust over all we’d damaged or destroyed. Magic again.
When Dad got orders for his tour, Kevin and I performed our ceremonies with unshakeable belief and faith. We crossed our fingers, rubbed our Troll dolls’ bellies, and ran our Ritual Race while we feverishly tried to hold onto that magic. Even when the movers loaded that last piece of furniture onto the van, we each stood in our bathrooms, calling, “Salami. Salami. No cheese. Baloney.”
And maybe the magic did last. It kept that unspoken fear at bay while Dad spent a year flying his “Gooney bird” propaganda missions over North Vietnam. It brought him safely home. It kept our family whole.
And it haloed my childhood with the warm, golden glow of an exceptional friendship.