Because there was more to learn from water balloons than I realized and because as I started to write this it got exceedingly long and because writing it was so much fun, I’m splitting this into a series of posts.
Part 1 – Planning
The Secret Clubhouse
Waking up the next morning we had a lot to do. It was a school day, so there was that, but we had to plan the ambush and fill up the water balloons. We bolted down our cereal, changed into our school clothes, grabbed our books, and started out the door – we were going to plan on the way to and before school. Leaving home early was no big deal, school was 3 blocks away and we walked unless it was raining. And we often went early to meet up with our friends and play stickball or dodgeball or kickball or catch or whatever before school actually started. Today though, we had to avoid our friends because they were the targets. We needed a secret place to plan – we’d use the clubhouse. We just had to get there.
We headed up the block towards school, waving goodbye to mom as we left. But instead of crossing the first street at the corner we detoured around behind the bushes of our friends’ house, heading back to the clubhouse in our yard. This was not without its own risks. To successfully reach our yard we had to cut through first our friend Bobby’s yard, then climb the Barlow’s fence, cut across their yard into no man’s land, then over the back of our fence and get around the clubhouse to the entrance.
Bobby’s parents were on the neighborhood’s parents network. This network was made up of the parents of all the kids in the neighborhood and all had each other’s permission to police, catch, and punish anyone else’s kid if they caught them breaking the rules. The rules were never really defined, but most were commonly understood. Of course rule number 1 was leaving the zone. Any parent catching any kid outside the zone was authorized, even required, to grab that kid and either pull them into their car to immediately return them home OR grab them by the arm and drag them home, lecturing the whole time on how dangerous leaving the zone was and how much trouble said kid was in for doing so. Catching more than one kid outside the zone required a call to each respective parent in the network who would handle the violation in their own way. Any kid caught by any group parent would as a matter of course as part of the punishment be required to publicly apologize, at the next parents gathering (neighborhood cookout, dinner, after supper gabfest, drinks, little league game, cub scout meeting, or god forbid – CHURCH) to that parent for putting them through the trouble of taking care of somebody else’s kid.
Other group rules were: no (real) fighting, teasing the girls, causing (intentionally or unintentionally) bodily injury, cursing, property damage, riding double on a bike, playing in school clothes, lying, or generally just annoying the grown ups. Allowable shared punishments included; just yelling at us, calling our parents to report our offense, ordering us home to report our offense to our parents (there would be a follow up phone call), soap (in the mouth for cursing), public humiliation (publicly apologizing to and having to play with the girls), spanking (clothed butts only, no weapons), and banishment. Banishment meant we couldn’t visit their property for some defined period of time. Banishment also originally included no contact with that parent’s kids, but since they usually didn’t know where we were that particular rule was unenforceable.
You can see how the parents network could make a water balloon fight difficult no? Not only did we have to dodge our parents, we had to dodge the entire network.
So sneaking through Bobby’s yard was a significant obstacle. But that early in the day it was pretty easy – Bobby had 4 sisters. This made the morning routine at his house general chaos, trying to get 5 kids, 4 of them girls, dressed and ready for school, especially since there was only 1 bathroom. Bobby’s dad always left early, supposedly to beat the traffic on his way to work. I suspect it was really because he’d rather sit in the deli parking lot drinking coffee than put up with what was going on in his house in the morning. That meant we only had to avoid Bobby, because Bobby was on the target list. We could do that by crawling between his yard and the Barlow’s yard on the Barlow’s side of the hedge line. The only problem with that was – Mr. Barlow.
The Barlow’s weren’t part of the parents network, all their kids were way older than us, the youngest one off to college somewhere. Mr. Barlow was retired, from what I don’t remember, but he was our neighborhood’s Mr. Wilson – he hated little kids. He took our balls when they went in his yard, he walked out to yell at us for making too much noise playing in our own yard, he complained to our parents we were stealing apples from his tree (we were), he even called the cops when a baseball broke his kitchen window. And he threatened us with jail if he ever caught us on his property! So cutting through his yard to avoid Bobby was a huge risk – we had toured the jail with the cub scouts and NO WAY were we going there! You had to use the toilet in front of everybody, and it didn’t have a seat! You thought you could hold it, but there was no telling how long you’d be in there so eventually everybody was going to see you use the toilet (this is what scared me most about jail).
So we were counting on luck to get through the Barlow’s yard. Hoping that either Mr. Barlow was still sleeping, or that if anyone saw us it would be Mrs Barlow, we crawled the length of the hedge from the sidewalk to the back fence. We were so terrified we’d get caught we didn’t realize we were creating another clue for the post water balloon fight parental investigation. Now since becoming an adult I’ve visited that neighborhood, and the distance from the sidewalk to the Barlow’s fence can’t be more that 100 feet. That morning we crawled 10 miles, looking over our shoulders the entire way. Every sound, every flap of a window curtain I was positive Mr. Barlow was coming out. Every car that went down the street I was positive was a cop car, called by Mr. Barlow to haul us off to jail and the public toilet! Finally after hours of crawling we reached the back fence. Not slowing down we hopped the fence and buried ourselves in the bushes and trees of no man’s land. We waited to make sure no cops had followed us, and once we didn’t see any we knew we could always say there was no way we were in Barlow’s yard – we were cutting through no man’s land on the way to pick up Bobby for school. Better to be punished for going through no man’s land than hauled off to jail. We were nearly there, all we had to do was cross no man’s land, our back fence, and get into the clubhouse unseen.
No man’s land was a small, uncleared patch of land that somehow ended up outside everyone’s fence. It was bounded by the fence behind our yard, the back neighbor’s yard, the Barlow’s yard, and Bobby’s yard. No one would claim it. It was a jungle, with unpruned trees, overgrown bushes, covered in vines and shrubs, and was home to wasps nests, ant hills, black widow spiders, tarantulas, rattlesnakes, bats, quicksand, hobos, those strangers that tried to lure little kids into their cars with free candy, and cannibal pygmies. You’d get lockjaw if you got scratched in there, if you fell in the quicksand they’d never find your body, and you’d BETTER NOT come home with poison ivy!
No man’s land was 25 feet across at it’s widest, and maybe 25 feet deep. But I had seen the quicksand.
Lucky for us we’d been using no man’s land as a shortcut to Bobby’s even though it was on the parents network list of rules – stay OUT of no man’s land. There was a well worn path between his fence and ours, so we didn’t even need pigmy guides (you could negotiate safe passage with Bazooka). Wasting no time we ran down the path. hopped the fence into our yard, and crawled around the back side of the clubhouse to duck through the doorway to safety – WE HAD MADE IT.
Next – Part 3 – The clubhouse and the plan