Hit and Run and Monkey Blood
Growing up on the far west side
by Lewis Clark
"Here comes one!" a voice whispered, and six pairs of eyes turned toward the intersection of Gralake Avenue and Lakeview Drive. A rush of adrenaline spread through the shrubbery that concealed a pack of pranksters, ranging in age from ten to fourteen, our breath quickening in the chilly night air. Two blocks separated our mischievous crew and our target, the unsuspecting driver of a late-1960s-vintage Ford sedan.
"Now!" I spat as the car reached our block. In a flash my friend Jim sprinted into the beam of the car's headlights. The rest of us pursued, catching him perfectly in the center of the street. Five pairs of arms flailed, each arm cutting a convincing arc through the air and stopping just short of impact. Jim doubled over in fake distress, groaning loudly. As he rolled to the pavement the rest of us dashed away to a nearby hiding place, our excitement growing as we watched the car stop and the driver get out to offer help. On cue Jim jumped to his feet, and with a loud "Ha!" he was off and running between the houses, leaving the driver standing dumbstruck in disbelief. Laughing hysterically, the rest of us exchanged high fives and fled into the darkness, heading toward the grassy fields south of Lakewood School.
So began the start of another night of fun and mischief in the west-side neighborhood my friends and I ruled in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Not far away on the U-M campus, headlines were being made by Vietnam War protests, John Sinclair and the White Panther Party, and the birth of the Hash Bash. But we were largely oblivious, wrapped in the safe cocoon of our quiet subdivision near Weber's Inn: fourteen asphalt streets; an elementary school; woods surrounded by fields; two lakes linked by a swamp; and a handful of empty lots. It was our own king-size playground. We played hide-and-seek and "witches"-our version of capture-the-flag-across multiple yards. We
played ball tag using the entire school grounds, in all four seasons. On foot, by bike, in heat or snow, in operations overt and covert, we moved with a confidence born of knowing our terrain like the backs of our hands.
A vacant lot at Gralake and Lakewood hosted pickup baseball games, with well-worn base paths and a rocky but serviceable outfield. On a typical summer afternoon, games would begin with a handful of players and continue throughout
the day, becoming amoebalike as kids from the neighborhood would join in, the makeup of the teams in a constant state of flux. When the day finally came that our field was lost to a large backhoe digging out a future basement, we simply moved our game down the street to the next-best vacant lot.
The loss of a field and birth of a crater brought new adventures-king-of-the-hill and the not-for-the-faint-of-heart "dirt clod wars." The huge mounds of dirt piled on either side of the hole were a natural draw for climbing. When somebody clambered to the top, the only logical thing to do was to try to push him down the hill and take his place. Laughs and name calling (usually rife with references to various body parts) emanated from the "king," while the failing conquerors would roll down the hill, laughing themselves silly, and jump up and charge the mound again.
Then, inevitably, someone would pick up a dirt clod and fire at the seat of the king's Levis. In the blink of an eye two groups would square off, one on each mound, flinging dirt clods recklessly. At the battle's end we would compare welts and trade insults, laughing all the way home to our respective medicine cabinets, ready to doctor our wounds with Merthiolate, the red antiseptic liquid that we called "monkey blood"-which packed a nasty sting along with a badge of honor.
No other time of year combined fun and mischief the way late October did. We moved quickly through the obligatory Halloween costume selection
to focus on what really mattered to us: candy-lots of it. And for that, the key was the Map. This creased and eraser-worn piece of notebook paper was debated and fought over each year until it was nigh unto perfect: the absolutely without-a-doubt best route to collect the maximum amount of treats in the smallest amount of time. On Halloween we tweaked it again after the first complete circuit of the neighborhood. Pillowcases bursting at the seams, we would huddle beneath a streetlight, scanning the map and our flawless memory banks to decide which houses to hit a second time.
The trick-or-treat memories are endless, but one incident stands out, because while it reflected our fearlessness in those days, it also marked the height of our stupidity. Word had it that rock icon Bob Seger was living with a group of hippies on the cemetery side of Highlake. On one especially cold Halloween night, as we turned the corner from Lakeview onto Highlake with our massive haul of candy, someone got the bright idea that we should give that house a try.
The windows were shuttered, the porch light was off, the hour was late, and there was nobody in sight. Climbing the steps, we noticed a thin ray of light coming from behind the darkened windows. We knocked, waited, and knocked again. Suddenly the door opened, and through the smoke and haze we saw long hair and heard a male voice that said, "Go to the back door, man." Caught off guard and collectively brain dead, we hustled off the porch and scooted down the driveway to the back of the house. With sideways looks and feigned bravado, we shuffled to the back door, knocked, and waited. After several long moments, the door cracked open and another hippie sized us up, his eyes, bloodshot from his buzz, trying to make sense of the costumed gang standing before him. After a collectively weak "Trick or treat" from us, he paused for a moment, casually replied "We ain't got none, man," and slammed the door in our faces. Later we would claim this was rockin' Bob himself, a "ramblin' gamblin' man" too stoned to dole out a few candy bars to some prepubescent punks.
Today the wide-open spaces where we camped out and flew kites are almost completely covered with streets and homes. The saplings have grown to maturity, giving the whole neighborhood a more shaded and secluded feel. But once or twice a year, when the mood hits me, I find myself turning off Jackson onto Gralake Avenue. The memories swell within me as I pass down the familiar streets. Though I now drive a Chrysler van instead of a Sting-Ray bicycle, I remember instantly who lived in each house more than thirty years ago. I wonder who lives in them now.
At times I have to stop and think and focus, searching to bridge the gap between seeing myself today and picturing myself as I was then-white hair from the summer sun topping a tall and lean frame, powered by bare and calloused feet. And then I am there, and all of us are there, and I can feel the joy of life as we race up the street for another game of ball tag.
[Originally published in October, 2008.]