One of the warmest memories that I have of things that my grandma did to keep us kids busy was a simple little game.
Do you remember those old glass quart milk bottles? The ones that the milk man dropped off in the milk box left on the porch?
Anyway, she showed us to hold a clothespin (the all wood kind without the metal thing) off the end of our noses and then to try to drop them into the milk bottle.
You did it standing up and the opening in the milk bottle was only a couple of inches. This kept us busy on many a rainy day or while waiting for dinner.
Just southwest of the Project was an area of grassy rolling hills. It’s covered with parking lots and commercial buildings now with hardly a hint of what was once, to us boys, a huge area to explore. There were groves of mixed birch, poplar and ash along with sections of nearly impenetrable briars and brambles and grape vines left by a farmer many years before. It was nearly thirty years before my time as a child that the city had encroached on that particular farmland and left things to go to seed. When you came to the edge of the old farmland you hit the railroad tracks and just beyond the tracks flowed the Merrimack River. This made for over a quarter of a mile of old farmland between the road bordering the Project and the tracks and at least a mile long in the other direction. To the north was a major street and old brick mill buildings and to the south was a small but interesting woodland before you reached the big cemetery.
My friends and I discovered that the ground in this area was made up of sand banks under a foot or so of dirt. Somewhere along the line somebody got the idea of digging tunnels in the stuff. Before we were done, we had quite a complex of tunnels to play in. Every once in a while a small section would cave in some, but never anything too serious. I do remember one time when I had to back out of an area that collapsed while digging. There was some coughing and lots of sand in my hair, but that was to be expected. The real trouble occurred when we inadvertently dug our way into a very well populated red ant colony and before we realized it, we had red ants in behind all of our clothing, collars, ears and in our hair. The thing about red ants is that they bite and hurt and itch. We were miserable for days and pretty much gave up on our tunneling adventures afterwards. It didn’t matter because the first big rain caused massive collapsing anyway and all that was left was a series of large holes in the ground where our tunnel complex had been. I’ve kept a careful eye out for red ants ever since. It was one of life’s most important lessons. Don’t cohabitate with critters that are into indiscriminate biting.
Do you remember?
When children got into stuff and life was both more simple and more interesting?
There was a brook running right through the middle of the Project. It came from who knows where but ended in the Merrimack River, which was less than half a mile from the project.
In those days, the Merrimack River was fairly polluted. Manchester had been for a hundred years a center of some significant industry and much of the result ended up right into the river. The river has been cleaned up in remarkable fashion since those days to the point where Atlantic Salmon have been reintroduced as part of a national fisheries project and is a good example of what can be done to such abused water. Anyway, getting back to the story. I suppose the muskrats didn’t mind the dirty water too much, or maybe they did and that is the reason why a bunch of them made their way up the brook to the area of the Project. My friends and I were glad that they did because they made for some great fun and some of the scariest things that young boys can imagine.
Those muskrats made holes in the banks of the brook. It seems that they mostly liked to make holes in the parts of the bank where it was undercut by the erosion of storm water. Doesn’t it seem like we had awful big rainstorms back then–much bigger than nowadays.
The muskrats lived in those holes some of the time and we figured that maybe they slept in there and made baby muskrats in there, too. We figured this because birds had little birds in the nests that we could see until they were big enough to fly away or fall on the ground and get eaten by a cat. If it was that way for the birds, then it must be for the muskrats and so we figured the holes in the banks were like those bird nests. The best muskrat fun was during those times when the small muskrats came out of those holes in the bank. It was then that the muskrat population in the brook increased dramatically and for a short time we had a bunch of fun.
The adult muskrats were big. I don’t know just how big. I figure maybe the fattest was twenty pounds or so, but to a small boy that was a dog sized rat with sharp teeth and all of the personality that every one knew went along with it. A big wet and mud slimy rat with evil looking eyes, sharp little claws and pointy teeth. That didn’t stop us from throwing stones at them and when more brave poking them with the longest sticks that would get the job done. Truth be told—we were mostly real scared of those adult muskrats. The little ones that came out of the bank however were not quite so frightening and for a while at least until they grew or left our brook, us boys could practice our muskrat bravery at a closer distance and every once in a while poke one with a finger as it swam by. The brook ran under the street before it made its way over by one of the project parking lots. It passed through a metal culvert under the street and it was mighty dark inside there. It was dark and real spooky with an echo that made it all the more scary. Most of the time all you had to do to get a good scare was to squirm your body down the bank edge and lean over into the ‘cave’ to speak into it. It sounded real scary. Especially when you were all worked up over a dare to get inside. The main reason why it was so darn scary was because the big adult muskrats liked to go in there. Lots of dares and challenges were issued, but to my knowledge not a single boy, myself included, ever crawled into that ‘cave’. There were big muskrats with evil eyes, sharp claws, pointed teeth and bad personalities in there.
One day Willy, Ricky and I were fiddling around with the muskrat caves by hanging over the bank with a stick and from that safe vantage, poking into the caves trying to bother one of the critters to coming out. Willy was prone to accidents and that one afternoon leaned a bit too far over and his knees let loose of the grass and dirt and over he went with a splash. You never saw such a look of fright on poor Willy’s face as he scrambled back out over the bank to safety. Ricky and I were scared for Willy as we helped haul him out, but it was only a moment before that fear turned to the unbridled laughter of relief. Such it is with the reward of taking chances.
Do you remember?