When I was nine we
played in a canyon.Not at my home mind you, at my parent's house
in National City.I had two sets of parents.The original set had
divorced and re-married.Now I had two sets and was shuttled every
other week between the two for the weekend.So it was Friday
afternoon and there I was.
Their house was on
"unimproved" property.That meant that although the house was on a
corner it only had one sidewalk. The pepper trees surrounding it
proved easy to climb.Only a block away was the canyon, and that's
what counted.Whoever chooses a formal playground to a canyon is
very wrong-headed and probably a parent not a child.Our parents
were a bit childish as they chose the canyon for us.It suited us
fine.I'd go there with the next door neighbors Allen, and his
sister Becky, who we called Queen Daisy due to her habit of
plaiting white daisies into rings and wearing them as a crown.The
name suited her well as her manner was imperious for a girl of
seven who could only pout her lips.
Allen, on the other
hand was not so royal.He had a ring of brown around his mouth
from dirt stuck to milk-stains, and chocolate-brown hair to
match.Me, Tom, was tall and skinny and of no account.But three
were needed so there was I between the other two.
It was sure that if
we hadn't had the canyon we would have got into trouble elsewhere
as we did that once with Flannery the cop.
It started as an
innocent expedition to the store.To return bottles for candy
refunds in exchange was the plan.We wanted a drink. We traded the
bottles for money then traded that for drink.The drink came in
tiny wax bottles and guns filled with sweet red or green
liquid.They were cheap.You got to rip off the necks or barrels
with your teeth.It was so macho a way to drink.Even the Queen did
it and she was a girl.Queens can be tough in a pinch, we found
this out later.But the guy who ran the store would have none of
"Look at the sign,"
"No drinking on
premises," it said.
"See ya later," we
said, and left the store.
Allen pulled the
empty wagon across the street in front of a huge Victorian house
that was about to be torn down.Nowadays it would be preserved for
historical reasons. Back then it was just trash.
I ripped a few
barrels off some forty-fives and had a drink.Allen nipped a few
bottles necks and did the same.Queen Daisy was more delicate of
course, but followed suit. While feeling so macho we decided to
break the law.
"Let's go in," said
Allen, pointing to the house.
"I'm with him,"
dictated the Queen.
"You're not leaving
me out," I announced, and left the wagon behind.It would prove to
be my undoing.
We crept up the
stairs carefully.Inside it was huge, two-story huge.
"Look at this!" I
announced, "a bathtub with feet!"
"And look at the
sink!" said Allen, "It's on a stand!"It was a pedestal
"Oh, look Tom,"
said Queenie, "the floor is best of all!"
And being a queen
she was right.It was made of small black and white tiles, tiles
with six sides arranged in a pattern.
hexagons," she said with Queenly authority.So we took her word
Upstairs the rooms
were falling apart.The plaster was broken and sagging.So we
ripped a piece off. First we were ripping and running, then
shouting and screaming.We started to go buck wild.If it was loose
we tore it up.If it wasn't attached we'd throw it down the
stairs.If it was coming unstuck why, we'd help out.We were
screaming so loud, tearing so tough, and having so much fun, that
the Vandals of Rome had nothing on us.Right then is when Flannery
walked in.He had seen the wagon abandoned outside and knew
something was amiss.He was right.It was us.
"Now what's this?"
We stopped, as they
say, in our tracks.
We knew him and his
uniform by sight.And he knew us.
Flannery was Irish
by birth, a cop by choice, and as easy a touch as a man could be
who was the first two.
"What's this you're
up to?" says he.
"Well, we…" said
"I only…" said
"They're the ones
who…" said Daisy.
"Oh yes, I can see
its true," he answered, "I believe you alright. Now come with
me," and ushered us out.
He placed us gently
in the back of his car, the wagon in the trunk, and took us
"Don't let them get
into that house," he told our parents, "it's a dangerous
place.They're set to tear it down next week."
He was only doing
his job.He had affection for the house having grown up in one
similar.And he had affection for kids, having four brothers and
three sisters himself.And though he was a cop, kids had affection
for him. Life is full of affection for those willing to look I
He took his lunch
on the grounds of another Victorian house, even larger,
overlooking the canyon where we played.He'd sit under a magnolia
"This here is a
regular park," he once told us, "and a right proper place for a
man to eat his lunch."
When we were
walking nearby he's give as a wave.When one of our kites was up a
tree he'd help with that too.All in all Flannery was a regular
guy.He had a cops' instinct and always seemed to know where we
were, which was alright with us.
The canyon itself
was about half a mile wide and a mile long.Hills rolled along
its' edge near the top, and on the bottom was a gully or wash
where during the winter water collected.It wasn't a stream
exactly, but it had tall reeds, and if it rained enough, flowed
over a low spot in a road nearby to form Thompson's pond.For
California to have a spot such as this was rare.So it wasn't a
river, hardly a stream, just barely a trickle, and that was in
winter.In summer it wasn't there at all.But in winter, to us, it
was the Mighty Mississippi.And with that we made do.
I'd only see it
every two weeks. So I was surprised when I saw bulldozers there
digging a ditch.
"What's going on?"
I said to Allen.
construction," was his answer.
A month later they
stopped when the money ran out.So we went down to inspect. The
wash was half gone and the land filled in and leveled off. To
keep the water moving they'd placed a huge cement storm drain in
its place. Its opening was at least eight feet across and
beckoned with darkness.It was a gap we just had to fill.
"I'll get some
matches from my Mom's kitchen," Allen told me, "and we'll go down
"An expedition is
just what we need,' I said, and the Queen agreed.
"I'll grant to you
any new discoveries you find," said she, "as long as a portion
goes to the crown."
then," said her brother, "We're gone."
On Saturday morning
Allen's mom who I called Aunty Polly was baking as good moms do,
and packed us peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and chocolate
chip cookies.The chips were melty and hot.That suited us
fine.They were wrapped in wax paper and placed in brown bags.Now
properly outfitted we set off.
We arrived in no
time and from the top of the hill where Flannery took his lunch
under the magnolia tree we made the descent.The landscape was
little changed. It was pretty dry then, and although the lowest
spot in the wash still had water, the storm drain itself was left
dry.Good.The cavernous mouth of it was where we were headed.We
stood for a moment and looked inside.
"It's dark," Queen
"That's just how
caves are," said her brother.
We knew this from
movies.So we went in.
It was cool
too.That was nice.The summer outside was hot.A breeze swept from
over the water into the entrance and cooled us off.We started to
After about a
half-block it stated to curve, making the entrance appear as more
of an oval than a circle which is what it had been.This made it
darker.Another half-block was taken.We could see a bit better now
as our eyes had grown accustomed to the dark.Up on the side, was
a smaller pipe leading upward about three feet in
"Let's see where
this goes,'" I said climbing in. There'd be no walking here.From
here on out it'd be on hands and knees.It went up at an angle and
it took some time.
"I see light," I
said, "there's an opening up ahead."
It opened up into a
box with iron grating on the top.I pushed it aside.We climbed
When we looked
around and our eyes had grown accustomed again we knew where we
"We're in a
schoolyard," announced Daisy.And so we were.
Being Saturday it
was closed. But there we were, in a playground covered by
blacktop, in a schoolyard over a block away on the canyon
"How do we get
back?" I said.
"The way we came,"
they replied in unison.
The trip back down
took longer and our eyes adjusted even better so we made another
discovery in our "cave".When we dropped into the large pipe from
the smaller one Allen noticed something in a heap on the
"What's that?" I
"It's a pile of
He lit a
"It's a bunch of
magazines," he replied, "dirty magazines."
And so they
"My cousin has one
like this hidden under his bed," he said, and showed it to
"That's nasty," she
Hearing that I
tried to get a better look.
"Well, if you're
gonna hide something this is the place," I said looking around by
the light of his match.There were food wrappers all around and
when we went a few paces farther, a turd.
here," said Allen.
"That's for sure,"
"Let's go," ordered
the Queen.So we did.
When I visited next
it was raining so we didn't go.We went to a movie instead.The
week after that I had a cold and didn't visit at all.The next I'd
recovered. When I was getting dressed my Dad said a funny
thing.He was reading the paper as he did on Sunday. He'd
misplaced his glasses as he often did, for he was vain and
wearing them didn't suit his vanity as much as suited his
"Read this," he
said, "right here where it says "Escaped Gangster."
He could read the
bold headlines but not the fine print.So I helped.
has eluded authorities for a month.Jose Gallegos, also known as
"Injun Joe" escaped from the San Diego County Jail last month and
has led the sheriff on a merry chase.Gallegos received his
nick-name in Mexico when it is reported he took scalps from his
victims and hung them on the door of his hideout.Sheriff's dogs
lost the scent and the trail went cold somewhere between National
City and San Ysidro.He is believed to be attempting to return to
Tijuana to join up with his gang."
"I hear from
Flannery you kids have been playing in the canyon lately," Dad
"Pops," I answered,
"We haven't been there in weeks."
"Well, keep your
eyes peeled. There's a reward out."
That's all he
said.My Dad was a business man, always about the money.
By Sunday noon we
were there as usual, on the rim of the canyon.
It looked green and
different.When we got down to the bottom it was wetter than
usual.The reeds had grown taller and the water went into the
mouth of the storm drain. The day was sunny and warm however and
insects were out, especially the dragonflies.We liked dragon
flies.Queeny found a jar.Then we found two more.The hunt was
We poked around the
reeds.We probed among the cattails. We muddled in the mud. The
time we were having, it was marvelous.
"Tom, look at the
color on that one's wings!" Daisy shouted to me.
"And see, over
there, there's a red one!" Allen cried.
"But," I said
proudly, "look at the size of this one!"
Mine was easy to
see.It had been caught and was already in my jar.
proclaimed the queen, "but I'm having no luck."
we're making too much noise,''said her brother, "we have to
spread out and be quiet."
So spread out and
be quiet is what we did.
The air was warm
but cool down by the water. The birds chirping and the buzzing of
bees were the only sounds.White rolling cumulus clouds puffed up
in the sky like cotton candy.The canyon was at peace.Then, from
near the entrance to the storm drain came the crash of breaking
glass. I looked at Allen. He looked at me.We knew who it was.A
scream pierced the air.
We ran to the
drain's entrance and saw a man grabbing Daisy.She was struggling
to get free.He looked up at once when Allen shouted,
"Let her go!She's a
Right then when he
was distracted she kicked him hard and I can't say where, but he
lost his grip.He turned quick and entered the cave though it was
knee-deep in water.Daisy ran back to us.
"You all right?" he
"Don't worry," I
said, "we'll get him."
We formulated a
plan. Two wooden pallets from the construction site were
assembled near the water's edge.We found a broomstick and made it
a pole.Then we set off towards the murky entrance.The pallets
wouldn't hold much weight.The water was lapping the edges of our
shoes.But on we polled, up into the dark forbidding mouth of the
cavern.No matter the cost or danger we followed him in.
For the first few
yards we could see.Then after twenty the water, due to the slope,
ran out so we beached our craft.We could hear him up ahead but
couldn't see him.Many steps later we ran out of light having made
the curve.Allen struck a match.
"If he thinks he
can kidnap a queen he's got it all wrong," he said.
Then we reached the
place where it was completely black.The cool wind from the
entrance that couldn't be seen blew the match out.It was like
looking for a black cat in a coal mine.Our hands, as they say,
couldn't be seen in front of our face.Just then we heard
"Allen, said the
Queen, "light another."
When it flamed up
we saw on the side of the drain the heal of a tennis shoe
disappearing up the smaller pipe on the side.Our quarry was on
his hands and knees.He was hiding in the schoolyard drainpipe
"Wait," I said,
"this could be dangerous.We need a plan."
We had a conference
there underground.After all agreed, orders were given.
"Daisy, you go
back.It's lunch time now. You've got ten minutes. Here's my
watch.Find Flannery. He's up the hill eating lunch.Tell him to go
to the school yard and wait by the sewer grate.Tell him to stand
on it.Don't let us down."
"A proper queen
never lets her subjects down," she answered, "You know
He gave her a match
to go.That left him three.They were white-headed kitchen matches
and could be struck on anything.She left.
"Now," I said,
"we've only got to wait."
We waited there in
the damp darkness and listened. We counted the time by
recitation, one Mississippi, two Mississippi, till the time was
"Now," he said,
"let's get to work.
He lit a match and
by its' light we looked around, then found the pile of magazines
and papers.We gathered them up and piled them into the entrance
to the small tunnel running to the school.
"Well," he said,
He fired them
up.The flames grew, the fire burned higher.The papers were damp
so they made thick smoke.The breeze came in from the entrance and
pushed the smoke up into the pipe.Where we were it was almost
clear and confined to the top of the tunnel.But in the school
drain there was no escaping it.We fed the fire all the trash we
could find.After a while we started off to the entrance before
the firelight failed and left us in the dark.
In minutes we
rounded the curve and saw the edge of the water.It was only up to
our knees so we slogged our way out.Finally at the end we heard a
"Are you all right
in there?" was said with an Irish accent.
That was good news
"We're OK," I
When we came out we
were black with soot, soaked to up to our knees, happy down in
our hearts. Queen Daisy was there and Flannery.Between the two
was a sootyman laying on the ground with a blackened face.He was
in handcuffs and as smoked as a sausage.
Queen Daisy, "Meet Injun Joe.And since you promised a portion of
what you found to me, I now pronounce us…rich!"
"Aye lads, 'tis
true," said Flannery, "There's a reward you know."
So now you see, and
I agree, when it comes to play, why canyons, they're just the
thing.I'll take 'em over a formal playground any day.