THE BOYS OF SUMMER

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Literary Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic

In the summer of 1940, three young boys begin a summer vacation that will forever mark their lives. Life in the small West Virginia coal-mining town is remembered in hindsight by the unnamed teller of the story. The magic of youth--it is often overlooked until it is remembered from afar off.

THE BOYS OF SUMMER

The exact length of it was three hundred and twenty-six feet. That’s exactly what it was. From one end to the other—three hundred and twenty-six feet long. It seemed much longer than that. We had debated the question since the first time we ventured near the mouth of it. That was a few years ago. Sneaking away from our houses, we hiked the eight miles along the C&O tracks to get there. I was ten years old. We would never have told our parents about going there. No way. That was all that we did that day—we only looked at it. And we got close enough to the opening to feel the cool air that breathed out from its large, arched opening. Now, two years later, we were going back.

We could never have measured it. Nor did the thought of such an undertaking ever occur. Besides, the unknown length of the long, damp corridor—that seemed to make it all the more mysterious. When the length of it would come up, our discussions were always animated. Thinking back, it seemed that our fear had a way of exaggerating the distance. We would spend hours debating about it. About the height of it, the method and timeframe of its construction, and on and on. Henry Lester proposed that it had to be at least a quarter-mile long. He was the oldest of the three of us. He was thirteen in the summer of 1940. Mickey Green and I were both twelve. We were all recent seventh-grade graduates from Stonewall Jackson school in Burnwell. The school term was over for the year and we anticipated the long, hot summer of the southern coalfields. It would be the most memorable of my childhood.

Henry was the pied piper of our trio. He was generally on point in whatever the current endeavor was that we engaged ourselves in. Mickey and I did our best to garner Henry’s approval. He seemed so much more experienced in the ways of the world to us. Henry had traveled farther from our little town than any of our friends. He’d been to Bluefield and Charleston many times. Last year, he went to Roanoke with his parents. Mickey and I were lucky if we saw Bluefield once a year. Henry had an air about him—one that exuded confidence. We wanted to be like him. So we usually followed his lead.

The three of us were not troublemakers, no, far from it. But then neither were we choirboys. But that line between the two—it was somewhat of a gray area. Especially in the pursuit of twelve-year-old adventure. We were only looking for something to do. We were just boys. Burnwell in 1940 did not provide us an unlimited offering of recreational activities. So, we made our fun. After all, it was summertime. It was a fact—if a boy didn’t keep busy during this time of the year, why, it didn’t take long until boredom set in. And when that happened, then it was only a matter of time. Just a matter of time—waiting for—the end. The end of the summer. Just waiting to go back to school... even (perish the thought) wanting to go back. Perish the thought indeed. No, that would not happen here. Not to us three, it wouldn’t. We were the almighty kings of the summer in this tiny West Virginia town. We were in complete control of our destinies.

The day after school let out, on a beautiful blue sky Saturday morning, we left our little town. We would follow the railroad tracks east toward Bluefield. Past the Red Creek Coal Company tipple outside of town and we would keep going.

Mickey carried an army canteen pilfered from the shed behind his house. It had been stored in the old building since his father returned from France in 1918. There were old uniforms and worn boots stacked on makeshift shelves inside the shed. An old military-issue helmet hung from a ten-penny nail near the shelving. There were wooden crates of Army paraphernalia and several boxes of canning jars. Shovels, rakes, and garden hoes leaned up against the wall inside the door. Mickey had laid claim to the canteen early that summer. It was unclear whether his possession of it was made with or without his father’s approval. I had three jawbreakers and an unopened pack of Beemans gum in my pocket. The canvas bag I carried also contained a few apples from our cellar. That was the total of our meager provisions for that afternoon. It would be enough. We weren’t planning to be gone long. Henry brought nothing except for the large Bowie knife, sheathed and attached to his belt. He always bragged that the knife had skinned more squirrels and gutted more deer than we could count. Mickey and I would nod our heads in agreement with him, too afraid to laugh out loud at his claims.

We walked the tracks, occasionally testing our balance on the narrow ribbon of silver rail. Henry would step up on the slick, steel surface and walk as if he was walking along a sidewalk. He seemed to be better at it than Mickey or me. Henry was better at a lot of things. He always swore that he could walk to Bluefield backward on the thin sliver of steel. We didn’t disagree with him. He probably could have.

We walked and talked about the long summer that lay before us, and what we would do to fill it up completely. We talked about the swimming hole and our plans for a homemade raft that would carry us far down Elkhorn Creek. Heck, maybe even the Ohio, and then the Mississippi. Huck Finn had nothing on us. We were the boys of summer. The more we talked, the brighter our prospects became. It would indeed be a good year.

We talked about DiMaggio and Bob Feller and Bucky Walters and Ted Williams. And about our beloved Cincinnati Reds. In 1940, television was not a part of our young lives. But, we did have radios. Lum and Abner, The Shadow, Amos ‘n’ Andy, and other radio shows—they were like family to us. Family that we welcomed into our living rooms in thirty-minute visitations. Family that we said goodbye to with reluctance, until the next time they paid a call. Our hospitality being provided via the warm, glowing vacuum tubes of our Philco sets. Most importantly, our Reds could be found on WCHS out of Charleston. If the atmospheric conditions were just right, we could pick up the station. The play-by-play would come to life through the crackling speakers of our old radios. And that was prime listening. That was not to be missed. We took our baseball seriously. Major league baseball would be very good to us that year. Our Reds would go on to win the Series later in the fall. Our hopes for the pennant were far from being realized in this early stage of the summer of 1940. Much would change in our sheltered lives before that victory would ever come to fruition.

We walked along the railroad tracks with the sun straight overhead. As we neared the halfway mark of the eight-mile journey, I divvied up the jawbreakers. We were in a heated discussion on our baseball prospects this year. Our Reds looked good early in the season. Mickey and I were wholeheartedly reinforcing their superb talents, as well as their prospects of post-season play. Henry was more pessimistic.

“Well’s y’all seen what happen’ta ‘em last year,” he said, “even if they’d make the Series, you seen last year... why, New York’d kill ‘em... you know they would!”

Henry was a Reds fan, all the way. Still, Mickey and I questioned the possibility of some secret, hidden affection toward the Yankees. I’m not sure if that was so, or if it was only that Henry didn’t want to get his hopes up, only to be disappointed later. Whatever the case, the stats were definitely on his side. The previous year, in the ’39 Series, our Reds had squared off against the Yanks. And we got clobbered. It was downright ugly. Four games to zip. Of the seven potential games, we didn’t score a single win. Not one. It was embarrassing. So naturally, Henry was doubtful. Mickey Green, on the other hand—had no qualms about throwing down with you if you dared question the capabilities of his team. He was one hundred and ten percent a Cincinnati Reds man. And he would let you know about it, too.

“Aww, you’re full of it, Henry,” Mickey fired back. “we’re looking good so far... I’m telling ya, it ain’t gonna be like last year. They’re goin’ all the way this time. All the way, I’m tellin’ ya, and you can take it to the bank... I mean it!”

“Yeah, you wait,” Henry said, “you wait, fathead, you’ll see... Dimaggio’s gonna bust your chops.” Again, his secret Yankee fandom was showing, or so we believed. I looked at Mickey and winked.

I was silent during the debate. I didn’t voice an opinion pro or con, although, after last year’s World Series performance, I seriously had my doubts about our beloved Reds. Not Mickey Green. Poor old Mick—he was all in. For better or worse, he waved the banner for the Cincinnati Redlegs like no one else. I usually kept quiet and let Mickey do all the bragging. He was either setting himself up for a major fall or else he was gonna be the very first to proudly proclaim, I told you so! But it was true—our Reds were looking good. So far. But I didn’t want to jinx it. Some of us were superstitious about such things.

We continued talking about baseball and squirrel hunting. About how to make some money over the summer and about the great war in Europe. And about fishing. We loved to fish. The hike along the C&O tracks was actually about that. Fishing. A few years before, we were told about a stream, a tributary of Elkhorn Creek. Henry Lester had an older brother, Carl. He and some friends knew about the place. Harper Creek. It was a perennial, fresh-water stream that flowed out of the mountains into Elkhorn. It was said that the trout were as thick as minnows in it. That there were catfish as long as your arm in some of the deep holes. And we aimed to find out if that was true. Our adventure today was only exploratory. We were on a mission to find the place. Just to locate it, but not to do any angling. Not today. We would find the elusive fishing spot today. Then, in a few days, or maybe a week, we would be back. We would come back to spend the night, and to catch a few of those monster channel cats. It would take some detailed planning. And some lying. It was unthinkable that our parents would let us walk the C&O for eight miles each way. Not to mention spend the night out in the woods by ourselves. So, we would come up with a story. One that was irrefutable. An airtight alibi—one that we would rehearse to the point of rote memorization. Spending the night at so-and-so’s house, or a backyard campout at this or that one’s house, or, well, something of the sort. The lie would have to be one for the ages. But we could do it. We had a few days to work out our story... yes, we could come up with something. No, this day’s journey was only to find the spot. The fishing would come later. The only thing was, to get there, we had to go through it. Through the entire length of it—that distance that we had debated and pontificated over for a few years. On the C&O mainline track, eight miles east of Burnwell—it waited silently for us. Dark and silent, oozing cool, damp steam out of its large, open mouth. It hissed out its mist-fog breath and waited for us. It just waited. It knew we were coming. It was waiting... waiting for us.

Making our way east, we alternated between heel-to-toeing the silver rails, or half-stepping the awkward spacing of the creosoted cross ties. To get there and back today was the goal. To find this fishing spot and get back home—that was the plan. Harper Creek. If we could make it there and be back home before supper, then we’d be set. Then, we could plan our overnight trip. Then, in a few days, or a week, we could head out and spend the night. We’d fish the shallows for trout and bluegill in the afternoon and early the next day before leaving. And we'd catfish all night between. Then we’d head back home. But the trip today—it had to go off without a hitch. If we got caught leaving Burnwell and traveling eight miles each way, not telling our folks... well, that’d put the kibosh on our plans. There would be no follow-up fishing trip after that.

So we walked and we didn’t waste time. We spotted a few groundhogs and some turkeys along the way. We saw one momma deer with a white-spotted fawn tracing her footsteps, and we stopped and watched them. By early afternoon, we were close. We were very close. Our conversation began to slack off. There was no more talk of spring baseball. No further discussion was made on the horrors of the great European war that was headlined in the Daily Telegraph regularly. We had other things on our minds. Dark, cold things.

It was near midday when we came to a wide, sweeping right-hand radius. The shiny, steel rails made a wide arc and disappeared around the bend. The steep hillside sloped upward on both sides of the tracks. We continued walking into the wide curve and around the apex of the radius. Around the turn, we saw it. It was down the line, a hundred yards away from us. The tunnel. Its wide-open mouth looked hungry. As though it needed to swallow up every living thing that came near—to swallow it whole, to swallow it into its deep-black cold darkness. It needed to feed... to feed on young, scared schoolboys. There was no light inside the void. Long ago it had hole-punched its way through the shadowed leafy hillside into solid rock. It looked prehistoric. The arched opening was wet. Water dripped from along the outside edges of the stonework, only to fall and splash upon the tracks. We stopped and looked at it. None of us said a word. We watched the opening as if we were expecting something... something horrible. Something to ooze out from its darkness. There was only silence. Its three hundred and twenty-six feet of blackness stared back at us. We stood side by side and we just looked at it, trying to gather the courage we would need to step inside—to walk through it.

I watched, concentrating, looking to see something—something inside. If I tried—if I concentrated hard—maybe I could see inside the opening... maybe see what was actually in the darkness, what was in there hiding... hiding from the light. I watched it closely. Maybe it was my mind or maybe my unblinking eyes playing tricks. Or, maybe it was real. The tunnel, it... it moved. It seemed to breathe... undulating and waving. Like the afternoon heat coming up from a long stretch of blacktop. It would move and breathe, and I would squint all the harder, and then it would stop. When I was sure I had seen it, when I was positive that I caught the movement, then it would stop. When its movement was detected—when it was caught red-handed—then it would freeze, but only for a few seconds. Motionless... still... and then it would start up again, moving and waving, breathing and groaning. Seeking to swallow everything on the outside. To suck all of the air away from the green mountains outside. To draw us in, closer, closer... only to swallow us into the void.

“Well, we gotta get to the other side... we ain’t got all day, girls.” Henry broke the silence and started walking toward the opening. Mickey and I hesitated. After a few seconds, we started after Henry who was ten steps ahead of us. Henry Lester said nothing else as we walked toward the dark tunnel. We reached the opening and stopped twenty feet away from it. The large limestone blocks that formed the arched opening were massive. Water droplets fell and spattered on the tarred, wooden ties and the silver rails. The cool air breathed out against our faces. It felt good in the summer heat. It was teasing us. We stood side by side and peered into the darkness. The light from the outside shone only so far inside the opening, and then there was only darkness.

Henry looked at me, “did’ja bring it?”

I knew he was referring to the flashlight. “Got it right here,” I snapped back, and began to dig through the canvas bag strapped across my shoulder. The bag had been white at one time, but the dirty canvas was beyond cleaning now. The faded text on one side was barely legible. BLUEFIELD DAILY TELEGRAPH. It had been used by my older brother when he delivered papers several years ago. The bag had been demoted from distribution of the headline news to hanging empty on a nail on our covered back porch. It was only used for routine chores around the house now. It had been stitched in several places by my mother when the seams would split. But it was perfect for the mission we were on. Inside, I carried the flashlight and several apples from our root cellar. I took the light out and handed it over to Henry. He slid the switch forward with his thumb and aimed the beam inside the opening. We strained our necks forward and squinted. It was dark and quiet.

“Welp... we got to go through if’n to make it to see this fishing hole,” Henry said.

I had a feeling though, that deep down he was as scared as we were. Mickey looked at me. I could see that he was having second thoughts from the expression on his face. I nodded to reassure him, acting as if I knew what we were doing. Henry took the first steps into the opening, dodging the cool droplets that fell from the top of the arch.

I looked at Mickey, “let’s go, Mick, we’ll be through it in no time... no time at all.”

Henry held the light in front and we caught up to him. I walked in the middle of the rails, immediately behind Henry. Mickey was at my left side, walking on the edges of the ties on the outside of the rail.

We were barely in far enough for our eyes to adjust to the darkness when it happened. Fifty feet inside the large opening, as we followed Henry’s lead, everything changed. A large, grayish-yellow timber rattlesnake had been resting inside the tunnel. For whatever reason, it had crawled inside and was in the cool, damp air long enough that it was sluggish now. Maybe last evening, when the night air was cooler outside than it was inside the tunnel—maybe it had entered the dark opening then. It was hard to tell. But for whatever reason, it was in there. It was inside the tunnel and it was slow and lethargic now. It needed to get outside in the sun. But it was there.

Henry and I were both walking between the two rails. Mickey was on the cross ties outside, to my left. He never saw it, And it gave no warning whatsoever. There was no rattling or hissing. There was no forewarning. It just struck. Mickey might have stepped on it, we were never quite sure. But in the darkness, he didn’t see it until it hit his calf muscle above the ankle. He screamed and fell off of the graveled railroad grade and into a small pool of cool water that was along the side of the interior rock wall. As soon as Henry hit him with the beam of the flashlight, we saw it. It was still sunk up into Mickey’s leg. It was as big around as a man's forearm. I screamed. The loud yell echoed inside the quiet, rock-walled tunnel.

Henry didn’t miss a beat. In a split-second, he dropped the flashlight and pulled the knife from his belt. He jumped down into the shallow puddle of cool water and grabbed the snake behind the head. Its fangs remained buried inside the back of Mickey’s leg. He pulled the snake’s head out of Mickey’s calf and held it down onto the top of the steel rail. The flashlight, laying on the ground, cast a surreal white light upward onto the side of the tunnel. The underside of the reptile looked lemon yellow. The animal twitched and flailed violently. Henry could hardly keep his grasp on it. He pressed its head down onto the rail with his left hand and raised the knife high with his right. The blade came down hard, dividing the animal behind the head. The blade sliced effortlessly through snake flesh until it hit the steel rail. Sparks flew as it struck cold-hardened railroad steel. The twisting, looping body of the thing fell away from its head. It continued to writhe and twist around upon itself. Over and over, it struck at its own body, not realizing that its head had been surgically disconnected. Henry threw the head farther up ahead of us into the darkness. Mickey was grimacing, holding his leg with both hands. We picked him up and carried him outside, where we rolled his pant leg up and inspected the wound. It was bad. I felt sick in my stomach. Within a few minutes, Mickey began to go into shock. Henry cut a crisscrossed ‘X’ into each of the bite marks. He tried to suck out the poison. It was something we had seen or read about in some first-aid manual somewhere. But Mickey was getting worse fast.

After no more than three or four minutes, Henry decided that I would go for help, and he would stay there with Mickey. I nodded and took off running. I ran until my lungs felt like they would explode. Then I stopped to walk for thirty or forty steps, and then I ran. Eight miles. It seemed like hours and hours, but in reality, it was about an hour and fifteen minutes. I ran inside the house in a state of panic, finally able to relay the situation to my mother. She screamed for my father who was outside. In seconds, we were in the car, headed toward the company store. My father and three other men took off along the railroad tracks. I was left behind with my mother and an increasing number of persons that began to gather at the store. The doctor was called and instructed to be on the ready for the boy that the men would bring back.

I never saw Mickey Green again. I can only imagine how hard it must have been for Henry as he sat there with him and waited. Waited for help that would not arrive soon enough. Waiting. Waiting and watching young Mickey’s life slowly drain away. Until it was gone. I cried all that night and the next day. And the next.

Later in the week, we attended the wake and the funeral service that was held for my best friend. It was hard. I had been to such observances before. For older people. But never for... for anyone that was... Mickey was twelve years old. That was all. Twelve. Just like me. It wasn’t fair. We were the almighty kings of the summer in this tiny West Virginia town in 1940. But on that one particular Saturday afternoon... that first Saturday after school let out... on that day, we left our houses and followed the railroad tracks east toward Bluefield. It was a beautiful day with not a trace of a cloud in the sky. And on that day of my twelfth year, everything changed.

The rest of the summer went by quickly. I don’t remember much about it. It was uneventful. We never did venture anywhere near the tunnel again. Not ever. We never fished in the legendary trout stream. Matter of fact, we never spoke of it again. To this day, I have never been back to that hateful tunnel on the C&O tracks east of Burnwell. I couldn't make myself go back there if I tried. The last time I was there was the last time that I saw twelve-year-old Mickey Green. That day, when I took off running from the mouth of that cold, damp opening as hard as I could go. Even after all the years, the memories are still painful.

Our Cincinnati Reds would indeed do good that year. They would go on to win the Series in 1940. But it just wasn’t the same. The championship almost seemed like it was contested, like it wasn’t legitimate. It wasn't the same. Because he wasn’t there to see it. The biggest fan in our small circle of friends never got to realize it. It was like the proverbial tree that falls in the forest, and the sound that it does or does not make. Mickey Green wasn’t there to see it happen, so, in some indescribable way, the victory was bogus. Like it never happened. I don’t know what it was, or even how to put it into words. It just wasn’t the same. I wasn’t excited about it. Not now. Not like this. Matter of fact, after what had happened, I secretly wished that our Reds had never won the Series at all. After what had happened—without Mickey Green here—I didn’t want them to win. I would never love baseball again, not like I did before Mick died.

Those memories seem like a dream now, one rehashed too many times over too many years. This spring, I turned ninety-two. Ninety-two years old. My dear wife passed away fifteen years ago. Mary Louise Jarrell was two grades me in school. In the summer of 1940, she was just a stupid, little girl to me. But I would go on to marry her a few years after I graduated from Marshall University. I miss her so much every day. I still follow the Redlegs on cable television, but it’s not the same. I don't get excited about any of it now. Baseball will never have that same magic that it did back then. Back when Mickey Green would take on all comers—those who were Reds naysayers anyway. Back when we would sit and listen to those static-laced broadcasts, the play-by-play being called enthusiastically, and with bias. 

Early that summer, Mickey knew, he just knew, we were going to the Series. I was much less vocal regarding my confidence in our team. Oh, I did indeed believe, I just kept silent about it. After all, we were very superstitious when it came to the sport. And getting to the Series, much less winning it all, that was a fragile thing. Stepping out of line, being too confident, well that might easily have jeopardized our chances. Best to keep quiet about the whole thing and just let it play out. But not Mickey. He didn’t care. He would fight you when it came to our Reds. He would go toe-to-toe with you over that. Mickey Green. He was my best friend. And I still miss him today.


Submitted: June 12, 2020

© Copyright 2021 J.D. Wilson. All rights reserved.

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