Tom Sawyer Too
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 it.
“Look at the sign,” he said.
“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 lav.
“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.
“These are hexagons,” she said with Queenly authority.So we took her word for it.
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?” he announced.
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 Allen.
“I only…” said I.
“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 straight home.
“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 guess.
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.
“They’re doing 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 tomorrow.”
“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.”
“It’s settled 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 Daisy said.
“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 diameter.
“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 out.
When we looked around and our eyes had grown accustomed again we knew where we were.
“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 rim.
“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 floor.
“What’s that?” I said.
“It’s a pile of papers.”
He lit a match.
“It’s a bunch of magazines,” he replied, “dirty magazines.”
And so they were.
“My cousin has one like this hidden under his bed,” he said, and showed it to Daisy.
“That’s nasty,” she said.
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.
“Somebody’s been here,” said Allen.
“That’s for sure,” I replied.
“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 vision.
“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.
“Escaped murderer 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 said.
“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 on.
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.
“It’s beautiful,” proclaimed the queen, “but I’m having no luck.”
“That’s because 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 Queen!”
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 asked her.
“Yes,” she answered.
“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 something scrape.
“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 now.
“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 that.”
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 up.
“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, “here goes.”
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 to us
“We’re OK,” I cried.
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.
“Gentlemen,” said 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.”
"Cough," said Sausage-man Joe.
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.
© Copyright 2016 Steven Hunley. All rights reserved.