Storm Sewers And Bottle Rockets

How We Were

Today we will speak of war.

I will tell you of my days as a tunnel rat.

It was, I think, 1954, not a decade removed from V-E Day. We lived in Arlington, Virginia, where my father was a mathematician designing warships for the Navy Department. It was a time of intense tranquility. After the war, people wanted prosperity, washing machines and, above all, to be left the hell alone.

The post-war economic boom was in full flood. Fathers worked, mothers stayed home, kids read Hardy Boys books by thousands and played with fifty-bottle Gilbert chemistry sets. Prosperity came in standard units. Houses were identical, comfortable, and laid out in a griddle, like those square iron warts on a waffle iron. People watched Ozzie and Harriet. Consult your paleontologist.

I was nine, a virtually instant product of my father's return from the Pacific. He had spent four years trapped on a destroyer, the USS Franks, with men who, he said, became exponentially uglier by the month. Seen in those terms, the Baby Boom wasn't surprising.

I digress. War. We were three: Mincemeat, Dukesy, and I. Mince – his parents believed him to be John Kaminsky – was a crew-cut blond who could outspit anyone. Spitting was an art. You did it sideways, casually, as if you were really thinking about something else, perhaps 12,000 suicidal Japs storming ashore at Wake. Spitting suggested ironic defiance as you fused your last artillery rounds. Dukesy – Michele Duquez – was a darkly handsome kid of Frog extraction. Later he joined the Foreign Legion and terrorized the Silent Quarter of Arabia.

Well, maybe he didn't, but he should have.

We played baseball, endless baseball, on the sloping plains of North Jefferson Street. Home plate was a manhole cover, first and third the bumpers of cars. On the day of The Great Discovery, the ball was an old and ratty one, coming unstitched. Flaps of horsehide hung from it like a spaniel's ears. It wasn't much of a ball. It was, however, the only ball.

Dukesy smacked a long liner that rolled into the storm sewer at the bottom of the hill.

"Geez, lookit!" we all hollered, because that was what you hollered in times of stress or wonder. We ran down and peered into the opening. We could see nothing.

There, in the eternal sunlight of 1954, we pondered. The ball was in the storm drain. We absolutely weren't supposed to go into storm drains. On the other hand, nobody was watching. We were boys. If you are wondering what happened, you need to get out more.

Once inside, we realized that we had to pull the manhole cover back over the hole, or else we would be caught, perhaps by someone falling on top of us. We buttoned-up, and found ourselves in that most splendid of boy things – a Fort. There was a concrete platform to sit on, and the opening at gutter level to peer out of unseen, and, below, a forbidding concrete pipe, half the height of a kid, leading into pitch dark nowhere.

And nobody else knew about it. A private world.

The entrance to that pipe was dark and yawning. It was echo-ey. It was musty, forbidding, and probably dangerous. Rain might come, and trap us. Scary things with teeth probably lived inside. Cave-ins were a near certainty. It would be foolish to go inside. Obviously the thing to do was get candles and explore. We did.

Above ground, mothers baked, grass grew, the sun shone. Below, in the entrails of Arlington, trickling with water, we crept through flickering darkness. A boy of ten can bend in ways that would cause early arthritis in a garter snake. We crouched in more-or-less the shape of paperclips and spraddled through the sewers, splonk, splonk, splonk. That splonk, the rubbery slap of sodden Keds on concrete, is known perhaps to only three people. And one of them was crushed by a falling camel in the Silent Quarter.

Probably, anyway.

Ayer's Five and Dime, the ten-cent store in the shopping center at Westover, may have wondered about the surge in sales of candles. We crawled and duck-walked and splashed our way through a widening network, finding a storm drain opening onto Washington Boulevard. We staged sandwiches there, and pea-shooters, the kind with the little bowl on top to hold lots of peas. You can't have too many peas, not when cars are whizzing by two feet away with hubcaps to shoot at. Around the Fourth of July we sent bottle-rockets slithering and ricocheting into the murky distance. We had to stop the space aliens who were attacking from the center of the earth.

If you were to look on Washington Boulevard for that storm drain, which exists to this day, you would find on the roof, written in candle smoke, the initials of our gang, "SSI." I can't tell you what they stood for, because we pledged not to. But they're there.

I was going to tell you about war.

We discovered an outflow that was beyond our supra-terranean territory, so we didn't really know where it was. A larger pipe, perhaps three feet in diameter, debouched into a grassy trench with high walls. Thereabouts older kids, perhaps fourteen, played. We snuck out, showered them with rocks, and yelled, "Nyaa nyaa nyaa, your mother's a queer!" We weren't sure what we meant, but it was universally held to be an insult. Then we dove into the tunnels.

The leviathans were too large to follow us. And we knew it. No drug can equal the excitement of fear devoid of danger. "Nyaa-nyaa-nyaaa! Come get us. Dare you!" Splonksplonksplonk.

Ah, but the Rat with Red Eyes that we found under Westover. The world may not be ready for this. We discovered a place where the round pipes gave way to a huge square drain, where we could stand up, and the water became ominously deep. Light filtered in from somewhere. There was a curious smell, like earwax. We got half-inflated inner tubes, squashed them through the smaller pipes, and floated on them a short distance to a sort of subterranean beach. It was the exit, now buried by development, to Westover.

There, crouching on the shore, was a vast Rat with red eyes. As I remember it, the beast was about the size of a St. Bernard, and probably radioactive. It whiffled its whiskers and eyed us with, we thought, carnivorous portent.

Sewer rats don't have red eyes. We agreed that this one did. We didn't go back. There are limits. Even the Foreign Legion will tell you so.